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Could Ayn Rand's view of emotions being a consequence, not a cause, be overly-simplistic? How does one account for the neurochemical basis of emotions? Introspection as well as mood altering drugs (legal or otherwise) seems to suggest the relationship to be just as likely to be vice-versa -- I.e. emotions cause ideas, or at least have an intense influence on them.

If one accepts Rand's view of emotions, then how does one avoid the pitfalls of emotional repression or compounding a seemingly causeless bout of depression since one can not determine the ideas causing it? In other words, do Objectivists sometimes morally condemn themselves for being "irrational" when it could be a neurochemical problem? Should I blame my mother in law's bitchiness on her post-menpausal hormonal imbalance, or perhaps she deserves moral blame for her perpetual misery?

asked Dec 26 '10 at 15:26

Andrew's gravatar image


edited Dec 29 '10 at 16:02

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

Emotions cannot give one an idea where none already existed in some form, and a normal (unimpaired) human mind cannot experience emotions without antecedent ideas. States of consciousness proceeding from hallucinogenic drugs or chemical imbalances in the brain are not examples of normal mental functioning, and any alleged "ideas" resulting therefrom will not be normal (rational) ideas.

At most, in nomral mental functioning, powerful emotions may at times interfere with rational cognitive functioning. Anyone can experience that kind of problem from time to time, as a result of the circumstances of one's life. A normal human mind can recognize that it is in that state and defer other cognitive activity temporarily while working to deal with the emotions.

Chronic mental illness is also a possibility. The diagnosis of it requires clear and compelling evidence, however. Objectivism focuses on the essence of the normal case, not on fringe abnormalities.

The question asks: "If one accepts Rand's view of emotions, then how does one avoid the pitfalls of emotional repression...." Objectivism does not endorse repression (i.e., suppression, which leads to repression over time); Objectivism advises fully honest introspection, with professional psychological help if needed.

"... or compounding a seemingly causeless bout of depression since one can not determine the ideas causing it?"

Again, one should seek professional help if needed. While Objectivism may challenge many of the ideas prevalent in the field of psychology today, many experienced psychological counselors can nevertheless be of considerable assitance in helping one to de-repress and unravel the sources of one's emotional conflicts. Objectivism would never advise that one must always self-diagnose and self-treat without help from experienced professionals.


A follow-up comment asks: "My 7 month old son seems to experience intense emotions, but there's no conceptual content. Perhaps this is outside the context in which we are talking?"

The main context that one finds in the literature of Objectivism is the context of a normal adult human, i.e., man (in his essential nature) and the way man's emotional mechanism operates. But it is also reasonable to ask: do infants experience emotions? If so, how is that possible without a developed conceptual faculty? One could go even further: do animals experience anything like emotions, similar to man's? Especially higher animals like dogs, cats, and other species of higher animals. Since animals don't have conceptual faculties, how might emotions be possible in animals?

As far as I know, Objectivism, as a philosophy, has never attempted to address the nature of the emotional mechanisms, if any, in non-conceptual conscious beings -- nor, to my knowlege, has Objectivism ever attempted to claim that emotions can be caused only by the volitional choices (one way or another) of a conceptual consciousness. Emotions aren't necessarily unique to conceptual consciousness.

For the Objectivist view of man's emotional mechanism, there are a number of references that should be consulted in the literature of Objectivism:

(1) Galt's Speech, where he states:

Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare or injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death, so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative. Your emotions are estimates of that which furthers your life or threatens it, lightning calculators giving you a sum of your profit or loss. You have no choice about your capacity to feel that something is good for you or evil, but what you will consider good or evil, what will give you joy or pain [suffering], what you will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on your standard of value. Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor, corrode your transmission and wreck you on your first attempt to move with a machine which you, the driver, have corrupted.

(2) "The Objectivist Ethics" (TOE) in VOS, Chap. 1.

(3) The entry on "Emotions" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, which includes key excerpts from TOE and elsewhere.

(4) The entry on "Emotions" in The Glossary of Objectivist Definitions, which offers the defining statement from TOE (also included in reference 3 above).

There were also articles of varying lengths published at various times in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist, including January 1962 (IAD: "Objectivism advocates the moral principle that man should be guided exclusively by reason. But what about the emotional side of human nature?"); January 1966 (Books: Emotion and Personality by Magda Arnold); May 1966 ("Emotions and Values"); June 1966 ("Emotions and Actions"); August-September 1966 ("Emotions and Repression").

The focus in all of these references is on man, not babies and not other animals. Yet it seems reasonable to expect that some of the reactions we can observe in other animals (and in babies) are at least extremely similar to normal human emotions, though based on purely perceptual (non-conceptual) automatic evaluations of stimuli as beneficial or threatening. Animals certainly have the capacity to recognize danger in certain situations where it can be perceived directly, without a process of human thought. The effect of such appraisals would have far less survival value if the animals experiencing such appraisals did not experience a "whole body" reaction similar to human emotions.

answered Dec 27 '10 at 04:38

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Dec 27 '10 at 21:52

Thanks for the answer.

What about children whose conceptual ability is non-existent or rudimentary at best? My 7 month old son seems to experience intense emotions, but there's no conceptual content. Perhaps this is outside the context in which we are talking?

Is it fair to say that, philosophically, emotions are subordinate to the mind (reason) as an ideal; however, in the everyday psychology of average people, there is a bi-directional influence of emotions and ideas? (in other words I'm wondering if there's confusion around the word "cause" I.e conflating cause and influence.

(Dec 27 '10 at 10:27) Andrew Andrew's gravatar image

Dr. Peikoff presents a scenario to explain the evaluative basis of emotions. It involves his announcing to a class that there will be a pop quiz. The announcement is met by groans, except in the case of someone who is just auditing the course, who is not at all upset at the news. The significance of the quiz is different for the enrolled students as compared to the auditor, so the evaluation of the announcement produces different emotional responses. Note that all in the class have the same knowledge of and understanding of the announcement. I think that anecdote expresses the Objectivist theory of emotion thoroughly.

The organisms that have senses of any sort must translate the information they gain from them into behavior, or else the sense is of no survival value. The mechanisms by which that occurs are the "efferent" nerve actions (as opposed to "afferent.") It is obvious that this system is basic to organismic design in animals. Man has an efferent system that operates on a par with other mammals, but he must also develop emotional reactions that are appropriate to his advanced levels of knowledge.

Not only in man, but in all animals in which the young are taught by their parents, the processes of learning involve learned emotional responses as well as behavioral responses. Childhood, for humans, is a period of learning both from reality and from our parents and teachers, the emotional significances of things. A lot can go wrong in that period. There are both the real, natural significances of things teaching a child what's what, and the attitudes and opinions, manner and interpersonal responses of adults modeling ideas of what is desirable and undesirable, acceptable and unacceptable, etc. Inconsistencies are pretty much inevitable. Nearly everybody ends up having to get over their childhood. This can make one's emotional responses seem irrational, as well as making it difficult to find their source.

Emotion is a physiological response, and emotions, at least the basic ones of fear and depression, can be caused by neuro-hormonal changes. I find it helps to think of our basic emotions as someone tapping on one's shoulder, and saying, pay attention to this. In the case of physiologically-induced emotion (such as administering a dose of adrenaline,) the mind "looks for the problem," and this can produce the phenomenon of confabulation. Confabulation proper is making up facts to flesh out what seems to be given by one's situation, when there are gaps in one's memory. (Think of trying to recall whether or not you locked the front door, or whether or not you gave somebody a note you kept reminding yourself to give them. The sort of situation in which you puzzle: Did I or didn't I? That is the state of mind a person is in when they confabulate. And note, full-fledged confabulation is an abnormal, psychiatric condition.)

Emotions that come from physiological causes tend to bring about a degree of "confabulation", in the form of identifying what one is anxious about, or depressed over. They play an attentional role. What is dangerous comes to the forefront of mind during an anxiety attack, or what is disappointing looms large in the face of depression. It is wrong to take this process as proving that emotions cause thoughts. They are directing our attention only.

When it comes to credit or blame, it is not a person's emotions that one should consider. Emotions cannot be willed into or out of existence. But, except under emergency conditions, they do not blind us to facts, even the facts about ourselves, our feelings, and our behavior. People can be the victims of their emotions only in the sense that they must "suffer" their occurrence. They are not controlled by their emotions as against their own opinions or beliefs, because those opinions and beliefs create their own, appropriate emotional responses.

answered Dec 28 '10 at 16:00

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦

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Asked: Dec 26 '10 at 15:26

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Last updated: Dec 29 '10 at 16:02