Emotions & Moral Judgments, Part 8

Part 8 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 let’s summarize the discussion so far. We went off on various tangents but this will focus on essentials.

We’ve looked at Peikoff’s discussion of three different attitudes towards morality and moral judgment. In Part 1, we looked at the rationalist or intrinsicist approach, which treats morality as involving commandments straight from God or Reality that you are supposed to follow. We talked about the idea of gradually persuading yourself of better ideas instead of trying to use willpower. We analogized rationalistic suppression to communism.

In Part 2, we looked at the empiricist/subjectivist approach to morality, which thinks that we should decide things according to our feelings and desires and that morality doesn’t involve objective truths. We criticized the empiricist/subjectivist approach on the grounds of lacking a way to deal with people’s conflicting desires and as being inadequate to deal with reforming various problems (like the existence of slavery). Then we moved on to discussing the Objectivist approach, which connects morality to the requirements of life and of living in the world (and which thus makes morality objective and not arbitrary). We considered what the three approaches to morality we’ve discussed might say about the need of gathering coconuts on a desert island, and we discussed how morality has an “out clause” if you don’t want to live.

In Part 3, we talked more about the Objectivist approach to morality. Objectivist morality takes context into account, and there are some options involved (e.g. specific choice of career), but there are absolutes due to the connection to the requirements of life (e.g. survival requires production, so don’t choose to live life as a thief). We looked at the example of moral utilitarianism in Star Trek and criticized it on various grounds, and also discussed conforming your desires to morality.

In Part 4, we started talking about different approaches to emotions, and specifically how the rationalists-intrinsicists types repress, and the empiricist-subjectivist types treat their emotions as a revelation. We discussed how someone might initially become predisposed to rationalism.

In Part 5, we started looking at the issue of Objectivist repressors. We talked about how some Objectivists view emotions as a threat that says something about their values, which makes the emotions a threat to one’s moral status. We talked about how, even with problematic emotions, the value judgments are the real issue, not the emotions - the emotions are just an indicator. We also discussed how it’s superior to have an honest self-assessment of one’s character sooner rather than later with an analogy to economics.

In Part 6 we talked about the idea of Objectivists using suppression as a strategy to address the problem of wanting to prop up their moral status in light of not understanding enough of the philosophy to actually change their preferences. We talked about how this suppression could encompass all of life and lead to apparently “cult-like” behavior that is actually self-imposed, along with the problems that one might encounter in realizing one has made such an error and how to deal with those problems.

In Part 7 we talked more about suppression, and in particular discussed the issue of Objectivists trying to cargo cult Rand’s heroes without understanding the difference between optional and essential traits.

Going forward, it may be a better idea to summarize the previous discussion as we go along, rather than building up a backlog.

So with that summary out of the way, what do you think would be the best focus for this discussion?

A: I think maybe making a tree that depicts a common path that an Objectivist might erroneously follow, along with criticisms of the specific mistaken conclusions, might be a good way to encapsulate a keep part of the discussion so far. Then I’d like to go on a tangent about a pointed we talked about and continue forward.

B: OK.


The organization is:

Situation: The situation that an Objectivist is encountering.

Premise: A premise of an Objectivist in the situation described in the parent

Action: An action resulting from the premises in the parent.

Result/New Situation: A new situation resulting from the action in the parent.

If there are multiple premises and I need to discuss separate criticisms to them, I grouped them under a “Premises” node (and also put the action resulting from those premises under that node).

This will get revised as we go along, since we’re not even done with the chapter yet and there is more stuff coming that is relevant in the next chapter. Let’s revisit it later.

So my tangent … one thought I had is my idea of having an out-clause if you don’t want to live. I was concerned about that initially.

B: Right.

A: But I think that doesn’t make sense. Because, if you take the view that morality is about how to live - knowledge about how to live a good, examined, virtuous life - then of course life is going to be the scope of morality. Like, what other scope would morality have, other than life? What would a morality consist of, without a connection to life and living well?

B: It could consist of some out-of-context commandments that stand outside any direct connection to life and its requirements.

A: Right and I think being troubled by the out-clause is basically taking some of a commandments type approach, implicitly, to morality. My understanding is that Christianity looks down on suicide as a serious sin. So on that view, in some sense you’re commanded to live. Whereas in an Objectivist approach, you have a fundamental choice to live or not, but, if you choose life, a whole bunch of stuff follows from that.

B: Right. OK, let us continue with the Understanding Objectivism discussion. So Peikoff is continuing on the point of emotions, moral judgments, cargo-culting etc, and says:

The error here is demanding conformity to concretes, as opposed to principles. It’s judging yourself by relation to an archetype, rather than with reference to a chewed principle. To sum up so far: As I see it philosophically, there’s a certain attraction to repression among Objectivists, partly out of fear that emotions will jeopardize their moral status—it will be some kind of revelation of their subconscious—and partly because they misinterpret what it means to be moral.

A: Right okay, so there’s the fear of the emotions indicating to them that they’re bad, and there’s their misunderstanding of morality (which is related to the cargo-culting).

B: Peikoff continues:

Presumably you know the basic nature of emotions according to Objectivism: They’re not primary; they’re not physical or chemical; they’re not unknowable; they’re consequences of our ideas, above all, of our value judgments. Automatic consequences of premises, held knowingly or not. The reason-emotion relation is simply an illustration of the general issue of the mind-body relation—emotions are to value judgments or to thought as body is to mind. They’re the expression, the obedient servant. The primary cause, the prime mover, is the mind, and emotions are one result of it. There’s no inherent conflict any more than there is between mind and body. There can be a clash between reason and emotions only if there are contradictions in the underlying ideas. And then the solution would have to be in principle (however difficult in practice): clarify your thinking, make it consistent, and you will then reach the proper relation, which is harmony, integration.

A: I am familiar with this basic model. I have a question, though. I don’t doubt the relationship between ideas/value judgments and emotions. However, it seems like very often people may take onboard ideas and value judgments without a full, conscious appraisal of the ideas that they are taking onboard. For example, they might be “raised” in a religion and take on a whole bunch of ideas about everything from the proper attitudes towards holidays, to the importance of having children, to the role of marriage in life, without having consciously formed and arrived at value judgments about each of those things. They just take the whole thing together as one big “package deal” that they haven’t carefully examined. And so what I’m wondering is, does the Objectivist model of emotions that Peikoff describes above still apply in such a case? Because I’m thinking that maybe it applies to someone who has a conscious understanding of the ideas that they are taking onboard, but maybe it applies less well in the context of someone who takes on a bunch of ideas “unchewed”?

B: I think that the Objectivist model of emotions does not require that people have chewed the ideas that they take onboard. An unchewed idea which contains certain value judgments which become active in one’s mind can still result in emotional reactions.

A: Example?

B: How many people do you suppose have fully chewed on their ideas involving romantic love? People often claim to think that there is one particular person that is the right one for them, and act/emotionally react accordingly. These same people are often serial monogamists, which is a contradiction of the idea that there is only one person out there for them. But when they are in a relationship, and when they have a bad breakup, they often act consistent with the idea that there is only one person out there for them. This situation is not a counterexample to the idea that there is a relationship between a person’s ideas, value judgments and emotions. People have an idea about romantic love and about there being one person out there for them. They act according to the implications of their ideas, according to which the person they are in a relationship with is a unique value to them - so that’s the value judgment step. And then they experience emotions resulting from that value judgment.

A: Hmm.

B: If the Objectivist theory of emotions only applied to the case where everyone had fully chewed all their ideas, it’d be useful only as a hypothetical construct. Even if you are very good at introspection and analysis, the number and complexity of ideas you have is so enormous that it’s not practical to check/validate/analyze them all. Think of it this way: imagine the method of trying to understand some sentence you wrote by looking up each word in that sentence in a dictionary, and then in turn also looking up each word in the definitions you find in the dictionary, and so on.

A: You’d never stop looking things up!

B: Right. And that’s with trying to understand a sentence. And the ideas in your mind are significantly more complex than a sentence.

A: Well now that sounds a bit hopeless, because it seems like it’d be important to understand the ideas in your mind in order to have integrated ideas and be happy.

B: Well, but think about it though - the method of looking things up in a dictionary that we discussed would not work, but dictionaries are still useful, yes?

A: Yes.

B: How do people actually use dictionaries? Or, maybe this is a better way to put it: what is an effective approach to using dictionaries?

A: Well, you could look things up when you feel unsure of some usage of a word, and especially, when you come across a new word.

B: Right. So if you have some specific problem related to your understanding of a word - as in, you’re not sure about the usage or meaning of a word that is already familiar to you, or you come across a word that is unfamiliar to you - then you look things up.

A: Right but you might have errors in your understanding of words that you aren’t aware of.

B: You might, and doing some “quality-control” on words where you feel confident of the meaning might be a good idea, but you shouldn’t worry about it too much. You should mostly focus on areas where you know there is a problem.

So let’s connect this back to our understanding of ideas and emotions. We have an enormously complex set of ideas in our heads. We can’t go through and check them all for errors. We already have tons of ideas to deal with, at a fairly young age, before we even arrive at the level of understanding where we’d have the toolset to check for errors very effectively. This does not mean that we are in a position where we are helpless to deal with errors, though. Because we can identify situations where our ideas seem to conflict, or where we have some problematic emotions, or what have you, and direct our attention to those areas in order to try to resolve the problems that we are facing. We can pick apart and separate the threads of “package deals” we’ve accepted in the past, and identify which elements are actually related, and which are not. And once we have the intellectual self-awareness and toolset to do so, we can try to make sure that any new ideas we are considering taking onboard - particularly those that are more sweeping and important in their implications - are rigorously criticized and “chewed” before we accept them.

A: So summing up this bit: nobody builds up a perfect, fully integrated understanding of all their ideas from the outset, but that isn’t a requirement of or limitation on the applicability of the Objectivist theory of emotions. That theory of emotions still applies, because even “unchewed” ideas still involve value judgments that become active in people’s minds and result in emotions. Furthermore, nobody can build up a fully integrated understanding of their ideas from the outset, because we deal with too many ideas for that to be practical. But what we can do is develop our intellectual capacity to check and criticize our ideas when a specific problem comes up, and to check new ideas before accepting them. By developing such a capacity, we can improve our ability to reject ideas that have certain flaws and gradually develop a more integrated and non-contradictory understanding of the world.

B: Makes sense to me!

A: OK! Let’s end this here for now.