Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 15

Part 15 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism". Continues discussion on 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 14 we continued our consideration of Peikoff’s discussion of the role of emotions in choosing among optional cases. We considered the degree to which things like an interest in a particular career are open to intellectual analysis. We considered “Buridan’s ass” and the idea that emotions can help us decide between equivalent alternatives, and decided that this idea was less useful than Peikoff seems to think. We considered what Peikoff said about various concrete examples of things in life (wanting to be a mother, having friends). We closed Part 14 with some discussion about particular activities (examples were horse-racing, professional wrestling, watching sports) and the conditions under which those activities could enjoyed morally.

A: Yep.

B: Okay, so perhaps we should pick up where we left off on the last point, regarding the enjoyment of certain activities. Did we reach a final conclusion on that?

A: I think that, at the very least, it seemed like we decided that one should introspect when engaging in such activities (as one should about all the activities one engages in), and not just take the activity entirely “straight” in an unconsidered-life kind of sense.

B: I agree with that.

A: OK. I’m not sure we’d reached agreement regarding my estimate of the activities. I brought up a couple of points. The first is that some of the activities we were talking about have serious issues in terms of what people enjoy about them, and the second is that spending time on them has a cost in terms of not being able to pursue other activities.

B: Right.

A: And so, with regards to the first point, I’d mentioned professional wrestling. And by the way, I’m using that as an example because it’s something I know more about than horse-racing, so I have more of library of concretes to draw upon than I would horse-racing, where my knowledge is much more surface, high-level, and based on general cultural stereotypes.

B: That’s fine. From my recollection, you brought up this example specifically because you believed that one could defend watching wrestling as a reasonable pastime along similar lines to how Peikoff defended horse-racing.

A: Right. OK so, with wrestling, as I said, people often like the tribalism, they like to be on a certain wrestler’s team if he’s a face or be against him if he’s a heel. People often like the trash-talking aspect, and verbal disputes often escalate into violence, which is a cause for excitement. There’s a big emphasis on being macho and all that comes attached to that, having big muscles, that sort of thing. And the portrayal of women is hypersexualized.

B: Right.

A: And so I think that if you take this stuff “straight” and enjoy it in the way it’s “supposed” to be appreciated, there are some issues there. It’s very much a part of conventional culture and conventional culture has various bad ideas.

By the way, I used to watch wrestling, when I was younger, which is why I have some background knowledge about it.

B: That makes sense. So in light of the criticisms you have, what would you say is the recommended procedure for someone who wants to live the considered life, assuming they have an interest in watching professional wrestling?

A: So, not repression, like we said. I think I’ve had issues with serious repression myself in various areas, but my loss of interest in wrestling is not actually among them. In that case, I just gradually, organically lost interest as I became interested in other things. I didn’t know about philosophy then, though, so I didn’t have the tools to do a sort of directed introspection about my hobbies/activities/uses of time that would have been helpful in a conscious effort to change how I was using my time.

B: Ok, so not repression. Can you give more detail about what “directed introspection” might look like?

A: I guess you could take a few minutes of your watching wrestling time and ask questions such as “What do I like about this? Does this portray/reflect good values? What are the implications of the values portrayed in it, if taken seriously and applied in other areas of life?” Stuff along those lines. And also maybe think about other potential uses of your time and how the value of those would compare.

B: So take some time to reflect on the values portrayed in what you’re watching.

A: Yeah.

B: Some people might think that that was a bit silly, because wrestling is supposed to be a somewhat fanciful and escapist form of entertainment, and not real life.

A: But I think you’ll agree that the values in even “fanciful and escapist” forms of entertainment reflect people’s actual values somewhat. Like, they portray things that people like in a good light. If something is considered horrible in modern culture, that’s not going to be portrayed in a positive light. For example, if an ancient civilization had something equivalent to our modern theatrical form of professional wrestling, they might have a “face” who owned slaves, but that’d be abhorrent to modern sensibilities, because slavery is considered horrible.

Or you know, another contrast might be, consider the values reflected in the fanciful and escapist form of entertainment of a fantasy novel that depicts a world in which books contain magical wisdom of the ancients that some introverted nerd sets out to discover, and contrast that with the values reflect in a professional wrestling storyline in which people come to blows because one party offered insufficient “respect” to another party. There’s a disagreement there between those two forms of entertainment about what’s important and what matters in life.

B: Some might say that you’re being bigoted against a particular form of entertainment and elevating the stuff you happen to like now over the stuff you used to like because it’s to your taste, and doing so in the name philosophical principles, and that that’s the sort of thing that Peikoff was arguing against.

A: That’s possible but I don’t think that’s right. There are potential sources of bias here that I could be operating under, like classism or whatever. To try to give a more balanced perspective, there are some depictions of values in wrestling that are good — like, perseverance in that “Rocky” kind of sense, physical courage, heroism. It’s not 100% bad. But I think there is a lot of bad mixed in, a lot worth criticizing, at least if someone enjoying the content “straight” in the conventional sense. I’m not willing to leave it alone as a perfectly valid matter of optional choice, like Peikoff might be willing to. (Though of course here I’m speculating a bit because he didn’t use this specific example - maybe he hates wrestling and would have good arguments as to why!)

B: OK, I think we can agree that taking a more introspective approach to your enjoyment of various activities is a good thing. I’m not sure we’ve reached full accord on the issue of evaluating activities like wrestling or horse-racing because I have some sympathy towards Peikoff’s approach and still have some outstanding doubts about whether you might be coming at things from a rationalistic point of view, have some issues with bias, or something. But I don’t think we’re going to resolve the issue now so I think it’s best if we move on for the moment.

A: OK!

B: So Peikoff considers the case of horror movies. I’ll quote:

Now take horror movies—it all depends on what you see in them. For instance, I was born in a relatively small town, and I liked horror movies because the characters were not like the people next door. Frankenstein was not like my aunts and uncles. So to me he was interesting and exciting, and I formed this clear association. I think that most horror movies are really stupid, but I still have a residual fondness for the genre. I don’t know how many times I watch the first five minutes in disappointment, but nevertheless hope that they’ll be as enjoyable as they were when I was growing up. But it did get me through a long stretch of time. Contrast this to Ayn Rand’s approach: She regarded horror movies as a serious esthetic phenomenon; she took it as the presentation of man at his most depraved and deformed, as in effect an exaltation of evil. Of course, if that’s what you see in horror movies, obviously they are depraved, and the principle involved is corrupt. But it depends on what the meaning is that you see in them. It is true that the element that I saw is there, although other elements are also. But if you had asked me if I wanted to grow up to be a Frankenstein, I would have said no, but if I had had to choose between that and my relatives, I probably would have said yes. So, it depends on the principle that your preference expresses.

A: See now that’s interesting. I think that aligns with what I was saying earlier somewhat regarding the wrestling example. The manner in which you engage with something — the approach and the value judgments you bring - is a big determinant of whether it’s okay for you to engage with it. So some work isn’t inherently good to engage with or inherently bad to engage with, per se. It sounds like Peikoff approached the horror movies as being novelties portraying weird stuff, and he lived in a boring place, and so he appreciated their novelty in portraying weird stuff that was more interesting than what he was able to see in real life. And that seems okay. OTOH, if you see in horror movies some sort of symbolic representation of man’s depraved nature, and like that, then that says bad stuff about your values. And Rand went straight to that implication, and of course rejected it, and so she couldn’t enjoy the genre.

Now one thing that’s interesting here… I don’t think that the young Peikoff was wrong to like horror movies for the motivation he did. But I do wonder about having a “residual fondness” for the genre after learning about Rand’s perspective. I don’t think there’s a major moral error there, but it seems like there might be some kind of moral error.

B: Because he’s now on notice of certain philosophical implications of horror movies and should thoroughly think about those and integrate them into his values, and he apparently hasn’t?

A: Yeah.

B: Well, it kind of sounds like he doesn’t actually enjoy them presently — he says they’re stupid and that he’s disappointed and hopes they’ll be good like he remembers. So maybe at this point he just has a memory of having once enjoyed them, which doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.

A: Yeah OK, conceded.

B: To connect the horror example to the wrestling discussion, would you say that poeple’s conventional experience of horror movies is problematic?

A: Hmm. That’s a good question. On the one hand, I think lots of people like them because they like the emotional rush of being scared or something like that. And they may have somewhat supernatural or superstitious ideas about stuff being spooky or creepy that allow them to easily get scared. Like if you believe in ghosts or curses, then a depiction of a ghost or a curse in a movie could be really scary. OTOH, if you think that ghosts and curses are ridiculous, then you’re much more resilient to getting scared by them in a movie — you might still be able to “suspend disbelief” somewhat and get scared, like you can “suspend disbelief” about the laws of physics when watching science fiction or fantasy, but I think it just doesn’t affect you as much as if the supernatural stuff seems plausible to you. You’ll at least have moments where you view the whole thing as ridiculous and the “suspension of disbelief” gets shattered, which can “ruin” things in a similar way to noticing that some background is obviously fake or something like that.

So I think there is some problematicalness. You know, on a rollercoaster or something like that, you may feel scared by the height and the motion, and you get a “rush” from that, but that seems more innocent and less problematic to me than the horror movie case.

B: I think with a rollercoaster you may be having some immediate reaction of “oh god, I’m not safe” at the top of a climb, even though you’re strapped in and totally safe.

A: Right and I think that that sort of immediate reaction is pretty reasonable and not a big problem. But being superstitious and believing in supernatural stuff is a pretty big problem.

B: Okay so Peikoff continues on the theme of using emotions in deciding between optional cases. He gives an example of him and Rand having a different estimate of a writer (Fredric Brown). He gives another example regarding Perry Mason that I found interesting:

Take another case—I deliberately take cases where Ayn Rand and I disagreed, because I’m trying to combat this idea that every preference of hers is an Objectivist principle. She liked the old Perry Mason shows, and she had her reasons and she was very eloquent—good plots, well-condensed, skillful, justice, and so on (she’s written about it).* I never could understand Perry Mason on TV. My crow, if you want to put it that way, could not take in that many characters as were introduced at the beginning. And every time I watched, I constantly had to ask somebody, “Is that the guy we just saw before?” So I always got lost. Also, I found Perry Mason simply too starchy; I much preferred James Bond and the much more flamboyant, flashy heroes. And Miss Rand could see this. And often we would be talking, and she’d say, “I’m going to go watch Perry Mason,” and I’d say, “Fine, I’m going home.” It was entirely optional. And yet if we wrote a philosophic treatise, we would not differ in our objective assessment of it.
[Note at end of chapter] *“Perry Mason Finally Loses,” The Ayn Rand Letter, July 30, 1973.

A: I keep finding myself somewhat disagreeing with Peikoff on a similar underlying point. I don’t think that he was obligated to watch Perry Mason with Rand or should have forced himself to do so. But I think a couple of things are notable. First, he concedes that Rand had good arguments about why she liked the show. Second, he concedes that his own deficits in terms of being able to follow a particular number of characters were part of what interfered with his enjoyment. I think that’s notable because it’s not as if Perry Mason was some super sophisticated show appealing to elite philosophers - it was mainstream television. And you know, Peikoff has a PhD in philosophy, so I don’t think that it’s as if the content was really beyond him. If he’d made some effort to work on his ability to follow a bunch of characters - which by the way is an issue which would affect his ability to enjoy various novels and other artistic works, not just Perry Mason - then maybe he could have enjoyed Perry Mason and also spent more time with Rand. And finally, I think that his self-described preference for the flamboyant, flashy heroes, while understandable and conventional and not a major moral issue, is worth exploring/thinking about.

B: Let’s end the discussion here for today.

A: OK!