Akeel Bilgrami on Value properties

Bilgrami borrows an insight from Spinoza that one cannot both predict that one will do something and intend to do something and at the same time.  When one predicts that one will do something, one steps outside of oneself, in a third person point of view, and observes oneself as an object with behavioral, causal and motivational tendencies.  By contrast, when one intends to do something, one is asking “What should I do?” as an agent in the first person point of view.

Bilgrami extends this Spinozist insight of dual perspectives on ourselves to dual perspectives on the world.  We can have third person perspective on the world as an object of detached observation, as is done in the natural sciences, or we can have an agential perspective where we engage with the world in a first person manner.  (It’s not that one is no longer an agent when one does science; rather, one treats the world as an object of detached study rather than something that prompts one’s practical engagement.)

“An absolutely crucial question arises, then: what would the world have to be like for it to not merely be the object of detached study but something that prompts our practical engagement? What must the world contain such that it moves us to such engagement? One obvious answer is that it contains values and when we perceive them, we respond with our practical agency. Why should values prompt such a response rather than a response of detachment? Because values, by the sorts of things they are, make normative demands on our agency, demanding not explanation from us but action.”

On this view, values are neither Kantian—which come from a noumenal realm of practical reason—since values are part of the phenomenal world, nor Humean, where values are projected onto the phenomenal world. Instead, values are a part of the phenomenal world that are perceived from the first person agential point of view, and are undetectable from the third person scientific perspective.

Bilgrami warns that his view on values will be of no help to the moral realist, because perceptions are theory-laden and influenced by cultural background.  Scientific perception is theory-laden, but that doesn’t entail that we create physical properties and project them onto the world. Similarly, perception of desirabilities (or values) are theory-laden, but that doesn’t entail that we create value properties and project them onto the world.

The skeptic may wonder why agency requires that our desires and intentions are a response to a prompting or a perception of external value properties.  To tease out his argument, Bilgrami cites Gareth Evans’ question about what one does when one is asked: Do you believe it is raining?  We do not step into the third person perspective on ourself and examine whether we believe it is raining; rather, we wonder if it is raining outside.  An analogous question can be asked: Do you desire X?  Similarly, we do not step into the third person perspective on ourself and examine ourself as an object and wonder if we desire X; rather, we wonder if X is desirable—we look outside, so to speak. This suggests that, in practical agency, we perceive value properties that are external to us.

But suppose this is wrong, and we don’t wonder whether x is desirable from the first person point of view; instead, suppose we step outside ourself into the third person and examine ourself as an object and wonder if we desire X.  This would mean that we couldn’t access our desires unless we stepped into the third person point of view.  But, on this view, how would we be prompted to respond in any way?  We would “sit there as the leaden object of our detached gaze.”  By contrast, on Bilgrami’s view, what we desire is presented to us in the first person experience of the desiring, without any agency-threatening stepping back.

In the way that anger is a perceiving that someone has done us harm, our desiring is a perceiving of the value properties in the world.


Bilgrami, Akeel. Value Enchantment and the Mentality of Democracy.

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One Response to Akeel Bilgrami on Value properties

  1. Pingback: Akeel Bilgrami on Value properties – Anti-Philosophy

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