Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

The Virtue of SelfishnessIn The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand wrote,

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

But while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” ["blank slate"] It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

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.

Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value. If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer. The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.

Here Miss Rand is referring to the specifically human form of emotion. But let’s start with the most basic form in which emotions manifest: in non-human animals.

Emotions arise and develop in living things with consciousness. In general, the more complex the consciousness, the more complex are the emotions of that consciousness. The function of emotions in animals is to drive their consciousness toward life-sustaining behaviors. (Emotions act in conjunction with the physical pleasure/pain mechanism, toward this end.) Food inspires desire, causing the animal to seek it out. Potential predators inspire fear, causing the animal to run, hide or fight. Within the animal’s natural surroundings and capacities, its emotions are automatically directed toward the sustenance of its life as the type of animal it is.

An animal’s own life is its standard of value: the goal which makes other things, such as food, valuable to it. Its life is the goal toward which all its behaviors are ultimately aimed. (So, unlike humans, animals do not commit suicide before the natural end of their lives.) (1)

An animal’s emotions are automatic responses to its perceptions. In the more advanced animals, these emotions may be shaped by the animal’s experience. But, given a certain set of past experiences, the animal cannot help but feel certain emotions for certain perceptions. The animal cannot change the goal toward which its emotions point: its life. These emotions that result directly from perceptions, I will hereafter refer to as Perceptually Generated Emotions (PGEs).

Now, what about human beings? Returning to the above quote, Miss Rand says,

Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss….Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

So, for human beings, emotions are responses generated by the subconscious based on their conscious–or semi-conscious–thoughts. They are not innate, set in human nature; they are ultimately within an individual’s ability to control, but are never within his direct control. This includes emotions that are the result of subconscious moral evaluations, such as guilt, anger and pride/elevation. This type of emotion may be called a Conceptually Generated Emotion (CGE).

So how do we know that Ayn Rand’s theory of adult human emotions is correct? We can observe that emotions depend on beliefs in two different ways: 1) Given a certain psychology, a person’s emotions toward a thing depend on his beliefs about what it is. If someone puts an object in a room with me that I believe to be a bowling ball, I will have no fear of it. But, given that I value my life, if I come to believe that it is a bomb on a timer, I will fear it.

2) The emotional psychologies of people; that is their emotional attitudes toward various things, situations, ideas, people, etc. are not universal, but vary depending on their philosophical beliefs and values. People who believe that eating meat is wrong will likely feel guilty about succumbing to the temptation for a hamburger, while those who don’t have that moral belief typically feel no such guilt. Mormon women, who are taught modesty and abstinence from a young age, are very likely to feel aversion to the idea of wearing a string bikini, and guilt at having premarital sexual experiences. Many women raised in a more secular way do not feel those emotions about those things. A mathematician who loves his job can experience excitement at the finding of a mathematics paper that solves an age-old math conundrum. He can then experience enjoyment in reading it, and perhaps disappointment at finding an irreparable flaw in the logic of the solution. People who have no interest in mathematics are not going to feel any of these emotions for these experiences.

The correlations between people’s conscious values and their emotional attitudes are present, but they are not perfect. This is because it is not conscious values that directly cause emotional attitudes, but subconscious ones. And there can be a conflict between a person’s conscious value judgments and his subconscious ones. For example, some people that have just left the Mormon church after decades of membership have a period in which they experience a strong disconnect between their conscious value judgments and their emotions. They can initially feel defensive of the church when it is attacked, even though, in their conscious judgment, the church deserves such barbs. They can continue to feel some apprehension about drinking coffee or alcohol, even though their conscious judgment now tells them it’s okay. People can also have phobias and other emotional problems, in which their deeply ingrained subconscious value judgments are inappropriate and don’t match their conscious value judgments.

Returning to the quote, Miss Rand says,

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a [conceptual] cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.”

That an infant is born conceptually tabula rasa is certainly true. To understand what concepts are is to understand that no one can be born with them. (See ITOE for more on concepts.

But to call man’s emotional mechanism “tabula rasa” at birth is not entirely accurate. Infants clearly display emotional reactions, even when they haven’t yet begun to conceptualize. They cry in response to pain or discomfort; they smile and laugh when played with. Infants, like non-human animals, display perceptually generated emotions that are automatically aligned to the infant’s life as the standard of value. Physical pain brings emotional distress, physical pleasure and beneficial stimulation bring joy and laughter.

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.)

So when infants grow and start to conceptualize, they must transition from primitive PGEs to the distinctively human CGEs. The value judgments reached conceptually by the child must “overwrite” the primitive, perceptually driven emotional mechanism of the infant. The automatic alignments of physical pleasure with joy, and physical pain with distress, disappear over the course of the child’s development. Children can learn to feel negative emotions for physically pleasurable experiences and positive emotions for painful experiences, or privations. For example, Mormon teenagers are typically taught that premarital sex, masturbation and homosexuality are immoral. This message is reinforced again and again in devout Mormon culture. As a consequence, the pleasurable experiences most Mormon teenagers have with their sexuality are accompanied by shame and guilt. Abstinence from sexual behavior in the face of temptation is considered a mark of virtue, and so is accompanied by joy and a sense of moral self-approval. If a Mormon finds out he or she is homosexual, it can be so emotionally destructive, that it drives him or her to suicide. (This was especially true in the past when homosexuality was less culturally accepted. See here and here.) But non-religious people generally have much less emotional trauma on such a discovery, (if any.)

So, if we use the traditional analogy of the “slate,” the emotional slate of a human being is not blank at birth. It contains two primitive emotional responses corresponding to pleasure and pain. But once the child starts to conceptualize, the slate is written over with conceptual value judgments absorbed into his subconscious. The two primitive PGEs are replaced by conceptually generated joy, sadness, desire, fear, frustration, anger, envy, guilt, embarrassment, etc. (2)

So Ayn Rand’s basic philosophical point still holds: that the distinctively human emotions of juveniles and adults are generated by subconsciously absorbed, conceptual value judgments, that these value judgments are not innate, and that these value judgments can be wrong, generating emotions that pull a person toward self-destructive goals.

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. Thus they do not develop an awareness of how the ideas they accept impact their emotions. They then conclude that emotions are necessarily unpredictable, irrational, even anti-rational. But this is not the case. An understanding of one’s emotions and a large degree of control over them can be had, if one is an independent, rational thinker in all areas of life, including in philosophy.

For further study on emotions, I recommend these lecture courses: Emotions, Reason and Emotion, Special Topics in Introspection.

Here is the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on emotions: Emotions.

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(1) Reproductive and offspring-rearing behavior is a part of the animal’s life as the type of animal it is, (at least in its natural state.) Its life is the product of the genetically programmed reproductive behavior of previous generations of its lineage, and so it automatically engages in that behavior as well. The animal experiences pleasure and satisfaction from such behavior, enhancing its experience of its own life.

(2) The only possible remnant of PGEs that I can see in adult human beings is the “startle” reaction. It’s very short-lived, and seems to be an automatic emotional reaction to a perception, independent of one’s conceptual framework. But I’m not currently certain that it is a genuine PGE, and it’s a marginal issue that’s not philosophically important.

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Related Posts:

QuickPoint 1: Thinking is Individual

Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

4 thoughts on “Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

  1. The basic pleasure-pain mechanism is also generating emotions. Man’s subconsciousness develops emotional response to the positive and negative experiences in very early stage . People normally fear fire, high, wild animals, and anything which potentially could harm them. When such an emotions become irrational they called phobias and often require psychological treatment. People also normally feel positive emotions toward pleasurable experience, regardless its objective impact on man’s well being. For example they normally enjoy good meal and in many instances such an emotion could lead to obesity and disease. The same applies to tobacco smoking, alcohol and recreational drugs. People enjoy sex in spite that multipartner indiscriminate sex could also be a health hazard. Here is where a rational consciousness can override a plearure-pain generated emotions (PPGE) and even reverse them. This is not an easy process and sometimes requires professional help.

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