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3 Mins
January 25, 2011

Questions: What is the Objectivist view of emotions? Isn't the philosophy rather cold and calculating? How can one get excited about the idea that a commercial transaction is the model and ideal for all human contact?

Answer: Objectivism views emotions as the result and reflection of an individual's value judgments. Our emotional reactions to events, people and opinions are based on our innermost values. Therefore they are rooted in the value system of the individual, and arise from it.

Ayn Rand wrote that "Emotions are the automatic result 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." ("The Objectivist Ethics", The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 30)

Different people have different reactions to the same thing because of differing values. Values are not something automatic that we are born with - they are acquired. But they can be objective, and the correct values are those that are consistent with reality and acquired through the exercise of reason.

Since emotions reflect values, they are not, as many claim, a guide to action. They cannot tell us what to do or what is right: only our minds can do that. "Emotions are not tools of cognition." (Rand, Virtue of Selfishness, p. 32) A person who uses his emotions as a guide to action will only be inconsistent and unsuccessful, a fearful mess of contradictions.

Emotions can however be instant giveaways of a person's values, and in this sense can often be useful. It is very difficult to disguise or hide emotions, so they can be a telling factor in judging a person.

Objectivism is far from being cold and calculating. It is sometimes perceived that way because it emphasizes the supremacy of reason as the basis of all human action. The common view of reason is that it is not compatible with emotion, but the Objectivist view of emotions does not support any such dichotomy. Emotions are rational, if based on consistent values.

Objectivism advocates happiness as the ultimate aspiration for every individual. , In Rand's own words, her philosophy is "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life..." ( Atlas Shrugged , appendix). Happiness does not refer to a hedonistic distortion, but a long range happiness based on rationality, morality, integrity and productivity. "Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims...Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction...Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his work in nothing but rational actions." (Galt's speech, Atlas Shrugged p. 948). Objectivism does advocate unwavering integrity, justness and rational self-interest. But these are all virtues, and virtues are hardly cold or calculating.

A commercial transaction, is in fact, a good representation of an ideal human interaction. It embodies the values of productivity, justice and integrity. Trade of values (of any sort) is the most important and just principle of all human relationships and a commercial transaction exemplifies trade better than anything else. To a person who loves his work, transacting it in exchange for money is an affirmation of his life and productivity. It therefore stands for everything he values. A trade is a win-win situation when made freely, because both sides benefit from it, and both sides are happier. Trade in every sphere is beneficial, whether it is a commercial transaction, or a human relationship based on values.

For more on the value of money and the worth of commerce, I recommend reading Atlas Shrugged , especially Francisco d'Anconia's speech (p. 387-391).

Malini Kochhar
About the author:
Malini Kochhar