Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 5

Part 5 of a dialogue discussing the tenth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism".

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 Peikoff says:

So I want to turn now to the phenomenon of so-called Objectivist repressors. I want to start with a few words as to the causes of this phenomenon (speaking from a purely philosophic point of view), a few remarks on what the appeal of repression might be to many Objectivists. As I see it, one crucial issue here is precisely that they attach great importance to morality. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but they do something wrong within this attitude. The strong moral emphasis in the Objectivist literature and Ayn Rand’s novels is obviously a key factor in attracting people to Objectivism. Her works broadcast the message, “There is right and wrong, it’s crucial, it’s possible, there’s a strong moral code, there’s good versus evil,” and that’s what it rests on, and if you’re attracted to Objectivism, it’s obviously very natural to feel, “It’s important to live up to this code, to be moral,” and consequently, if you ever depart from it, to feel guilt, self-reproach, condemnation. So far, that’s completely understandable and no mistake.

A: I have a question about this part.

B: OK.

A: Peikoff says that it’s no mistake to feel guilt, self-reproach, condemnation if you depart from morality. Feeling guilt sounds like a negative emotional response. Condemnation sounds like expressing a judgment. Reproach (of which self-reproach would just be the self-directed form) seems to straddle the line a bit between an emotional response and a judgment (see e.g. the part I emphasized in this Webster’s 1913 definition):

1. The act of reproaching; censure mingled with contempt; contumelious or opprobrious language toward any person; abusive reflections; as, severe reproach.

See also this 1828 Webster’s definition:

1. To censure in terms of opprobrium or contempt.

So, in a previous discussion on a different topic, we’d discussed the distinction between negative emotional reactions to something bad and judgments about something as being bad.

B: Yes.

A: And so my question is whether or not there is a conflict between what Peikoff is saying here regarding feeling guilty and self-reproach being no mistake, and the approach we had discussed previously, where you indicated that the separation of moral judgments and emotional reactions was superior because the emotions can get in the way.

B: That’s a good question. It certainly does seem like there is a possible conflict in the ideas here. I don’t want to say there definitely is, because I’m not sure we’ve discussed and understood enough of the Objectivist theory on emotions to say there is definitively a conflict. The other issue is that the book that we are using was, according to its preface, adapted from audio source material, rather than being initially written specifically for a book format, so the precision might not be the same as you might expect in material that was initially intended for print. Still, I think this is an issue to think about and look out for as we read further.

A: OK.

B: Ok so then Peikoff says:

The question now goes one step further—what do you take as a departure from morality? What do you take as a departure from the Objectivist morality? I think one pattern that operates in many people is something like this: “Ayn Rand said that man is a being of self-made soul, so you’re responsible for your nature, your subconscious, your character. Ideally you should be like Roark or Galt.” And then the question that you start to ask—once you become familiar with what these characters are like—is, “Am I that way? Am I like them, and therefore I’ve got the right values and I live up to morality, or am I not like them, and therefore I’m somehow betraying or departing from them?” Many people haven’t gone that far; they just go to the next step and say, “The way to tell your values is through your emotions.” Your emotions, they think, are indicators of your basic values. After all, Objectivism includes the viewpoint that emotions are not primaries but come from your value judgments. Therefore, emotions must be indicators of your essential soul or character: If your emotions are good, you’re good (they think); if your emotions are bad, you’re immoral, evil.

A: I’m not quite sure what “Many people haven’t gone that far; they just go to the next step and say, ‘The way to tell your values is through your emotions.’” means exactly. Is getting “that far” means asking the questions starting with “Am I that way?” And then does “the next step” mean that some people are skipping the “Am I that way?” step and going to “The way to tell your values is through your emotions.”

B: That’s what I interpreted it as. I’m think the main point Peikoff is making here, though, is the connection some people make between thinking that you should act like a morally ideal person and what you look to in order to judge whether you are living up to that standard.

A: OK.

B: So Peikoff continues:

If you hold this view, I think you must conclude that emotions are potentially disastrous, because they are indicators of your essence. It’s possible on this view that they indicate something really bad about you, something opposed to morality, something opposed to Objectivism. And consequently they are a constant threat: “Who knows what’s coming next from this underground where I hold value judgments that may throw my whole moral status off?” Thoughts and actions don’t pose any comparable threat, because we can directly, volitionally control them—we can guide our thinking and the conclusions we come to, for example, “I choose capitalism and reject socialism.” We can guide and control our actions by a direct act of will. Our emotions, however, are not in our volitional control. Of course, in the long run they are, but the long run can be very long, and that doesn’t do you any good in the length of time intervening. So on a day-by-day experiential basis, emotions are experienced as the involuntary—you just react, you live, and you feel desire, anger, hatred, passion. But if at the same time you feel that your emotions are potentially significant or revealing, then you have a dreadful combination. Here is something, an element of your nature, which can reveal something profound about you, and at the same time it is out of your control, as against your heart, lungs and soul, which are also out of your control, but don’t prove anything about you. You are the source of these, according to Objectivism, you’re responsible, and at the same time you’re helpless, and who knows what they show?

A: So Peikoff is saying that some Objectivists think that emotions represent something about their values and essence. They think this because, as he indicated in an earlier quote, Objectivism has the view that emotions come from our value judgments. Our thoughts and actions are things we can directly control (or at least guide), but the control we exert over our emotions is more of a long-range thing, and not something we can control in the moment. So we have this involuntary aspect of ourselves that reveals something about our values. And maybe the something is bad. So emotions are a threat.

B: Yes.

A: I think the perspective Peikoff is criticizing has various mistaken assumptions. For one, Peikoff describes this perspective as saying that we can “control” or “guide” our thoughts and actions but not our emotions. I think I can “guide” my thoughts, for sure, but not directly control them. For example, I sometimes find various thoughts popping into my head unbidden, particularly when I am trying to meditate. 🧘‍♂️

Another thing is that I think we can “guide” our emotions. We can’t directly control them, but we can manage them, and do things like counting to 10 or trying breathing exercises to calm down.

Actions seem like the thing most under our direct, volitional control, but even with that, it’s not perfect - e.g. sometimes I’ll have a startled reaction because I think I see something moving at the corner of my peripheral vision and it’s just actually some paper or something moving a bit cuz the air from a fan was hitting it, or something silly like that. But I’ll turn my head, which is an action!

So I think maybe there are some assumptions on the part of the people Peikoff is criticizing about a hard dividing line of the volition involved in actions, thoughts, and emotions. Although maybe that wouldn’t be a good thing to say to them, cuz then they’d think more things would be a threat to their moral status!

B: Haha.

A: But another thing is that even accepting some of the premises of the repressors that Peikoff is criticizing, the real problem would not be the emotions but the value judgments that they indicate. Like, emotions are a reflection and indicator of your value judgments. They aren’t the value judgments in themselves. If you have an emotional reaction to things, the emotion isn’t the thing that’s the problem, it’s the value-judgment that gives rise to the emotions.

It’s kind of like if you had a high temperature from an illness. You use a thermometer to determine this fact. The thermometer is just an indicator of the high temperature caused by the illness. The thermometer isn’t the problem but a mere indicator that a problem exists. Ignoring or suppressing the existence of thermometers won’t cure your illness (though it could help evade the fact that you have the illness).

B: Such evasion may be what people are after.

A: Right, but that’s dumb and contrary to Objectivism.

Another analogy is like, if there is a stock market crash because people realized a bunch of wealth was misallocated, the stock market crash isn’t the actual problem, it’s just an indicator of and reflection of the fact that a bunch of wealth was misallocated, which is the real problem.

B: And what would you expect to happen if, for example, the government got involved to prevent the market from crashing?

A: Well, a crash could involve a correction, and money coming out of certain lines of business and going to others, and resources being sold cheaply to new owners, and all sorts of similar reallocations of wealth and capital that might make sense after people realized that there had been a big error in the past. So if you stop that process from happening, you are interfering with an important corrective process in the marketplace. But the government can’t prop up the stock market forever, so eventually you’ll have an even bigger correction that’s worse than if you’d just let smaller ones happen earlier.

B: And how might you expect an analogous scenario to play out with people who are “propping themselves up” morally?

A: Ah, well, if they try to evade the fact that they need to improve themselves in various ways and have various bad value judgments which need reexamination, maybe they’ll try to suppress their emotions like Peikoff is talking about. And maybe they’ll manage that for a while. You can only do so much faking and suppression though. So at some point you’ll encounter some sort of crisis where you’ll actually have to start working towards improving your character or you’ll explode from the pressure of self-repression and give up on philosophy entirely and maybe become an emotionalist or something. Like, if part of you values being good and moral and decent in some way, then you need to actually be working on improving your character instead of propping up a phony self-esteem by trying to suppress indicators that the self-esteem is phony. If you fail to do that, then the gap between your self-image and the facts of your character will grow. Because you’ll be “doing Objectivism” for some period of years, so you’ll expect to be a better person as a result of that. But if you’re not actually taking the steps involved in becoming better, then the “shock” of having an accurate self-perception will be that much worse than if you’d saw yourself accurately at the beginning - like realizing you’re kinda bad after 5 years of “doing Objectivism” is much worse than if you’d realized it right after you’d started “doing Objectivism” initially. So if you prop up your self-esteem for a while, I think maybe you move from thinking that your emotions are the problem to thinking that philosophy itself is the problem - this thing that’s trying to hold you to standards and point out flaws and demand that you be better. So then you say to hell with this philosophy stuff.

B: That sounds like a plausible story. I think you’re onto something here with the above psychological analysis, which follows what Peikoff says later on in the chapter. Let’s continue more next time.

A: OK!