Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 14

Part 14 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism". Discusses the role of emotions in choosing among valid options.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

Adam (A): Hi.

Bob (B): Hi. Let’s continue our discussion of Lecture Ten, “Emotions and Moral Judgment”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

A: OK.

B: So in Part 13 we started to look at Peikoff’s fifth point on the role of emotions in life, which is that they’re essential in choosing between optional cases (such as options for a productive career). We considered and rejected the idea that Objectivism necessarily dictates a certain career choice (such as being a philosopher). We determined that a particular concrete fact like a critical shortage of philosophers is something that would be valid to take into account when determining a career choice. We criticized some comments Peikoff made related to the role of philosophy and philosophers.

A: Yep.

B: Ok. Peikoff continues his discussion on emotions in choosing among optional cases. He says that emotions aren’t infallible and that you have to use your intellect to figure out potential errors about your reason for being interested in the field (such as being mistaken about the monetary rewards in it) or for figuring out mistakes in your motivation (such as wanting to become famous).

If I were to put my own framing on what Peikoff is getting at, I’d say emotions are a valid source of information. Wanting to do something is a reason to consider doing that thing. But emotions might be based on errors. So emotions have to be criticized - just like intellectual arguments. And if you criticize an emotion you may find that the emotion itself changes. But if you don’t have any criticisms of acting on the emotion, then you should do so.

A: That makes sense - to put emotions on the same level with intellectual arguments. You take them just as seriously, and criticize them just as rigorously, but act on them if you don’t see any issues.

B: Yeah.

Ok so Peikoff says:

You may say, “But why do I have that particular emotion for philosophy rather than for medicine?” There is no infinite regress; you cannot go back forever. At some point, all you can say is, “The values involved in this field are the ones that were my point of contacting reality. They made the deepest impression on my soul in its formative years.” Remember, a conceptual consciousness can plunge in at many different points, in regard to concept formation and in regard to value formation. The earlier you plunge in and start to focus on that, the more you begin to develop ramified values, complexities, more aspects, and it becomes a bigger and bigger part of your personality.

A: I disagree somewhat. I think that Peikoff is treating the underlying value judgments that people make about fields as a bit of a black box, but I do think it can be hard for people to change those types of things, and that they shouldn’t suppress them to try to pick a “better” career that they’re not really into. But like, if you’re really into a field, you should have some specific concrete things that interest you about it that you could talk about, and maybe your answer for why field X over field Y is you got interested in specific problems in field X and developed a bunch of knowledge and passion there, and didn’t do the same for Y. And you know, that’s a valid answer. And maybe someone might say “Well, I think field Y has interesting problems too, and here are some examples”, and maybe you could check out some of those problems in your spare time and see if they interest you.

B: And people do indeed change fields because they become interested in the problems of one field versus another over time. Though again, I suspect that Peikoff is pushing back against rationalism here - against people feeling pressured to have to justify their career intellectually or feeling like they have to do a more philosophical career or something like that.

A: Yeah I get that. Pushing back against rationalism is a big theme of his.

B: So next Peikoff talks about something called Buridan’s ass:

You might know the dilemma of Buridan’s ass—Buridan was a medieval philosopher, and he hypothesized an ass between two bales of succulent straw. The ass was hungry, starving, but the two bales were absolutely interchangeable; there was nothing objectively to choose between the one on the left and the one on the right—the same configuration of straw, and the same wisps and the same odor, everything. And he (or his followers) said that in a situation like this that the ass would have to starve to death, because there is no reason to pick one rather than the other. The point is this—we’re all in a way in a situation of Buridan’s ass on all these optional concretes, except that it’s ridiculous to starve because we do have a means of deciding. And that is, once you’ve done all the analysis, it comes down to, “This is what I want, I like that bale. And since I’ve got to eat something, what in the world should I go to the other bale for if I want this one?” It’s just sheer perversity to demand some other means of choosing when, by the whole situation, they are exactly interchangeable philosophically. It’s just as in epistemology, there are options within limits, chosen by our preferences. The same here—reality dictates the principles, we choose the concrete form of their application, and we can only do this by using emotion as the critical factor.

A: I wonder how much we are in the situation of Buridan’s ass, though, at least when it comes to decisions of any improtance. I wonder if people just haven’t analyzed their options carefully and with the right methods like decision charts. Lots of things might appear to be difficult to decide to if you haven’t carefully thought about what decisive criteria between them might be. If you’re just trying to “weigh” a bunch of stuff in a vague way then it could be easy to get stuck. And your emotions/intuitions on the situation might be wrong. So I’m wondering if Peikoff is underrating the intellect here. I do think there are relatively unimportant cases though, where just going with your current preference or gut or whatever is fine. Like you don’t need to do a big analysis to figure out which flavor of ice cream to eat or if you want sausage or bacon with your pancakes. You can just go with whatever seems good to you at the time.

B: I agree. The hypothetical in Buridan’s ass where there isn’t some objective basis on which to make a decision because the alternatives are essentially identical doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would come up in an important decision (such as a job). Much more likely is that there are advantages and disadvantages regarding different factors (pay, commute, whatever) and you’re not sure which factors are essential and which are nice-to-haves.

Ok so Peikoff continues with an example of motherhood. He says that some Objectivists feel guilty about wanting to be mothers, because they think that being a mother is not making the fullest use of their minds and thus represents a failure to be a good Objectivist.

A: That sounds more like an idea compatible with certain strains of “feminism” than with Objectivism.

B: And Peikoff indeed says it’s not compatible with Objectivism and that there’s no rule that says you need to be a professional and not a mother. He also says that motherhood is something that you can do with the full use of your mind, or mindlessly, or according to conventional ideas, and you’ll get very different outcomes accordingly. He also says people should have self-esteem and respect their own choices and be proud of them.

Peikoff says that people like different things and that many of those likes are valid. Not everybody might be especially moved by skyscrapers or the achievements of the space program, and that’s fine, and not contrary to Objectivism. If you want to destroy achievement or loot achievers, that would be contrary to Objectivism, but not being especially passionate about a particular concrete doesn’t violate Objectivism.

Peikoff says that some people think you should only like Objectivists and be friends with Objectivists, but he rejects that:

Isn’t it possible that there could be Objectivists, sincere Objectivists, who share your philosophy but don’t personally interest you? They don’t have your personal interests, your likes, your dislikes, so you can respect them abstractly in general, if they’re moral, according to your knowledge, but they mean very little to you personally.

A: If he’s talking about “Objectivists” in the sense of fans of Ayn Rand then yeah I can see that. That’d be more like students of Objectivism than actual Objectivists, though. It seems like if you had an Objectivist in the sense of someone who had a full understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy - which if you credit Peikoff’s own estimate took him 40 years to get - and they weren’t much of a value to you, then that’d say something bad about you. Because there are not many such people around and you should value them. But like I said, I think here he is talking more about students of Objectivism, and I’m willing to concede the point there.

B: Yeah I think he has “normal” Objectivists in mind, not Ayn Rand quality thinkers.

Peikoff continues and argues that it’s possible to have sustained and close friendships with non-Objectivists if you have important shared values. He says that for a soul mate, you want broad harmony, but for friendship you don’t need as much agreement.

A: I think you could absolutely share values with non-Objectivists. If you have some shared interest in a field or activity, and the fact that they are a non-Objectivist isn’t a big item of concern for that interest, then you should have a sustained friendship.

I agree about being more picky regarding long term relationships (which is what I take soulmates to be about). Though if the person were open to argument and discussion, I don’t think they’d already have to be an Objectivist.

B: Regarding choosing friends, Peikoff says that the abstract principle is justice, and the more specific principle is “Choose friends according to values, rather than to flaws or needs.” But that leaves a lot of room for choice. He also says you can’t choose friends blindly according to feelings, because you might make mistakes (e.g. you see someone working hard and think he’s pro-productivity when he’s really a Keating type).

A: So it’s like before with the career stuff - don’t ignore your emotions, use them as a source of information, but criticize and think about them.

B: Yes.

Peikoff moves onto a discussion of recreation. He says stuff like horse racing and gambling can be fine, but some people think they’re contrary to Objectivism or something:

How would you formulate a principle involved here? The only thing that I can think of as a principle would be this: Recreation or entertainment should not be mindless, it shouldn’t be a violation of being pro-reason and pro-values, and that excludes, of course, a whole set of concretes, such as walking around roaring drunk and drug addiction. It should be a pleasure within the context of a functioning mind who is not betraying his values. That much you can establish. But when you start applying that to concretes, how do you do it? If we’re talking about relaxation, that has to be something very different from problem solving. When you say it shouldn’t be mindless, that doesn’t mean it should involve thinking in the way you have to do it at work. It should be easy, among all other things. It should involve rest. It should involve cashing in on what you already know. It shouldn’t take any effort. And it should have some reasonable value to offer. But what is a reasonable value? In my opinion, horse racing involves a perfectly reasonable value. It offers a spectacle, which includes skill on the part of the jockeys, something esthetically attractive and exciting, and it gives you a chance to make money within certain limits, if you know something about the principles of betting. I see absolutely nothing wrong or mindless about this.

A: Hmm. I think I disagree with this. To be clear, I understand that Peikoff’s overall purpose is to argue against a rationalistic pro-repression attitude, and I’m certainly not saying anyone should repress their desire to watch horse racing.

B: But…?

A: Well I mean, I feel like you could articulate the same sort of defense in favor of watching professional wrestling that Peikoff does of horse racing. Like, it offers a spectacle, which includes skill on the part of the wrestlers (the matches may be fixed, but I certainly couldn’t do flying backwards leaps off the top rope without injuring myself), is thought of as exciting, and so on.

I think there are a couple of issues here. On the one hand, I think that you could watch horse racing or professional wrestling in a “serious” way and have it be fine. For example, you could be introspecting about what you like about it, or you could be using it as fodder for analysis of what people like in society, or maybe you could even be analyzing and admiring the technical skill of the athletes in some way.

B: Notably excluded from this list of “legitimate” purposes of watching wrestling (or horse-racing) is just “taking it straight” and enjoying it in the conventional way.

A: Yeah. Because I think that the way that people engage with various things like this has serious problems. Like, the way people watch sports often involves tribalism. Wrestling fandom often involves tribalism (being for or against a certain wrestler, on their “team”) and various bad social ideas, plus bad attitudes to violence. Horse-racing often has a connection with gambling, and people have various bad ideas about gambling. Lots of people can just gamble a bit and enjoy themselves, and I don’t think that’s a major moral issue or anything, but lots of people can’t, and I think people very into horse-racing are often stereotyped as having a gambling “problem”. So that’s why I have trouble taking some of these activities “straight.”

The other thing I have an issue with is the opportunity cost of paying attention to certain things and not other things. Like if you’re paying attention to horse-racing or wrestling or team sports or Marvel movies, you’re not paying attention to other things. And the way people engage with a lot of the things I just mentioned is bad, and a lot of people would do a service to themselves to cultivate other interests.

B: But this sounds like the sort of rationalistic analysis that Peikoff is trying to push back against. Something like, you shouldn’t spend time watching sports because then you have less time to reread Atlas Shrugged or learn higher mathematics.

A: And to be clear, I’m absolutely not suggesting that people should repress their desires to watch wrestling or horse racing or sports or whatever, and I’m not saying that nobody should ever do them. But I think they should at least incorporate some introspection about why they’re doing certain activities. I think that taking things fully “straight” in the conventional sense entails living the unconsidered life.

B: Shouldn’t they do that with all their activities? It seems like there might be a rationalistic bias if they’re only subjecting the “naughty” conventional activities to introspective analysis but not the “good” activities.

A: Yes, that’s a fair point. You should introspect about the activities you’re doing, your motivations for doing them, what you’re getting out of them, and all that, regularly, across the various activities you do, without bias towards one activity or another.

Let’s end the discussion here for today, it’s getting a bit long.

B: OK!