One’s Own Mind



One’s Own Mind


Several times in The Basis of Morality Schopenhauer remarks on the mysterious nature of compassion (or altruism). He says: “When once compassion is stirred within me, by another’s pain, then his weal and woe go straight to my heart, exactly in the same way, if not always to the same degree, as otherwise I feel only my own. Consequently the difference between myself and him is not an absolute one.” (85) This is followed by: “No doubt this operation is astonishing, indeed hardly comprehensible. It is, in fact, the great mystery of Ethics, its original phenomenon, and the boundary stone, past which only transcendental speculation may dare to take a step.” (88) In the Appendix Schopenhauer returns to the mystery and proposes to explain it (though not without introducing further layers of mystery). His basic idea is that there is in fact no deep distinction between what we regard as separate selves: we are all one at the level of Kantian noumena—the “intelligible self” (as opposed to the “phenomenal self”) is a single entity. This means that all so-called compassion (altruism) is a species of egoism, since to benefit others is to benefit the noumenal self that I ultimately am.[1] I am you, so concern for you is concern for myself. He writes: “Now, as regards that side of the self which falls within our ken, we are, undoubtedly, sharply distinguished, each from the other; but it does not follow therefrom that the same is true of the remainder, which, surrounded in impenetrable obscurity, is yet, in fact, the very substance of which we consist. There remains at least the possibility that the latter is in all men uniform and identical.” (136) He goes on to argue that space and time individuate phenomenal selves, but noumenal selves do not exist in space and time, and so are free to coincide according to their transcendent nature. The plurality of selves is an illusory product of the human spatiotemporal form of subjectivity; beneath it a monism of the self reigns. As Schopenhauer remarks, this doctrine of Self-Monism is of ancient origin and distinguished lineage (though more in the East than the West): he mentions the Upanishads, Pythagoras, Spinoza, the New Platonists, and others. Hoping to make the view more palatable and down-to-earth, he compares it to dreams: “For just as in dreams, all the persons that appear to us are but the masked image of ourselves; so in the dream of our waking life, it is our own being which looks on us from out our neighbors’ eyes,–though this is not equally easy to discern.” (141) So-called other minds (selves) are my mind (self) elsewhere.

            This is no doubt a startling, not to say vertiginous, doctrine, hardly calculated to elicit immediate assent; indeed it may appear quite batty. But perhaps it can be given a more quotidian rationale—perhaps we can even argue in its favor. It may turn out to have roots in familiar observations about the nature of the self. At any rate, I propose to inquire whether the doctrine admits of something like demonstration, or at least to break down intuitive resistance to it. Can it be ruled out a priori? Does it describe a logical possibility? Is it upon closer examination a rather natural view to adopt when once we take the true measure of the self as ordinarily conceived? Let us begin with a datum: when one person encounters another the fact of bodily separateness is a presentation of perception (an “impression”), but the fact of personal separateness is not. Your body looks to be separate from mine, at some distance from mine, but your mind doesn’t look to be separate from mine, at some distance from mine. I see your body in space located at a certain position, which is not where I see my own body as located: but I don’t see your mind as similarly located in relation to me. If it is separate from my mind, this separation is not a perceptible fact—not a fact of “intuition”, as Kant would say. Rather, it is matter of inference, of belief, of hypothesis even. It is not a given. So why do we think this way—is it a justified assumption? How can we rule out the idea that what you assume to be another mind is just your own mind in another guise? To answer this question we need to venture out into modal space. Is there a possible world in which a single mind is distributed across a plurality of bodies? That does not seem difficult to conceive: the several bodies, with their accompanying brains, work together to realize a single mind, functionally and phenomenologically unified. There might be coordinating communicative contact between these bodies that keeps them on a single track. Social groups can be functionally unified; well, in this possible world the bodily group houses a single mind. Our brain, after all, consists of a grouping of separable organs occupying different positions—why not conceive of a mind that takes this arrangement a step further? Thus when these bodies encounter each other they are encountering a single mind multiply located. People sometimes speak of a “hive mind” to describe highly social species like bees and ants: couldn’t there be a world in which this is literally true of some organisms–one mind existing in many bodies? Or suppose a scientist was to remove one of your cerebral hemispheres as you slept and insert it into another body: couldn’t you find yourself (unbeknownst to you) talking to someone that literally has your mind in his body? That is, there is now a mind that is partly in one body and partly in another. And couldn’t this process in principle be repeated to produce many bodies sharing a single mind? How do we know this wasn’t done to all of us by super-extraterrestrials years ago? It isn’t logically or conceptually excluded. What if some tech billionaire had his mind uploaded into many different bodies: wouldn’t this be a case of a single mind in many bodies? Couldn’t your unconscious mind be located in a different body from that housing your conscious mind? You might then be able to chat with someone whose brain holds your unconscious mind (yours is already full of your conscious mind). The possibilities are endless. So Self-Monism is metaphysically possible: there could be a possible world in which a single mind shares many bodies. It doesn’t of course follow that our minds could exist in such a form, but it does show that some mind could—the idea is not contradictory or metaphysically impossible.

            What makes minds (selves) distinct? If minds are individual brains, then it is the spatial separation of brains: this kind of materialism thus implies that human minds are a plurality, because brains are. But if dualism is true, then we don’t have spatial separation to deliver the individuation conditions of minds: what then makes suchminds separate? What indeed? In fact, it is hard to see how dualism doesn’t lead to self-monism: for how can disembodied minds maintain their non-identity? Here matters become obscure: what is the principle of individuation for minds under dualism? Causal connections to the body won’t do it, since there is nothing to prevent different immaterial minds from interacting with the same body, or the same immaterial mind interacting with many bodies. In the case of dualism, space can’t ensure plurality, so dualism looks like it will entail the identity of all minds; in any case, something would need to be said to prevent this result.[2] What seems clear is that nothing we know rules out the identity of all human selves: it is an epistemic possibility that this is so. The mind of a fellow creature might be a part of my mind, as my mind is a part of its (human or animal). The relation between my mind and other minds might be like the relation between different regions of the same country: both are parts of a larger whole. When I speak of “my mind” I actually refer to this larger entity—as it might be, the Kant-Schopenhauer noumenal single self, or a vast Humean totality of atomic “ideas”. To be sure, I am not aware of all my mental states, as I am not aware of the states of my unconscious; they are distributed across many sub-minds that together compose the single overarching mind. We can model this set-up on what we know of the individual mind: it too is composed of a number of sub-minds (“modules”) that don’t always have access to each other. The individual mind is really a composite structure—a kind of hive mind. Thus we entertain such notions as multiple personality, hemispheric specialization, separate computational modules, cooperating homunculi, and so on. If the mind of man is already a congeries, why can’t what we think of as an individual mind be made up of smaller minds distributed across organisms? Why make such a sharp distinction between one mind and another if one’s own mind is a mixed bag of sub-minds? Why not believe in the extended mind in the sense of one mind existing across separate bodies? Why let the way bodies look shape the way minds are individuated? Doesn’t this give rise to an illusion of separateness on the part of minds? If we lived in a world in which self-monism is stipulated to be true, it would still look to us as if self-pluralism were true, simply because of the nature of perception of the physical world—we would jump to the conclusion that selves had to be distinct. We tend to think the mind is more unified than it is, based on introspection and perception; and we also tend to think it is more isolated than it is (according to self-monism), based on the way we perceive the world.[3]

This is not to prove the truth of self-monism but rather to break down barriers that rule it out a priori. For it is certainly true that we don’t perceive the truth of self-monism: minds don’t look as if they are all part of a larger mind. That is a metaphysical speculation, prompted in the first instance by the mystery of compassion. It explainswhy compassion is based on sound metaphysical instincts: it is not just as if I am present in the other feeling his pain but I actually am there. He is part of me. In order to prove this we would have to show that the idea of many separate minds is impossible—that minds must form a unity. Such a proof might take the form of showing that nothing could give rise to a distinction of selves, because space can’t do it and nothing else is available to play the individuating role of space. I haven’t given any such proof (and neither has anyone else that I know of), but I have given reason to think that the view in question is not devoid of coherence and motivation. Schopenhauer thinks self-pluralism is a prejudice of the West, arising perhaps from the Christian religion (individual salvation) or the politics of capitalism or too much empiricism; we might be able to shed it by enlarging our imaginative possibilities. Maybe if we tried thinking of other people and animals as parts of ourselves, in order to strengthen the grip of altruism, we would come to find the view natural as well as ameliorative.[4] It might become second nature to us. My mind doesn’t leave off where my body ends but extends into the minds of others in a wonderful mystical synthesis! My mind and your mind are joined at the hip, so to speak. Perhaps the question ought to be: How do I know that your mind isn’t mine? 

[1] If altruism appears less altruistic under self-monism, egoism is less egoistic under a more pluralistic view of the individual self: if each self is a congeries of mental elements, then there is a question as to which of them a given act benefits. Thus we can distinguish between benefiting my higher self or my lower self, my id or my superego. Egoism will be relative to a chosen sub-self, some closer than others to what I regard as my central self. I could be quite cruel towards one of my sub-selves (think of split-brain patients).    

[2] There is a similar question about the individuation of things like angels or gods: how can we make sense of qualitatively identical but numerically distinct examples (tokens) of these types, given that spatial separation can’t do the job? Compare: how do Cartesian minds differ numerically if they are qualitatively identical?

[3] It might also be suggested that our language encourages the illusion of self-plurality in addition to the way we see things: the personal pronouns make it seem as if persons are rigidly distinct from each other. I am not you, sheis not him, and this person is not that person. The words are clearly distinct, but are the denotations?

[4] Likewise the malicious individual might think twice if she believed that the other person is really herself in another guise.


Right and Ought: Schopenhauer on Kant



Right and Ought: Schopenhauer on Kant


In The Basis of Morality Schopenhauer undertakes a wholesale critique of Kant’s moral philosophy. He begins by attacking the very idea of a categorical imperative: morality should not be conceived as consisting of imperatives at all; the concept of the “moral law” is defective; moral rightness should not be analyzed in terms of duties, obligations, or ought-statements; and there are no unconditional obligations anyway. Kant, he thinks, has unknowingly modeled ethics on the Decalogue, which presupposes a “theological ethics”: commands from God, fear of punishment, desire for reward. He writes: “Kant, then, without more ado or any close examination, borrowed this imperative Form of Ethics from theological Morals. The hypotheses of the latter (in other words, Theology) really lie at the root of his system, and as these alone in point of fact lend it any meaning or sense, so they cannot be separated from, indeed are implicitly contained in, it.” (17) A consequence of this assimilation is that ethics emerges as a form of egoism (“Eudaemonism”), since it builds ethics on the (long-term) happiness of the individual. I think Schopenhauer is onto something here and I propose to articulate it in my own way. This has radical consequences for our understanding of the nature of moral value and the way we have to come to talk about morality. The concepts of command, duty, obligation, and ought are not properly speaking moral concepts and should be jettisoned from moral philosophy (!).

            The quickest way to see this is to focus on the imperative as the canonical form of an ethical pronouncement. An imperative utterance has an addressee and an agent, as well as some expectation of reward or punishment (which can take many forms, ranging from approval or disapproval to cash payments or imprisonment). This is part of the semantics of the imperative mood: someone gives the command and there are consequences for obedience or disobedience. Legal propositions are like this. In the case of theological ethics we have God as legislator and enforcer—hence the “divine command” theory. Thus it is in the interests of the addressee (us) to obey the commands, which makes morality a matter of enlightened self-interest. But in fact morality is not like this (true morality), since here we act irrespective of self-interest. So we can’t base morality on these concepts: morality does not issue from commands expressed in imperative form that we must obey or else pay the penalty. God could issue such commands, but without God the idea is pure anthropomorphism. There is no agent of such moral commands and no system of reward and punishment (unlike the law). In fact, as Schopenhauer says, morality has no intrinsic connection to this set of concepts: we have no moral duties or obligations, and there are no moral laws. These concepts belong to theological ethics (or human-based ethics), which is not true ethics. Of course, such duties or obligations can exist alongside ethics, but they don’t form its essence: for we may indeed be rewarded or punished for our response to imperatively expressed commands (by God or by other people). But these facts can’t constitute our moral reasons for acting as we do, on pain of reducing ethics to prudence. The rightness of an action (thought, desire, person) cannot be analyzed as compliance with a moral command. All commands have a conditional or relative structure, being predicated on the existence of a commander equipped with the power of sanction. I obey the command on condition that I want to avoid the consequences of non-compliance. But this has nothing to do with morality proper. Kant’s problem, inherited from the Christian tradition that shapes his moral outlook, and contrary to his intentions, is that he is tacitly assuming a theological conception of ethics, which works from a basis of self-interest. According to Schopenhauer, then, we should separate morality completely from these ideas; it is indeed contradictory to speak of categorical imperatives (imperatives can never logically be categorical) or moral laws or moral duties. That is to try to locate morality in a sphere alien to it—the sphere of commands, consequences, and retributive agents. There is a sharp conceptual separation between the right and good and the imperative form, with all that it implies. There may be a correspondence between the two, but there is no identity, no reduction. We have got used to talking this way because we have lived for so long with theological ethics, but it is the wrong way to talk (to think). It is impossible to base ethics on a foundation of commands.[1]

            It might aid intuition to consider a strange possible world, namely one in which the ruling god is morally imperfect. Suppose the inhabitants of this world are morally superior to their god in respect of moral judgment, so that they find themselves disagreeing with his moral decrees. Suppose, for example, he holds that lying is always wrong, without exception, and will punish you if you infringe this rule. The people in this world realize that this is not morally correct, since there are clear exceptions to such a rule. They will then be confronted with a dilemma: either you obey the god’s rule and thus behave immorally, or you disobey his rule and get into trouble with said benighted god. The god is obliging you to follow his rule (his imperative), but you judge that this obligation is contrary to true morality. If the punishment isn’t so severe, you might disregard this imposed obligation and do what you know is right; if it is severe, you might say “This is morally wrong but I am obliged by my god to do it anyway”. In the same way the law may oblige you to do what you deem wrong—just as your job may require you to carry out certain duties that morally repulse you. This is often the case with what are called contractual duties: you have signed the contract so you are obliged to carry out its commands whether they are moral or not. But you can’t have moral duties or obligations in this sense because there is no enforcer and no contract: morality isn’t an agent with the power to force compliance via the mechanism of self-interest. To suppose otherwise is to commit a category mistake. But what other sense is there? Is it that “duty” and “obligation” are ambiguous, sometimes meaning compliance to an authority and sometimes not? No, we have just got used to thinking of morality in terms of theology, where God is conveniently deemed morally perfect. Then what God commands and what is right never come apart: but that doesn’t imply that we can analyze right and wrong in terms of the concepts of duty and obligation. God may issue infallible imperatives, but the nature of our moral reasons is not analyzable in terms of conformity with these imperatives. But there is no other notion of an imperative; morality itself cannot issue imperatives, save perhaps metaphorically. It may be as if morality commands you to do this and not do that, but it cannot literally do any such thing. So it is a category mistake to suggest that moral rightness is conformity with a categorical imperative (a contradictory concept if Schopenhauer is right). When I say of an action that it is right I am not saying that it is obedient to a categorical imperative (or a hypothetical imperative): that is to import into morality an alien conceptual structure. This is Schopenhauer’s opening criticism of Kant, and he would appear to have a solid point. But the point extends far beyond the details of Kant’s system; it applies to the entire apparatus of duty, obligation, requirement, prescription, law, edict, and directive. Action does indeed follow from morality, but not because morality somehow commands or demands it—morality is not the kind of thing that can do such things. Proper conduct might be entailed by the Good, to put it Plato’s way, but not because the Good (an impersonal being) issues imperatives. After all, imperatives are speech acts, and moral values don’t speak. Neither do they oblige in any ordinary sense (“I was obliged by my hosts to take my shoes off before entering”), so how can they impose obligations?[2]

            How does this point apply to “ought”? Schopenhauer says: “What ought to be done is therefore necessarily conditioned by punishment and reward; consequently, to use Kant’s language, it is essentially and inevitably hypothetical, and never, as he maintains, categorical. If we think away these conditions, the conception of obligation becomes devoid of sense; hence absolute obligation is most certainly a contradictio in adjecto.” (16) Here we may find ourselves losing sympathy for Schopenhauer’s position: surely we can say that we ought to do what is right! But is the connection between right and ought really that tight? In my imaginary possible world the inhabitants might find themselves ruefully reporting, “I know it’s wrong to tell the truth in this case, but I guess I ought to do it anyway or there will be hell to pay from you-know-who”.  And how can “right” mean “ought” in view of the following fact: you can explain why you ought to do something by saying that it is right but not by saying that you ought to do it? Why ought I to give money to charity? Because it is morally right to do so—but not because I ought to (that just repeats the explanandum). There may well be a correlation between right and ought, but we shouldn’t try to analyze the former by the latter. And there is certainly a use of “ought” that is purely egoistic, as in “I ought to take my umbrella with me today”. Then too there is the legal use of “ought”: “I ought not to drive above the speed limit” etc. So it is not clear that ought is the right concept to use in giving the basis of morality; maybe Schopenhauer is right that it belongs to the old theological conception of ethics. At best it has been extended into morality and thereby acquired a moral connotation, but the root notion is non-moral—like obligation, duty, etc. Our language of morals may (must?) reflect our metaphysics of morals, and that may be tainted (soaked) in theological conceptions of right and wrong. Perhaps we do better to stick with the unadorned “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad”, “virtuous” and “evil”.[3] The utilitarian may dispense with the notion of ought in the metaphysics of morals, saying simply that it is right to maximize happiness and wrong to cause needless suffering—what we ought to do is none of his concern. At any rate, a foundational use of “ought” needs to persuade us that we are not buying into thinly disguised theological ideas. Certainly we must reckon with forms of words like, “You ought to do such and such or else”.[4]

            How does deontology look if we take Schopenhauer’s strictures to heart? It is commonly formulated using the notions of duty and obligation, but it need not be so formulated. We can say simply, “Lying is wrong, stealing is wrong, murder is wrong, generosity is good, justice is right, equality is desirable”—we need not resort to the imperative mode of moral expression. We need not speak of “prima facie duties” but of “prima facie rights and wrongs”. So deontological ethics would not perish with Kant’s Judeo-Christian imperatival picture of moral discourse (as in the Decalogue). As Schopenhauer observes, Kant just assumed this apparatus at the beginning without much in the way of motivation or questioning; but we are not compelled to follow him. Perhaps this is one of those cases in which ordinary speech is so saturated with questionable metaphysical theory that what it is natural for us to say is false to the underlying realities. We find it hard to get away from the commander-and-enforcer model of morality given (apparently) rigorous shape by Kant. Morality does not consist of super-imperatives but of indicative statements of rightness and wrongness, good and evil, etc. Plato didn’t have much use for this dictatorial apparatus and Eastern religions are not wedded to it either; it is very much a feature of Western Christianized morality founded in Judaic law. It goes along with personified pictures of the world, and with (idolatrous?) religious art, thus failing to do justice to the impersonal abstract nature of morality. Things are just good or bad; no one has to issue shrill imperatives exhorting us to do this or that or face the consequences (e.g. God’s displeasure). From this point of view, the categorical imperative is irrelevant and nonsensical, certainly not the basis of morality. Morality is inherently non-legislative.

[1] Notice how the phrases “morally permissible”, “morally forbidden”, and “morally compulsory” tacitly introduce the notion of an agent; but morality itself can’t permit or forbid or compel—only agents can do these things. An odd kind of animism pervades such moral language.

[2] We speak of being “morally obliged” and “legally obliged”, but these must be completely different senses of the term “obliged”: the latter implies legal sanction imposed by humanly created laws, but the former implies no such thing. Why do we speak in this misleading way? Perhaps we mean by “morally obliged” something like “will be criticized morally for not doing such and such”, or perhaps we are speaking metaphorically. It seems clear that we are borrowing the legal notion of obligation and applying it to the moral case—quite misleadingly. Morality has no obliging power, unlike the police force and law courts. 

[3] It would be strange (false) to say that God himself has moral duties or obligations or ought to do such and such, yet what he does is clearly right and good. So God doesn’t fit Kant’s theory of the right and good: God isn’t subject to any moral imperative, hypothetical or categorical. When then must we be? Kant’s theologically based theory of morality fails to apply to God!

[4] The prudential “ought” has nothing to do with morality and clearly means “ought given one’s long-term interests”. The same might be said of the putative moral “ought”, which therefore doesn’t really belong with morality. Or are we to say that “ought” is radically ambiguous?