Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 6 - Suppression & Propping Up A False Moral Status

Part 6 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. I had a big follow up from last time that I think will take up our entire session, so I don’t know if we’ll get to new material today.

B: OK.

A: So I had summarized Peikoff as saying:

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.

I thought of another example of something that an Objectivist could perceive as a threat along similar reasoning. So the argument would run something like: people’s personal relationships/friendships are a reflection of their values. E.g. Howard Roark chooses to spend time with Mike Donnigan but doesn’t really want to hang out with Peter Keating. That’s a reflection of Roark’s values. So your friendships or relationships say something about you. So if you’re friends with someone, or have a romantic relationship with someone, the friendship/relationship could represent something bad about you, if it’s not based on good values.

B: So far, I think that’s all soundly reasoned. Keating, for example, has “friendships” that are based on him jockeying for social position - like with Tim Davis. Or Francisco D’Anconia says:

But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.

A: Right. So like, if you sought to gradually persuade yourself, without suppressing any element of your personality - to emphasize personal interactions that involve rational values more and deemphasize personal interactions that didn’t involve those values - that’d be okay. Like e.g. if you reflected to yourself on how certain people are more helpful for you to talk to because they are analytic and unbiased and offer you useful ideas, and tried talking to those people more and other people less because that is what you wanted to do, then fine. But to connect this back to what Peikoff was talking about - he was talking about emotions as a threat to one’s moral status, and so some people wind up suppressing emotions for that reason. And what I’m thinking is that friendships or romantic relationships that, in one’s own opinion/judgment, fail to meet some criteria of “rationality” might also be a threat to one’s moral status. And so a bad way of dealing with that situation might be to suppress the desire to have those friendships or romantic relationships. So you’d suppress yourself into only having friendly interactions with “good people” (maybe other Objectivists, I guess) despite the fact that part of you wants to have interactions with other people.

To be clear, I don’t think it’d be Objectivist at all to engage in the sort of self-suppression of social interaction desires I’m talking about. E.g. Roark isn’t desperately wanting to interact with Keating but suppressing the desire to in order to be moral. The very idea of that is pretty laughable for somebody who has familiarity with the characters.

B: Right.

A: I think a sort of bad suppression pattern might come up in a variety of ways. For example, someone might suppress their objections, or even half-objections or doubts or partial agreements or whatever, regarding Objectivist philosophy in order to avoid the threat to their moral status that they might perceive from “questioning” Objectivism. Or they might pick a line of work based on what they think fits better with Objectivist philosophy as opposed to picking something according to their own interests.

B: So someone could suppress their emotions, personal relationships, intellectual ideas, career choices … the possibilities for suppression are as wide open as life itself!

A: Indeed 🙁

And I think the motivation here basically comes down to the Objectivist idea of wanting the unearned, and specifically, wanting an unearned moral status. People want to be a moral “Objectivist” in good standing without actually having performed the intellectual labor required to change their ideas in such a way as to align with the values that they wish they had. So they try to take a shortcut, but suppression isn’t a shortcut to virtue. And so they have this ongoing, almost torturous conflict, between the values they’re trying to take a shortcut to having and the values they actually have, which they are brutally suppressing.

B: What’s fascinating to me is that the pattern of suppression on the issues we’re talking about - emotions, personal relationships, ideas, career choices - externally might appear to be a sort of cult-like behavior. But the causal factor for people engaging in this cult-like behavior is not the philosophy but a misunderstanding of the philosophy which is very much contrary to the philosophy. So the cult-like behavior is, contrary to actual cults, self-imposed. The cult-like behavior is not being imposed by pressure from a charismatic leader or pressure from a group but instead by the person’s own misguided efforts at being moral due to a misunderstanding of how to apply the philosophy.

A: Right. Well, there could theoretically be some pressure from the group to the extent that other people are operating under a similar misunderstanding regarding the appropriateness of suppression and are looking to suppress other people in order to prop up their own moral status. I don’t know how much that happens IRL. But as far as leaders, I definitely don’t think that Rand would have wanted people to be suppressing themselves in the way I’m talking about. And I don’t know that the current leadership in Objectivism takes it seriously enough to encourage that sort of thing anyways.

B: Right, you have to have a certain level of seriousness about the philosophy in the first place in order to even consider massive suppression as a strategy. It’s not something you’re going to try if you’re just a casual fan.

A: So I think if you’ve been using this sort of thing as a strategy, the first thing is to try to stop doing that, and to try to detach yourself from a strong attachment to an inflated moral status (on the basis of being an “Objectivist” or whatever) as the thing that justifies your life and your existence. I think that’s a big pain point - people engage in these suppression strategies because they want to have a high moral estimate of themselves. Coming to the realization that they’ve been making the sort of error I’m talking about involves both 1) realizing that they have been “doing philosophy” wrong, maybe for years, and 2) reappraising their moral estimate downward significantly. That’s a pretty big one-two punch. So I think a lot of people, when faced with this situation, are not going to think clearly about things, and will instead just say “you know what? To hell with philosophy.”

B: Right. They basically made philosophy into a torture rack for themselves for who knows how long, so lots of people are not going to want to think clearly about what the hell happened and try to do better. Instead, they’ll give up entirely on this thing which (because of their misunderstandings and confusions) caused them so much suffering.

I think maybe one way of dealing with the one-two punch you talk about is trying to reframe things. For example, if you’ve been using the sort of suppression approach we’re talking about, instead of thinking about how you’ve been doing philosophy wrong for years, you could try focusing on the fact that you realized that you’ve made a big mistake, and think of the alternative to having had that realization - in other words, you could have persisted until your death with the same misconceptions, and had all the misery that that would have entailed. But you’ve realized a big misconception, and that’s great, and so you should celebrate that. And similarly, with regards to revising your moral estimate … you know, operating under a framework where everything is a potential threat to your moral status that has to be suppressed sounds a lot like operating as someone running a financial scam in which tons of aspects of reality (inquisitive clients, government officials, financial reports) threaten to expose your scam, and you’re constantly trying to play whack-a-mole with reality in a state of constant panic. I’ve read that some fraudsters are actually happy when they get caught because the stress of managing the fraud becomes exhausting. So you could view things in the light of, instead of continuing to have to run this fraud to inflate my moral estimate of myself, I can stop doing that now, and focus on actually improving myself and becoming a genuinely better person.

A: I think that framing is good!

Just thinking about the issue of threats to one’s moral status more broadly, I think that there can be an issue with being emotionally reactive to criticism, and that a sort of suppression or avoidance can come into play in regards to that as well.

B: Like maybe somebody calls you out on your having done something bad, and you try to rationalize or avoid acknowledging what you did, or possibly even avoid interacting with that person again, because you don’t want to engage with their criticism and with the threat to your moral status that having to engage with their criticism would entail?

A: Right. Like if someone says you were mean, and you want to think of yourself as a nice person, and don’t want to reconsider that view, then you suppress the criticism (by evading it or rationalizing your behavior) or suppress the source of the criticism (by just avoiding the person criticizing you, especially if they are persistent).

B: I think a theme that we discussed previously is relevant here. Namely, that you should learn to separate negative emotional reactions from a value judgment that something is bad. I think what happens when people want to avoid criticism like you’re talking about is that they feel bad that someone is criticizing them and just react emotionally based on that feeling. They’re not considering the issue rationally, and thinking “Well, maybe I do have that flaw that they are claiming I have. How can I objectively determine whether that is the case, and how might I correct it if so?” Like, “maybe I do have a tendency towards meanness, at least in certain circumstances. Let me take steps to try to minimize any further potential harm in the current interaction. Now, can I find any examples of people exhibiting a similar sort of meanness in similar circumstances - perhaps on a TV show - and compare what I did, and see whether I think my behavior matches the behavior I’m being criticized for? And how might I address an issue if I find one here?” Instead, they’re just like “I feel bad, so I’ll run away”, and may blame the person criticizing them for “making” them feel bad, which is not a rational approach.

A: Right.