A Secular Age:

Disenchantment and the mind-dependence of the moral

posted by Matthew Noah Smith

At the core of contemporary secularism is the denial of the existence of deities and the supernatural. There is only the natural, as described by our best sciences. This ‘disenchantment’ of the world seems to leave no place for value, and this exclusion of value from the world is, Akeel Bilgrami argues in his essay “What is Enchantment?” one of the central and damning failures of contemporary secularism.

How does secularism crowd values out of our picture of the world?  If we accept a secularist metaphysics, then a necessary condition for the existence of values is that they can be accommodated by our best sciences. But our best sciences do not seem to have any room for values. Values make demands on human beings as actors—for instance, we ought to pursue the good, we ought to avoid the bad, and so on—but science describes no such free-standing “oughts.”

This view of value, however, is utterly counterintuitive. We all feel like there are values out there in the world, and that, at least, demands explanation. Bilgrami’s essay focuses on one such explanation of this phenomenon.  This explanation is, he suggests, both distinctive of and dominating the contemporary West. Here, I interrogate Bilgrami’s characterization and criticism of this contemporary, ‘disenchanted’ philosophical view of value. I conclude that while Bilgrami has put his finger on exactly the challenge that any metanormative theory faces, namely, explaining the role of the mind in the nature of value, his criticisms of what he takes to be the contemporary consensus are rather inadequate.

1. Disenchantment and the Mind-Dependence of the Moral

Bilgrami believes that today’s dominant understanding of morality derives from the sentimentalist accounts of value found in the work of David Hume and Adam Smith. But Bilgrami needn’t have focused on these two wonderful Scots, who were contemporaries and the dearest of friends, for he may as well have reached back a few generations to the work of Thomas Hobbes and Frances Hutcheson, who—well before Hume and Smith—argued for the kind of view that Bilgrami suggests is dominant today.

According to the sentimentalist view, values do not exist independently of human beings but in virtue of certain facts about our psychological make-up. As Bilgrami puts it:

“Sympathy, and moral sentiments generally, were merely human dispositions, just more causal tendencies in nature, our nature, and value had not other source but these tendencies, with which we were endowed… There was no other site of value but what resided in our own dispositions…”

The concept many contemporary philosophers who work on this question use is the concept of ‘mind-dependence,’ or the idea that values are products of the human mind, ‘mind’ being understood in the broadest psychological terms. Thus, we can understand Bilgrami as claiming that the dominant view amongst philosophers, and the West in general, is that value is mind-dependent.  According to this view, if some object, O, is valuable, O is valuable in virtue of the obtaining of certain human psychological states, and not because of any properties that O has independently of human psychological states. One way to characterize this is in terms of a counterfactual: if everything in the world—including all the intrinsic properties of O—were the same except that human beings had different psychological responses to O than they have in the actual world, then O would not be valuable (or would be valuable in a different way). Another way to cash out the view is as follows: a necessary condition for something to be valuable is that certain people—which people depends upon the specifics of the theory—have certain positive psychological attitudes directed at that thing. In short, on this view, man is the measure of all things.

The alternative view is that value is mind-independent. On this view, it is possible for something to be valuable regardless of any particular human psychological states obtaining. Consequently, something can be valuable even if no one desires it or believes it to be valuable, and so on.

For example, suppose that helping starving children is valuable (I presume that we all agree that it is!). On the view that value is mind-dependent, helping a starving child is valuable because people take it to be valuable. On the view that value is mind-independent, it doesn’t matter whether anyone takes helping starving children to be valuable; helping starving children just is valuable (or at least it is valuable in virtue of conditions that have nothing to do with someone taking it to be valuable).

Bilgrami then goes on to put the mind-dependence of value at the heart of disenchantment. In other words, a primary characteristic of disenchantment is the view that all values are dependent upon human psychology. This makes mind-dependence of value a distinctively modern doctrine. In fact, though, it is not a historically novel doctrine. In particular, as far back as the Euthyphro, one of Plato’s earliest and most famous dialogues, the following question is posed: Is something pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love something because it is pious? That is, is the pious mind-dependent or is the pious mind-independent? It is not obvious which side Plato comes down on in this early dialogue, although in his middle and later dialogues he quite clearly argues for the mind-independence of value. Aristotle, on the other hand, can conveniently be interpreted as defending the mind-dependence of value, or of virtue anyway: putting aside the formal condition of the doctrine of the mean, the substantive account of virtue depends entirely upon our psychological make-up. And so begins the written history of a millennia-long dispute.

2. Bilgrami’s Objection to the Mind-Dependence of Value

Bilgrami’s objection begins with his claim that intention always ‘crowds out’ prediction, by which he means that one cannot at the same time intend to do something and predict that one will do it. What Bilgrami must mean is that if one intends to do something, one is not tallying up psychological states and then, by applying some psychological law-like generalizations, concluding that one’s body will move in such-and-such a fashion. Rather, intention involves directly bringing about the action. That is not predicting the future but making the future. Predictors are passive with respect to the predicted event, whereas actors are active with respect to the same event.

Nonetheless, I cannot see how intention literally crowds out prediction. It seems possible to simultaneously intend to do something and predict that one will do it on the basis that one so intends. For example, suppose I intend to catch the 9:07 am train to New Haven. Someone asks me as I prepare to leave for the train station, “What do you predict you will be doing in the period immediately before 9:07 am?” A reasonable answer is: “Catching the 9:07 am train to New Haven.” If someone asks me why I am making this prediction, another reasonable answer is: “Because right now I intend to catch the 9:07 am train.” Presumably I am not speaking falsly.  I didn’t temporarily stop intending to catch this train just because someone asked me a question! So, intention doesn’t crowd out prediction, or, for that matter, vice versa. They are different mental states that one can hold simultaneously, and thus Bilgrami’s claim, at last on a literal reading, is pretty obviously false.

Bilgrami also says that an essential feature of agency is seeing value in the world. Every action, Bilgrami suggests, is focused on some desirable thing. This should be distinguished from merely desiring that thing. For, even if the desire for the thing is also in view, our desire presents itself as a response to what is desirable in the world. Thus, actions that flow from desires, even if understood as such in the midst of action (like the train-catching case described above), are actions performed with an eye towards something in the world, and not towards something in the head, as it were. That is, actions aim at values, i.e., desirable things, and not at valuings, i.e., desires. And, lest we enter into a vicious circle, values—the desirability of desired things—cannot themselves be desires.

For example, suppose I join the union organizing effort at my job. Someone might attempt to explain this action by saying, “Smith joined the union organizing effort to satisfy his desire to be a part of a union organizing effort.” But from my perspective as an actor, there are not just desires to b a part of a union organizing effort. From my perspective, rather, there is something else going on: I saw being a part of the union organizing effort itself as a good. My desire to join the union organizing effort is, in fact, not in view at all, unless, of course, someone asks me about it, or my joining is somehow thwarted and I feel the pang of a desire frustrated, or something else along those lines.  Otherwise, if I ask myself about whether I should join the union organizing effort, I will think about how union organizing is a good thing and leave my desires almost entirely out of the deliberation.

So, Bilgrami seems to hold that if we understand agency in terms congenial to the mind-dependence of value, agency drops out. We thereby lose the explanandum. But agency does exist, so mind-dependence cannot be the whole story. In schematic form, then, Bilgrami’s argument is this:

  1. Seeing the world as filled with mind-independent value is an essential feature of agency.
  2. Agency exists.
  3. So, there are mind-independent values.

3. Experience or the Real Thing?

But this argument is not valid, so we should reject it outright. All the premises can show is that instances of seeing the world as filled with mind-independent value exist. The premises together do not entail that mind-independent values exist. Perhaps there is a suppressed premise along the following lines:

Seeing Is Believing (SIB): If X is an essential phenomenological component of some experience and a person has that experience, then X exists.

SIB is false, though. There are many essential phenomenological features of our experience that are not part of the ‘fabric of the world.’ Our perceptions are necessarily embodied and so necessarily constrained by the physical limitations of our sense apparatuses and our brains. For example, an essential feature of eyesight is that there is always something out of focus. If SIB were true, then parts of the world would, in fact, be out of focus. But that is obviously false. Bilgrami cannot rely on SIB for his criticism of ‘disenchanted’ ethics.

These arguments are familiar transcendental arguments for the existence of mind-independent value. But, as we have seen, Bilgrami is not formulating the initial premises in a way that generates the entailment he wants.  Let us rehearse the general form of transcendental arguments so that we can see where Bilgrami is erring:

  1. X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y.
  2. Y exists.
  3. So, X exists.

The X Bilgrami wants to show exists is mind-independent value.  But, his focus on the experience of the mind-independence of value leads him to make that the focus of his argument.  What Bilgrami’s argument for the mind-independence of value should look like is something like this:

  1. Mind-independent value is a necessary condition for the possibility of agency.
  2. Agency exists.
  3. So, mind-independent values exist.

But, Bilgrami’s says nothing at all to establish premise 1.  All he has shown is that the experience of mind-independent value is a necessary condition for the possibility of agency. So, Bilgrami lacks the raw material for the sort of argument he wants to give for the existence of mind-independent value.

Perhaps Bilgrami thinks that it is somehow obvious that the experience of mind-independent value cannot be explained except by appeal to the existence of mind-independent value. But, it isn’t, as he would realize if he only consulted his bête noires Hume and Smith, for whom the experience of mind-independent value was easily explained away without appeal to mind-independent value.

So, does Bilgrami think that there are non-obvious grounds supporting his principle that the experience of mind-independent value can only be explained by appeal to mind-independent value? Maybe Bilgrami is relying on the fact that no matter how much you know how the brain and body work when experiencing something, you still will never know what it is like to have that experience (unless you have that experience yourself)? Does he think that it follows from this ‘explanatory gap’ between physical explanation and phenomenology that the content of our experiences must exist independently of being experienced? That, though, is an unsupported inference.

Perhaps Bilgrami’s position comes down to this: because knowing the ‘physical’ explanations of what is going on when someone is having some experience cannot give the knower that very experience, the contents of that experience are metaphysically distinct from what is referred to in the physical explanation of that experience. Fair enough. But that would not pose a challenge to an account of value according to which it is mind-dependent, for those who argue for the mind-dependence of value assert that values are fixed by the mind, which is on the opposite side, metaphysically, from the physical explanation. Psychophysical dualism is entirely consistent with the mind-dependence of value.  In fact, Kant may have endorsed both of these positions.

I conclude that there is nothing in Bilgrami’s essay to warrant his conclusion that understanding agency requires positing the mind-independence of value. All he has shown is that our notions of agency are inextricably tied up with the experience of mind-independent of value. What explains that experience of value is another question entirely.

In sum, Bilgrami has done nothing to show that “disenchantment—the exclusion of all external callings [i.e., mind-independent values] that Taylor identifies in the new ethical construction of buffered selfhood and agency emerging from the early modern period—would have the effect of putting into doubt whether any notion of agency has been constructed at all.”

4. Consensus?

Bilgrami believes there is a consensus about the mind-dependence of value. Who is part of this consensus? Apparently Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are. But, who else? Christopher Hitchens? John Mackie? A.J. Ayer? There are very few leading contemporary philosophers who endorse Ayer’s or Mackie’s views. In fact, there are really only two or three. Do we have a consensus nonetheless? Doesn’t it take at least a minyan?

The fashionable position among philosophers who think about these questions is, in fact, the opposite of the view that so upsets Bilgrami. This position is called moral realism. It comes in many stripes—from the more mind-dependent to the less—but they all hold that there is value ‘out there’ to which we, as valuers, respond. If Bilgrami is okay with weak mind-dependence, then I recommend Peter Railton’s impressive arguments for ‘objective interests.’ If Bilgrami wants more robust mind-independence, he should consider the Russ Shafer-Landau’s defense of moral realism. If Bilgrami wants stark-raving mad mind independence, then he should look to David Enoch’s recent work. Contemporary philosophy is awash with defenses of moral realism, i.e., values to which an agent responds as opposed to values that flatly depend upon that agent’s occurrent sentiments.

Furthermore, Bilgrami’s argument bears similarities to recent defenses of a weak form of mind-independent value. This family of arguments goes by the name of constitutivism. According to constitutivist accounts of value – most famously defended by Christine Korsgaard of Harvard University and David Velleman of NYU – the objective authority of moral norms (and perhaps even value) can be grounded in norms or aims that are supposedly constitutive of human practical agency.

Finally, Bilgrami might also look to the many contemporary political philosophers who take the global human rights regime quite seriously. For, if there is a popular consensus among philosophers and non-philosophers, it’s that human rights are mind-independent. Indeed, human rights might be contemporary versions of religiously based transcendent values. God may be dead, in other words, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn’t.

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2 Responses to “Disenchantment and the mind-dependence of the moral”

  1. avatar Jill Schaeffer says:

    Dear Matthew,

    Yes, it takes a Minyan for a consensus. However, this honorable Minyan needs work: it may consist of a Noah’s arktype (whoops) communion of creatures: Two human beings (male and female); two goldfish; two pit bulls; two pythons, and two black widow spiders.

    Hmmm, let’s simplify and just deal with DNA. A DNA Minyan – that’ll do it?

    We can think in ratios of the four nucleotides (ebbtide and hightide): AGTC – A(Adelaide); G (Guantanemo); C (Cytocosine ) and T (TyrannosaurexHex) – pick your ratio, pick your species – there we go.

    So here’s my problem: What if the word “secular” meant ziltch to those of us for whom God is the Head of the Pack, whatever Pack that is, and wherever it is. Not so much transcendence in the form of hierarchy (even Anselm’s pushing the envelope as far as it will go – beyond all parentheses, Jacob yelling at the angel, “I ain’t lettin’ go until you bless me, baby,” or Jesus choosing to commit his spirit to God (my choice, Dad). Common term – I think is “other.” Nondescript but necessarily true, not logically but ethically. Solipsism is a logical construct applicable to any noun. But logic and life don’t mesh, once language leaves off and ethics begins (Wittgenstein’ self professed intepretation in the last lines of his Tractatus.) And as soon as we have action, we implicate the “other’s agency” and transcendence as really real. Indeed, there may be no God, but there is, it seems, relationship.

    So who needs secular?

  2. avatar Dan says:

    I think, at the heart of it, secularism takes for granted that there is such a boundary or gap between mind-dependence and mind-independence. However, presupposing such a gap is just another instance of the distinction between reality and appearance. Supposedly, it is the achievement of modern science to have clearly demarcated one from the other. I haven’t read his article, but it sounds as if Bilgrami is rejecting a line of demarcation at all, though I’m not sure in what direction he sublimates appearance to reality.

    That said, I’m not sure that the line is so clearly drawn. Bilgrami certainly has a point that the way the world is is the way we experience it from the perspective of an agent. It’s impossible to police the boundary between the way the world is and the way we experience it without supposing that everything bottoms out in the Ding an sich. I think that Bilgrami may be on to something, but I don’t think that it can be solved by supposing that values are among the ingredients of an object like vitamin B12 is a part of my morning breakfast.

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