Is Selfishness Good? “The Virtue of Selfishness”, by Ayn Rand

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Before actually beginning to talk about this book, let me just mention how glad I am to be able to finally write this post. I received this book (from a friend who knew I really wanted it)…I think nearly two years ago now, and I somehow didn’t get around to finishing it until today. Even after having started reading it over a month ago, other stuff (such as my exams) kept getting in the way. Thankfully, I can finally say I’ve finished it.

The question of whether I liked it or not is a complicated one. You might be thinking “Come on! It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type of question. What can possibly be so complicated?” That’s true, but I’m afraid that I’ll have to say “yes” to some parts, and “no” to other parts of it. Don’t mistake this for a “maybe”, which implies an evasive answer, or some grayness. Taking the “gray” attitude, particularly when it comes to something written by Ayn Rand, would be ironic, to say the least (for those who are not familiar with her writings, she highly condemns not choosing a side).

You see, I’m a fan of the general idea of acting out of what Ayn Rand terms “selfishness”, word which she uses differently than it is normally used. We generally use the term to talk about someone who is highly immoral, and would do anything to achieve what he or she wants. Rand, on the other hand, uses the term to mean “concern with one’s own interest”. As such, she points out that acting out of selfishness isn’t merely desirable, but necessary.

The part that I don’t like is that her entire philosophy is resting on a tremendous misunderstanding of human psychology. Mainly, she assumes that the workings of the human mind are like a “blank slate”, which can easily be modified by the values one has. The problem is that this was proven to be false. We come into the world with a sort of baggage, dictated by our genes. Of course, our environment also plays a role in defining us, but it is not the only factor. This may not make her theory impossible, but it surely makes it a lot more difficult to use.

I won’t go into more details explaining her philosophy (except for indirectly, through the lessons I’ll outline), but you can imagine that with this big mistake in using human psychology, the rest of her ideas have to suffer as well. However, she still makes some very good points, and I believe those shouldn’t be left neglected.

1)      Morality is Not Only Useful, but Necessary for Us

Rand points out that morality offers us with much needed guidance to proper interaction between people. Also, it helps us identify the right type of values to hold.

2)      One Must Take Responsibility for His/Her Actions

Yeah, no kidding, huh? However, despite the fact that this is quite a popular principle, very few people seem to actually put it in practice. It’s easy to take responsibility for our actions when they amount to good things, but when they’re consequences are bad, we’ll do quite a lot to hide them, or even to blame others for them. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this.

3)      Unethical People’s Survival is Made Possible by Those Who Are Ethical

A good example for this is a robber. The only reason he has something to steal is because there is someone who made the money in the “right way” to begin with. If it were not for that person, the robber would starve.

4)      Sacrificing is Giving Up Something You Value for Something of a Lesser Value

If you use this definition for the word, then it becomes quite obvious why Rand is so quick to go against this act. Keep in mind the implications of this definition: if you give up watching the soccer game to help your friend, this doesn’t mean you’ve sacrificed. That’s because you value your friend more than you value the soccer game, so giving one up for the other doesn’t mean you’re losing value.

5)      Judging People Isn’t Bad

Rand explains that you should assess people in order to be able to interact with them accordingly. However, this assessment should be made based on rational grounds, not on a whim.

These are the main lessons that can be taken from the book, though there are a lot more. If you have any questions, make sure to let me know! I’ll try my best to answer them (considering I am not a philosopher).

/Larisa

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11 thoughts on “Is Selfishness Good? “The Virtue of Selfishness”, by Ayn Rand

  1. Nice post and I’m glad you got some positive lessons out of this book.

    The part that I don’t like is that her entire philosophy is resting on a tremendous misunderstanding of human psychology. Mainly, she assumes that the workings of the human mind are like a “blank slate”, which can easily be modified by the values one has. The problem is that this was proven to be false. We come into the world with a sort of baggage, dictated by our genes.

    I’d be interested to know what sort of “baggage” you mean and what evidence supports it. I have my own view on this issue that I think is well supported by the totality of general evidence. I think you’ll find this post of mine relevant: Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments. Also this one: Why Morality is Not “Evolved,” But Defined and Chosen.

    What do you think?

    1. Thank you for your comment! I read the posts you’ve attached and I found them quite fascinating. I was thinking of writing a separate post on the question you’ve posed, but even if I do end up doing it, it might take a while, so I’ll try condensing my thoughts on the matter.

      As I mentioned, emotions are highly complicated, and they are the result of the interaction between genes and the environment. Ayn Rand claims that our emotions are entirely the result of our environment, and that is incorrect. As an example of how evolution (and hence, genes) plays a role in emotions, let’s think of fear. People are a lot more predisposed to fears of things such as insects, snakes, or various animals (and may feel them so intense that they end up being phobias), than they are to fears of cars, and other objects from our modern environment. It’s not that cars are not dangerous; as a matter of fact, for someone living in the city, they pose more of a threat than snakes do. However, because in the ancestral environment there were no such things, we didn’t evolve with a predisposition to fear cars. This is one way genes influence emotions.

      Notice that I am not speaking of fears being directly influenced by genes. What genes do is that they make us more likely to fear certain things, and it is our environment that helps us develop this fear.

      Another example can be given by an extreme case, such as the one of a mental disability like Borderline Personality Disorder. In this case, it cannot be said that an individual with this disorder can change his or her values in order to change their emotions. That’s because their emotions are dictated by factors such as their brain chemistry. This, of course, is an extreme case, but the influence of brain chemistry (which is also dictated by genes), can be seen in individuals without a mental disorder. Some are highly emotional, while others are less so. This tendency influences emotional output as well.

      If you’d like to see another way in which genes influence emotions, please visit this link: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/genes-predispose-some-people-to-focus-on-the-negative.html

      Let me know if you’d like me to expand on some points.

      1. People are a lot more predisposed to fears of things such as insects, snakes, or various animals (and may feel them so intense that they end up being phobias), than they are to fears of cars, and other objects from our modern environment. … However, because in the ancestral environment there were no such things, we didn’t evolve with a predisposition to fear cars.

        I agree that there is a certain tendency here, that has something to do with genetics. I would place it as a stage in early childhood intermediate between infants’ primitive perceptually generated emotions and adults’ conceptually generated emotions: an associative emotional learning stage. The associative learning is influenced by genetics. But like the primitive infant pleasure/pain PGEs, associative emotions can be overwritten by conceptual value judgments. Lots of people do not fear spiders, snakes, etc, and people can overcome such fears with mental effort. I and many other people would fear a bank robber with a gun (a weapon we did not evolve with) far more than a spider or snake. Some people develop phobias of very modern things, such as air travel and elevators.

        It may very well be that many emotional disorders, such as phobias, are attributable to associative mechanisms taking over one’s emotional functions in certain situations. But notice that these phenomena are in fact considered disorders. They are not the normal case. The general philosophy of human nature properly deals with the normal, healthy case. If a few people with brain damage or malformed brains can’t control their thoughts and actions, that says nothing philosophically significant about the general human population.

        …but the influence of brain chemistry (which is also dictated by genes), can be seen in individuals without a mental disorder.Some are highly emotional, while others are less so. This tendency influences emotional output as well.

        There appears to be some genetic influence on the relative intensity of emotions in different people. But we have to keep in mind the big picture here: days after the 9/11 attacks, most Americans were sad and/or angry about the attacks; some Palestinians were celebrating joyously in the streets. Immediately after a Superbowl, one team celebrates with great joy, the other is subdued, and heartbroken. The only thing that makes this difference is the conceptual knowledge that their own team won vs. lost. One high school student may be terribly disappointed on hearing that he didn’t get into Stanford University, because that was the goal he had set himself and worked for. Another may feel virtually nothing, because that was one of the many colleges he applied for and wasn’t his preferred one.

        The beliefs, ideas and goals that an adult human being has internalized make a night and day difference in the emotions that he or she feels in everyday life. The differences observed in a highly controlled situation in your link are virtual background noise by comparison.

        As I mentioned, emotions are highly complicated, and they are the result of the interaction between genes and the environment.

        You describe emotions as “the result of the interaction between genes and the environment.” Where is the person in this? I have shown that our thoughts and ideas exert a great deal of influence on emotions. Do you think that those thoughts and ideas are completely controlled by genes and preexisting circumstances? Do you think you have any choice–any control–over how you react to your environment? Can you decide to think and work to understand, or to be lazy and shirk that responsibility? Or do you think that we are all helpless puppets at the mercy of factors beyond our control?

        1. “I and many other people would fear a bank robber with a gun (a weapon we did not evolve with) far more than a spider or snake.”

          You’re confusing things here. If one were to see a gun sitting on a table, and a snake next to it, that person would fear the snake a great deal more than the gun. In the example you gave, those individuals would be afraid of what the robber might do with the gun, which means that the fear is in fact, directed at the robber. As such, this fear is something we’ve evolved with, because we did have dangerous individuals of our own species in our ancestral environment.

          “ Lots of people do not fear spiders, snakes, etc, and people can overcome such fears with mental effort”

          Yes, lots of people do not have such fears, and this is the result of both their environment (they might have never been in a situation in which a spider could harm them considerably), but also of genes (predicting the individual’s tendency to such fears). It is true that these fears can be overcome by mental effort, but the work involved in overcoming them would be different for someone who is very fearful than for someone who is somehow fearful.

          “You describe emotions as “the result of the interaction between genes and the environment.” Where is the person in this?”

          You’re blurring the person into the emotion, and I think we ought to keep them separate for clarity’s sake. I take it when you say “person”, you’re referring to the conscious part of the person, which is why we should keep them apart, because it seems emotions are the result of the subconscious.

          In terms of control, yes, I definitely think that we do have some control. But I don’t believe we have complete control. The matter becomes even more complicated when we take into consideration that people’s genetic inheritance also plays a role in how we react to our environment. For example, an individual who thrives in a certain setting might do quite badly in another,

          Even when it comes to someone who is lazy versus someone who is hardworking, genes play a part in that too. As such, though conscious control is possible, the person who is “naturally lazy” would have to involve more mental effort to achieve the same as the person who is “naturally hardworking”. (Go here for an example of a study on genes and hard work http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3557310.stm )

          With all this in mind, it is quite possible that achievement is not a clear indication of how much one has worked, even when two individuals start from the same financial situation.

  2. In reply to Larisa (comment 176), (the formatting is getting too narrow):

    “In the example you gave, those individuals would be afraid of what the robber might do with the gun, which means that the fear is in fact, directed at the robber. As such, this fear is something we’ve evolved with, because we did have dangerous individuals of our own species in our ancestral environment.”

    Clearly, part of the fear that someone feels from such a person is that he has a gun. People may fear a bank robber who comes in obviously unarmed, a little bit. But compared to the guy who comes in with a pistol, people will be much less afraid of some nut in his underwear. Many people will tell you that having a gun pointed in their face is an emotionally traumatic experience. So people are indeed afraid of what the robber might do with the gun, but that requires that they conceptually identify the gun as dangerous and emotionally react accordingly. There is no “race memory” for the danger of guns when they are wielded by people.

    Let’s take another example that does not involve a person as part of the threat: You are walking through a field alone on a vacation in a foreign country. It’s a beautiful day and you feel good. Now let’s say that you come to believe, say through a sign, that you are actually walking through a densely populated minefield. One wrong step and a mine will explode, blowing your leg off and likely causing you to die of blood loss in minutes. You are not sure of the exact path you traveled to get to where you are. Are you going to be able to stay emotionally neutral and just say to yourself, “Hmm. There seems to be a minefield here. If I would like to continue with my life, I should walk back the way I came.” No, I don’t think so. You’ll be rather scared; your breathing and heart rate will increase, your palms may sweat, you’ll very delicately and carefully attempt to trace your steps, and where you’re not sure, you’ll look for a way to carefully probe the ground in front of you.

    Humans didn’t evolve with landmines, you have never encountered a minefield before, you don’t suffer from a phobia of landmines, you haven’t even seen any landmines near you. There is no genetic or “environmental” precedent for a fear of landmines, yet you would experience fear in that situation, due to a conceptual (intellectual) conclusion. (If you doubt the reality of the fear that comes from explosives, just ask certain Iraq war veterans how they felt the first time they had to get close to an improvised explosive device (IED) to check it out and place a disabling charge.)

    But now project the state of someone who is truly despondent, extremely depressed, fatalistic, fed up with the world and ready to die, who walks into that minefield. It is most likely that they will experience little to no fear. They will tend to think, “So what if I step on a mine? If it happens, it happens, and it will be a welcome end to this gray, hopeless torture.” (I take it that you know that people who are extremely depressed lose the ability to feel emotions. This is precisely because the subconscious value of one’s own life is the root of all emotions. When you no longer value your own life, you lose the capacity to value anything else. Since emotions are expressions of things valued at a subconscious level, no subconscious values means no emotions. Note also that recent mass shooters tend not to fear being shot by police. There is a whole phenomenon of “suicide by cop.”)

    As such, though conscious control is possible, the person who is “naturally lazy” would have to involve more mental effort to achieve the same as the person who is “naturally hardworking”. (Go here for an example of a study on genes and hard work…)

    Well, humans are not like monkeys in that humans have to think and to motivate themselves using concepts. Concepts are not generated genetically.

    But I will say that there can be differences in circumstances between people that can impact how much effort it takes them to achieve something specific, such as a job as a CEO of an investment firm. Do you think this is a problem for Ayn Rand’s moral and political theories? If so, why?

    1. I definitely understand your point(s) regarding fear. Regardless, what I would like to emphasize is that the fear felt towards something that existed in our ancestral environment would be more intense than towards something that didn’t exist back then. Again, I am not denying that the (modern) environment has an influence on human beings, and consequently, on their fears. It most certainly has. But so do the genes, which is the point Rand seems to have missed. Moreover, the presence of these genes makes emotions (such as fear) more acute.

      And a word on not seeing something of which one might be afraid. Though it is a definite possibility, don’t you think that not seeing something (and only knowing that it’s there), would make the fear be considerably less intense?

      Think about how cars pose a real threat to our lives, and yet as pedestrians, when waiting for the light to turn green, many people stand extremely close to the edge of the pavement. It’s not that they’re not aware of what a car might do, because they are. Now, if instead of cars, there would be …say lions (which would only attack if you stood too close to the edge), people would be a whole lot more careful. Again, it’s the intensity that’s different here.

      When you speak of depression, you speak as if the de-valuation of one’s life comes first being followed by depression. Though I don’t deny that this may be the case some of the time, it’s by no means the only way it happens. More often than not, depression comes first and it is because one is depressed that one starts to feel indifferent to things one would have valued otherwise. This stands as proof of the complexity of human psychology, which is what I believe Ayn Rand has overlooked. If you’re aware of any studies proving that depression only comes after the conceptual reduction in value of one’s life, let me know. I couldn’t find any.

      What I was demonstrating with that study was that there is a connection between genes and the desire to work hard. Of course people are more complicated than monkeys, but we’re partially influenced by the same factors monkeys are.

      Finally to answer your question, yes I believe it’s a problem. I know little of Rand’s political theories, so please correct me if I am mistaken. However, my understanding of her theories is that (earned) achievement is crucial to life (there was an entire essay written by Nathaniel Branden on The Divine Right of Stagnation, in “The Virtue of Selfishness”). So achievement is crucial to life, but more than that, in a society which operates as depicted by Rand, achievement would be how people would be judged as worthy or unworthy (provided they attained it morally). But you see, when someone achieves a great deal more than another person, simply because their brain chemistry dictates it to be that way (for argument’s sake, I’m leaving the complexity of circumstances aside, and concentrating only on the mental differences), can we really look upon that person and congratulate them, while dismissing the other person?

      1. “Regardless, what I would like to emphasize is that the fear felt towards something that existed in our ancestral environment would be more intense than towards something that didn’t exist back then.”

        I don’t see how we can make this generalization. There does seem to be some tendency for people to feel fear for certain things out of proportion to the actual threat they pose. This seems to have some basis in genetic priming of associative fears. When such irrational fears become really significant in a person’s life, (phobias) they are properly considered pathological, since they inhibit the person, to some extent, from living as happily as he or she could.

        But by far the dominant emotional mode in most people’s lives is conceptually based emotion. Let’s take another example: Do people feel more intense fear for animals running at them than for cars driving toward them?

        Compare, on the one hand: the emotional state of the owner of a large dog, who having just come home after a long absence, sees his dog start running at him from across the yard. What he feels is not fear, but some degree of joy. On the other hand: the emotional state of a person whose car breaks down on the left side of the freeway (with no cell phone) and must cross the freeway while cars speed around a blind curve at 70 mph. This person fears the cars coming at him, unlike the dog owner, because he understands that they will likely kill him if he is hit. The dog owner knows that the big animal running toward him is greeting him.

        So this leads into my reply to: “Think about how cars pose a real threat to our lives, and yet as pedestrians, when waiting for the light to turn green, many people stand extremely close to the edge of the pavement. It’s not that they’re not aware of what a car might do, because they are. Now, if instead of cars, there would be …say lions (which would only attack if you stood too close to the edge), people would be a whole lot more careful. Again, it’s the intensity that’s different here.”

        People know that cars only pose a threat when they stand right in front of them while they are traveling. People know that most drivers, being sane, basically skilled and not homicidal, will not jump the curb to mow down pedestrians. As soon as the situation changes such that the car can be known to pose a direct threat–say it jumps the curb or the driver won’t see you in the middle of the roadway–fear does indeed take hold. Lions don’t just pose threats to people directly in front of them, and they are not driven by people who want to avoid homicide. They can unpredictably turn on anyone who is close and accessible. But if there is a solid barrier at a zoo, such that an adult person will think that he is safe, the person’s fear will be virtually eliminated, relative to what it would be, were he unprotected.

        “And a word on not seeing something of which one might be afraid. Though it is a definite possibility, don’t you think that not seeing something (and only knowing that it’s there), would make the fear be considerably less intense?”

        It depends. If seeing the thing there doesn’t affect the danger level, but removes any doubt you have that the thing is there, then it would increase the fear. In the case of the minefield, seeing all the mines would enable you to easily avoid them, negating much of the danger. So the sight would make you less fearful.

        “When you speak of depression, you speak as if the de-valuation of one’s life comes first being followed by depression. Though I don’t deny that this may be the case some of the time, it’s by no means the only way it happens. More often than not, depression comes first and it is because one is depressed that one starts to feel indifferent to things one would have valued otherwise.”

        There may be a relative handful of cases where there is a real physical/chemical problem with the brain’s production of neurotransmitters, etc. But I don’t see any reason to suspect that these cases are at all common. Think about it: What does genetically-caused depression do to a person’s evolutionary fitness? What percentage of chimpanzees would a psychologist diagnose as “clinically depressed?” Genetics may contribute slightly in subtly affecting the balance of positive vs. negative emotional intensity, but in the vast majority of cases, the dominant cause is going to be conceptual.

        The devaluation of one’s own life does not primarily come in the form of the thought, “My life isn’t worth living.” There are many thoughts and many conclusions that add up to the devaluation of one’s own life. Life, for a human being, means defining values for oneself and pursuing those values by mental effort. If people go wrong in this process, without understanding why, or if they fail to apply the necessary effort to achieve what they want, it can gradually amount to the devaluation of their own lives. They will start to think, “I’m a failure. I’m no good for anything. I screw everything up. Life is all failure and pain. Everyone would be better off without me around.” etc. This often leads to a spiral of depression that reinforces those conclusions further and further, until they reach the stage where they are thinking, “Life isn’t worth living. I just want the pain to end.”

        “So achievement is crucial to life, but more than that, in a society which operates as depicted by Rand, achievement would be how people would be judged as worthy or unworthy (provided they attained it morally).”

        Yes, some level of value achievement is crucial to life. People have to achieve values to provide for their own living, or become dependents on those who do. But a man’s natural intelligence is not in his control, and a difference in the scale of achievements between people is not necessarily a difference in their morality.

        Straight from “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness:

        ‘Productive work’ does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.

        (See the Ayn Rand Lexicon entries for the virtue of Productiveness and for Pyramid of Ability

        In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand considered Eddie Willers just as moral at his level of ability as Dagny Taggart was at hers.

        I take it you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged?

        1. I was speaking of intensity of fear, but I think that this may actually be wrong, because theoretically, an object that may become a threat should be feared as intensely as an animal. The problem here, however, is that these objects are threatening when they are in use. I’ll go back to my example of the gun on the table. When it’s not in use, it wouldn’t elicit the same response as a dead venomous snake. Most people would probably stay away from the snake, though it is dead, whereas the gun would get a more variety of treatments (some would still leave it alone, some would be curious about it, etc). The same goes for a bomb that’s not working as for a gun.

          On the example with cars: it is very true that there is conscious evaluation of the fact that most people driving cars don’t have it in their plan to commit homicide. However, one should also be aware of the fact that even if a driver doesn’t have this intention, a lot of things could go wrong, and the closer one is to the edge of the pavement, the more the danger increases. So from a conscious evaluation, I would say that these two things are balanced out. But again, I believe that the irrelevance of cars in the ancestral environment also plays a role here. With the zoo example, you’ll notice that most people don’t go extremely close to the cage of a dangerous predator. Despite it being caged, there still is that lingering fear of it. As such, I don’t agree with you that this fear would be eliminated, though of course it would be considerably less than when the animal would be free.

          Now on do depression. If you visit this link: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/what-causes-depression.htm,you’ll notice that it states that depression “has many possible causes, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.” As such, this suggests that there is a great deal more than just a handful of cases where depression arises as a result of chemical imbalances. Of course, other reasons exist as well, which accounts for the complexity of the issue.

          “The devaluation of one’s own life does not primarily come in the form of the thought, “My life isn’t worth living.” There are many thoughts and many conclusions that add up to the devaluation of one’s own life.”

          I think with this we arrived (at least almost) at the point we started. Before this you stated that “emotions are expressions of things valued at a subconscious level”. I agree with your claim here, but I also believe that the subconscious isn’t a very good reflection of one’s conscious values. As I have tried to show, there are other factors that influence this subconscious, including genetic inheritance. Because of this, I believe it becomes a lot more difficult to accuse an individual of his or her emotions, since they are partially outside of the influence of our conscious values.

          In regards to depression and evolution: depression actually may have had an evolutionary use. If you go here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/depressions-evolutionary/, you’ll read about one potential reason behind why depression might have been useful.

          I did read the novel, and I liked it. However, it was a while ago, and I’m not sure how well I can recall its details. It is interesting to know what Rand believed regarding this issue. However, if I remember correctly, Eddie didn’t end up joining Dagny and the rest. That suggests to me that he was considered less worthy than Dagny. However, as I mentioned, I read the novel a while ago, and so I might have forgotten some details that may be important to Eddie’s situation.

  3. In reply to Larisa (comment 183):

    Let me start with the article on depression. Early on it says that,

    “Depression seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Research in the US and other countries estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder sometime in their lives. But the brain plays crucial roles in promoting survival and reproduction, so the pressures of evolution should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction. Mental disorders should generally be rare — why isn’t depression?”

    Note here that the starting premise is that there must be a direct evolutionary explanation for high rates of depression. The authors take it as their job to find some way to explain away the “paradox” in terms of the evolutionary function of major depression. Right away we have a red flag of possible bias due to what one might call “scientific blinders”: the tendency of specialists in a narrow field to look for explanations for everything to appear in their narrow purview, and to ignore general observations that limit the scope of what they can infer from their experiments. (This problem is especially great when specialists don’t take into account the general observations that are the basis of philosophy.)

    Now of course the ability to respond to the loss of values with some sadness is adaptive; it is what can motivate the animal to change the course of its behavior. In the case of humans, sadness, as a contrast to joy, can motivate us to attempt to alter our approach in solving problems and achieving values.

    But we’re talking about major depression here. Many people with major depression also have anxiety, and they do not find it helpful for solving their problems and reaching happiness. They feel helpless and many have to resort to drugs just to get through their days. The idea that genetics is the primary difference between those who have major depression/anxiety and those who don’t is rather untenable. The article itself presumes that sadness, in order to be adaptive, must be in response to actual problems that can be solved by thought. (That is, people must be able to conceptually analyze/understand their problems and act in accordance with their rational conclusions. Their responses are made possible by genetics, but not genetically controlled, and the exertion of the effort to think or not is a choice that people make. Some people, rather than thinking and analyzing, take illicit drugs or commit suicide.)

    How human beings respond to great sadness and stress is clearly affected by cultural ideas. For example, the Japanese commit suicide at a much higher rate than Americans. This is because the Japanese moral culture is much more fatalistic and accepting of suicide, owing to the influence of Zen Buddhism and the warrior code of Bushido.

    “Before this you stated that ’emotions are expressions of things valued at a subconscious level’. I agree with your claim here, but I also believe that the subconscious isn’t a very good reflection of one’s conscious values. As I have tried to show, there are other factors that influence this subconscious, including genetic inheritance.”

    Whatever minor effects genetics may have on the differences in different people’s emotions, just looking at a modern country like the United States or Canada shows that people’s subconscious value judgments have to be pretty good matches for their conscious values, in general. Look around you; how many of your surroundings are natural, and how many of the values people respond to emotionally have been around throughout human evolution? People desire new cars, feel joy and excitement at getting new television sets, get annoyed or angry with people in text on cell phones, get excited about things or ideas they found on the internet, feel joy and accomplishment when they win a football game, get excited, exhilarated and frustrated in video game simulations of gun battles, feel elated when they get their dream job.

    None of these artificial values can be genetically primed, all of them require conceptual understanding and conceptual programming of the subconscious, and they are the sort of values that compose most of modern life. If emotions were mostly influenced by genetics, instead of conceptual value judgments, people would be almost completely unable to deal with the modern world in emotional terms. They’d be emotionally apathetic about the vast majority of technology.

    This is not even to mention all of the moral emotions, such as guilt, pride, admiration and anger that vary greatly between groups with different moral ideas. (Sexual guilt, parents’ pride in their suicide bomber children, admiration/worship of dictators, etc.)

    One final example here: Imagine an American high school football player who has set himself the goal of becoming a college and pro football player, who trains hard and always makes practice on time, who is dedicated to the sport of football. This player helps his team win the state high school championship by catching a touchdown pass. Now compare this to the same person if he had joined the football team on a lark, was often late to practice and lazily did the minimum work to stay on the team. His team ends up winning the state championship with him mostly on the bench and despite his fumble of the ball to the other team. In which case would the player feel more pride and joy at winning the championship? Do you agree that there is a very significant difference and that it is the case in which the player is goal-driven, excellent and works hard? Do you see that the difference is one of internalized conceptual goal-setting and conceptual knowledge?

    The essence of how humans have evolved is to be extremely flexible in the actions we can take for survival and, as a necessary condition, in the motivations we can have for actions, (i.e. emotions.) Both of these flexibilities are achieved through concepts: Conceptual analysis provides the goals and actions required for survival and flourishing, while subconscious absorption of conceptual value judgments provides the emotional motivation for the taking of those actions toward those goals. This evolutionary path has necessitated the giving up of virtually all genetic programming of emotions and behaviors as adults.

    “Because of this, I believe it becomes a lot more difficult to accuse an individual of his or her emotions, since they are partially outside of the influence of our conscious values.”

    I’m not quite sure what you mean here by “accuse an individual of his or her emotions,” but I take you to mean “hold an individual morally responsible for his or her emotions.”

    Objectivism does not morally praise or blame individuals for things that are not in their conscious control. Adult emotions, while mostly potentially within the adult’s indirect control, are not directly in their conscious control. So emotions themselves are not morally praised or blamed. It is only the person’s mental effort and rationality expressed in action that are morally praised or blamed.

    “However, if I remember correctly, Eddie didn’t end up joining Dagny and the rest. That suggests to me that he was considered less worthy than Dagny.”

    It was Eddie’s deliberate, personal decision not to join Dagny and the rest. His values were so tied up with Taggart Transcontinental, that his life effectively was the railroad. He didn’t want to start over and didn’t really want to live without TT.

    While very moral and very praiseworthy, Eddie Willers had limited intelligence and wasn’t philosophically aware. Ayn Rand did think–rightly in my view–that people who aren’t philosophically aware have a certain vulnerability to the state of their culture, that the philosophically aware do not have. They can make the choice to struggle, think and fight a corrupt culture or not. But their scope of choice is limited and they will find it difficult to escape the destructiveness of the ideological villains. This was part of the point Rand was making with Eddie Willers and Cheryl Brooks.

    Do you think you’ll be reading any more works by Rand or other Objectivist intellectuals?

    1. I agree with you that there are cases in which science tries to find explanations in a strange way. However, as long as the evidence they bring supports their claim, I am interested in what they have to say. As I mentioned, the article offers one possible explanation for the evolutionary reason behind depression; there are others (some which are more plausible than others).

      Major depression is depression gone wrong. What would have otherwise been an adaptive trait, becomes, in this case, maladaptive. This is much like the case of fear that can turn into phobia.
      I don’t deny that depression can be caused by conceptual analysis of one’s life; quite the contrary. But what I want to highlight is that if depression has been selected for by evolution, it means that chances are, depression could have come before our brains developed to the point where they were capable of the type of thinking we see in modern man. I’m not sure about the evidence regarding this with specifically human evolution. However, there were some studies done with monkeys, which suggest they can be depressed as well. As such, this supports my claim.

      To connect this back to our issue, if depression can be encountered in animals that don’t have the human capacity for thought, then it follows that at least in some of the cases, depression did not come through conceptual analysis of one’s problems.

      I wouldn’t be so quick to call the effects of genes “minor”, but even if they are, Ayn Rand was still in the wrong when saying that people are like “blank slates”. Even if these slates were only slightly painted by genes, that slight paint makes them be no longer blank. This is what I was referring to when I wrote this post, and it was also the point that sparked this conversation.

      Thank you for the correction regarding Atlas Shrugged. I still can’t remember all the details regarding the novel. Let’s hope the last part of the movie that’s coming out this year will help me out with that.

      I will definitely read more books by Ayn Rand; I’ve already purchased two others. I’m not sure exactly when this will happen, because I have a long list of other books that I want to read, but they’re in my plan 🙂

      1. “To connect this back to our issue, if depression can be encountered in animals that don’t have the human capacity for thought, then it follows that at least in some of the cases, depression did not come through conceptual analysis of one’s problems.”

        Sorry, but that does not actually follow. This is analogous to saying that “if we can find food-finding behavior in animals that don’t have the human capacity for thought, then it follows that at least in some cases, food-finding by humans does not involve conceptual thought.”

        In many cases, what in other animal species is genetically pre-programmed or done by associative learning is, in humans, governed by conceptual thought and conceptual learning. I leave open the possibility of the occasional physically/genetically caused dysfunction. But, given that people show, in their experience of ordinary joy and sadness, a correlation with their conceptually learned ideas and value judgments, I hold conceptual origins as the default explanation for most dysfunctions. (This is supported, I think, by the fact that severe, crippling emotional dysfunction is much more common in humans than in other animals in the wild.)

        So let me summarize where I think we are:

        We both agree that Rand was wrong in one respect and that “tabula rasa” is not a good description of the human emotional mechanism at birth. Infants have primitive, genetically programmed emotions corresponding to joy and distress. As indicated by tendencies in childhood/persistent fears and experimental evidence, people start genetically primed to associate certain perceptions with certain emotions. The primitive emotions of the infant are gradually overwritten by conceptual value judgments the child learns or makes, (which accounts for the ability of conceptually-developed people to have negative emotions about physically pleasurable stimuli, and positive emotions about privations.) The genetically primed tendencies to fear certain things can be overcome by conceptually-made value judgments. (We have lots of examples of this, such as young boys who like snakes and spiders for their ability to get a fearful reaction out of girls, and adults like Steve Irwin who have no fear of spiders, snakes, crocodiles, etc.)

        Genes and hormonal factors can account for some differences in the relative intensities of emotions between people. But, other things being equal and in the long term, the more intense emotions are felt by those who actively make goals and work hard toward them. (This is the example of the driven vs. lazy football player on winning the championship.)

        This latter point integrates with how humans function to survive long-term, as I mention in my essay on emotions:

        But adult human beings, in order to survive and thrive, need to be guided by concepts. Unlike the other animals, who adapt to their surroundings, human beings adapt their surroundings to themselves. Human beings manipulate nature to create things that support their lives in the present and in the future. Doing this requires the ability to act in a great variety of ways, far beyond the options available to other animals. It requires the ability to project the consequences of actions far into the future. In short, it requires the ability to think and to be motivated to act in accordance with that thought.

        The basic motivating force in the animal kingdom is emotion. Humans, as a type of animal, need emotions to motivate them to actions in pursuit of goals. Yet they also need to act in accordance with conclusions reached by thought. Thus, human survival necessitated what we observed earlier: that adult human emotions are ultimately driven by conceptual thoughts (i.e. by conceptual value judgments.)

        This is the model to follow if people are actually to survive effectively. But people have a fundamental choice in regard to their mental functioning:

        The subconscious value judgments that generate a person’s emotions ought to based on conscious value judgments made by rational, independent thought, if that individual is to flourish and enjoy life. But this is not the only way that such subconscious value judgments can be formed. As Miss Rand writes,

        “But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.”

        Succumbing to the latter alternative is the reason so many people lead such turbulent and conflicted emotional lives. Many people do not specifically think through the premises they accept. They do not approach life through a rational, consistent, systematic philosophy.

        I think this account of emotions makes sense out of all the major evidence we have. And it does not cause a problem for Objectivist morality, because that morality only praises and blames those aspects of a person’s actions and life that he or she actually has direct control over. (Emotions, per se, are not morally evaluable.)

        “I will definitely read more books by Ayn Rand; I’ve already purchased two others. I’m not sure exactly when this will happen, because I have a long list of other books that I want to read, but they’re in my plan.”

        Cool! Keep thinking about philosophy and please keep the whole range of evidence and human experience in front of you as you’re thinking about psychology. That’s the way you come up with sound theories and real breakthroughs. 🙂

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