"Philosopher-Novelist, or Novelist and Philosopher?"
It has been with great interest that I have followed the development of Neera Badhwar's "Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness?" through its various versions. It has undoubtedly influenced my views on more than one of the topics she discusses. What I plan to do here is to make a first attempt at sorting out where I agree with it from where I disagree, and both from what I am just not sure about. Her essay is by now so tangled with my own thinking on these issues that this is a somewhat confusing task, at least for me. I only hope I will not confuse anyone else.
Perhaps the one thing I like most about this essay is the fact that it potentially could serve to open discussion of Ayn Rand from a point of view that is unfortunately seldom taken in discussions of her work, a point of view in which she is seen as a philosopher who expressed herself in narrative as well in overtly philosophical essays. For some reason, the secondary literature on Rand's philosophy very seldom takes advantage of the fact that so much of her writing is fictional. For the most part, references to her novels takes the form of quoting the Aesopian disclosures she puts into the mouths of her characters, or recounting fictional episodes as illustrations of ideas that, it is assumed, are really understandable without any reference to these episodes. As Badhwar ably shows, Rand's fiction - not merely the speeches she gives to her characters, but the narrative itself - can make a much more radical sort of contribution to our understanding or her philosophy. They are themselves philosophical documents and, as such, can complement her more directly philosophical writings. They might also mount a case for views that are alternative to her explicitly stated theories.
Unhappily, though Badhwar has now shown the way, I do not expect large numbers of people to follow her example. The ability to understand philosophical essays is a very different one from the ability to interpret fictional narrative: they are in fact in a certain way not merely different abilities but opposite ones, inasmuch as it is difficult for one person to master both. At all events, now that the trail has been blazed, we have less excuse for our failure to walk it than we had before.
The philosophical problem upon which Badhwar focuses is an issue that is likely to be AN all-important one for anyone who holds, as Rand does, a virtue-based ethical egoism: the problem of the relationship between virtue and happiness. This issue raises a host of others, having largely to do, of course, with the nature of virtue and the nature of happiness. On several of the more important of these issues, Badhwar finds that Rand's essays and her fiction differ sharply. Four of the differences she alleges seem to me particularly important.
First, the novels, as she sees the matter, suggest a rather different conception of happiness from the one that is explicitly stated in the essays. In her overtly philosophical discussions, Rand consistently describes happiness as a certain concomitant of existential success: it is an emotional accompaniment of action that achieves values. In the novels, however, she often depicts characters as achieving a sort of happiness even though circumstances prevent them from achieving their values. They are happy simply because of their inner resources of mind and character: ultimately, they are happy simply because of their virtues.
Second, partly on the basis of the first point of difference, Badhwar sees the novels as embodying a conception of the relation between virtue and happiness that is to some extent different from Rand's stated views on the matter. Her tendency in the essays is to speak of virtue as simply a means to happiness. The novels, however, imply that the virtues are to some extent constitutive of happiness: the relation between them is not simply the external one of means and end. It is closer than that.
The third difference is closely related to be second and the third. Rand says that standard of value is life. This, as many people have pointed out, could either mean that things have value simply to the extent that they promote survival, or it could mean that they have value (at least in part) because they make life better. Rand's explicit statements on this matter, according to Badhwar, generally take the survival option. The novels, on the other hand, partly because they suggest that the relation between virtue and the good life is not merely that of means and end, suggest a non-survivalist alternative.
The fourth difference is related in complex ways to all of the others. In the essays, Rand's comments on the relation between virtue and the emotions are generally negative, stressing the ways in which emotions figure crucially in bad thoughts and actions. Her most familiar and characteristic pronouncement in this area is that emotions are "not tools of cognition." The novels, on the other hand, indicate that emotions make a positive contribution to virtue. In them, virtue is depicted as an integrated intellectual and emotional disposition. It is a disposition not merely to act, but to think and to feel in certain ways. Thus emotions are partly constitutive of virtue.
Finally, Badhwar claims that on each of these points the novels represent a position that is more philosophically adequate, closer to the truth, than the essays. In fact - and I should stress that for Badhwar this is a good thing - the view of virtue embodied in the novels is much more like Aristotle's than it is like Rand's stated position. It has, she claims, several of the distinctive features of Aristotle's position, including the doctrine that virtuous action lies in a mean between opposed vices. For some elements of this position Rand's fictional writings constitute the most powerful argument.
I think the overall effect of Badhwar's discussion - an effect that may be to some extent unintended - is to diminish Rand's stature as a philosopher. Badhwar does praise Rand as a novelist, but she praises the novelist at the philosopher's expense. In fact, the philosophy she praises the books for expressing is not Rand's but Aristotle's. Moreover, the depth and width of the divide she sees between the essays and the novels tends to deprive Rand of two cardinal intellectual virtues of the philosopher: clarity of mind and consistency. If Badhwar is right, Rand would seem to be a rather confused person.
Of course, there is no reason a priori why she must be wrong about this, but my own view is that she is. Rand seems to me a more lucid and integrated thinker, and a better philosopher, than Badhwar gives her credit for. To justify my judgement would require me to address issues concerning the interpretation both of Rand's fiction and her essays, and to look into a profusion of philosophical issues as well. Unfortunately, what I will be able to do here must fall far short of that.(1)
I will limit myself more or less to commenting on the fourth of the points listed above, the one that has to with the emotions. Not only is this topic centrally located, in that it has relatively close relations to the other important issues Badhwar treats, but I think it is the one on which she has the most - and probably the most interesting things - to say.
Her main contention here is that the principle that "emotions are not tools of cognition" is false. She gives, as I understand it, two main arguments: First, although it is true that emotions can lead us astray, it is also true that "beliefs can be mistaken and reasoning off-track just as easily as emotions." Second, if we were to construct an adequate theory of the way knowledge actually functions in human life, we would have to integrate the emotions as a positively functioning part of the whole picture.
The first of these arguments rests on the assumption that the issue addressed by Rand's principle could be settled by seeing whether the emotions that people in general experience are more frequently wrong than the reasoning that they do. Rather obviously, whether an issue can be settled in this (or any other) way depends on just what the issue is. Suppose, for the moment, that the issue here is approximately the following. Whenever one feels an emotion, there is, because of the sort of emotion it is, some way that things seem to the person who experiences it. If I experience fear of a bat flying around my head, at that moment the bat appears dangerous to me. If I experience a wave of revulsion at seeing a pair of gay men walking down the street, at that moment they seem wicked and unnatural to me. The issue, let us suppose, is this: does any particular type of emotion constitute evidence, in and of itself, to the effect that the way things seem at the moment really are the way things are? Is the emotion itself evidence that the seemings that are part of the emotion are in fact not mere seemings but realities? The answer to this could indeed be "no," even though, say, human emotions are in this way veridical one third of the time, while the reasoning that people do is only right one quarter of the time. There are several reasons why this is so. I hope one or two of them are obvious enough without further comment. Further, I think that the issue Rand means to address is at least very close to the one I have just described. The error she means to expose and indict is that of the person who believes that God exists because he feels that He does, or that of the one who believes that homosexuality is evil because it turns his stomach. In such cases, emotions are functioning as if they were overwhelming evidence that their constitutive seemings are the way things really are.
Admittedly, I am loading the dice here by selecting as examples inferences that do seem to be fallacious. Badhwar would point out that people's feelings are often such that they really should act on them. I believe this is true, but I think it is actually compatible with what Rand means.
Consider, as an illustration, basic plot situation devised by screenwriter Ben Hecht for the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, Spellbound. Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychiatrist on the staff of a sanatorium in the Vermont countryside, has fallen in love with Dr. Edwardes, the establishment's new director. It soon becomes clear from his suddenly erratic behavior that the new director is not Dr. Edwardes at all, but a deeply deluded amnesiac. The real Dr. Edwardes recently disappeared and cannot be found. As is pointed out in the dialogue, the false Edwardes probably wouldn't have taken on his current identity unless he knew that they real one would not be entering the scene and spoiling his act. This would be hard to account for unless he was present when the real Edwardes was disposed of. As several characters point out, by all the publicly available evidence, the most likely hypothesis is that Constance's lover killed Edwardes and, in order to conceal his guilt from himself and others, took on his victim's identy. This would mean that he is a very dangerous homicidal psychotic.
Constance will have none of this. She tells her mentor, Dr. Brulov, that the reason she refuses to accept the publicly available evidence is, quite simply, the way she feels: "I couldn't feel this way toward a man who was bad." Brulov responds with derision: "She couldn't love him if he was no good! This is baby talk, nothing else!" According to Brulov's Freudian point of view, love is an emotional fixation having deep irrational or non-rational causes, which generally have to do with one's early childhood. On such a view, the idea that feeling of love can somehow trump publicly available evidence concerning the goodness or badness of the love-object is ridiculous.
Since Constance is also a Freudian, she is unable to make a satisfactory reply. I think, however, that she might at least make a start at one if she were to begin with another, decidedly non-Freudian view of the matter. The view I have in mind would go like this. Love is an emotion or a more complex psychological phenomenon in which emotions are a major component. Emotions in general are estimates of the values of objects in one's world. They are automatic results of value judgements - many of which one was not conscious of at the time - that have been integrated by one's subconscious. If she were to make use of a theory like this one - and also assume, as she and Brulov clearly do, that amnesia does not alter one's basic moral character - then she could argue that her emotions have must caught an array of details, many of which she did not consciously notice or does not remember, the overall purport of which is that this man is not the sort of person who would be able to do what he is accused of doing.
As some readers will have noticed by now, the view I have just imagined Constance adopting is actually Rand's own view, as stated by her a few pages after the familiar pronouncement that emotions are not tools of cognition.(2)
That is, her stated view could be used to justify someone in drawing conclusions from their emotions. Why, then, does she say that these same emotions are not tools of cognition? A plausible answer would, I think, go something like this. The fact that Constance loves this man only comes to have the force of evidence in a certain context: this context consists of a causal story of the sort that I have imagined her telling Brulov, in which her feelings are explained as having arisen from an array of micro-judgements of a certain sort and, most importantly, it also consists of the evidence (in the form of well-grounded beliefs) that she has for believing this explanation is true. What has ultimate evidentiary power here is the explanatory story and the well-grounded beliefs. The reason why the theist's feelings of faith and the bigot's feelings of revulsion are - not merely poor evidence, but - no evidence at all is that the this context is entirely lacking.
In and of itself, the experience of love is not evidence. Some women are actually attracted to men because of traits that - though they do not think of them this way - are actually dangerous vices, or have a strong psychological connection with malevolent behavior. If such a woman were to fall in love with the false Edwardes, it might actually be evidence that this man is indeed capable of committing the crime of which he is accused - though that is probably not the conclusion the woman herself would draw.
This suggests another point which I think is crucial for understanding the implications of Rand's position on the emotions. Whether one should follow one's emotions or not depends on what sort of person one is: one must have values that are sound, and one probably would also need a certain kind and degree of self-awareness. According to Rand, this would mean that it is only in a rational person that one's emotions can be guides reliable guides. People whose basic outlook on life is irrational ought to distrust their emotions.(3)
The view expressed in Rand's essays, then, would seem to imply that the question of whether one should follow one's emotions does not have a single answer. It has two of them, which depend on what sort of person one is.
Both of these answers, I think, are fully reflected in the novels. Notice that the examples Badhwar cites of Rand characters whose emotions provide them with veridical clues to the nature of reality are all instances of characters whose basic mode of mental functioning is one that Rand would regard as rational. There are also many examples one could cite of irrational characters whose emotions prove not to be veridical, where following feelings as a guide actually leads the character to his or her destruction. Such examples are so numerous that picking cases out may be unnecessary, but probably the most poignant and memorable is the series of events in The Fountainhead in which Peter Keating sacrifices his love for the unprepossessing Catherine Halsey and follows instead the various pangs, urges, and fears that lead him to seek the approval of others (including, most especially, Catherine's uncle).
Admittedly, what I have said so far misses a major part of Badhwar's objection to Rand's stated view of the emotions. The view I have attributed to Rand makes the relationship between emotion and intellect very strongly hierarchical: emotion is important, but reason really should in some sense be in control. Badhwar complains that Rand takes the relationship between intellect and emotion to be "unidirectional."(4)
I take this to mean that Rand thinks that the only proper relationship between intellect and emotion is one in which the intellect is cause and emotion is the effect of that cause. I have said nothing to show that Badhwar is wrong about this. Moreover, as she points out in what might be the most constructive and interesting part of her essay, it does not seem that this relationship can be unidirectional in this sense. Emotions play an indispensable role in the way knowledge functions as a part of human life. They serve as "somatic markers" that provide the human mind with virtually instantaneous estimates of which features of the immediate environment are more and which are less important. They attract one's attention to those objects which appear to call for thought or action. As such, they obviously influence what the contents of the intellect will be. The direction that my attention takes in the present will make a considerable difference concerning what sorts of data will be available for future cogitation. If the intellect influences the emotions, the emotions also influence the intellect.
Once again, I must say that I think that these plausible ideas are quite compatible with what Rand's stated doctrine says and implies. As I have sketched it here, it neither says nor implies that the relation between intellect and emotions should be unidirectional in the sense specified; it only requires that the relationship be asymmetrical. The may influence one another, but the nature of the influence must not be the same. In particular, the influence that emotion has on the intellect must not be one that it has by functioning as evidence in the particular way I described above. Emotions that function as "somatic markers" do not seem to violate this requirement at all. If I understand it rightly, this function of the emotions does not seem to constrain the content of one's intellect in the way that evidence does. It evidently involves something more like setting problems to be solved rather than the solutions to be arrived at.
I should emphasize that, although I think Rand's fiction and her essays are much more consistent than Badhwar takes them to be, I think she is right to say that they are very different, and that they are substantively different in ways that are philosophically important. One of the most important differences can be found in a topic I have touched on here: the nature of love. As far as I know, there is no sustained discussion of this topic, or of the (for Rand) closely related topic of the nature of sex, in all of her essays.(5)
On the other hand, love and sex are major thematic components of her novels. In Atlas Shrugged, they constitute a subject that is not only equal in importance with, but parallel to the subject of capitalism. In fact, it is a large part of the point of the book that these two subjects - capitalism on the one hand and love and sex on the other - can be treated in this parallel fashion. One might say that the essays express Rand's "masculine" side while the novels embody her "feminine" side. To find her views on subjects like love, sex, friendship, and the positive role that emotions play in life, one must go to the novels. The relationship between them and the essays, however, I see as one not of contradiction but of complementarity.
1. For a treatment of some of the most relevant issues, see my
Flourishing Egoism in Social Philosophy and Policy, vol 16 no. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 72-95. See also Character and Culture, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
2. 1. "The Virtue of Selfishness," in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 27. I have actually adapted her own words in my statement of it. What she says there is this: "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 and suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man's value judgements 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."
3. 2. "If [a person] chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer." "The Virtue of Selfishness," p. 28.
4. "Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness?" p. 34.
5. 4. The closest thing I can find is "Of Living Death," in the posthumously published The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: New American Library, 1988), pp. 46-63. This very minor essay is a critique of a papal encyclical on sex and birth control.