Desires vs. The Reduction Basis of Desires

Do you want to embarrass a subjectivist about practical reason or well-being? C’mon, you know you do. Well then, all you have to do is ask them if the heroes they so eagerly cite as motivating and explicating and defending subjectivist accounts are themselves subjectivists. The answer is that often they are not. Hume seems, as is being gleefully pointed out frequently these days, to have been a complete skeptic about normative reasons. Recall he held that even acts and passions mislead by false factual beliefs still lack representative content as so still cannot be comfortable to or contrary with reason, except in an improper way of speaking.

Bernard Williams defended internalism, the view that a necessary condition on having a pro tanto normative reason to O is that one would be motivated to O after sound deliberation. But subjectivism, at least as I understand the view, is a claim about what makes it the case that we have reasons, not merely an account of what tracks true reason claims. Thus Williams’ internalism does not state a distinctively subjectivist position (albeit, when pressed he defends the view in ways that I think are clearly subjectivist friendly). A non-subjectivist could accept Williams’ internalism and yet hold that it is not an agent’s contingent desires that make it the case that she has a reason to O (even if they are a necessary condition on having a reason to O). Indeed, Korsgaard explicitly does so.

Peter Railton’s “full information” account of an agent’s good is, I would submit, despite significant criticism, still the state of the art subjectivist-friendly account. (David Lewis defends a somewhat similar account in a subjectivist-friendly way and Michael Smith adopts features of such a view in his objectivist account of practical reasons). But Railton disowns the subjectivist interpretation of his own view. He writes:

I propose to say that what makes some or other end or activity be part of an individual’s good is not the fact that he would, were he ideally informed (and so on), desire that his actual self pursue it, but rather the existence of the reduction basis for that counterfactual, namely, the particular constellation of law-governed features of the actual individual and his circumstances in virtue of which these claims about idealized hypothetical desires hold. Thus, the truth-condition of the claim that such-and-such is good for a given individual is directly given by the existence of this constellation of features, without detour through idealized desires. We may, then take an individual’s desires, as they approach idealization in the limit, to be indicators of his good, of the presence of the sort of fit discussed previously between an individual and an end or activity. (“Facts and Values,” p. 62-3. See also “Moral Realism,” p. 12 and note 17. Page numbers are to the articles as they appear in Railton’s Facts, Values, and Norms, Cambridge, 2003).

Thus, Railton’s view is that it is not the informed desires that make it the case that something is part of one’s good, but rather than one’s informed desires for 0 are explained by a set of complex, relational, dispositional facts which themselves are the truth-maker for facts about what is part of one’s good. And because of this, I think it right to say that Railton’s view is not subjectivist.

I want to attempt to begin to put pressure on such a view—pressure that would tend to show that Railton should have embraced the subjectivist interpretation of his view. This is usually the best that subjectivists can do with their would-be heroes; namely argue that the would-be hero was doing great until the unjustified move which kept them from being a subjectivist proper.

I will offer two lines of thought aimed at suggesting that Railton should have embraced the subjectivist interpretation of his view, but it is really the second line that I am interested in thinking about here.

The first thought is that Railton has no account of how to characterize the reduction basis of the agent’s idealized desires except in that way. That is, there is no independent account of what the truth-maker of a person’s good claims is, on Railton’s story, except whatever natural facts serve as the reduction basis of the idealized agent’s wants for the non-idealized agent to want. But then it is hard to see how the dependent facts could explain the independent facts.

The second thought is that either the desire is too distinct from its physical causes or it is identical to it. My claim will be that in either case it more plausible to hold that it is desires that ground claims about what is good for a person than to hold that the desires merely track, without grounding, such claims. Consider first the first option. Suppose that, metaphysically, one could have the latter physical facts without the former desire facts (think of Chalmers’ and Levine’s arguments that there seems to be an explanatory gap between the physical and the mental). In this case it would seem that the physical, absent the desire, would not ground claims about what was in a person’s good. Consider a simple case of a matter of mere taste. Suppose A+ desires that A desire diet Coke rather than diet Pepsi. Suppose too that the physical structure of A and A+ could be in place and yet such a desire not exist, indeed perhaps such a physical structure could be in place in a zombie with no mental life at all. Would we still, in such a case, say that the presence of the physical facts, absent the desire facts, grounds claims about what is good for this individual? Presumably not. Presumably we think a thing can only have a good if it has some kind of mental life (or, at a minimum, that some aspects of our good are due to our having a mental life). In any case we think that what grounds the reason to drink diet Coke over diet Pepsi is that one likes the one more than the other and no physical facts could ground this reason in the absence of the desire facts. The moral: if the desire is too distinct from the physical facts such that one can pull them apart modally, then it is the desire, rather than the physical facts that seem to have the better claim to ground the reason.

Alternatively, suppose one could not have the relevant physical facts without also having the desire facts. That is, suppose the former metaphysically determine the latter. Why might this be so? Well the most likely answer is that the desire-based facts just are identical to some complicated physical facts. And if this were so then there could be no competition between the desire-based facts and the physical facts to explain and ground claims about a person’s good. Just as there can be no competition between “its being water” explaining certain things and “its being H2O” explaining certain things, in this case too there is no competition between the desire and the physical structure in grounding claims about a person’s good.

I do not see this problem for Railton’s non-subjectivist interpretation of his own view as decisive. I am sure one could find fancy moves borrowed from the philosophy of mind that could save the objectivist interpretation Railton prefers. So my hopes for my “argument” are limited. I hope to have made a case that Railton’s objectivist interpretation of his view was optional and undermotivated and is, at least at first sight, the less intuitively plausible interpretation than the subjectivist interpretation. If we end up thinking the objectivist interpretation of his view puts the view in its most attractive light we will need to be shown how the desire can plausibly be seen as neither too close to the reduction base nor too far away from it as well. The subjectivist interpretation seems to have an easier time of it here.

22 Replies to “Desires vs. The Reduction Basis of Desires

  1. “The first thought is that Railton has no account of how to characterize the reduction basis of the agent’s idealized desires except in that way. That is, there is no independent account of what the truth-maker of a person’s good claims is, on Railton’s story, except whatever natural facts serve as the reduction basis of the idealized agent’s wants for the non-idealized agent to want. But then it is hard to see how the dependent facts could explain the independent facts.”
    I don’t think this line of thought is going anywhere. The situation is just like a disposition (e.g. fragility: to break when struck) and its underlying substructural basis, described in terms of atomic structure or whatever. Surely the atomic structure explains the fragility, not vice versa. And this is true even if we have no idea what the atomic structure is, and even if we have no way to refer to it except as “the substructural basis of this item’s fragility”.
    Likewise, even if we don’t know the natural facts that underlie an agent’s desires, and can’t describe them any other way, those facts explain the desires. We just don’t know the explanation.

  2. Hi, I recently wrote a blog post speculating as to whether Railton’s “ideal agent” approach might reduce down to a simple desire-fulfillment theory.
    I’m pretty new to this topic, so if you care to comment on my post that’d be great. But in any case, I have a more immediate question for you here… would a basic desire-fulfillment theory count as ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’, as you use the terms here? (It strikes me as ‘subjective’ in the sense that all value is ultimately relative to an agent’s own desires, but ‘objective’ in that one can be mistaken about what will in fact best fulfill one’s desires. Which sense do you mean in this post?)

  3. Richard,
    Thanks for the question. I guess much would hinge on what you mean by a basic desire-fulfillment theory. But if you mean something like what Don Hubin advocates in “Hypothetical Desires” (Nous, 1996)–what I think he calls actual, intrinsic desires–then I would certainly say such a view counts as subjectivist in my sense. Here is the account of what makes a theory subjectivist that I have been working with (until someone shows me it is wrong):
    Subjectivism about reasons for action is the thesis that only an agent’s contingent concerns ultimately ground her practical reasons. In cases in which subjectivism is offered in a cognitivist spirit, to ground a reason would be to be a part of the truth-maker of one having that reason. Subjectivists disagree amongst themselves about exactly which of an agent’s contingent concerns, that is, concerns that one could be a coherent agent with or without, are the authoritative ones such that they ground reasons. Yet subjectivists agree that if one has a reason to O, that reason can only be grounded by the fact that O-ing would serve some contingent concern or other.

  4. One thing I find puzzling about discussions of subjectivism is that I am not aware of anyone who actually is a subjectivist. Just as you suggest that the supposed “heroes” of subjectivists are not really themselves subjectivists, I wonder if there are are really any serious advocates of subjectivism at all. Your last comment, however (with talk about what subjectivists agree and disagree about) suggests to me that I just might be wrong and there might be a thriving community of proponents of subjectivism. Could you give some names of current philosophers who could be counted as subjectivists or (perhaps even more useful) references to a few articles or books in the current literature where subjectivism is defended? That would be much appreciated.

  5. Laurence,
    It does seem that there are fewer card-carrying subjectivists than one would expect given that lots of the literature is devoted to refuting subjectivism. But, in addition to Hubin, I think of Jamie Dreier. You might read his “Humean Doubts about Categorical Imperatives,” in Millgram’s Varieties of Practical Reasoning, MIT, 2001. Hubin has several papers in the past 10 years on the topic, including “Whats Special about Humeanism,” Nous, 1999. I am sure there are other very good subjectivists out there. The problem is that there are lots of economics or decision theory influenced philosophers who seem to think subjectivism obviously true and are insensitive to the real concerns about the position that one should be concerned about. I have some papers on this subject (often aimed more at protecting subjectivism from attacks more than actually offering positive arguments for the view) which can be found on my web page.

  6. Hi David,
    I agree with your reasons for putting pressure on Railton’s view. I’m tempted, if not convinced, by subjectivism. But I’m puzzled about the view itself.
    Your version concerns the truthmakers for reason claims. (Note another version might just be “reasons just are desires” or some such thing. I like the elegance of that view, but let’s ignore the difference here. ) Are the truthmakers facts? Throw caution to the wind…yes. Then the only question is, Which ones? Subjectivism then says they are facts concerning one’s contingent desires that are the truthmakers for reason claims. Maybe that’s too slim. Add the fact that one desire something to facts about actions–such as that the action would fulfill that desire. Those are objective facts, but we’ll allow a hybrid view, won’t we? Subjectivism then would be the view that facts about our desires are simply essential elements of the truthmakers for reason claims.
    My first puzzle: It has always been surprising to me that subjectivism should be stated as a view that asserts that reason claims are made true by any facts at all–never mind where those facts happen to reside. Reasons are claims about subjective facts, but in a sense those facts are just as objective as any other fact. Somehow subjectivists should be denying that there are any facts at all underpinning reason claims. They should be denying the objectivity of this talk. They should be, perhaps, an error theorist.
    Be that as it may, where I go wilfrid is in determining just exactly which facts you want. It sounded initially, with the talk of the reduction base of desies, that what you want is the fact that I’m in a desiring state. But that doesn’t seem right; that I’m in a believing state would also be a fact that could undergird reasons in the same way (as in “It was the fact that I *believed* he was sick that was the reason I didn’t just blow off visiting”). It seems mysterious to me why the fact that I’m in one psychological state rather than another should result in such momentous differences vis-a-vis the truthmakers of reason claims. (The fact that I’m in a psychological state of a certain sort seems to ground my reasons to do things, but not really in the right way. “Fulfilling” the desire is just one way to deal with them as states. You could hit yourself in the head with a hammer to stop the desire, say.)
    In your responses above, though, it looks like you’re angling toward a distinct, and I think better, account: “subjectivists agree that if one has a reason to O, that reason can only be grounded by the fact that O-ing would serve some contingent concern or other.” The word “serve” here does lots of work. It requires, for instance, not just the extinction of a desiring state, but a kind of fittingness of the action to the state. So it looks as if *the fact that my desire is for F* that is important here, since that propositional content is what gets the fit with the desire.
    That won’t do either: You need a difference in valence between belief state and desire state. But this ‘fittingness’ has me bothered too. Because this extra fittingness fact seems to call for more objectist treatment than I’ll bet you’d like.

  7. Robert,
    Good to hear from you, and thanks for the helpful comments. Let me try to resist to some extent. In some cases I find your writing condensed and so I might not fully have cottoned on to all your points. If I missed something, I hope you will reformulate for me.
    I am not sure why you want to say that the subjectivist should be, or need to be, error theorists about reasons, so I will allow myself to speculate a bit. It is true that facts about desires are every bit as much facts as facts about storm fronts and such, so this, it seems to me, opens the possibility that the subjectivist vindicates the thought that there are facts about our reasons—it is just that those facts are determined by complicated facts about what we would desire. I think Don Hubin has persuaded me that subjectivists have the option to be non-cognitivists about reason claims. Subjectivism could be a substantive story about reasons in the way that a noncognitivist could be a substantive consequentialist about morality. But there is a tendency to think that subjectivists are somehow forced to be noncognitivists or error-theorists and I don’t see why people think this. I had to be persuaded that the subjectivist had the option to be anything other than a realist about reasons. Maybe the thought is that subjectivists think that there are no mind-independent facts about reasons and so they can’t be realists. But I think this just a bad formulation of what realism about reasons requires. Psychological facts are, as you say, just as much facts as other kinds. It would be a very large adjustment, to say the least, to think there were no mind-independent facts about storm fronts and such, but I don’t think it requires anything like this level of adjustment to commonsense to think that what determines our reasons is facts about us.
    I was seeking a broad categorization of subjectivist accounts (both good and bad versions). I don’t mind that it can count as a subjectivist view a view that has it that in come cases we ought to eliminate some desires rather than satisfy them, so long as, according to the view, desires are uniquely crucial to the existence of what reasons there are. “Uniquely crucial” is a promissory note—I have to think about the first thing you say about “facts about actions” being part of the truth-maker in addition to desires.
    I think subjectivists are committed to thinking that there is a difference in valence between beliefs and desires—that a desire for p necessarily involve a positive valence towards p whereas a belief that p need not. I agree that only if this difference can be vindicated does subjectivism stand a chance, but this does not seem worrisome to me. Should it?

  8. David, fair enough on the initial terminological issue. It’s really just a peculiarity of the labels I think. What I wrote was dense because I was thinking while I was writing it (bad sign…can’t do 2 things at once. ((Note to self: Rewrite blog posts))).
    My worry has to do with which facts, exactly, are picked out by your account. My initial thoughts (in a nutshell) were (i) that there are two facts, the fact that I’m in a desire state rather than a belief state and that my desire state is an attitude toward F rather than G. These seem different (at least they seem to ask for different explanations.) (ii) Of the two, it is the fact that my desire is for F rather than G or whatever that is the fact that has the best shot at grounding the truth of reason claims. (I.e., it is contingent ‘desire-eds’, not contingent ‘desire-ings’, that we’re talking about when we talk about reasons. But (iii) your attack on Railton’s views suggests the former. Your complaint appears to be that Railton-like views are in a bind about what to reduce ‘desire-ings’ to, about what these states consist of.
    My thought on (ii) was that the fact that I’m in a ‘desire-ing’ state rather than a ‘believe-ing’ doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a reason, and to the extent that it is, facts about my believings provide truth-makers in the same way for reason claims. So you should go with the contingent ‘desire-eds’ as reasons. I don’t know what that does to your views about the problem with Railton. Maybe it doesn’t affect the reduction issue; I can’t tell. But it does put pressure on the subjectivity of subjectivism (so to speak.) Mainly it does so because we seem to speak now of facts about things as the truthmakers of reasons claims–things coated with our subjective perspective, all right, but things nonetheless. In fact, the things have to be, in a way, appropriately coated…they have to ‘fit’ our subjective state. That ‘fit’ seems also to be an objective fact.
    That’s alll not such dark talk now I hope.

  9. Robert,
    I agree that the fact that I have a desire (paying no attention to what the desire is for) would provide no reason to do anything in particular. To get the idea that we have reason to A rather than B we need the thought, I agree, that the desire is for A rather than B. I don’t yet see this as messing with my complaint against Railton. I take it his view is that facts about desires generally (both that a state is a belief not a desire and that a state is a desire for A rather than a desire for B) have a reduction basis and it is the facts about the reduction basis which does all the normative work. That is, I think he would say the same thing about what you called desire-eds as he would say about desire-ing.
    The version of subjectivism I like at this point would say that I have a reason to 0 iff 0-ing is useful to the achievement of getting things that I want in the right way. So I am happy with claims like: “Joe has a reason to raise that glass to his lips and pour since this will get him the water he likes in the right way.” Here we have a fact about the raising of the glass and its effects, but what makes this something the agent has reason to do is due to the fact that the agent wants liquid. The same fact would provide water-logged Sally no reason to raise the glass. Desires make the difference. So far, I don’t mind any unsubjective air any of this might have—it is subjective enough for me.

  10. OK just skip the subjectivism worries. Let me ask you a different question. You say that a zombie can’t have a good because it has no mental life. I’m not sure why you say this though (maybe I’ve just seen too many zombies lustily chomping into too many brains at the movies?) My good consists partly of a house, a car, a quick drive to work, low cost of living. Things get on that list by being desired, of course. But my zombie double’s good consists of the same list, absent any mental characterizations. Things get on the list by being related to the purely physical states he is in. Why, again, aren’t the things on that list my zombie double’s good? I’m missing something there I think.
    Another question: “What grounds the reason to drink diet Coke over diet Pepsi is that one likes the one more than the other and no physical facts could ground this reason in the absence of the desire facts.” I’m not following this. My fault, but I can’t quite see what your thought is here. Is it that ‘I like x more than y’ is irreducibly mental?

  11. Robert,
    Concerning Zombies: the claim I made and need for my point was the fairly minimal claim that:
    Presumably we think a thing can only have a good if it has some kind of mental life (or, at a minimum, that some aspects of our good are due to our having a mental life).
    I myself would be tempted to go further and insist that if a thing has no qualia, it has no intrinsic good. A wind up toy that walks like us and talks like us has no intrinsic good of its own—it can be good of its kind but knives can be good of their kind and no one thinks they have a good of their own. Why should we think the Zombie Robert with no mental life at all has a good of its own. Surely not just because it looks like you and talks like you. Why think that a knife has no good of its own? Surely because nothing can matter to the knife. Perhaps we just have conflicting intuitions here but, although I do not need the claim for my argument here, I find it nearly irresistibly compelling to think qualia is a necessary condition for a thing having a good of its own.
    About the Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi: the thought is that if the desire state can come apart from the physical state, then it seems that the reasons go with the desires rather than the physical state. I take no stand on whether this is metaphysically possible. Then the thought is that if the desire state and the physical state cannot come apart even metaphysically, the best explanation for this is that the desire state just is identical to the physical state. In this case, there could be no causal competition between the two and thus Railton’s attempt to say that it is the physical state rather than the desires state that grounds the reasons would not work.

  12. Nothing can matter to a knife. But things matter to Zombie Robert. All the same things that matter to me. It’s just that there’s nothing it feels like to matter to Zombie Robert.

  13. You will have to explain to me the sense in which things matter to Zombie Robert but not to the knife. I suppose you might just mean that they matter to him in the sense that what happens with respect to those things determines how well Zombie Robert’s life goes. This would be a sense of mattering that was just parasitic on the thought that something can be good for a thing (perhaps we could call it a sense in which things matter for but not to the agent). Here the thought is that because we already know that it would be good for him to get it, we are thereby entitled to say that it matters for him. Thus this sense of mattering will not help adjudicate our dispute–as we are disputing whether anything can be good for Zombie Robert.
    But perhaps you have a sense of mattering in mind that is different. Perhaps you have in mind a sense of mattering in which its so mattering to him might seem to justify the thought that he has a good. This is the sense of mattering in which I don’t yet see how anything could matter to Zombie Robert. I don’t see how to understand this sense of mattering as anything other than a psychological fact and, by hypothesis, Zombie Robert cannot have the relevant psychology.

  14. Will this work? In this world are me and my mental states and the physical states that realize those mental states–mental states such as what it feels like for something to matter to me. There is also a list of things that, possessed by me, constitute my good. Things get on the list by being related to the physical states that realize my mental states such as what it feels like for these to matter to me. In zombie robert’s world, things also get onto the list by being related to those states too, though in zombie robert rather in me. Its just that the mental states, or the conscious parts of them, aren’t there. Why those physical states for zombie robert? Because that is what we were talking about when we talked about what mattered to me; we were talking about things and their relationship to physical states in me. Perhaps the only way we are able to identify the physical states in zombie robert’s world that determine whether things get onto the ‘good for zombie robert’ list is by way of feels in me. And perhaps he can’t track it in the way I do. We would only know what matters for zombie robert if we knew he was in the physical state that is the same as the one that realizes my mental state of mattering.

  15. I am not sure if you are speaking in your voice here or saying what you think Railton ought to say. But in either case, I do not yet see any intuitive pull to the idea that Zombie Robert has a good–nor yet any reason to think this intuitive thought mistaken. If Railton’s view has to say that he does, I think this a serious flaw in his view. All the contending accounts of well-being (hedonism, desire-theories, objective list accounts) give pride of place to what makes something good for me, to psychological facts broadly construed. Objective list accounts focus on genuine friendship, appreciation of beauty, pleasure, etc. None of these things, I assume, can Zombie Robert have. Thus I think my intuitions here are widely shared–a thing’s losing permanently all of its mental life does not leave most of that thing’s good in place–rather that thing has lost the capacity for things being good or bad for it.

  16. Maybe we need to clarify more. A zombie doesn’t lose all of its mental states, just the feel of them…on the other hand, I suppose some think qualia are essential to beliefs and desires, though that doesn’t seem to be standard (I defer to any experts here). A zombie also couldn’t have any beliefs whose content concerned qualia. If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are qualia, then a zombie can’t have desires for the good, and, if desire is essentially an attitude that x is good, then zombies couldn’t have desires either. But I assume we reject that view of good and bad. And, true, hedonism is ruled out, at least if we think pleasure and pain are qualia. That doesn’t matter so much. So it seems a zombie robert (can I call him rob zombie?) can have a good.
    But you’re thinking of something more extreme, a dualist view in which we could peel off all of the mental life, leaving only the physical states that realize them, and consider that. Can that have a good? I think you need argument that it doesn’t, but probably we only want to be dualists about some of mental life, just the qualia part. If something like the view I was angling at were adopted (the view that what we are talking about is all physical stuff and laws, etc. (we being creatures with a mental life that is realized in physical states), a view that doesn’t seem to be a nonstarter (but maybe I am rob zombie and don’t have any seemings!) you need something more, I think anyway. Clearly you’re right that there are some goods that would be inaccessible to rob zombie, goods such as certain sensations. But rob zombie could have all the rest.
    Let’s think about the other possibility, then, the materialist alternative you give Railton. So there’s no competitition between desires and the physical states that realize them because they’re one and the same. Are you assuming a non-eliminativist view here? Because on an eliminativist view, to the extent that they aren’t in competition, that is because there aren’t any desires.

  17. I guess I am confused by the idea of a mental life with no qualia. I am told that some, perhaps many, functionalists would agree with you on this, however. Perhaps this is at least one source of disagreement between us.
    Yes, I was assuming that the relevant materialist view would vindicate the existence of desires rather than eliminate them. This seems to be a presupposition of Railton’s own view. He holds that desires do track the materialist reason-giving states.

  18. I don’t think we’ve been in disagreement, not yet anyway. I’m just getting oriented in the logical space you’re carving out.
    If Railton thinks his view is not subjectivist because, although there are indeed desires, it is the physical states that realize those desires that make true any judgments about what reasons we have, then I think you’re right. So it seems that he would either have to accept subjectivism or eliminativism. Of that pair, given the rest of his views, he should choose subjectivism.
    I’m not quite sure that eliminativist views can’t be subjectivist, now that I say it, though. This is what puzzled me initially maybe about the quote from Railton. I was puzzled by why he thought this avoided subjectivism. By ‘subjectivist’ is standardly meant the view you delineate above whereby the relevant judgments concern psychological states. But I suppose someone might think that what makes a view subjectivist is something broader, and so isn’t that the relevant judgments are about ‘mental’ states, but that they are about ‘inner’ states of the subject. If the physical states that realize desires are mostly inside the agent–in his nervous system–then there would still be a sense in which eliminativism would be a subjectivist view. Subjectivism in that nonstandard sense would be, roughly, the view that the truthmakers of the relevant judgments are states of the subject (physical or psychological).
    It seems to me that whatever Railton finds objectionable about making reasons judgments concern the subject’s mental states should also trouble him about the subject’s physical states. What makes it objectionable (perhaps) is that these statements don’t concern the world outside of the subject. For instance, the old Moore objection that subjectivism makes disagreement impossible remains, whether the inner states are physical or mental.

  19. This is helpful. It pushes me on questions that I only rarely think about.
    Michael Smith uses the last objection you mention about the impossibility of disagreement on the subjectivist view, but I think the objection does not stick here. According to the subjectivist, there is a single right answer for everyone about what a particular individual has reason to do. There is no single answer about what everyone has reason to do, but the subjectivist can vindicate the thought that we can disagree about whether or not A has a reason to X.

  20. I agree with the objection may not stick. I was only saying that I don’t know which meaningful objections to subjectivism would be avoided by Railton’s manueuver in the first place. The disagreement objection doesn’t get helped: If I say the room is 10 ft. wide and you say, no, it’s 11 ft. wide, we’re not in disagreement if I was using my feet to measure, you were using your feet. Your feet are 10% smaller than mine. That’s the general problem that Moore thought (agreed, perhaps wrongly) afflicted subjectivism. What matters is that we’re deploying different standards. Pointing out that our feet are realized in physical states won’t help.
    So what downside is he trying to avoid with his maneuver? Perhaps he’s worried about mental states not being ‘objectively there’ in the world (in which case your line of reasoning should disabuse him of that worry). He can’t be worried that reason judgments would fail to be ‘objective’ in the sense of being about stuff outside of the subject, since (I think) we would still be talking about ourselves, just in physical terms, with his maneuver. It wouldn’t be psychological autobiography, but material autobiography, but autobiography nonetheless. He can’t be worried that he’s committed to ‘desiring makes it so’ for reasons, since that has nothing to do with the maneuver. Now I’m finding that Railton quote ever so mysterious.

  21. Yes, he does not tell us what problem for standard subjectivist views his view avoids. Perhaps he is thinking this is just the right thing to say regardless of whether or not it solves any general probs for the subjectivist.

  22. I doubt he’s just saying it because it classifies the view correctly. Here’s a guess: the passage reveals a preference for materialism and he didn’t want to be hamstrung by casting his value theory in terms that required a reference to psychological items. He does seem in this passage to be thinking that it would be nice if the ‘detour’ through idealized desires could be dispensed with in the semantics. Presumably it would be nice because then we have a theory that makes the world safe for science. I guess your point is that the normative oomph of the theory of the good comes precisely from that detour through desires. We can’t give an adequate theory of the good except under the heading of ‘the desirable’.

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