Summary of Understanding Objectivism, Part 2

Second part of a summary of what I thought were the most interesting ideas of Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism".

I finished reading Understanding Objectivism so I thought it'd be worth it to go through and talk about some important ideas from the book.

When I ended last time, I had discussed some highlights from the first seven lectures/chapters, so I'll start with Lecture Eight this time.

Peikoff talks about empiricism in Lecture Eight. According to Peikoff, empiricists are skeptical of abstractions/concepts and think that these things are just "talk". Empiricists think that principles are BS that anyone can deploy to whatever purpose they want using doubletalk. (I think that when I don't understand a principle, I have something like an "empiricist" reaction to it. By "empiricist reaction" I mean thinking that the principle can be used in arbitrary ways. This reaction makes sense. If you don't understand some principle, then you won't understand its context or limitations. If you don't understand its context or limitations, then it's going to seem like the principle can be used arbitrarily.)

Peikoff talks about rationalistic versus empiricist approaches to explanations. Rationalists want to explain everything in terms of one theory, facts be damned, but empiricists want to say there are a million factors and not put things in terms of some sort of hierarchy of importance. I noted while reading this chapter that I can alternate between rationalistic and empiricist modes of discussing an issue depending on whether I'm attached to a particular theory (which would involve turning towards rationalism) or whether I'm trying to avoid accepting a particular explanation (which would involve turning towards empiricism).

While putting together this summary, I thought of a couple of contrasting examples that help to flesh out the contrast between rationalistic and empiricist approaches. An good example of a rationalistic type of analysis might be a conspiracy theorist. They are very attached to their theory, and will often ignore contradicting evidence or manufacture their own facts. And if you point this out, they're totally unphased; they'll just make some minor adjustments to their theory/make up some new facts as needed. The mode of analysis is completely divorced from reality. Now let's consider an example of empiricism. If you try to call out someone on their own flaws or mistakes or failure to get things accomplished, you will often get a whole litany of concretes about all the stuff they're dealing with. They don't clearly engage with the claim that they failed in some way; they just bury you with tons of concretes with the argument (or implied argument) that the problems in their life somehow justify or excuse their failure. They're trying to avoid accepting the conclusion that they are responsible for failure by piling up concretes.

In Lecture Nine, Peikoff contrasted Objectivism to Empiricism and Rationalism on various points:

Peikoff also had some good discussion about the role of philosophy in life, and how you need it to have control over your life. There were some good concrete examples of using philosophy (like the attitude to take towards missing a bus).

Lecture Ten

Summary of Chapter

I actually went through the book out of order and chronologically started with Lecture Ten, which I did in the form of an 18-part dialogue. This dialogue approach involved bringing in a lot of my own ideas in addition to summarizing what Peikoff was saying. My summary of this chapter will involve both a summary of the chapter and of my individual dialogues, so it will be much longer than the summaries for my other chapters.

Peikoff talked about three different basic approaches to moral issues - the rationalist/intrinsicist, the empiricist/subjectivist, and the Objectivist. The rationalists think there are some moral commandments out there - from God, reality, whatever - and try to follow those. The empiricists try to follow their feelings in order to do what’s right, but the moral ideas that create their feelings are often taken on board from the rationalists. The Objectivists think morality is a means to an end in the context of a life (and of choosing to live that life) and that morality is connected to reality. If we choose to live and to try to achieve goals, we can’t ignore the requirements of reality in doing so.

The approaches to emotions of these three broad approaches to morality vary. The rationalists think that emotions are a bad, low element, and try to suppress them. The empiricists worship emotions and use them as guides to action. The Objectivist rejects both the rationalist-repression approach to emotions and the emotion-worshipping approach. Emotions are an automatic consequence of our value judgments/ideas/premises, but not tools of cognition.

Peikoff talks a lot about Objectivist repressors. They are afraid that their emotions say something bad about them, and so then try to repress the emotions. Part of their mistake is that they don’t understand Objectivism well enough to figure out what parts of, say, Roark’s character are expressions of principles versus what parts are optional concretes. So they try to blindly copy everything and repress any differences. This repression is not tenable in the long term, so people trying it eventually blow up and become emotionalists.

Peikoff articulates what he sees as the role of emotions:

  • Letting you analyze a situation without having to figure out everything intellectually
  • Helping us keep our values connected to concretes
  • Serving an essential role in doing creative work (need some intuitive judgment to get through writing even a paragraph)
  • Helping us evaluate things we see around us, including people and art
  • Serving an essential role in choosing among optional cases. Peikoff gives a number of examples of the role of emotions in optional matters - e.g. people wanting to be mothers, or not liking skyscrapers, or liking horror movies.

Peikoff discusses how if someone is overly critical of themselves for perceived moral failings, they will also be overly critical of others. (Important point)

He concludes by saying that moral judgment is necessary and important, but needs to be done by principles in the proper context.

I had a lot of sympathy for the main point of the chapter because I think I’ve been very heavily on the repressive side of things and it was good to get a chapter of material pushing back on that. I found myself disagreeing with Peikoff frequently on some concrete examples, because it seemed to me like he was too dismissive of the possibility of arriving at some kind of moral judgment in connection with a particular concrete. That’s not to say that I think most students of Objectivism would arrive at the right moral judgment (or that I would), but it’s one thing to say that arriving at a moral judgment based on someone liking something is difficult and another to say that it’s not doable.

Short Summaries of Dialogues

In Part 1, I looked at the rationalist or intrinsicist approach to morality. This approach, according to Peikoff, treats morality as involving commandments straight from God or Reality that you are supposed to follow. (I think this is how I've frequently approached moral issues.) In Part 2, I looked at the empiricist/subjectivist approach to morality. According to Peikoff, this approach says that we should decide things according to our feelings and desires and that morality doesn’t involve objective truths. I 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). I then 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).

In Part 3, I looked more at 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). In Part 4 I looked at different approaches to emotions, and specifically how the rationalists-intrinsicists types repress, and the empiricist-subjectivist types treat their emotions as a revelation. In Part 5, I started looking at the issue of Objectivist repressors. According to Peikoff, some Objectivists view emotions as an out-of-control element that says something about their values, which makes the emotions a threat to one’s moral status. I argued that, even with problematic emotions, the value judgments are the real issue, not the emotions - the emotions are just an indicator.

(Important tangent: There may be something analogous to the rationalist attitude towards emotions with regards to the field of learning. Emotions are intuitive reactions to some situation that don't involve explicit conscious reasoning. Rationalists disrespect these as potential threats to their moral status. One also has intuitive reactions to things when trying to understand some new material or solve some problem - like hunches about a potential right answer. If one views the potential for making an error in one's intuitive judgment as a threat to one's intellectual status – because one believes one should know more than one currently does – then one might suppress those intuitive reactions. For example, one might be trying to solve a math problem but suppress potential answers due to fear of embarrassing error. This will disrupt learning and cause one to waste lots of time fruitlessly.)

In Part 6 I 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. In Part 7 I 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. Peikoff claims that emotions by themselves cannot be judged morally, and that people cargo-culting moral ideals like Roark is due to their holding various ideas as floating abstractions that they haven't actually understood well.

In Part 8, I made a tree depicting a mistaken path to learning Objectivist philosophy involving repression.

I talked about how it makes sense that the scope of morality is life if you treat morality as knowledge to help you live well. I talked about how the Objectivist theory of emotions doesn’t require that people have fully chewed all their ideas and about how it’s impossible to fully chew all your ideas anyways. I talked about how the inability to chew all your ideas isn’t a major problem, since you can gradually improve your capacity to fix ideas when a problem comes up and to check new ideas before accepting them.

In Part 9 I started looking at Peikoff’s arguments for emotions. The first point was that emotions are essential to figuring out how to act given the complexity of the world. I started to look at his second point, which is that emotions help keep our values alive and help us maintain a connection to concretes. I talked about a concrete example of this in connection to learning, and how people try to impose “interests” on themselves rationalistically without having convinced themselves that they actually want to learn something.

Part 10 was a tangent on the idea of deserving to suffer. I talked about how people judge themselves in a negative way based on the sort of rationalistic/moral commandment-based morality that Peikoff discusses and criticizes in the chapter.

In Part 11 I looked at a couple of Peikoff’s arguments for the value of emotions. I continued looking at his point that emotions help keep our values alive, and I also looked at his argument that emotions are essential to the creative process. I considered whether there might be a tension between the ideas that 1) learning should be fun and 2) that you might not find worthwhile activities fun right away, and resolved this apparent tension with the idea that the right approach to a new potential activity or interest is to “try it out” and give yourself a chance to cultivate the interest, rather than dumping it if it doesn’t grab you right away. I discussed the importance of emotions in creativity and in being effective in your career.

In Part 12 I looked at Peikoff’s argument that emotions have an essential role in interpreting art. This is the fourth of five points on the role of emotions he discussed. I contrasted a mistaken, overly intellectual/rationalistic approach that Peikoff tried to take to analyzing a movie to a different approach suggested by Elliot Temple. I talked about how taking the right approach towards analyzing a work can let you get a different perspective on it than the mainstream view.

In Part 13 I started to look at Peikoff’s fifth point on the role of emotions in life, which is that they’re essential in choosing between optional cases (such as options for a productive career). I considered and rejected the idea that Objectivism necessarily dictates a certain career choice (such as being a philosopher). I determined that a particular concrete fact like a critical shortage of philosophers is something that would be valid to take into account when determining a career choice. I criticized some comments Peikoff made related to the role of philosophy and philosophers.

In Part 14 I continued my consideration of Peikoff’s discussion of the role of emotions in choosing among optional cases. I considered the degree to which things like an interest in a particular career are open to intellectual analysis. I considered “Buridan’s ass” and the idea that emotions can help one decide between equivalent alternatives, and decided that this idea was less useful than Peikoff seems to think. I considered what Peikoff said about various concrete examples of things in life (wanting to be a mother, having friends). I 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.

In Part 15, I further considered Peikoff’s discussion about the role of emotions in choosing among optional cases. I talked about how different forms of entertainment can reflect different values, some of which might be problematic, with a particular focus on professional wrestling and horror movies as examples.

In Part 16, I further considered Peikoff’s notions about the role of emotions in choosing among optional cases. I discussed criticisms of certain aspects of his view via discussion of the concrete of appreciating Perry Mason, and discussed how factors like pre-existing judgments about something and a lack of relevant skills can affect one’s ability to appreciate some work or cause problems in appreciating it. I discussed the idea that one should not let the current extent of one’s abilities/skills be the limit of one’s life, and the idea that one should be open to revision about one’s judgments regarding the value/interestingness of things.

In Part 17, I considered some more concrete cases in which Peikoff claims that people make erroneous moral judgments, such as in judging people on the basis of their musical preferences, or in treating anyone who disagrees with their politics as similarly wicked.

In Part 18, I further considered some of what Peikoff was saying regarding making moral judgments about particular concretes, and summarized the chapter.

To be continued...