Chapter 1: Reasons

(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)?

43 Replies to “Chapter 1: Reasons

  1. Good points Douglas,
    I’m going to quickly take up last three:
    Q3: I think Parfit would accept that reasons can interact in more complicated ways than strict aggregation, in the Dancyan way. But, when it comes to what you have decisive reason to do, all that interaction is done with and you are left with certain reasons counting in favour of phying and some reasons counting in favour of other actions. Which reasons are left to favour the options then determines what you have decisive reason to do. I think that decisive and most are supposed to be here situation specific attributes of reasons.
    Q4: The buck-passing account does not ultimately play that big of a role in the book and I think most his theses, if not all, could be formulated in ways that are based on some other views. But, as you say he could use the state/object given reasons for this problem, and it would have been interesting to read about that. Personally, I’ve never been convinced by the WKR problem in the first place. I fail to see what reason-providing properties the Demon and the like have but that’s another story.
    Q5: I think Gert has more work to do here than Parfit. At least when we look at ordinary discourse, I presume people talk more about reasons – which considerations are normatively relevant for how they act – than they talk about rationality which mainly sounds like philosophers’/economists’ term of art. I think people just have more intuitions about reasons than rationality. And, it’s not clear that the connection is that direct. Many people think that you can act rationality but not have reasons to act in that way and that you can act irrationality even if you do what you have reason to do.
    If I remember correctly my own main question about the first chapter is about its ending. There Parfit seems to think that it’s an argument against naturalism and for non-naturalism that value-based views have the upper hand against desire-based views. I wonder what the connection is supposed to be. As far as I know there are many naturalists who hold a value-based view (Blackburn, some Cornell realists, Jackson?, and so on), and probably non-naturalist desire-based views. So, I guess I didn’t see the connection there. This of course wasn’t presented as a real argument so this is just a small wrinkle.

  2. Doug: Great summary and questions. I have no answer to any of them, but I do have a question of my own, what I guess we can call Q6, and it relates to the first reductio to the desire-based view, and in particular to the second horn of the dilemma he poses. Suppose that we don’t want to avoid some future agony for its own sake. As he puts it, “On desire-based theories, if we don’t have this desire, we cannot have any reason to have it” (17). Now he’s been assuming here that desire-based theories hold that reasons are provided only by *present* desires, “either what we actually want, or what, after informed deliberation, we would now want” (17). So we’d have no reason to care about our future if we didn’t have any desires *now* to care for it.
    But since Parfit allows into the mix “informed deliberation,” a kind of ideal self view, why can’t the desire-based theorist articulate the perspective of the ideal to be that of his self timelessly considered, i.e., the perspective of the *person-as-a-whole* of which his present stage is just one part? From the timeless perspective, then, what would my self, abstracted from any individual time-slice, desire for me at this particular time-slice? This could allow quite significant differences between my actual desires and my “informed” desires, but if the informed, ideal perspective is privileged, that could make it the case that I have reason now to desire things that I don’t actually now desire (like the avoidance of future agony for its own sake), where the reasons are all still desire-based. There may of course be difficulties in rendering the notion of a “person-as-a-whole” coherent, but that would be independent from the worries in the text.
    Here’s another, much simpler question (Q7): on p. 6, Parfit defines a good thing “in the reason-involving sense,” as a thing having “properties or features that would, in some situations, give us or others reasons to treat this thing in certain ways.” My question: how does this distinguish “good” from “bad,” given that presumably the same definition would apply to the latter?

  3. David,
    I like the first point. Regarding the second, I think the difference must be in the ‘certain ways’ that differ with the respect of good and bad things; admire the former/avoid the latter crudely put.

  4. Jussi: I’d thought that must be the case as well, but given the tightness of the other definitions in the chapter, I was just surprised at the looseness of this one.

  5. Dave,
    In Q6, you ask, “But since Parfit allows into the mix ‘informed deliberation’, a kind of ideal self view, why can’t the desire-based theorist articulate the perspective of the ideal to be that of his self timelessly considered, i.e., the perspective of the *person-as-a-whole* of which his present stage is just one part?”
    But what guarantee is there that one will, after informed deliberation, care about one’s future? None! Of course, you can define the “ideal self” normatively as the self that cares about what she has reason to care about (such as her future), but, in doing so, you would be rejecting the desire-based theory and admitting that those reasons don’t stem from any present (actual or hypothetical) desires. So I think the dilemma is either you define the ideal self non-normatively in which case there is no guarantee that even ideally situated people will care about their future agony or you define the ideal self normatively and give up the desire-based theory.
    Regarding Q7, I think that Jussi is right. That definition on p. 6 is just a lead in two types of goodness: (1) goodness for and (2) impersonal goodness. Both of these (given on pp. 7 and 8) are explicit about the relevant attitudes being pro-attitudes: wanting or being glad.

  6. Doug,
    As David said, great summary and questions.
    I, too, was wondering about something in the neighborhood of Q1 and Q2. Regarding Q2, Parfit does say:

    We … have many reasons that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have certain desires. But, though these reasons depend on these desires, they are not provided by these desires. These reasons are provided by certain other facts, which depend on our having these desires.

    Perhaps Parfit would respond to Q2 (and try to save value-based theories) by saying that hedonic desires never provide reasons — rather, some reasons merely depend upon them. After all, when it comes to sensory pleasure, the reason-providing fact is (roughly) of the form x’s having sensation S while wanting to have S. This is the fact that provides a reason, and, although it contains a desire as a part, it is not just the fact of someone’s having a desire (there is the other part of someone’s having some sensation).
    The other point I wanted to make is that even if hedonic desires commit Parfit to the claim that some desires provide reasons, it still seems to me that the more important distinction is between desire-based and non-desire-based views rather than between value-based and non-value-based views. This is because, as I see it, desire-based views avoid, and non-desire-based view must accept, the idea of “intrinsic normativity” — the idea, found queer by Mackie, that we just have some reasons to do certain things and to have certain attitudes no matter what our interests.

  7. Chris,
    Good points. I think that you’re right about how Parfit would respond to Q2. But even if hedonic desires don’t fit the bill, I’m not sure that he’s shown that no reasons for action are provided by facts about our present desires. But perhaps the idea is that if any desires do provide reasons, then hedonic desires would. Since hedonic desires don’t (or so Parfit argues), perhaps Parfit is entitled to conclude that no desires provide us with reasons.
    And I like your second point.

  8. Doug and David,
    I’m interested in this “timeless perspective” idea. Here’s two things.
    (1) On Doug’s reply to David’s timeless perspective view. Doug claims that on a desire-based view, nothing guarantees that one will, after informed deliberation, care about one’s future. This is true, but I took David’s timeless perspective proposal to be designed so that an agent like Blue may still have reasons not to have a future of unrelieved suffering even though he now doesn’t care about that suffering. This is because, when he later suffers, he will desire not to be suffering (Parfit’s views of the nature of suffering commit him to this). Thus for all those years of agony Blue will be giving this future a thumbs down. All these years of thumbs downs will outweigh the thumbs up verdict he gives now to his future of suffering. It would then follow on the timeless perspective desire-based view that Blue has reason not to want this future, even though he has no present desires not to have it.
    Is that what you were thinking, David?
    (2) On Intrinsic Normativity. As I said above, it seems to me that many who accept a desire-based view do so because they find intrinsic normativity queer. They don’t see how a person could ever have a reason to do something unless it would satisfy some desire of his.
    My question is: If some desire-based theorist thinks this, why would he allow merely hypothetical desires (like the desires he would have if he were fully-informed and thinking clearly) to provide reasons? (Likewise for future desires as on the timeless perspective desire-based view). For if he allows this, then isn’t he admitting that a person could have a reason to do something even though it doesn’t satisfy some desire of his? (Some present, actual desire of his, that is.) This is to allow intrinsic normativity.

  9. Chris (Dave?),
    What, then, is the difference between the timeless-perspective desire-based view and the view that holds that the best life for a person to lead is the one with maximal desire satisfaction over time? Isn’t the latter view a value-based view?

  10. Doug: Per your very last comment, it depends on the details of the timeless-perspective view. One way is that articulated by Chris in (1) above.
    But there could be other versions.
    Second, as to your original response to me, Doug, you’re right, but notice that your response is based on Parfit’s *second* reductio (the saucer of mud argument). So no, there may be no *guarantee* that I will have reason to care now about my future self’s agony, and this may be absurd in cases where I don’t, but most people will on the ideal self construal I’ve suggested, and anyway that wasn’t the thrust of the first reductio. Instead, that was intended to show that I couldn’t have *any* reasons now to desire some future agony-relief if the desire-based view were true. I intended my timeless-perspective case to cut against *that* argument alone. But then all the weight against the desire-based view has to shift to the second reductio.

  11. I have a question about Parfit’s first argument against desire-based views. Parfit claims that DBR views rule out the possibility of reasons to want something for its own sake. Take some end E which intuitively we have reason to want for its own sake. Parfit’s claim is that, on the DBR theory, any reason to want E must be provided by some desire for something other than E. Ok. But then, he claims, one’s reason for wanting E will be instrumental – it will be a reason to want E for the sake of this other end.
    I’m not sure about this last inference. Can’t the DBR theorist think that having some desire can give someone a reason to want something else for its own sake? The idea would just be that, as having the intrinsic desire for R itself promotes the desired end E, wanting E gives one reason to want R for its own sake. This seems analogous to a hedonist thinking that, as caring about one’s family for its own sake tends to lead to more pleasure than having a merely instrumental care for one’s family, one has reasons to care about one’s family for its own sake. Or am I missing some important difference here?

  12. Doug,
    You wrote:

    What, then, is the difference between the timeless-perspective desire-based view and the view that holds that the best life for a person to lead is the one with maximal desire satisfaction over time? Isn’t the latter view a value-based view?

    I agree that it’s tricky to spell out the difference. Here is one way that classifies the timeless-perspective desire-based view as desire-based but the maximal desire satisfaction over time view as value-based. On the former, the reasons we have for or against some possible future of ours are provided by the fact that our timeless, fully-informed self has some attitude towards that future. On the latter, the reasons we have for or against some possible future of ours are provided by features intrinsic to that future itself (e.g., that it contains lots of desire satisfaction). On the latter view, there is no appeal to any attitudes about the future, only to attitudes (and other things) withinthe future.
    But I admit it does become less clear why the distinction matters. Maybe these two views could even be made to be extensionally equivalent. Might the latter, but not the former, sort of view seem “queer” to some given that, on the latter view, reasons to bring about x aren’t provided by attitudes towards x but rather by features intrinsic to x?

  13. On Q5:
    Doug claims Gert 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’. But the quote by Gert doesn’t seem to support this. The quote is:

    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)

    Gert says reasons are considerations that can make it rational or irrational to do something. That is, reasons make it rational. He does NOT say that its being rational makes it be that there is a reason. This quote makes it sound like reasons are conceptually prior on Gert’s view. (I haven’t read Gert; maybe he’s just speaking with the vulgar in this quote.)

  14. I should confess that I have not yet read the updated version of Parfit’s Chapter 1, but I have read the previously published version and Scanlon’s similar work. I must say I simply don’t understand their view.
    Parfit seems to be saying that pain is reason-giving on its own, whether one likes it or not and that it is a big problem for desire-based views that they cannot explain this. But if we understand pain as a flavor of sensation that does not have conceptual ties to desires then I doubt that many would find this view plausible, let alone so obvious that it can be relied on in an argument against subjectivism. But if pain is understood so as to conceptually involve desire (perhaps an occurent sensation that one intrinsically likes for its own sake) then desire-based views can explain the reason-giving power of pain (indeed they would seem to have as good a story here as anyone). Thus I am just plain confused about how Parfit’s pain argument is supposed to have force against subjectivism.
    Other times the complaint seems to be that while admittedly pain conceptually involves desire, and so where there is a pain-reason there is a desire, the reason is not given by the desire. But what is the argument supposed to be for this and what is supposed to give the reason in such cases?
    Heathwood writes: “the reason-providing fact is (roughly) of the form x’s having sensation S while wanting to have S. This is the fact that provides a reason, and, although it contains a desire as a part, it is not just the fact of someone’s having a desire (there is the other part of someone’s having some sensation).”
    Is such a view supposed to not allow that desires ground reasons such that Parfit could accept it? I don’t see that. Take sensation A and B. I might like A and you might like B while experiencing it. If I do, then I have a reason to experience A and you have a reason to experience B based in the fact that this is what we like when we experience it. Isn’t that just to say that it is a kind of desire that provides the reason to have the experience? How does the nature of the A help ground the reason when the only thing we need to know about A to know I have a reason to experience it is that I like it? This seems like a subjective friendly account of intrinsic reasons to experience sensations to me.
    On another note, Heathwood also writes: “My question is: If some desire-based theorist thinks this, why would he allow merely hypothetical desires (like the desires he would have if he were fully-informed and thinking clearly) to provide reasons? (Likewise for future desires as on the timeless perspective desire-based view). For if he allows this, then isn’t he admitting that a person could have a reason to do something even though it doesn’t satisfy some desire of his? (Some present, actual desire of his, that is.) This is to allow intrinsic normativity.”
    I want to hear more about the notion of intrinsic normativity here. If it just means thinking that there is a good reason for A to 0 even in cases in which A does not here now feel the pull of such reasons, then I think any plausible account of normative reasons must believe in this notion of intrinsic normativity. What many subjectivists doubt is that there are value facts in the world that are determined not by the stance of agents. And a subjectivism that appeals to informed desires, it seems to me, avoids positing such values.

  15. David Sobel,
    You write,

    But if pain is understood so as to conceptually involve desire (perhaps an occurent sensation that one intrinsically likes for its own sake) then desire-based views can explain the reason-giving power of pain (indeed they would seem to have as good a story here as anyone).

    Let’s assume that pain does conceptually involve desire. I can see, then, how the desire-based views can explain the reason-giving power of pain, but can it explain the fact that we have (intrinsic telic) reasons to prefer slight future pain to future agony even if we have what Parfit calls a “meta-hedonic desire” to experience more pain in the future? It seems that the desire-based theorist, in contrast to the value-based theorist, must hold that the reason-giving force of a state of pain is a function of the intensity (and duration?) of one’s meta-hedonic desires regarding that state as opposed to being a function of the intensity and duration of that state of pain. (A meta-hedonic desire is a desire concerning one’s being in the state of pleasure or pain, that is, in the conscious state of having a sensation that we like or dislike–see p 15.)

  16. Dave Shoe.: your “timeless perspective” approach is almost Kantian. Warms the heart.
    Here’s just another kind of case to boost the intuition behind Doug’s Q1, calling into question Parfit’s claim that “no reasons are provided by our present desires” (p. 9, emphasis added). Maybe someone can tell me if I’m confused about something here:
    Say that all of us have some, relatively small reason to watch Game 6 of the Heat/Pistons series. Let’s stipulate that in fact this is a non-desire based reason to watch, namely that it will entertain. However, while we would both be entertained, the difference between you and me with respect to watching Game 6 is that I want to watch it and you don’t. That seems to give me a (non-derivative) reason to watch it, one that you don’t have.

  17. Josh,
    You write,

    However, while we would both be entertained, the difference between you and me with respect to watching Game 6 is that I want to watch it and you don’t. That seems to give me a (non-derivative) reason to watch it, one that you don’t have.

    Let’s suppose that you won’t feel any negative feelings (e.g., frustration) as result of not fulfilling this desire and won’t feel any positive feelings (e.g., satisfaction) as result of fulfilling this desire. In that case, I don’t see that you have any more reason to watch it than I do, assuming we both will be equally entertained.
    Try another case. Suppose that you don’t desire to watch the game but that you do desire to watch whatever the President is watching. I, in contrast, don’t. Unbeknownst to you, the President is watching the game. Furthermore, assume that it is impossible for you ever to discover what the President is watching or has watched. Do you have more reason to watch the game than I do? It is not at all obvious to me that you do.

  18. Jonathan,
    I’m not following you. The example you give seems to be one where I have a value-based, state-given reason to do what I can to make myself care about my family for its own sake. Can you give me a concrete example where my wanting X itself gives me an object-given reason to want Y for its own sake?

  19. Dave Shoemaker,
    I apologize for the misunderstanding. Thanks for the clarification.

  20. Sobel’s mistake is to think that, if you reject a desire-based theory, then you must claim that pain is bad even if we don’t care about it. But, that is not what Parfit, Sidgwick and others who accept value-based views claim. Their claim is that, if there is some possible future experience, and you would hate having that experience, then you have reason to want, for its own sake, to avoid having that possible experience. Your reason to try to avoid it is not provided by the fact that you now want to do so, since that desire is supported by this reason. If you were indifferent to pain, and it was not true of the possible future experience that you would hate having it, then on any plausible value-based view, you have no reason to care about it (other than possible instrumental reasons, that is).

  21. Doug,
    Thanks for the reply. You asked for an example of a case where wanting X gives an object-given reason for wanting Y for its own sake. I guess I can’t do this – the kind of cases I was thinking of are not object-given reasons. For example, my desire to do well in my career as a used car salesman might give me a reason to desire various tacky add-ons for their own sake – wanting them for their own sake will make it easier for me to persuade my customers to buy them (Millgram’s example, I think). In this kind of case a desire for X gives me a reason to desire Y for its own sake but its obviously not an object-given reason.
    However now I’m wondering how serious the objection that DBR views don’t allow intrinsic telic reasons really is. It sounds really bad to say that DBR views don’t allow for reasons for caring about future pain for its own sake, but the DBR view doesn’t imply that – it only implies that such reasons won’t be object-given. Maybe this is still a little counter-intuitive but to put too much weight on it seems to come close to begging the question against DBR views.

  22. Doug,
    Thanks for the admittedly intuitive challenge:

    Let’s suppose that you won’t feel any negative feelings (e.g., frustration) as result of not fulfilling this desire and won’t feel any positive feelings (e.g., satisfaction) as result of fulfilling this desire. In that case, I don’t see that you have any more reason to watch it than I do, assuming we both will be equally entertained.

    Let me try to raise your bet, by seeing if there’s a case where I will actually have overall negative feelings upon desire-fulfillment. For example, say that I will be overall saddened by watching the game because my team will lose (this sadness will outweigh any joy I get from watching the game). Or use an entirely different case: say that overall I will be frustrated by having a cigarette, i.e., even though it will bring me some pleasure, that will be outweighed by my disappointment in myself (or by the bad smell, or whatever).
    In such cases, it still seems to me that the mere fact that I want a cigarette or want to watch the game gives me reason to have it or watch it. (And, I’d add, it gives you reason to let me have it or watch it.) Indeed, if you urged me not to have the cigarette or watch the game because, as we both recognize, I will have negative feelings afterwards, it is not unintelligible for me to reply, “Yeah, but I want it anyway,” and for us to take this as a reason for doing it.
    Of course, these reasons might be overridden by other reasons, but that wouldn’t make them non-reasons.

  23. Josh,
    Notice that you talk about overall negative feelings. I can admit that even if overall you would feel better if you don’t watch the game, you still have an additional reason to watch the game given that you want to, since your not getting what you want will cause you to feel frustrated — a feeling that you have a value-based reason to avoid. In your case, I have a hard time imagining that you won’t feel some frustration if you don’t get what you want, which is to watch the game.
    Thus, what I think that we need is a case where it’s clear that frustration and satisfaction are not at issue — like the case where you want to watch what the President’s watching but you have no way of knowing whether that desire is fulfilled or unfulfilled. So, again, I ask, “In such a case, do you think that you have more reason to watch the game than I do?”

  24. Josh,
    Also, let me point out that we should assume, for the sake of argument, that hedonism and not desire satisfactionism is true. If you’re arguing on behalf of the desire-based view, you’ll want to claim that you have an additional reason to watch the game because you want to watch it even if desire fulfillment is neither good for you nor good impersonally. Thus let’s assume that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.

  25. Doug,
    The president case, as you describe it, is as follows: “you don’t desire to watch the game but that you do desire to watch whatever the President is watching. I, in contrast, don’t. Unbeknownst to you, the President is watching the game. Furthermore, assume that it is impossible for you ever to discover what the President is watching or has watched. Do you have more reason to watch the game than I do?”
    This is a weird case for me to get my head around, but I guess I’m inclined to say that I do have more reason. However, because it’s such a weird case, that judgment is probably just motivated by my prior judgment that my desires give me reasons, not by any direct intuition about this case. So my judgment here doesn’t really get us anywhere, dialectically speaking.
    I’m starting to think that maybe we just have clashing intuitions about this. If I’m following you correctly, you want to say that the reason I have to watch the game even when it will frustrate me is solely based on the fact that my desire to watch the game going unfulfilled will frustrate me. To me, it seems intuitive to add to that very plausible reason that another reason to watch is that I want to. (Again, I feel like I’ve had a number of non-odd-sounding conversations like this over the years, where someone insists that a (though not necessarily the only) reason for doing something is that it’s what they want.)

  26. Jonathan,
    You write, “It sounds really bad to say that DBR views don’t allow for reasons for caring about future pain for its own sake, but the DBR view doesn’t imply that – it only implies that such reasons won’t be object-given.” I think that Parfit might say that to show that desire-based theories deny that there are any object-given reasons to care about one’s future pain for its own sake is to show that desire-based theories deny that are any reasons to care about one’s future pain for its own sake. Parfit might say (and comes close to saying — see note 12) state-given reasons are not genuine reasons.
    For instance, the fact that the despot has threatened to torture me unless, at noon to tomorrow, I want to be tortured for its own sake does seem to give me a (object-given) reason to want to have this desire and to do what I can ensure that I will have it, but it doesn’t give me any reason to want to be tortured for its own sake. And the same goes for the belief 2 + 2 = 1. See pp. 13-14.

  27. Doug writes:
    “Let’s assume that pain does conceptually involve desire. I can see, then, how the desire-based views can explain the reason-giving power of pain, but can it explain the fact that we have (intrinsic telic) reasons to prefer slight future pain to future agony even if we have what Parfit calls a “meta-hedonic desire” to experience more pain in the future? It seems that the desire-based theorist, in contrast to the value-based theorist, must hold that the reason-giving force of a state of pain is a function of the intensity (and duration?) of one’s meta-hedonic desires regarding that state as opposed to being a function of the intensity and duration of that state of pain. (A meta-hedonic desire is a desire concerning one’s being in the state of pleasure or pain, that is, in the conscious state of having a sensation that we like or dislike–see p 15.)”
    If I am understanding what Doug is offering of Parfit’s behalf here, it is to allow that what makes something pain or pleasure is that it is intrinsically wanted for its own sake. But to go on to say that the wholehearted subjectivist would have to say that a person with a more authoritative desire to avoid experiences that she wants for its own sake has no reason to get more rather than less pleasure (so understood).
    It is at least initially confusing to imagine a person who intrinsically wants to not have experiences that they intrinsically want. Perhaps we can understand such a person as against experiences that they want in favor of other things that they want? Perhaps they have powerful “then for now” desires that differ from “now for now” desires and the former are supposed to be more authoritative? Anyway, that is the best I can do to understand such a person.
    Let’s suppose that we can successfully make out as coherent such a person and that the wholehearted subjectivist needs to say that they have no reason to get pleasure rather than pain. Does this entail that the person who says that one has reason to get pleasure (so understood) avoids allowing that desires ground reasons in some contexts? I don’t see that they do.
    Perhaps the issue is this. Imagine a Benthamite hedonist (pleasure as a sensation view) who holds that pleasure and pain give one the only non-moral reasons there are, but that pleasure and pain give one no reason to act immorally. Pay no attention to the implausibility of the view. Does it allow that pleasure grounds some reasons? Maybe one could say yes and no. No, in that one needs to know more than just that an option gives pleasure to know if it gives a reason. The reasons of pleasure need to not be vetoed by some controlling normative story. But yes, in that once the veto is not invoked, it is pleasure calling the shots—the reason to choose A over B is (when both are morally ok) is that A gives more pleasure. Pleasure grounds some reasons.
    More generally, Doug’s strategy on behalf of Parfit (if I am getting it right) seems to amount to saying that if one lets desire play a role in grounding reasons that differs from the wholehearted subjectivist way of allowing them to ground reasons, that this therefore amounts to not allowing desires to ground reasons. And that seems misleading to me.
    Even more generally, sometimes I think (perhaps Philo above is an example) that one only counts as letting desires ground reasons if one lets just any desire ground a reason. But this is not the subjectivist view. I say one counts as letting desires ground reasons if future desires are held to ground reasons, informed desires are held to ground reasons, etc. Isn’t that the most natural way to understand the claim that no desire grounds a reason as entailing that no desire (informed, later, etc.) grounds a reason?

  28. David Sobel,
    I was neither denying nor affirming that desires ground reasons in some contexts. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they do in matters-of-taste-type cases. My point was only that the desire-based theorist (a.k.a. the subjectivist) doesn’t seem to be able to account for the fact that we have (intrinsic telic) reasons to prefer slight future pain to future agony even if we have a more authoritive (meta-hedonic) desire to experience more pain in the future? And I don’t see why it should be hard to imagine the logical possibility of a person who presently has an intrinsic desire that she experience more pain in the future. As I see it, it is, for any possible sensation, logically possible to now intrinsically desire that one will experience that sensation in the future, and this is true even if the given sensation is one that I know that I will intrinsically desire not to have when the time comes. At least, I don’t see any logical contradiction involved in having such a desire.
    So I guess that what I’m offering on Parfit’s behalf is that in so far at it seems to us absurd to deny that we have (intrinsic telic) reasons to prefer slight future pain to future agony even if we have a more authoritive (meta-hedonic) desire to experience more pain in the future, we have reason to reject desire-based theories.

  29. David Sobel,
    One other question: Would you still think that our (actual or hypothetical) future desires could ground reasons even if you thought that the fulfillment of one’s (present or future) intrinsic desires did not make one’s life go better for oneself? A value-based theorist can accept that we have reason to do what fulfills our present and future desires provided she holds that desire-fulfillment is prudentially and/or impersonally good. But if we have reason to fulfill our desires only if desire-fulfillment is good, then it does seem that although, as Parfit puts it, what we have reason to do depends on what we desire, the reason we have to do what fulfills our desires is value-based not desire-based.

  30. If we appeal to our future desires, and how our now doing certain things may lead to our later having desires that would be frustrated, then we are appealing to what Parfit takes to be value-based reasons. Why? Because such reasons would not be based on facts about what would get us what we now want, or would want if we knew more, and were thinking clearly. What’s special about what Parfit calls desire-based views is that they take all reasons to grounded in facts about, either what would get us what we now want, or what we would now want if we knew more etc. These theories make no appeal to what we want, but appeals only to the fact that we want something and that, if we acted in certain ways, we would fulfil these desires. If we appeal to the fact that, if we now act in some way, we would do what we would later regret, and wish that we had never done, then we take what we want to matter: we’d be wanting something that has features that gived us reaosns not want to do this thing, namely those having to do with how our future desires would be frustrated. Desire-based views, then, are those views that ground reasons in facts about desires whose intentional objects are rationally irrelevant.

  31. Sobel,
    What if we deny that pleasure is conceptually tied to desire, but hold instead that it is conceptually tied to some desire-like, but distinct, intentional attitude, such as the intentional attitude of ‘being pleased that’. It does seem to me that ‘desiring that’ and ‘being pleased that’ are distinct. After all, I can desire that I experience (or continue to experience) the sensation of redness (even for its own sake) and yet not be pleased that I’m having the sensation of redness. And it does seem that pleasure is conceptually tied to the intentional attitude of ‘being pleased that’, not to the intentional attitude of ‘desiring that’. So if this is right, then, in the cases of matters of mere taste, I have reason to drink Coke as opposed to Pepsi, not because my desire for the former is more intense than my desire for the latter, but because I get more attitudinal pleasure from the former than I do from the latter.
    So whereas the value-based theory correctly takes the strength of my reason to drink Coke to depend on the value of that event (i.e., the amount of attitudinal pleasure it gives me), the desire-based theory incorrectly takes the strength of my reason to drink Coke to depend on the intensity of my desire to drink Coke and to receive its effects.

  32. Philo and all,
    We don’t have any official policy of no anonymous comments (not yet, at least), but I think that one should not post anonymous comments unless there is a good reason to do so. We’re all trying to get our heads around these difficult issues, and it would be nice to know who we are talking to. Thanks.

  33. Doug,
    Thanks, I hadn’t read the footnote. Parfit suggests that state-given reasons are not genuine reasons because they are not the kind of reason to which we can directly respond – one can’t form a telic desire for X on the grounds that such a desire would be worth having. I guess I’d want to hear more about this criteria though. At first glance, it’s not at all obvious to me that we can directly respond to all object-given reasons to have telic desires. Can’t someone recognise that he has excellent reason to want something but nonetheless be unable to get himself to want it? Someone recognises that he has excellent reason to care more about global poverty, say, but just doesn’t find himself actually really caring about it?
    But maybe Parfit doesn’t mean that the difference between object-given and state-given reasons is that we are invariably motivated by one and not the other (that makes it sound like a very crude kind of internalism, which I’m sure he would want to avoid). Maybe the idea is that, for object-given reasons, there is a possible chain of reasoning that leads from the reasons to forming the attitude, whereas this isn’t true with state-given reasons. But it’s not clear that this distiguishes the cases either. If it means that we can reason our way to doing something that will lead us to have the attitude in question then this is true of both object and state-given reasons. If it means that object-given reasons can be the premises in a piece of reasoning whose conclusion is actually the relevant attitude then it’s not clear that either kind of reasons pass this test. Surely we don’t often perform inferences like this:
    R,
    so,
    I want p (or, probably better, some expression of the desire for p, whatever that may be)
    Just in general, I find the idea of reasoning to desires very puzzling. So I’m not convinced that Parfit has grounds for his suggestion that only object-given reasons are genuine reasons.
    Sorry for the long post!

  34. There seems something very odd about a meta-hedonic desire for future pain. If we hold that pain is the having of a sensation which one concurrently desires to avoid, then the meta-hedonic desire takes the Moore-paradoxical form of a desire that [p and I desire that not-p].
    I wouldn’t expect desires of this form to withstand ideal deliberation. (They surely are not any part of the maximally coherent desire set!) So doesn’t that save the desire theorist from Parfit’s reductio? On this response, the “Blue” scenario isn’t really possible.
    I also wonder how this would relate to similar paradoxical-seeming cases, say of someone who desires more generally that their future desires be thwarted, or that their wellbeing suffer, or that they do what they have no reason to do?

  35. Jonathan,
    As you rightly suspect, Parfit probably doesn’t have that crude version of internalism in mind. I think that he does, though, hold the following version of internalism: in so far as one is perfectly rational, one will respond to decisive object-given reasons to desire x by desiring x. Parfit says (p. 13) that responding to object-given reasons in this way is constitutive of being rational in the same way that responding to decisive object-given reasons to believe x by believing x is constitutive of being rational. This is not to say that the process is voluntary. (Parfit says that it is typically involuntary.) Nor is this to say that one will always respond to such reasons appropriately; we won’t when we are for some reason not perfectly rational, as when we are suffering from depression, weakness of the will, or the like.
    Now Parfit claims that we cannot respond to state-given reasons in this direct way. Take the case of the despot’s threat. In so far as one is perfectly rational, one can’t respond to the despot’s threat by wanting to be tortured or believing that 1 + 1 = 2. One can only respond indirectly by wanting to be in these states and by doing what one can to ensure that one will be in these states. But there are object-given reasons to want to be in these states and for doing what one can to ensure that one will be. These are the reasons to which we can respond to directly, which are object-given reasons. As Parfit says, “Whenever we have state-given reasons to have some belief or desire, we also have such object-given reasons to want to have this belief or desire, and to make ourselves have it if we can” (p. 14).

  36. Richard,
    You write,

    There seems something very odd about a meta-hedonic desire for future pain. If we hold that pain is the having of a sensation which one concurrently desires to avoid, then the meta-hedonic desire takes the Moore-paradoxical form of a desire that [p and I desire that not-p].

    Wouldn’t the meta-hedonic desire to experience future pain take the following different form: a desire that [~(p-now) and p-future] where p refers to the state of affairs where I experience pain? I don’t see anything paradoxical in this form of desire.
    Also, I might want to deny that “pain is the having of a sensation which one concurrently desires to avoid” if by pain you are referring to sensonsory pain. It seems to me possible that I can have a telic desire to be in sensory pain now. In any case, though, I can certainly have a telic desire for future pain (sensory or attitudinal), and I can certainly have a telic preference for future agony over slight present pain.

  37. Hi Doug,
    I don’t deny that you can have those preferences. I instead deny that you could retain them upon ideal rational reflection.
    I think we’re using our “p”s to refer to different things. On the view I have in mind, “the state of affairs where I experience pain” is non-basic. We can analyse it more fully as the state of affairs wherein I concurrently have some sensation S and desire that I do not. In my earlier formulation, I was taking ‘p’ to stand for “having sensation S”. What makes it a pain, on the attitudinal view, is that I concurrently desire to avoid S. So to desire pain (either now or in the future — I don’t see how tense plays any role here) is to desire that [I (will) have sensation S and desire not to have sensation S]. That is a desire with content of the form [p and I desire that not-p].

  38. Hi Richard,
    What do you take to be involved in ideal rational reflection? On the one hand, if you explicate the notion using only non-normative terms (e.g., where one is fully informed), then I don’t see how you can rule out the possibility that someone might retain a desire for future pain after ideal rational reflection. On the other hand, if you explicate the notion using normative terms (e.g., where one desires what one has reason to desire), then I don’t see how you can remain a desire-based theorist.
    On another less central point, I don’t think that it’s correct to analyze my being in pain as the state where I concurrently have some sensation S and have a telic desire that I do not. I think that the relevant intentional attitude has to be something like ‘dislike the fact that’ or ‘take pain in the fact that’ as opposed to ‘desire that it is not the case that’. It seems possible for me to have the sensation of redness and have a telic desire that I do not, but I would hestitate to call this attitudinal pain unless I dislike or am pained by the sensation.

  39. I had in mind reflection guided by some formal norms, esp. coherence (which should lead us to reject desires of the “Moorean” form identified above) — it doesn’t presuppose any particular view of substantive reasons, so I’d expect this to remain consistent with the desire-based view.
    Though your latter point seems plausible, and may suggest that a desire for pain does not take my “Moorean” form after all. (Though the resulting attitudes still seem less than “maximally unified and coherent”.) I’ll need to think about that some more.

  40. Doug,
    Two thoughts: First, I don’t yet see that it is obvious or intuitively clear that in the imagined situation (where pleasure and pain conceptually involve desires, and a person has what the subjectivist needs to construe as a more authoritative and intrinsic desire to not have pleasure, so construed, in the future) the agent truly has good reason to experience pleasure (so construed) in the future rather than avoid it. This, I take it, is the thought that your Parfit would be saying the subjectivist cannot accommodate. Likely, a necessary condition for making it seem that we have clear intuitions in this case, of the kind that tell against subjectivism, one would have to flesh out the case more. Perhaps I am just a victim of my theory here, and it is intuitively clear to neutral bystanders that one has the anti-subjectivist intuitions in such cases. But I don’t yet feel that pull.
    Now of course we are dealing with an agent with very unusual desires (I am setting aside issues about the coherence of such a set of desires). One quick and familiar argument against subjectivism goes like this: people’s desires can be for very weird stuff (counting blades of grass, etc.) but our reasons in such cases are surely not to do the very weird thing. So subjectivism is mistaken. At this point I don’t see how your Parfit’s argument is not just an instance of this familiar general patter and, at least for my money, less intuitively powerful than the grass-type cases. That is, it had seemed that Parfit was going for an argument that hinged on its just being obvious that we have reason to go in for pleasure and subjectivism had trouble with that. But then the argument seems to need to invoke a subjectivist account of pleasure and, at least by my lights, the results are not so intuitively clear that we can use our firm intuitions as an argument against subjectivism.
    Secondly, I myself think that Parfit cannot help himself to your argument if he wants to keep the claim that desires never ground reasons. For as I am understanding your argument, it hinges on its being the case that intrinsic desires for occurent experiences do ground reasons. Parfit, at least in earlier versions, seemed to want to say that allowing that future desires ground reasons is not to allow desires to ground reasons. I don’t find that a natural way to talk. Perhaps what Parfit really wants to say is that actual desires don’t ground reasons. But if so, then the subjectivist might be able to agree.

  41. Doug,
    I should have said that I also believe a desire-based account of well-being or benefit.

  42. Doug,
    I would need to hear more about the notion of “being pleased that”. Does it conceptually involve a non-rationally mandated liking or favoring attitude? Then, most likely, I will want to say it is in the broad, somewhat technical, category of desire or want as I would like to use those terms. Then, if I did think of “being pleased that” as a species of the technical notion of desire, I would think that the debate between champions of “being pleased that” and preferences would be a debate within the subjectivist camp. Indeed, it seems to me that the way your Parfit argues against typical desire theories is by appeal to the authority of a different set of desires (now for now desires over now for then desires, or desires concerning occurent experiences rather than desires for states of affairs).

  43. Sobel,
    You say, “I would need to hear more about the notion of ‘being pleased that’. Does it conceptually involve a non-rationally mandated liking or favoring attitude?” Yes, I think that ‘being pleased that’ is a kind of favoring attitude that is not rationally assessable. But it seems to me that it is distinct from ‘desiring’ in the ordinary sense of the word, for it seems to me that I can desire to continue to have the sensation of redness for its own sake even if I don’t take any pleasure in having that sensation. (This Hurka’s example, by the way.) Of course, you can, in some technical sense, call all non-rationally mandated pro-attitudes “desires” if you like, but in that case you risk talking past others. Indeed, it seems to me now that we (you, Parfit, and myself) might not disagree that much after all. We all seem to agree that there are some desire-like attitudes (indeed, you call them “desires,” whereas Parfit calls them “hedonic likings” and I call them “attitudinal pleasures”) that are not rationally mandated and that can make it the case that I have reason to do something (e.g., drink Coke) that you don’t have reason to do. Perhaps, we only disagree when we factor in what Parfit calls “meta-hedonic desires,” desires about these more primary states of having sensations that we like/desire/take pleasure in. Parfit and I will want to say that whether one has most reason to, say, drink Coke does not depend at all on one’s meta-hedonic desires, whereas it seems that you will say that it does depend on one’s meta-hedonic desire. You would say, if I understand your view correctly, that if one has a more authoritative meta-hedonic desire to experience sensations that one dislikes or takes attitudinal pain in (or, as you would say, to experience sensations that one desires not to have), then one could, in virtue of this fact, have more reason to do what will effect these (unpleasant) sensations than to do what will effect the (pleasant) sensations one gets from drinking Coke.

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