(This marks the first of eleven “meetings” of our virtual reading group on Derek Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain—see here for further details.)
This rich and interesting chapter contains a profusion of useful definitions and distinctions, but the main point is to argue that we should reject desired-based theories about reasons for action and accept instead some value-based theory. Whereas desire-based theories hold that reasons for action are all provided by facts about what would best fulfill our present desires, value-based theories hold that no reasons for action are provided by such facts but are instead all provided by facts about which possible outcomes are and are not worth achieving. If I understand things correctly, Parfit offers the following two reductio ad absurdum arguments against desire-based theories.
First, desire-based theories must deny certain eminently plausible claims about what we have reason to desire and prefer, such as that we have intrinsic telic reasons to want to avoid future pain and that we have intrinsic telic reasons to prefer slight future pain to future agony. (An intrinsic telic reason to want x is a reason to want x for its own sake because of its intrinsic properties.) On desire-based theories, we can have only instrumental reasons (not intrinsic telic reasons) to want to avoid future pain, as when our having this desire will be instrumental in our fulfilling some present desire. To see why, on desire-based theories, there can be no intrinsic telic reason to want to avoid future pain, consider the following two exhaustive possibilities. The first possibility is that we do already desire to avoid future pain. But having this desire doesn’t provide us with an intrinsic telic reason to have this desire. As Parfit notes, “Wanting something cannot give us a reason to want this thing” (p. 17). The second possibility is that we don’t already desire to avoid future pain. But, on desire-based theories, only facts about our present desires can provide us with reasons and no fact about a present desire that we have for something else could provide us with a reason to want to avoid future pain for its own sake. So, on desire-based theories, we will, in neither case, have an intrinsic telic reason to want to avoid future pain.
Second, because desire-based theories hold that what we have most reason to do is whatever would best fulfill our present informed desires, they must hold that Pafit’s Blue—who now, after informed deliberation, most wants to lead a life consisting only of unrelieved suffering—has most reason to give himself such a life, if he can (see pp. 19-20). And this is just absurd.
This is only a very brief summary, but hopefully this and the following questions will be enough to get the discussion going. I’ve numbered the questions for easy referencing. And, of course, participants should feel free to pose their own questions, comments, or criticisms.
Q1: Has Parfit established his claim that some value-based theory is true, and thus that no reasons for action are provided by facts about our present desires? Or has he established only that desire-based theories are false—merely that not all reasons for action are provided by facts about our present desires?
Note that the value-based view is not the logical contradictory of the desire-based view. Rather, they represent two opposite extremes on the issue of what proportion of our reasons is provided by facts about our present desires. The desire-based theorist says, “all,” and the value-based theorist says, “none.” Surely, though, there is a lot of room in-between these two extremes. So although it’s clear that Parfit has argued against desire-based theories, it’s not clear whether he has given any positive arguments in favor of the value-based view.
Q2: Do hedonic desires (our likings and dislikings concerning certain bodily sensations) provide reasons for action?
According to Parfit, our hedonic desires are not rationally assessable (p. 15). And Parfit holds that, “When we are in great pain, what is bad is not our sensation, but our conscious state of having a sensation that we intensely dislike” (p. 15). Thus it would seem that our hedonic desires can determine whether a sensation is pleasant or unpleasant and thereby determine whether we have a reason to pursue it or avoid it. But isn’t this, then, a case where some reasons are provided by our desires, specifically, our hedonic desires? And this relates to Q1; it seems that we can reject desire-based theories for the reasons that Parfit gives but also reject value-based theories because we think that our hedonic desires provide us with reasons.
Q3: Parfit says,
When we have reasons to act in some way that are stronger than our reasons to act in any other possible way, acting in this way is what we have most reason to do. When our reasons to do something are much stronger than any conflicting reasons, these reasons are decisive…Some possible act is what we ought to do, in the reason-implying sense, when this act is what we have most reason to do (pp. 4-5).
Two questions: (a) Can’t reasons normatively relate to each other in non-aggregative ways? That is, might an agent not have best reason to do x and, consequently, be what she ought to do even if she doesn’t have most reason to do x? Perhaps, the conflicting reasons are all trumped, excluded, or undermined by the reasons in favor of x. (b) Might there be other necessary conditions for a reason’s being morally decisive beyond its being much stronger than conflicting reasons? For instance, someone might hold that a reason is decisive only if it isn’t undermined or excluded by other reasons or only if it has certain content (e.g., self-regarding content).
Q4: Following Scanlon, Parfit endorses the buck-passing account of value, where to call an event good is to attribute to it the purely formal, second-order property of having properties that provide us with reasons to want it to occur, or to be glad that it has occurred. But what about the wrong-kind-of-reasons problem (The WKR problem)? Don’t we need to narrow the field of reasons that count to, say, object-given reasons?
Take Parfit’s example entitled “The Despot’s Threat” (p. 13); this is a classic instance of the problem, where one has (state-given) reasons to want to be tortured even though being tortured is clearly not good. Surprisingly, Parfit has nothing to say about the WKR problem. This is especially surprising since a number of philosophers have appealed to his distinction between object-given reasons and state-given reasons in attempting to solve the problem. His silence on this issue would make more sense had he claimed that since “it is only object-given reasons to which we can directly respond” (p. 14), state-given reasons are not genuine reasons. Although, in note 12 on p. 221, he says that we might make this “stronger claim,” he stops short of doing so himself. What do others make of his silence on this issue?
Q5: Following Scanlon, Parfit claims that the concept of ‘a reason’ is indefinable in the sense that it cannot be helpfully explained in other terms (p. 4). We can say that facts give us reasons when they count in favor of our having some belief or desire or our performing some action, but ‘counting in favor of’ just means roughly ‘giving a reason for’. But what might Parfit say in response to Joshua Gert, who holds that concepts denoting wholesale normative verdicts (concepts such as ‘irrational’, ‘rationally permissible’, ‘rationally required’, etc.) are more fundamental than the concept of ‘a reason’ and that, therefore, we can analyze the concept of ‘a reason’ in terms of these other more fundamental concepts, holding that “reasons count in favor of actions either by being the kind of consideration that can make it irrational to fail to perform them (which is the same as making it rationally required to perform them), or by being the kind of consideration that can make it rationally permissible to perform them, when otherwise it would have been irrational” (Gert 2004, p. 68)?