Subjectivism and Moral Criticism

Suppose that Sue’s considered opinion was that Joe had all things considered most reason to do one thing. In what sense could Sue, in consistency with that thought, earnestly criticize Joe for failing to do something else? Of course, it could be that Sue thinks that Joe had no good reason to believe that he had good reason to act as he did, despite having most reason to act that way, and so was irrational, given his information, to act as he did. Such a possibility opens the door to the earnest criticism of Joe that he was irrational. But let us ignore cases where the assessor and the actor have different information. Additionally, of course, Sue might criticize Joe merely with an eye to the causal upshot of that criticism. She might hope that the criticism would produce a situation that she thinks is better. But here the criticism is less than fully earnest in that it does not truly express Sue’s view of what there was most reason for Joe to do. So let us ignore cases where one criticism of the agent misrepresents one’s view of what the agent has most reason to do.

Sue might criticize Joe from various points of view. She might say that although he did what he had most reason to do, what he did was contrary to etiquette and therefore is criticizable as uncouth. But such a criticism would seem to need to be tempered, if not downright ironic, due to Sue’s concession that it did not make most sense to heed the call of ettiqutte in this case. Sue’s maintaining that Joe’s reasons to heed the call of ettiqutte were outweighed in this case makes her criticism that Joe’s act was uncouth seem less than (all things considered) earnest.

The issue seems interesting in its own right, but I am especially interested in this topic because I am wondering to what extend a subjectivist about reasons for action can, in consistency, engage in earnest moral criticism of an agent’s act when the act is what the actor had most reason to do by the lights of the subjectivist’s own account of reasons. 

What I would like to see better is how the subjective account can fit together happily with earnest moral criticism. Any ideas on this score (or reasons to despair of this) would be greatly appreciated. I will list some of the options that seem to me worth considering below, but I wish I saw better options (or at any rate options that did not tie the subjectivist to another significant philosophical project).

1: Williams Attempt to Have One’s Cake and Eat it Too

One might, as Bernard Williams did in “Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame,” try to show that in all cases where intuitively blame is in good order there will be an internal reason that the blame taps into. If this were the case we could continue our practices of blaming immoral action in roughly the ways we used to without pretending the agent had external reasons to comply. For reasons I cannot adequately go into here (unless asked to do so), I am persuaded that Williams’s case for this option is unworkable.

2: Abandon Moral Criticism

One might say that the subjectivist must, in consistency, avoid earnest criticism of an agent’s action when, by the critics own lights, the agent acts in the way she has most reason to act. This would introduce a significant and largely unacknowledged cost to embracing subjective accounts of reasons.

3: Reasons but not the Agent’s Reasons

Third, one might say that while there are good, normative reasons for the agent to do the moral thing, those reasons are not the agent’s reasons and the subjectivist account is an account of the agent’s reasons. Williams gives a plug for this view by saying “I also agree that if we think of this [the failure to see certain considerations as reasons] as a deficiency or fault of this man [as I just agreed we should] then we must think that in some sense these reasons apply to him…. But none of this implies that these considerations are already the defective agent’s reasons: indeed the problem is precisely that they are not.” [“Some Further Notes on Internal and External Reasons,” p. 95-6]. But if this is so, then why is the deliberation of the agent not subject to criticism for failing to connect up with the reasons that there are? And why not say that the account is an account of the agent’s reasons simpliciter, but rather an account of the reasons that are especially accessible to the agent? And why doesn’t this force us to say that there are values which ought to move the agent even if she would not be moved by them after “sound deliberation.” And if we accept this, what more could the externalist want?

4: Reasons Not a Master-Assessment of what Ought to Happen

Fourth, we could understand the subjectivist account of reasons to be not a master assessment of all things considered reasons, but just a particular flavor of reasons that apply to the situation. This would involve significant revision in the traditional understanding and threatens to trivialize the subjectivist component of the story. On this story, the subjectivist is offering an account of “rationality” reasons, but not claiming that such reasons are more significant than “etiquette" reasons. Fellow subjectivism sypathizer Don Hubin, at least in casual conversation, suspects that this might be the way for the subectivist to go.

5: The Appeal to the Reasons of the Assessor

Fifth, we could think that what grounds the criticism is not some subjective reason that the agent has, but a subjectively determined reason that the critic has. But this threatens to relativize the criticism to my wants—there could be nothing more objective in my criticism than that I do not want you to behave thus. This will not mark the distinction between valid and self-serving moral criticism where we would expect to find it.

6: Expressivism about Moral Claims

One could interpret the moral criticism as not pointing to any truth about the reasons that there are, but rather as giving vent to the assessor’s non-cognitive disapproval. However, how should we understand this disapproval as being consistent with the thought that the agent acted as I say she had most reason to act?

21 Replies to “Subjectivism and Moral Criticism

  1. I agree that Ripstein’s argument against subjectivism fails. I would add that the sort of “rigging” that Ripstein objects to is unobjectionable. It seems to me, in fact, that this sort of thing is done all the time in philosophy. It is just the practice of revising one’s theory in light of a counterexample (a.k.a. the method of reflective equilibrium, a.k.a. chisholming).
    Suppose we want to understand some property or relation (be it moral rightness, personal identity, causation, knowledge, whatever). Call the property ‘P’. Suppose a theory of P – call it ‘T1’ – is proposed. But suppose T1 delivers a counterintuitive verdict in a certain class of cases. But suppose there is a way to revise T1 so it avoids the counterexample. The revised theory is T2 and it looks like a better theory.
    This seems like a perfectly legitimate practice and one that is done all the time. It would be misguided to object to our “rigging” the theory so that it generates the correct results. It would be mistaken to suggest that justifying the move from T1 to T2 “requires a tacit appeal to some independently motivated account of” P. We can justify the move away from T1 by appeal to our *pre-theoretical* beliefs – not by appeal to some theory like T2.
    So it seems to me that what Ripstein objects to is a common and legitimate practice. Subjectivists about practical reason are still allowed to appeal to pre-theoretical beliefs about practical reason without committing themselves to any particular theory of practical reason, much less any objectivist theory.

  2. Chris,
    I suspect that Ripstein would say that relying on “pre-theoretical beliefs” (rather than a rival theory) about what one has reason to do in rigging one’s procedure makes the account impure in the way he was suggesting. And I am not sure I would want to disagree.
    Certainly if the rigged procedure had no rationale other than that it got the independently wanted answer, then I would allow that the subjectivist story is not generating the answers but being rigged to get the wanted answers. What then would be the point of the subjectivist account–would it just be a framework in terms of which we can get wanted answers rather than a self-standing account of what the right answer consists in? Shouldn’t the subjectivist say that our pre-theoretic intuitions should be damned if they conflict with what one would want after (subjectivist friendly) ideal deliberation? I guess I see subjectivism (and I think related things could be said about consequentialism, for example) as purporting to offer a way to test our pre-theoretic intuitions, rather than merely accommodate them.
    Does this mean that such theories must aspire to never peek at our pre-theoretic intuitions in generating the account of, say, ideal deliberation? I am tempted to say yes, but I have more confidence that the (in this case subjectivist) theory must at least have something to say by way of vindicating the favored procedure that stems from the theory itself, rather than a naked attempt to “get the right answer” by our pre-theoretic lights.
    Perhaps this generates a split between purportedly “pure” subjectivist (or consequentialist) accounts and “mixed” versions which do not aspire to have the core thought of the theory do all the work by itself, but provides a kind of framework or lens through which “pre-theoretic” intuitions are handled. I suppose in that case I mean to be defending a “pure” kind of subjectivism and perhaps you are saying that to be “mixed” is not to abandon the subjectivist program.

  3. I haven’t read the Ripstein article, but from what I gather of it I certainly agree with Chris Heathwood. Philosophers used to complain about Rawls (back when it was considered possible that Rawls might have been wrong about something) that he decided what constraints to put on the situation of choice in the Original Position based on what was going to get the intuitively correct outcome. That was true — it is definitely what Rawls was doing — but it is not an objection. The choice of principles in the Original Position can still be a pure procedure, even if the way we figure out exactly which procedure is the pure one is by the method of reflective equilibrium.
    The present issue seems to be exactly analogous. A person’s reasons could be constituted by counterfactuals about her, even if the way we figure out what the proper counterfactual conditions are is by looking at what different models say about particular cases, and checking them against our intuitions.
    Why should the facts that have the epistemic priority also have the metaphysical priority? No reason at all, as far as I can see.

  4. Hi David,
    If we don’t rely on our pre-theoretical beliefs about what people have most reason to do, then I wonder what else we will have to go on. Consider the following subjectivist theory of practical reason:
    Simple Subjectivism: a subject S has most reason to perform an action A iff S most wants to perform A.
    Most subjectivists reject Simple Subjectivism in favor of some form of ideal or hypothetical subjectivism. But why? Isn’t it just because Simple Subjectivism gets the intuitively wrong answer in many cases? If we ignore that, what other arguments are there against Simple Subjectivism?
    That we can appeal to our pre-theoretical beliefs when constructing a theory is consistent with damning some of our intuitions. Not all intuitions are sacrosanct. If the theory has a lot else going for it, it might teach us that we should revise certain of our pre-theoretical judgments about reasons for action.
    You ask: “What then would be the point of the subjectivist account – would it just be a framework in terms of which we can get wanted answers rather than a self-standing account of what the right answer consists in?”
    I think it can be both. For the theory to be at all plausible, it must get many of at least the most central and obvious “wanted answers” correct. But this, in my view, is consistent with the theory’s being an account of what the right answer consists in.
    You say that “the theory must at least have something to say by way of vindicating the favored procedure that stems from the theory itself.” What would this sort of thing look like? How can we vindicate a procedure from within? (These are not rhetorical questions … I’m really curious to hear more.)

  5. Chris,
    If the version of simple subjectivism you mention above says that my desires for P determine my reasons even when I am completely wrong about what P is like, then I think the sophisticated subjectivist can reject it on the grounds that the desire is not really for the object as it would be in the agent’s future experience. This is what I was trying to say in the original post–the subjectivist can focus on the thought that it must really be what it would be like for P to be a part of my future that I desire for such a desire to give me a reason to make P part of my future. Desires for ways I falsely imagine that P would be, the sophisticated subjectivist can say, do not determine my reasons to make P part of my future because they are, in a sense, not really for P as it is.

  6. Jamie,
    Do you want to say only that subjectivist accounts can help themselves to such input in “rigging” the procedure and still remain subjectivist or that the best subjectivist accounts should do so? If the latter, what are the judgments of particular reason claims that subjectivist accounts should rig the procedure in order to make sure that they get? How does the good subjectivist answer such a question?
    I guess the reflective equilibrium answer is: those judgments about reasons, whether relating to the procedure or to particular judgments of what an agent has reason to do that we are most confident of (e.g. Joe should stop teasing that snake or Jamie should have played fantasy football this year). This model, as I understand it based on the Rawls analogy, would require the overarching procedure to itself look justified and for it, it addition, to get the answers we are most confident in correct.
    Two things to say about this. First, for the most popular accounts of the proper procedure (I have in mind the full information accounts) it is wildly difficult to determine what the procedure would spit out. So it is hard to see how to rig such a procedure even if we wanted to. But perhaps this will be taken as a problem for a full info view. Second, on such a view the procedure cannot be properly “rigged” to get the right answer unless we can do so within a procedure that itself looks justified independently of getting the answer we were hoping for. I mind such a position less, and maybe, I am still thinking about this, I don’t mind it at all. What I would certainly mind is if the procedure had no independent plausibility, even in some of its parts, except that it generated the wanted answer.
    An analogy: at least when I was a kid, consequentialists were those that said that the good was defined independently from the right, and then the right is defined as that which maximizes the good. Here, it seems to me, the aspiration is to come up at an account of the good that is not “rigged” to match up with our moral intuitions. This seems to resist the reflective equilibrium model and be searching for a more moral intuition-free account. I am attracted to such an attempt on the subjectivist side.

  7. David,
    I wonder if the sort of maneuver you suggest is just reflective equilibrium in disguise. The maneuver actually *accepts* Simple Subjectivism, suggesting that the debate is over the meaning of the term ‘desire’. You suggest that a person *really desires* p only when he would still desire it under some ideal conditions.
    But suppose there are two views on the table about what it is to *really desire* something. They differ with respect to what the right ideal conditions are. How do we adjudicate between these two theories of desire? It seems likely that, in the context of constructing a theory of practical reason, we would prefer that theory of desire such that, when plugged into our Simple Subjectivism, yields a plausible theory of practical reason. In other words, our theory of desire must satisfy the following constraint: if S desires p, then S has a reason to bring about p. But if we use this as a constraint on our theory of desire, then, of course, we’re just back to engaging in reflective equilibrium about reasons.
    (On the other hand, maybe you think our pre-theoretical beliefs about desire itself are robust enough to settle the dispute between the two theories of desire. Although this line still makes use of reflective equilibrium, maybe some would find it less objectionable because it does not rely on intuitions about a *normative* property, like having a reason, which might be thought to be less reliable???)

  8. Dave, I’m getting too confused.
    Here’s my question. Why couldn’t it be that we know, more or less and esp. in not-very-tricky cases, what reasons people have for acting, but we don’t know what it is in virtue of which they have these reasons?
    Suppose it is. Then we can try hypotheses about what it is in virtue of which. Philosophers like you and me are going to suspect it has a lot to do with people’s preferences. So we try out various accounts, and see which ones get the cases right.
    I don’t believe there is any broad, principled objection to this general approach. Maybe there is something specific to this particular topic that makes the approach unsuitable?

  9. Great discussion. I don’t think I’d accept Ripstein’s position as an *a priori* argument against allegedly pure procedural accounts of any domain of rationality, practical or otherwise. I suspect that some views that aspire to such purity will be rigged, and others will not, though I must admit I haven’t a criterion for when adjusting the procedure in light of our considered judgments is simply good theorizing and when it is ad hoc rigging.
    But back to something in David’s original post: You mentioned that perhaps one complaint Ripstein could make about pure procedural accounts is that they are insufficiently determinate in the results they yield. How does this play out with respect to subjectivism? Is it correct to say that there is a danger that if a subjectivist account imposes too many restrictions on the procedure (even if these restriction are justified in light of our considered judgments about what conditions need to be met in order for a person’s desires to count as reasons for her), that greater determinacy will result from the procedure, but this compromises the dependence on an agent’s desires that is presumably central to subjectivism in the first place? For instance, David, you said you hold “that only one’s desires for A as it truly is (or would be if it were made a part of one’s life in some way) determine one’s reasons with respect to that option.” So suppose that an agent desires A as it truly is, giving her a reason to adopt some policy, attitude, intention, etc., regarding A. Now what is exactly is the division of labor (in determining that the agent has a reason) between the agent’s desiring A and A’s properties? If the number of constraints built into the subjectivist procedure is extensive, does this then drive the division of labor in the direction of A’s properties explaining the agent’s reasons rather than the agent’s desires vis-a-vis A? If so, then the subjectivist element of the procedure begins to drop out. This isn’t Ripstein’s worry about riggging. Rather, I wonder how pure a procedural, subjectivist account of rationality is once we begin adding constraints and conditions to the procedure itself. The greater the constraints, the less subjectivist the procedure, no?
    Jamie- Is this what we should talk about in Boston vis-a-vis wide internalism?!?

  10. Jamie and Chris,
    It seems clear to me that a subjectivist could tolerate (or welcome) accounts of the pure procedure that are motivated by an attempt to get this or that answer which seems intuitively obvious so long as the justification of the procedure was independent of getting that right answer. This I think of as analogous to the distinction between context of discovery and the context of justification from phil of science.
    But I think you, Jamie, want more than this.
    You want, if I am hearing things right, it to count as part of the justification for the procedure that it gets certain (intuitively obvious) answers correct. Your most recent post, at least for the moment, convinces me that this is right.
    It can count in favor of the subjectivist account if the intuitions (about the right answer, not what makes them count as the right answer) that seem most obvious to us, are well accounted for by an independently plausible pure proceduralist subjectivist story. This benefit for the subjectivist story hinges on no other account of what makes it the case that something counts as a reason generates a comparably good match with our most powerful intuitions of the right answer.
    I suppose I might still disagree with Chris in thinking that the subjectivist need not invoke this argumentative pattern in order to vindicate one procedure over another. I would not want to hold that much hangs on the best definition of “desire” but rather that the subjectivist can mount a case that informed desires are more plausibly determinative of one’s reasons than uninformed desires. I wouldn’t want to have to say that the latter sort of desires are not really desires, or not really desires for P–only that without making use of our intuitions about what, substantively, the right answer is about what we have reason to do, the subjectivist can find more plausible the connection between informed desires and reasons than uninformed desires and reasons.

  11. Some might worry that Ripstein’s argument commits the so-called “genetic fallacy”: that it takes the plausibility of a principle or theory to depend, at least in part, on the manner in which people have come to endorse the theory or principle. The claim seems to be that, if those who endorse some principle P do so on the basis that its implications cohere well with their pre-theoretic intuitions, then P has been “rigged to get the right results” and this provides grounds for doubting P. (Perhaps this is not quite right. Perhaps Ripstein’s claim is not that rigged principles are, for that reason, false or implausible, but rather that they are not what they purport to be: in this case, a purportedly pure subjectivist principle that is the product of rigging may be true, but it’s not really a pure subjectivist principle. I would be uneasy about this claim too. I don’t think we should be categorising moral positions on the basis of the manner in which people typically come to hold them; but that’s another issue.)
    That claim strikes me as false. But perhaps it is not Ripstein’s claim. Perhaps his claim is that what counts against the plausibility of principle P is not the fact that, as it happens, people tend come to believe that P because they see that it gets the right results, but rather the fact there is something in the nature of P such that people could only come to believe that P for such reasons. The objection to P might be that it is inherently rigged; there could be no rational grounds for supporting P apart from its getting the right results.
    Consider an analogy with the practice of drawing up boundaries between voting electorates. We might say that some ways of drawing up boundaries are inherently “gerrymandered”; they are so unnatural and awkward that the only reason a person could have for adopting such boundaries is that they will yield the right election result. When we see such boundaries drawn on a map, we don’t need to inquire into how those boundaries were selected; just seeing the crooked lines all over the place is sufficient evidence that someone is trying to rig the election.
    Now, perhaps we might say something similar about certain principles or theories. A principle might be so unnatural and awkward that it should be regarded as inherently rigged to get the right results. Indeed, I think this property is already widely recognised in philosophy; it is the property of being ad hoc. In general, ad hocery is frowned upon in philosophy. The fact that a principle is ad hoc is widely regarded as fair grounds on which to reject the principle.
    So perhaps Ripstein’s claim is that pure subjectivist accounts can only be made out in an ad hoc way. (Or perhaps it’s a dilemma: either pure subjectivism is ad hoc, or it doesn’t get the right results.) I’m not whether that’s true, or whether its being true would constitute a decent objection to pure subjectivism. But it seems more promising than the “genetic fallacy” argument, at any rate.

  12. I’m coming late to the debate, and I must confess not to have read attentively every contribution. So I apologize if I am repeating things that have been said before. I tend to agree with David here that the subjectivist cannot just be happy with rigging the procedure, and I think the comparison with consequentialism is apt, but perhaps a comparison with utilitarianism might work even better. Suppose you’re a Benthamite, but you notice that your theory is not giving intuitive results. You then decide to “rig” your notion of pleasure so that the results conform with our intuitions (you decide for instance that you’ll count the pleasure you take when you’re inside the experience machine counts as of lower intensity, or not as pleasure at all). Now what you might end up proposing, might turn out to be a pretty plausible moral theory, but might not be a form of utilitarianism at all. So when “rigging” the procedure, one needs to keep score of whether one is still a subjectivist (of course, not much might hang on whether a view counts as subjectivism or not, but if one thinks that there’s something very intuitive about subjectivism, one would like to know if one’s final view is still capturing it).
    Gauthier, for instance, defines subjectivism as the view that our normative assessments of the agents are made according to the standards provided by his own preferences (this is not a quote; I don’t have the book with me, but I think I got it roughly right). This seems to me a plausible understanding of subjectivism, and does raise a worry about rigging procedures; they might end up no longer capturing this aspect of subjectivism. Which leads me to a vague concern about David’s proposal on the ice-cream front. One might complain here that the procedure seems like a good one, because of the nature of the value in question (gastronomic delight, or something like that). For other values, these procedures might be meaningless (if what I want is to be saviour of humanity, it might make little sense to ask that I get the phenomenology of the experience about being the savour of humanity right, let alone that I make sure I experience it after a salty snack). But in this case, our evaluations are being guided by the standards provided by the nature of the values in questions, not by the standards of our preferences ( I said this was going to be a vague concern).

  13. On second thoughts, I don’t think my earlier post can be quite right. Ripstein’s objection cannot be that pure subjectivism is false. After all, he seems to concede that the subjectivist can rig up a principle that gets the right results. And if a principle gets the right results, then it surely cannot be false. So his objection must be something else. I see two possibilities.
    1. Perhaps the objection is that pure subjectivism is, not false, but trivially true. (It’s too true to be good?) As I understand it, pure subjectivism (PS) is roughly the view that there’s some procedure R such that an agent has reason to perform some act A iff she would come to desire to A were she to engage in R. But what is the correct procedure? Suppose that the only criterion we have for deciding between procedures is to check whether they get the right results. Then it seems that PS will be powerless to resolve substantive disputes. Suppose, for example, that I believe that I have reason to vote, but you believe that I have no reason to vote. And suppose that we agree to use PS to resolve our disagreement. Then I will endorse a procedure that gets the right results, and you’ll endorse a different procedure that gets the right results by your lights. And since there are no further criteria by which to adjudicate between procedures, appealing to PS will leave us hopelessly deadlocked. In this way, PS may have no substantive content and, hence, be trivially true.
    2. Or perhaps the objection is that, although PS is true, it lacks explanatory value. If our reason for endorsing a particular procedure is solely that it yields the right results, then it might be hard to see how those results could be explained by the fact that they’re yielded by the chosen procedure. That may seem all too circular to be a decent explanation.

  14. Campbell, your (2) was exactly what I was saying was a bad objection. I guess I had better try a different way of saying why I think it’s bad.
    First, compare scientific explanation, and in particular inference to the best explanation. In an inference to the best explanation, there is some observed phenomenon, and we notice that if we posit a law of a certain kind and structure that we “get the right results.” We take that to be a good reason to think that the posit is correct: there is such a law. And, we think, the law explains the phenomenon.
    There is no circularity in this process, because there are two kinds of explanation, one running in each direction. One sort is epistemic. That runs from particular case to general law. The other kind is, well, maybe metaphysical in this case, a relation of determination; it runs from the law to the particular case.
    Now, as far as I can tell, there could be just the same situation in the case of ethics, only instead of metaphysical determination we might have moral justification (but it could be metaphysical determination, too, it depends on how you think of the status and point of the subjectivist view). So, for the same reason, there is no objectionable circularity.

  15. I find this exchange interesting and instructive. I’m replying in the circumstances of an imperfect procedure for careful deliberation—an airport departure lounge. That said, here are some thoughts.
    I should begin by admitting that I may be missing the idea that is supposed to be captured by the phrase “the flavor they have most intrinsic reason to taste,” because I’m not sure that I know what the modifier “intrinsic’ is supposed to add, and because I’m not sure how it differs from “the flavour they will enjoy most.” I make this admission because I think that if we ask “what procedure will be the best for identifying the flavour they enjoy most” the procedure is plainly impure: we are just trying to figure out how best to find out what the enjoy the most. To answer that question we obviously need to look to the various ways in which a taste test can be diverted from its aim. Such things and aftertastes need to be considered, as do things like the “positions effects’ that social psychologists have written about. But all of those things need to be controlled for just because the point of the test is to find out what the taster enjoys the most. And nobody would want to deny that other things being equal, a person has reason to eat the flavour of ice cream she most enjoys. But that wasn’t the issue: the issue isn’t one of how to figure out what somebody wants, but to figure out what they have reason to do. We already know what people have reason to do with tasting ice cream, unless it is a special case in which the person doesn’t have reason to eat the flavour she will enjoy, perhaps because she is allergic to chocolate. Maybe that is what “intrinsic” is supposed to control for. If so, it just makes my point for me – the other things equal reasons to choose flavours is enjoyment. Of course it is true that “All of this is designed to give the agent more accurate information about what it would be like for them to eat this or that ice cream in some situation. This obviously need not involve already knowing which ice cream the agent ought to like best.” The procedure is impure because it presupposes a criterion of “choice worthiness” in ice cream. It is true that you can often only find out what someone enjoys by asking them, but that doesn’t entail that choice or ideal choice constitutes its object, and more than the fact that asking someone what colour something is in the right circumstances makes it be that colour.
    My point wasn’t that enjoyment isn’t a reason, but rather that we presuppose the idea that enjoyment is a reason when we say that someone has reason to do what they would choose in circumstances where we are sure only enjoyment is at stake.
    The more general approach Sobel offers seems to me to merely reproduce the problem with the ice cream example. He writes “only one’s desires for A as it truly is (or would be if it were made a part of one’s life in some way) determine one’s reasons with respect to that option. Thus to elicit the relevant preferences we have to make sure that the agent is confronting the option as it really is (or would be).” That sounds to me like a substantive thesis about reasons, which makes information relevant. It seems to me transparently vulnerable to Gibbard’s example of digestion: if I knew everything, and was vividly aware about digestion, I might lose my appetite. Does that mean I have reason not to eat? The obvious rejoinder is that I need to use the information that is relevant. True, I say, but again, that seems to concede my point.
    This brings me to Heathwood’s remarks about how rigging is the normal philosophical procedure of modification in light of objections. Not always, I want to say. Rawlsian reflective equilibrium works in this way, and I would not want to eb taken to be critical of it. My point is that there isn’t an alternative to it. As Sellars puts it, there is no presuppostionless mode of discourse, because nothing can be both presuppostionless with respect to its object and regulative. But I would have thought that the entire point of subjectivist accounts is reductive—to claim that reasons are generated out of preferences and that he relevant preferences can be identified neutrally, that is, in a way that doesn’t’ presuppose reasons. If they do presuppose reasons, then I’ve made my point.
    I want to add one final thought in response to Campbell’s point. I am not saying that people choose the procedures they do in an attempt to get the results they want. My point was supposed to be conceptual: the only justification for choosing one procedure over another must come from something outside the procedure. What you would choose has to be distinguishable in principle from what you did choose on a particular occasion. Once we drive a wedge between actual and ideal choice, we need to be able to say what can go wrong with the actual choice. We can only say that from a particular perspective, which already contains the distinction between good and bad influences that the pure procedure was supposed to generate. I don’t mean to deny that being well informed before you choose is obviously a good thing. My point is just that the relevance of extra information depends on what is at stake. Sometimes what you have reason to choose depends on what you would do if you didn’t have certain bits of factual information. Gibbard’s digestion example makes this point, but so does the entire law of evidence, which directs the court to withhold prejudicial information from the finder of fact. When we grade papers, we are supposed to ignore, for example, what a student looks like, how they voted, etc. all of these bits of information are irrelevant to the task before us. In each of these cases, we have a pretheoretical grasp of what is at stake, and that governs the kind of reasons we have. The same thing applies to Sobel’s ice cream: what information matters depends on what is at issue, but pseudo factual inquiries about what someone would choose presuppose the very things they purport to explain.

  16. In the light of Arthur’s comments, I think I see the dispute between him and Dave more clearly. As I now understand it, Arthur’s argument is something like the following.
    (1) Pure proceduralism implies that there exists some procedure P such that P is pure and P determines people’s reasons.
    (2) For any procedure P, if P determines people’s reasons, then P is pure only if one can be justified in believing that P determines people’s reasons without appealing to P’s tendencies to produce results of a certain kind.
    (3) There exists no procedure P such that one can be justified in believing that P determines people’s reasons without appealing to P’s tendencies to produce results of a certain kind.
    Hence,
    (4) For any procedure P, either P is not pure, or P does not determine people’s reasons.
    Hence,
    (5) Pure proceduralism is false.
    Dave accepts (1) and (2), but wants to reject (3). Does that sound right?
    I’m not sure how to characterise the views of Chris and Jamie on this picture. Perhaps they reject (2).

  17. Another afterthought (note to self: must stop posting so hastily). My formulation of pure proceduralism doesn’t seem quite right. It’s probably better to say that, in pure proceduralism, purity is a property not of the procedure itself, but rather of the manner in which the procedure determines people’s reasons. That is, rather that saying “some pure procedure determines people’s reasons,” we should say “some procedure purely determines people’s reasons.” It’s not entirely clear to me what distinguishes pure determination from impure determination. But I take it that the idea is something like this: to say that a procedure purely determines people’s reasons is to say that the procedure does all the determining work by itself; it shoulders the full determination burden alone. (A little metaphorical; but you get the idea, I hope.)
    Now, I’m pretty confident that, if my formulation of the argument were revised along these lines, then Jamie would object to premise (2). He would claim that a procedure might purely determine people’s reasons even though our sole justification for believing that it does so rests on consideration of the procedure’s tendencies to produce certain results. This connects nicely with his claim, made earlier, that the metaphysics need not fall into line behind the epistemology. The question of whether a given procedure determines people’s reasons is a metaphysical one. While the question of how we might be justified in believing that a given procedure determines people’s reasons is an epistemological one. Hence, they are independent questions. The pure proceduralist can help himself to considerations of “getting the right results” in his epistemology without thereby being committed to putting such considerations in his metaphysics.
    If that is Jamie’s view, then I must confess to being largely in agreement with him — seems spot on to me.

  18. I don’t exactly understand the stuff about pure procedures in this context, so I don’t know what to say, but I think probably I do deny (2).
    I know about pure procedures from Rawls (making it especially appropriate that Chris Heathwood invoked reflective equilibrium in defense of what, as I understand it, is now being called or compared to a pure procedure). As Rawls explains it, a pure procedure confers justice on its outcome. But he also says that the choice of principles in the original position is a kind of pure procedure. It always seemed to me that there must be two kinds of pure procedure, since the choice of principles in the original position could not confer justice on its outcome in the way that, say, a democratic election or a fair coin flip could. Wow, it’s a long time since I’ve thought about this stuff. Anyway, the point here seems to be that a ‘subjectivist’ theory will say that some things are reasons for you in virtue of the fact that you would be motivated by them under conditions C, which is analogous to Rawls’s claim that certain principles are the principles of justice in virtue of the fact that they would be chosen in the original position.
    This seems fine with me. And then the fact that a subjectivist may want to revise what he says about conditions C on the grounds that the deliverances of the theory he had are very counterintuitive does not seem in any way objectionable. In fact (as I mentioned), Rawls quite self-consciously and unabashedly ‘rigs’ the characterization of the original position in just the analogous way.
    I wonder if the terminology is making things more confusing than they ought to be. Everyone will agree that it would be very odd to think that we might revise our view that democratic procedures confer fairness just on the grounds that recent outcomes have been dreadful. (Well, it’s tempting!) It would be peculiar to come to doubt that a coin flip made it fair to give the last piece of pie to Dave, just on the ground that I am sure that I ought to have it. But I think these examples are irrelevant. No subjectivist theory of reasons should advertise itself as a ‘pure procedure’ in that sense.

  19. Arthur,
    Concerning the ice cream case, I was thinking that it does not presuppose independent standards for the subjectivist to hold that one’s reasons (including one’s reasons in certain contexts) are determined by one’s desires–that is not presupposing independent standards but rather the subjectivist thesis itself.
    Thus in the ice cream case, presupposing that one’s reasons are determined by what one most prefers seems to me to not be making assumptions that are problematic for the subjectivist.
    But perhaps it will be held that one’s reasons here are determined by “enjoyment” which is different from the subjectivist friendly notions of preference or desire. It seems to me that Scanlon and Parfit, who each want to deny that desires can ground reasons, want to go this way and Scanlon explictly uses the notion of enjoyment to ground reasons of mere taste, which he holds is not to give a grounding role to desire. But then I want to hear more about enjoyment–is it just a flavor of sensation, for example.

  20. David,
    I’m a little bit worried that we are talking at cross purposes. You say “But then I want to hear more about enjoyment.” It is always a pleasure to talk about enjoyment, but my point has little to do with enjoyment as such. The point is that when you ask what a person would choose, the answer you get depends on why they were choosing from among that set. The hedonist principle for choosing ice cream is “choose the one you expect to like”; the competing hairshirt principle is “choose the one you won’t enjoy,” the competing ideological principle is “choose the one that is made by a company with good politics.” Now you might want to say that only the first of these grounds of choice is intrinsic to ice cream. That seems to me to illustrate the difficulty I’m getting at in two related ways. First, the idea that it is intrinsic presupposes a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, so that taste alone is intrinsic to ice cream. My view is that any such distinction is just a paraphrase of the plausible substantive claim that when nothing else is at stake, you should choose the option that you expect to enjoy. That claim looks like it is an extreme form of subjectivism, but in fact it is just the opposite, because the clause “when nothing else is at stake,” identifies the claim of competing reasons, just as “normal lighting conditions” identified the circumstances in which things look what they are. There is a difference, of course: whether the extrinsic influences on your choice of ice cream count as reasons or distortions is more likely to be controversial then whether or, for example, the colored lights are distortions. But neither of these controversies can be resolved of subjectivist grounds. Consider an example: social psychologists have shown that people are subject to position effects, so that they will prefer the sample that is on the right over the one on the left, quite apart from the other features that the samples have. Suppose that someone were to conclude from this that people have more reason to choose the object on the right. What do you say to such a person? You might respond that being on the right is the wrong kind of reason for choosing ice cream (or almost anything else). You would be right about this, but you could only make your point on non-subjectivist grounds, namely by saying that position effects distort choice, by distracting people from the intrinsic qualities of the things chosen, in favor of their merely relational spatial qualities. That can’t be an empirical hypothesis about the effects of things on choice, because, although it is presumably true as a matter of fact, the priority of the intrinsic over the relational in terms of worthiness for choice isn’t a fact about choice dispositions. It’s just the opposite: an assertion that some facts about dispositions to choose are irrelevant. In the same way, where a student sits in the classes he relevant to the assessment of his or her essay. But that isn’t because position effects don’t influence the ways in which grades are assigned, but precisely because they do. The intrinsic/relational distinction just is a distinction about relevance.
    Second, it is much more difficult then the ice cream example suggests to even identify what would count as an intrinsic reason in choosing food. Think of foods that you might described as “delicious, but in a downmarket kind of way.” Do you have an intrinsic reason to want those things, or an extrinsic one? Intrinsic to what? The food? The dining experience? Your mood? The combination of all of these things?
    I concede that there is a further puzzle about enjoyment or pleasure, but it is an artifact of assumptions that I reject. It is of some antiquarian interest because it is arguably what drove the Mills, pere et fils, to talk about ideal choice rather than pleasure. The Mills wanted to explain the difference between pushpin and poetry while sticking to their guns about there being a single thing called “pleasure” that people have reason to pursue. Once we abandon that assumption, though, there is no further difficulty with saying that you sometimes have a reason to have the one you will enjoy-in-the-way-that-you-find-ice-cream-enjoyable.
    Finally, one comment about the idea of a pure procedure as Rawls develops it. The Original Position is supposed to be a pure procedure for generating principles of justice, but it is supposed to generate them out of conditions that represent persons as free and equal. That is, it already specifies the types of reasons that are relevant – the freedom and equality of persons with the two moral powers that Rawls emphasizes – to generate principles out of reasons. It doesn’t purport to generate reasons out of dispositions, in the way in which the appeal to hypothetical choice does. Instead, it seeks to generate principles for social institutions out of basic normative commitments. That’s why Rawls can consistently talk about a pure procedure while also being committed to the idea of reflective equilibrium.

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