Letters

The Visibility of Value

Thoughts on the Seen and the Unseen

There is a superstition of modernity which declares that nature contains no properties that are not countenanced by the natural sciences. By “superstition” I mean: no one knows how and when this was proved nor has anyone shown how it helps us to live better. On the presumption that natural science does not study values, i.e., properties described in value terms, the superstition has the effect of evacuating nature of all value properties. Values thus become entirely a matter of our invention, reducible to or derivable in some sense entirely from our own states of mind — as David Hume and Adam Smith would have it, from our “desires” and “moral sentiments” — not properties in the world we inhabit and to which our desires and moral sentiments are responses.

This is one sense in which we may speak of the invisibility, or better, the making invisible of values by a dogmatic equation of the last few centuries, the comprehensive equation of the very concept of nature with the domain studied by the natural sciences. (This is, in fact, a first step to a further transformation that has had disastrous practical effects on the environment and on human life: the equation of the idea of nature with the idea of natural resources — though I will not get to that second step and further transformation in this brief paper.)

Some years ago I was asked to speak at a conference in Berlin on the then relatively unmined but now very fashionable subject of the “Anthropocene.” Each speaker was asked to bring to the conference an object and to speak on its significance for our understanding of nature. There was an array of objects on tables and on the walls as the conference proceeded. What, I was asked, was the object that I would base my lecture on? I had brought no object of that kind and had nothing to display, and I replied that the object I would speak on would be: “a threat.” That this should have caused any surprise at all is just a symptom of the superstition that I began with, an assumption of the zeitgeist that a threat — a thing described in value terms — cannot be an object.

Think, then, of the fisherman on the coastline of Bangladesh. On his visible horizon, we are allowed to say, there is something, some phenomenon that he sees, which can be described in elaborate meteorological terms. But it seems the most natural thing in the world for us to say that, over and above such descriptions, what he sees is a threat to himself and his family, to his thatched dwelling. Literally sees a threat? Yes! We see dark clouds there, we see lightning there, but where do we see the threat? At the very places where we see the dark clouds and the lightning, at the very place where there are things that get meteorological descriptions, we see something that gets an evaluative description of being “a threat” to him, his family, his thatched dwelling. Of course, I could not arrange to bring this object, this threat, to the conference. People would have to travel to Bangladesh or to Florida or elsewhere to see it. But I could equally have said that in the right context the small boulder that another speaker had brought to the conference might be a threat. It is context that transforms objects or properties that may get nothing but descriptions of meteorology or geology or other sciences into such evaluatively described properties as “threats.” But that is quite generally true. All descriptions, whether scientific or evaluative, depend on context and cease to apply when the relevant context passes.

The making invisible of value properties by the superstition I am inveighing against is not restricted to nature. It carries over to social and moral phenomena as well. Take a well-known example from the philosopher Gilbert Harman (1975): some kids in an alley are burning a cat. What is visible to someone driving by are the kids, the fire, the cat. But, if I am right to dismiss the superstition, right where the kids and the cat and the fire are visible there is visible a further property: cruelty. And natural science does not study cruelty, just as it does not study threats. It studies combustion and condensation, but not value properties, not things described in value terms such as cruelty and threats.

Read the complete article in Social Research here.

Akeel Bilgrami

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