Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 7

Part 7 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 in Part 5 we saw Peikoff talking about the implications of the view that emotions are a threat to one’s moral status because they can reveal something bad about oneself, and because they aren’t in one’s direct control. We criticized that view some. And then in Part 6 we went on a bit of a tangent talking about suppression as a strategy for trying to prop up an elevated sense of one’s moral status in general.

A: Right.

B: Okay so picking up from the last new material we looked at in Part 5, Peikoff says:

With this kind of approach, I think there is an understandable inclination to say, “Let’s do away with the whole realm. If I don’t experience emotions, I wipe out the whole threat. I just won’t worry about what I feel. I’ll just concentrate on what I know is right, I’ll do what’s right, and I’ll just put a lid on this whole thing.” Of course, I don’t think you sit down one day on a Tuesday and say, “This is my solution.” It happens automatically, gradually, as a pattern across time—the realm becomes threatening, you just don’t look, you suppress it, and gradually it becomes a built-in mechanism. I think that’s an operative pattern in many good Objectivists.

A: If you are operating under such a pattern, that would seem to indicate that you haven’t actually understood and integrated the ideas of Objectivism into your own ideas, or else you wouldn’t need to use suppression as a strategy (as we discussed earlier - Roark doesn’t suppress his desire to do certain things in order to do good, he just lacks certain desires). So would you actually be a “good Objectivist” if you are using such a suppression strategy?

B: I think maybe by “good Objectivists” Peikoff means something like well-intentioned students of Objectivism. He’s trying to credit them for having some good motives and just going about things the wrong way.

A: Is trying to prop up a falsely inflated moral estimate compatible with being well-intentioned?

B: I think that propping up a falsely inflated moral estimate of themselves is the result of what they’re doing but not the conscious goal. I think that they are, in some very misguided sense, trying to be a good person, but lack the understanding and knowledge necessary to achieve that goal within the context of Objectivism. So they wind up going to a variant of a cultural default, which is to turn morality into a torture rack for themselves and suppress some “low element” within themselves.

A: But surely they have plenty of evidence that what they’re doing is not the actual appropriate method for implementing Objectivism. Like, they can look at Rand’s writing and see that her characters don’t suppress themselves, or they can look to books like Understanding Objectivism and see their methods criticized, or they could introspect about their own motives and goals and see how their actions seem directed not towards being good but towards being thought good or appearing good.

B: Lots of people don’t know how to figure out which parts of Rand’s characters are important or not, how to read well or how to introspect well.

A: Those are also things they could work on improving. The choice not to, and to be satisfied with their current level of skill, which is inadequate to the goals they are trying to accomplish, is on them.

B: Hmm.

A: I don’t think Objectivism is compatible with being satisfied with a level of skill that is inadequate to the task one is trying to accomplish. And I don’t think a view which implies that people are kind of incompetent and helpless while still being “good Objectivists” in some respect is compatible with Objectivism.

B: That’s a fair point. Perhaps Peikoff was trying to soft-sell things a bit by using the term “good Objectivists” because he thought further moral condemnations of people already torturing themselves over their lack of moral status would be unproductive.

A: Soft-selling and pandering about moral status is also not compatible with Objectivism!

B: Yes that’s fair.

Ok so Peikoff continues:

There are many errors in this whole approach that I've just given. For one thing, the idea that emotions reveal your basic values, subconscious self, or character is false (as I will be discussing in the next lecture). That viewpoint represents a complete misunderstanding of the nature of emotions and their significance. In fact, it is essential to the whole Objectivist approach that emotions cannot be judged morally, neither as good nor evil (another topic for next time).

A: Oh boy that next lecture sounds important!

B: Indeed. So next Peikoff discusses how some people are confused about what aspects of a character in Rand’s novels are essential or not and don’t know how to differentiate key principles from small details:

She gives you the principles and the concretes that make him unique, and she leaves it to you as a kind of beacon. But some people are so overcome by the portrait as a whole that they do not know how to dissect the principles from the optional, personal elements. They take it as one undifferentiated portrait of the ideal. They take it as “This is perfection, in every detail. Any departure is guilt, low, evil.” So, Roark or Galt become the role model, down to every concrete aspect, including hair color (I once met someone who died his hair orange).

A: And so they try to mimic non-essentials (like orange hair guy) and suppress any deviations?

B: Right. Peikoff:

The motive here is not necessarily bad. It can be hero worship, idealism; it can be the real desire to live up to the good, as opposed to just saying, “It’s a nice book, but you’ve got to be practical.” But the method is very wrong. It’s natural, but mistaken. It’s natural to want to be like a character you admire. But if you have an imperfect understanding of the abstractions that make him, then all you have is the concretes of his life, and you are reduced to, “The only way to be like him is to copy him, to imitate him.” This is typically a problem of young people. Young people don’t yet know how to act, or even fully how to think in principles—that’s not a flaw on their part—and therefore they copy out of helplessness, out of a desire for something they admire; they copy mannerisms of their parents or their older brothers or the Beatles or whatever it is that they happen to admire—all adolescents tend to imitate their favorite role models, because they haven’t yet learned to abstract or think in principle.

A: I could see this sort of thing as an innocent error a younger person might make. If you don’t understand how to distinguish what’s essential from what’s optional, then trying to copy some hero in all the details might be your first-level understanding or approximation for how to be a good person. But you have a responsibility to improve that understanding as you go along, refine it, and so on. And there are different heroes in Rand’s work, with different jobs, so clearly heroism is compatible with different factual details. And so you’ve got to pay attention to that stuff and figure it out. But okay, sure, if you’re young I can see you making the error Peikoff talks about.

B: Peikoff continues:

So I think this is, to a very significant extent, a problem of a young person seeking a moral ideal but not yet grasping principles, and therefore, becoming concrete-bound. What it amounts to is that he doesn’t grasp the range of concretes that are possible under that abstraction. Thus, his abstractions float. To him, independence or integrity has no connection to reality except that one concrete, which is Roark. So the real problem here is floating abstractions, which makes you concrete-bound in actual practice—there’s no way to know what to do except model yourself on the literal concrete.

A: Oh that’s interesting. So maybe someone’s trying to be a good Objectivist, and maybe part of them wants to be a rational philosopher who spends their time on reading and understanding philosophy, and part of them also wants to be social and go to parties. They don’t have the same ideas or attitudes towards social stuff and parties as someone like Roark. They don’t have a thorough understanding of the virtue of independence, the problems with being secondhanded, and that sort of thing. They are using the concrete of Roark as their standard of the good, but they have a conflict in their ideas. So maybe they suppress the idea to go to parties because they think that’s what Objectivism requires of them in order to be a moral person. If their understanding of goodness and virtue and things like independence and integrity were actually grounded in a detailed understanding of Objectivist philosophy, they wouldn’t have these conflicts and these issues. But there’s a disconnect in their minds. Their idea of Roark is sort of floating in air at the 50th story and they’re at the 1st or 2nd story and there’s a bunch of levels they haven’t built to get up to Roark.

B: Yes. They’re cargo-culting Roark. They are treating morality as if it is about acting a certain way, out of context, without understanding the ideas that lead to the behaviors they’re trying to copy. So they’re necessarily not going to get it right, and are going to make mistakes. They are treating Objectivism in the rationalist way as a bunch of commandments - thou shalt be productive, thou shalt not sanction evil - without understanding the ideas that relate to those topics. Because of their lack of understanding, they won’t even get their “commandments” right, and commandments need to be interpreted anyways (e.g. sometimes it’s okay to kill), and commandment-based morality is the wrong way of understanding morality anyways, particularly in the context of a rational philosophy. Morality is the knowledge to help you live an effective life, not something reality or God or Ayn Rand is imposing upon you to thwart your desires. So the version of “Objectivism” in the mind of someone following this sort of mistaken approach is a sort of head-canon that’s not grounded in the objective content of the philosophy.

Peikoff continues:

Again the root of the trouble is a wrong way of holding philosophic ideas. And if you do take this approach, it leads to a lot of trouble, because no human being can literally become another, or copy him successfully. If you try to do that, you’re headed for disaster, because every assertion of your individuality thereby becomes a threat; everything that makes you you, as opposed to Roark, becomes weakness, imperfection, something low, nonideal.

A: Right. The scope of suppression becomes everything, and no one can actually survive doing that. You’ll either live a life on a torture rack you made for yourself, or more likely, just give up on philosophy.

B: Yeah, Peikoff talks about giving up next:

If you feel in general “Emotions prove something about me, and they’re out of my control; they’re a potential threat to my status as a moral person,” you’re still a thousand times worse off, because your emotions will naturally reflect something about you as an individual. They will be a constant source of fear, self-doubt, self-condemnation. And then you will begin to automatize the idea, “To be moral, I must repress myself,” and that becomes an issue of self-preservation. At a certain point, what happens is that you can’t take it anymore, and finally you “assert yourself,” and jump all the way to the emotionalist axis and say, “The only way to be myself is to say to hell with philosophy and principles,” and run wild. And I’ve seen that pattern many, many times.

A: That makes sense as a psychological pattern. It doesn’t make sense logically, though. Like, the need for some objective standard to judge yourself by, the need for principles, all that remains after you get tired of repressing yourself. The fact that you’ve been approaching philosophy in a systematically mistaken and misconceived way doesn’t remove the need for some knowledge/principles/worldview to guide your life. But if you just throw out reason and treat your emotions as automatically correct and as a guide to action, you’re basically acting as if reason doesn’t matter anymore and doesn’t have anything to say to you. You’re ascribing your own mistake to a deficiency in the field. It’s as if you made an error in solving a mathematics problem and then inferred from that that math is dumb and useless. And that’s an attitude that someone might take in deciding to drop math as an interest in their own life, but it’s clearly ridiculous and indefensible.

B: Taking this sort of attitude to philosophy is even worse than doing it with math. With math, you can actually get by okay without knowing much, though at least some math helps a lot in dealing with modern society. But everybody absolutely needs some sort of principles or guidance for organizing their lives. If you make that principle following your emotional whims - which you don’t care to examine or question, but instead take as a given and just follow them wherever they carry you - you are making a commitment, in essence, to live the unexamined life (and Socrates was right about the worth of that). That’s not a recipe for happiness or for developing yourself into a successful, effective, independent human being achieving important values in their life.

Let’s end it here. Next time we may want to summarize a bit about what we’ve talked about so far. At the rate we are going it may take many more discussions to get through the chapter, so it might be a good point to catch our breath.

A: OK!