Rand's view is in stark contrast with that of David Hume, who, in 1739, wrote that "reason is, and ought to only be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." We can only image vituperation with which Rand would have responded to Hume's statement. However, it is important to note that Hume is not merely asserting that reason ought to be the slave of the passions; he is also insisting that reason is the slave of the passions, and that it can't be otherwise. In the last twenty years, experimental psychology has been forced to admit that Hume's position comes much closer to the truth than Rand's. Psychologists have found that, although people can and often do reason about morality, they don't engage in reasoning in order to discover truth, but rather use reason to support their emotional intuitions. Moral reasonings serve strategic purposes such as managing one's reputation, building alliances, recruiting bystanders to support one's side in the conflicts and scuffles endemic to social life. [Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 46] Human beings act like "intuitive politicians striving to maintain appealing moral identities in front of multiple constituencies." [ibid, 75]
Now an Objectivist, when confronted with this evidence, might respond along the following lines: "Yes, maybe that's how people actually behave, but that is not how they ought to behave." But this line of reasoning fails to grasp the point at issue. Most people don't behave this way out of choice, but out of necessity. When it comes to morality, people can no more follow reason and ignore their emotions than they can spontaneously combust or sprouts wings and flap around the house.
There are but two very partial exceptions to this: (1) individuals suffering from brain damage to the ventromedial prefontal cortex (vmPFC), and (2) psychopaths.
(1) vmPFC damaged individuals. I have already noted the example of these individuals in previous posts throughout the years. Antonio Damasio brought their plight to the world's attention in his book Descartes' Error. These individuals don't experience emotions and therefore cannot follow their whims. Far from making them perfect Objectivists, this deficiency leads to moral incompetency.
(2) Psychopaths. As Jonathan Haidt explains:
Psychopaths do have some emotions.... But psychopaths don't show emotions that indicate that they care about other people. Psychopaths seem to live in a world of objects, some of which happen to walk around on two legs.... They feel no compassion, guilt, shame, or even embarrassment, which makes it easy for them to lie, and to hurt family, friends, and animals.
The ability to reason normally combined with a lack of moral emotions is a dangerous combination. Psychopaths learn to say whatever gets them what they want.... [ibid, 62]
While neither vmPFC damaged individuals nor psychopaths could serve as models for Objectivist morality, they do, in one respect, attain a moral goal close to Rand's heart: namely, they are much less affected by emotions (i.e., whim worship) than "normal" people when it comes to behavior and moral judgments. The vmPFC damaged folks come closest to the Randian ideal; psychopaths, however, are not that far behind (at least when it comes to moral decisions involving other people). The vmPFC folks apparently don't even experience whims. Yet far from making them Objectivists, it only makes them deeply dysfunctional. Psychopaths feel no empathy or consideration for others. Hence, they are completely free of all "altruistic" whims: yet far from being a step towards Ayn Rand and Objectivism, a lack of empathy leads to Ted Bundy and Charles Manson.
One thing to note right from the start: namely, that neither of these two conditions is a product of "premises." Damage to the vmPFC is not caused by bad premises, but by an injury to the head. And psychopathy is a genetically heritable condition, [ibid, 62] not the result of stale thinking which one's mind failed to revise!
Although Rand was not a psychopath, she nonetheless unwittingly aspired to an emotional life that comes closer to that attained by psychopaths than by normal people. In the first place, Rand seems to have disliked many of the emotions psychopaths are incapable of experiencing, such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment; and if Rand herself had ever experienced either guilt or shame, she kept this fact very much to herself. At the same time, Rand normally portrays guilt as a negative emotion, as something which should only be experienced by those who have committed moral infractions. Guilt was an emotion used by altruists to manipulate individuals for evil ends. "Guilt is altruism’s stock in trade," she wrote, "and the inducing of guilt is its only means of self-perpetuation." It is an emotion experienced by villains and failures, not by heroes and Objectivists.
Guilt and shame were emotions Rand wished to banish from herself and from her ideal man; which is a rather odd desideratum, considering that being free of guilt is a characteristic of psychopaths. Rand's ideal man constitutes a strange mixture: half psychopath, half moral visionary.
A guilt-free conscience was not the only ideal Rand aspired to that had the whiff of psychopathy about it. Rand also scorned excessive concern for what other people thought. Such concerns were sometimes regarded as a symptom of "social metaphysics" (defined by one Objectivist polemicist as "the privileging of others’ opinions over reality as the ultimate arbiter of truth and value"). Psychological evidence demonstrates that most human beings are (in the words of Jonathan Haidt) "obsessively concerned about what others think" of them. [ibid, 91] We are hardwired that way; and it would be a very miserable world if it weren't so. Who are the exceptions? Who are these great heroes who do not care about what other people think and are thereby free of the horrid taint of social metaphysics? Not Ayn Rand. The author of The Fountainhead did in fact care what others thought (at least part of the time). After all, if she didn't care what others thought, why did she demand strict unanimity of both thought and feeling among her acolytes? If she didn't care what others thought, why was she so upset at Whittaker Chamber's review of Atlas Shrugged, or Sidney Hook's review of For the New Intellectual? Those of Rand's admirers who insist that Rand didn't care about what others thought are doing her a disservice. For as it turns out, the only people who don't care about what other people think are psychopaths. And why would any of Rand's admirers insist that she exhibited a personality trait that is an exclusive property of psychopaths?
There is, however, a larger and more serious point to be drawn from the relation between psychopaths and a rational morality. The inability of psychopaths (and vmPFC damaged individuals as well) to experience certain emotions impairs their ability to behave morally. This constitutes powerful evidence that emotions play a key role in ethical behavior. Rand doesn't appear to have understood the necessity of emotional motivation in moral behavior. Reason, at its best, is merely a tool; it is not a source of motivation or a controlling power. Hume turns out to be right: reason can can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey the emotions.