Rebirth of Reason


Value Judgments vs. Emotions
by Joseph Rowlands

Objectivist epistemology rejects emotions as a form of cognition.  In other words, you may feel something, but that doesn’t provide you with any knowledge except that you feel it. For example, if you feel anger, it doesn’t mean that someone has wronged you. If you feel you should do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Your feelings may provide you with a clue that something needs to be examined more closely, but they aren’t a substitute for that rational examination.

To most familiar with Objectivist epistemology, this should be pretty obvious. Our emotions are pre-programmed responses to value judgments. If they’re programmed wrongly, or a value is misunderstood, or something else triggered the emotion, or any number of other problems come up, the results can be faulty. We then resort to reason to analyze the situation and determine if the emotions were proper or improper.

An important implication of this idea is that you should never define a concept by an emotion (except, obviously, when defining an emotion). This is necessary for the concept to be useful cognitively. If you define a concept by a related emotion, you can’t tell when it’s appropriate to use the concept.

My first example is the concept of 'self-esteem.'  A common view of self-esteem is “Feeling good about yourself.” The emotion is taken as a primary. What matters in this view is that you have happy thoughts about yourself, not whether these emotions are proper.  This leads to a common practice in public schools where the teachers work desperately to not hurt the feelings of students by telling them they’re wrong, and so they throw objectivity out the window.

A more rational definition would make it clear that the feeling associated with self-esteem is a consequence of a healthy self-esteem. It would emphasize the objective needs of self-esteem and a rational evaluation of yourself as being competent and worthy to deal with life. The important point here is that the evaluation is the primary, and the emotional response is secondary. This is true of all emotions. Since they're automated responses to value-judgments, it’s the value judgment itself that’s crucial to our understanding.

A similar example can be found in the term 'happiness.' A typical understanding of happiness focuses on the positive emotion. The facts of reality behind the value judgment are consequently ignored. And then you start hearing things like "Happiness is a state of mind," or "Well, who are we to judge, if it makes him happy?"

Again, a rational definition would need to center around what kind of value judgment is being made, and what the criterion for the judgment is. For instance, you could say that happiness is an evaluation of how your life is going, and it would be based on an objective understanding of the requirements of life. And of course, the emotion would hopefully be a consequence.

A third and final example is in the field of art.  People often try to make judgments of art based on the emotions that the art makes them feel. This might use the terms "uplifting" or "powerful" or "inspiring" or "beautiful." In all of these cases, the defining characteristic is the emotional response to the work of art.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t address the cause of the emotions. If you happen to see a painting that reminds you of your dog when growing up, you may respond positively towards it, or with sorrow for the loss. But this is completely orthogonal to the art qua art.  It's an emotional response, but not based on the painting's nature or purpose. Judging it by a resemblance to a dead dog tells you nothing about the quality of the art itself.

A better analysis would again focus on the value judgments involved.  It's not enough that you feel inspired by a piece of art if you're trying to understand it. You need to understand the purpose of art, the human needs that it fulfills, and how a particular piece satisfies those needs.

In all cases discussing emotional responses, it's critical to examine the value judgments at the root of those emotions. These are the elements that are analyzable by reason. It is the value judgment that leads to knowledge and understanding, and not the existence or non-existence of an emotional reaction.

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