I’ll remark here on a smidgen of Professor Smith’s new book. Since these casual remarks concern such a wee bit of the book, I want to first give some further impression of the book’s full range. Here is an overall glance of Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist from the jacket flap:
Far from representing the rejection of morality, selfishness, in Rand’s view, actually demands the practice of a systematic code of ethics. This book explains the fundamental virtues that Rand considers vital for a person to achieve his objective well-being: rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. Tracing Rand’s account of the naturalistic ground of value and the harmony of human beings’ rational interests, Tara Smith examines what each of these virtues consists in . . . . Along the way, she addresses the status of several conventional virtues within Rand’s theory, considering traits such as kindness, charity, generosity, temperance, courage, forgiveness, and humility.
Tara Smith writes that emotionalism consists of “allowing emotions to replace thoughts as the decisive grounds for one’s conclusions or actions” (71). This strikes me as an inexact definition of emotionalism. Thoughts are not decisive grounds; they are not grounds of a decision, strictly speaking. They are controlling operators on the grounds for a decision. Precised in this way, Smith’s definition of emotionalism should be that it is “allowing one’s emotions to replace thoughts as the controlling, deciding operators on the grounds for one’s conclusions or actions.” The grounds referred to here would be facts and explicit values.
Smith writes on the next page that “in a reasoning process, emotions cannot be substituted for facts because emotions are not tools of cognition.” This is another striking inexactness. Shouldn’t the phrase be “substituted for thought” rather than “substituted for facts”?
In her title essay For the New Intellectual (1961), Rand writes of (with a note acknowledging valuable inputs from Nathaniel Branden on these) two psychological archetypes: Attila and the Witch Doctor. Of the latter, Rand writes that “to the Witch Doctor, emotions are tools of cognition, and wishes take precedence over facts” (17). Don’t be a Witch Doctor. Rather, be “a man of reason,” be “dispassionately and intransigently fact-centered” for “it is upon the ability to think, upon his rational faculty, that man’s life depends” (Branden 1962, 136, in The Virtue of Selfishness).
These two curiously inexact statements by Smith could be due in part to the sort of telescopic collapse we resort to in hasty expressions. Thought gets the collapse to fact. Controlling, decisive operator on grounds gets the collapse to decisive grounds.
I think there is another factor at work in Smith’s expressions. She is trying to be true here (pp. 70–73) to Rand’s (and Branden’s) opposition of emotions to facts. Such oppositions are explicable, in Rand’s text, as in Smith’s, as telescopic collapses in expression. But there is more. When Rand said, repeatedly, that emotions are not tools of cognition, she meant it one hundred percent. Emotions are not tools for reaching facts, they are not cognitive tools. This view was predominant in philosophy until the irrationalist waves in the 19th century and the advances of psychology in the 20th. Opposition of emotions to facts is a natural overstatement in stating a rational ethics.
Smith tempers this position. I find Smith inching back from the (early 60s) view of Rand. Smith comes round in her discussion to saying that one should not be “handing emotions the sole decision-making reins” (73). Whoa! Not for Rand. No reins in the hands of emotions. With Rand, as with Plato, all reins go to reason, the guardian of the house.
Well, there’s a smidgen. I should not leave without mentioning a significant paper in this area by Marsha Familaro Enright. It is titled “If ‘Emotions Are Not Tools of Cognition’, What Are They?” This paper is published in V4N1 of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Fall 2002).