Favorite objections to subjectivism

I’m interested to know what people think are the most compelling objections to subjectivism. I understand subjectivism to be the view that one has a reason to do something iff and because doing that thing would further something that one has a favoring, not truth assessable, attitude toward. I take it that the subjectivist can say that the relevant favoring attitude is idealized in various ways, such as being accurately informed about the object of the attitude. Further I assume the subjectivist can pick and choose between favoring attitudes, for example, granting authority to attitudes closer to valuing the object and further from craving the object. Hopefully that gives enough of a sense of the view I mean to be talking about. Bernard Williams, for example, was, I think, a subjectivist even if his official formulation of (existence) internalism did not fully commit him to that view. Anyway, if I have managed to put a view on the table, tell me what you think is the best objection to it. 

82 Replies to “Favorite objections to subjectivism

  1. There are two sorts of objections I like:
    (1) Counterexamples: it’s possible for someone to take a favorable attitude in ideal conditions toward something that’s, intuitively, awful. Parfit’s “Agony Argument” is an instance of this: one might desire extreme agony even after ideal (procedural) deliberation.
    (2) Reasons First: our favorable attitudes can only give reason if they themselves are reasonable; a desire to drink a cup of coffee, for example, can only give us reason to drink if we have some reason for that desire. This is why we think of attitudes like valuing as reason-giving in a way that urges and cravings are not: the difference between an urge to relapse and a passion for philosophy is a difference of reasons (perhaps a slight one). But the subjectivist can’t abide by this principle, because she doesn’t think that we typically can have reasons to take an attitude. Why not? Because those reasons would themselves depend on some other attitude, which could only give reason if we had reasons to take it, and those reasons would be grounded in some further attitude, which could only give reason if…
    So maybe the real objection here is this: unless she accepts that we have reasons for valuing and desiring, the subjectivist doesn’t have a way to “pick and choose between favoring attitudes” like valuing and craving. This is unacceptable, because subjectivists need a robust distinction here to even get going. A theory that grounds reasons in mere cravings is doomed from the start.

  2. I don’t know whether this counts as an objection, but here’s my main reason for not accepting subjectivism: I don’t find that there is any good reason to accept it. That is, I don’t find the claim itself to be intuitively compelling, and I don’t know of any good argument for the claim. By contrast, I do find the following (objectivist) claim intuitively compelling: the fact that S’s X-ing would promote someone’s well-being constitutes a reason for S to X (irrespective of whether S has a favoring, not truth assessable, attitude toward the promotion of that someone’s well-being).

  3. One possible objection to keep in mind comes from the expressivist or quasi-realist camp. Namely, that they can endorse many of the worries about objective reasons that lead philosophers to accept subjective theories without having to absorb some of the costs mentioned by Daniel and Doug above. As Blackburn often points out, the quasi-realist/expressivist can agree with St. Augustine and the subjectivist that “in the pull of the will and of love appears the worth of everything to be sought or avoided, to be thought of greater or less value.” But he or she can at the same time account for, or make sense of, our inclination to want to assert that some things have a sort of value/disvalue that robustly makes them into sources of reasons across changes in our attitudes towards these things (“the nature of the later agony would give me a reason to want to avoid it even were I to lose my desire to avoid this later agony” etc.). So the objection would be that since there is an alternative theory of how to think philosophically about our thoughts about reasons that shares many of the good features of subjectivism, but also manages to avoid some of its costs, it would be a better idea to opt for the alternative instead. I find this to be an important, though not necessarily decisive, objection against subjectivism.

  4. Unlike Doug, I am intuitively attracted to subjectivism, but like him, I worry about the positive case. One reason for this is that subjectivism usually purports to be an analysis of either the concept of a reason or the meaning of ethical statements. Famously, this sets the bar extremely high: there can be no counterexamples, no regress, no circularity and people who speak as though subjectivism were false must be charged with either conceptual or semantic error (or both).
    This is why I could only accept a version of subjectivism that does not purport to be an analysis. Perhaps one that only means to reflect some deep facts about us and our practices. I take Hume (not this odd fellow, “neo-Hume”) to have offered such a theory.

  5. I’ll do extra credit and give what I think is the best objection and a subjectivist solution to it.
    I think the best objection to subjectivism as you describe it is that it fails to capture the deepest and most important insight of broadly subjectivist (or Humean constructivist) views, namely that all normative judgments are made from the evaluative perspective of (some part of) a valuing subject. Unfortunately subjectivists have moved too quickly to the view that the appropriate perspective is *always* that of the subject of the normative judgment.
    This approach fails to capture the core perspectivist insight by granting normative priority to the evaluative perspective of whoever happens to be the subject of a normative judgment (expressivists tend to make the same mistake, but relative to the judger of a normative judgment).
    In my view, the way to avoid the apparent unacceptability of having to conclude that (e.g.) the ideally coherent Caligulas of the world (or perhaps less fantastical creatures) have sufficient reason to torture and kill innocents is not to embrace robustly attitude-independent values (contra subjectivism), but rather to recognize the perspectival nature of all normative (including metanormative) judgments, and specifically to recognize that the judgment that Caligula (or whoever) does or doesn’t have good or sufficient reason to X, is made from one or more often complex evaluative or motivated perspectives.
    In my view, these motivated perspectives can include an attempt to discover what is ‘entailed’ by another’s contingent set of evaluative attitudes, as is typically the case when one is giving advice to a friend, or the judgments can be made from one’s own evaluative perspective, as when one denies that Hitler had good reason to do as he did, where in making such a judgment we aren’t interested in Hitler’s evaluative perspective but are rather expressing/signaling commitment to our own values.
    Contrary to disagreements between subjectivists and expressivists, there isn’t a perspective-transcendent answer as to which perspective is appropriate to take in all circumstances. Which perspective is appropriate in which circumstances is itself a normative judgment, which of necessity will be made from a subjective normative perpsective, which can be very complex and subject to normative evaluation.
    Interestingly, this thoroughly normative and perspectivalist approach can capture an important sense of the objectivity in normative discourse that subjectivism (and expressivism) sacrifices in the attempt to find perspective-transcendent answers to (meta-)normative questions.

  6. I feel the pull of subjectivism too, and I worry about weakness of will cases and the possibility that favoring attitudes will be fragile in ways that the agent herself would not take her reasons to be. Our desires and cares, for example, might get crowded out or dissipate when we become aware of repellant but normatively irrelevant aspects of the situation. I might think I have reason to save you and want to do that, but then feel my desire collapse when I notice I have to swim through disgusting lakes of snot to get to you (we could build the repellant but irrelevant features into carrying you or you if we had to!). The worry is that my failure to move is explained by my lacking whatever favoring attitude the subjectivist favors but that I myself think I am failing to act as I have reason to.
    I single out these cases because they seem to hinge on being fair to the agent’s perspective and I take that to be one main thing that motivates subjectivism in the first place.

  7. Great, thanks folks!
    So one set of worries is broadly that subjectivism gets the wrong answer, or is not “safe” in getting the right answer. Unruly desires can go in strange directions, including one’s that we are sure no one has reason to go. So this objection involves thinking that there are directions we are sure are not the right ones to go in regardless of the agent’s desires. I would be happy if people would speak more to the issue of which directions are the ones that folks feel most sure are not directions we have reason to go regardless of our desires. Cases of very immoral desires? Cases of radically imprudent desires such as a desire for future agony? Cases of desires to count blades of grass, etc.? All of the above?

  8. Doug: So if we were to accept subjective accounts of well-being, then I guess you would find intuitive that one always has some reason to get what one wants (ignoring desires not associated with one’s own well-being, which I think the view should claim there are).

  9. Hi Dave,
    I don’t accept a subjective account of well-being. But if I did, then either (1) I would say that one always has some reason to get what one wants or (2) I would retract my view that S’s X-ing would promote someone’s well-being constitutes a reason for S to X and hold instead that the fact that S’s X-ing would further that someone’s achievement (or some other objective good) constitutes a reason for S to X. It’s hard for me to say which I would do in the possible world in which I am so unlike my actual self. 🙂

  10. It seems to me that the radio men, grass counters, mud eaters, etc are the worst. Isn’t the worry that the subjectivist tells us that people have reasons to perform actions that are pointless or senseless, even from the agent’s point of view?
    The immoral case seems to be hard to push because we might just be influenced by the thought that no one should think they have reason, that they have such compelling reasons to not do it, etc. I bet those will fall afoul of Schroeder’s tests for pragmatic influences on our intuitions for related reasons.

  11. I want to remark on two objections to subjectivism that are raised all the time (almost as a matter of course), but that I think should be relegated to the dust bin where bad objections go to die. The first is Parfit’s stranger on a train. You are traveling on a train, meet a person who is suffering from some terrible illness and you desire that he be cured. Much later, and unbeknownst to you, the stranger does recover. Your desire is satisfied, but surely this does not make you better off. (Apologies to Parfit if I have misrepresented the example.) It is partly in response to this example that desire theorists thought they had to add an experiential component, or confine the desires in question to those associated with one’s well-being. But surely this is a bad counter-example. Desire fulfillment contributes to one’s well-being only so long as one has the desire. The person who met the stranger on the train surely does not have any desire concerning the stranger at the time the desire is satisfied, years later. It is only desires one continues to have when they are fulfilled that count.
    A second example that gets more air time than I think it deserves is the person who wants only to count blades of grass. Because this is a trivial desire, not aimed at anything genuinely valuable, we are supposed to conclude that desire satisfaction per se is not good for a person. Here I think the problem is with how the grass counter is portrayed: as utterly single minded and obsessive. The only thing he wants to do is count blades of grass. But surely we would hesitate to say that anyone pursuing a single desire, no matter how valuable its object is supposed to be, is enjoying a high level of welfare. If a person wanted to do nothing but paint or play music, to the exclusion of all else, we should wonder whether he is living a very good life too. So I think this objection fails as well. This objection fails, too, insofar as it posits pathological desires as the inputs into the theory. Why should we suppose our theory of the good must explain the goodness of pathological states?
    I know, I know: I now owe an account of what makes some desires pathological, that is not question-begging and does not smuggle in objective assessments of ends. I think that can be done, via a theory of autonomous desires, but that is beyond the point of this post.

  12. One objection I find compelling, at least from a particular perspective on the function of a normative theory, is that Subjectivism amounts to little more than an error theory. The question that drives normative inquiry (at least for me) is whether there is any sort of independent guidance for our actions, whether the universe gives a hoot about what we do (minus the anthropomorphizing). But Subjectivism says it’s all up to me (or maybe my rational or knowledgeable counterpart). So I provide my own guidance, and to me that’s hardly better than saying there’s no guidance at all. It could still turn out to be the truth, of course, but that would just mean that, for me, normative theorizing would lose all interest.
    (I think Daniel’s “Reasons First” objection is one way of trying to make this broader point.)
    (Oh, and FWIW, I’m also with Doug that there’s little to nothing to speak in favor of the view anyway.)

  13. 1. I take it subjectivism is frequently motivated by the strong connection it establishes between reasons and motivations — roughly, I have a reason for action only if I’m motivated to perform that action. Then the reason can give a kind of efficient causal explanation for why I acted.
    This strength is also a weakness, because there are plenty of things such that it seems I have a reason to do them but yet I’m not motivated, like exercising 30 minutes every day. Likewise, problems of misinformation, akrasia, grass-counters, racists, etc., pop up. Idealizations are introduced to deal with these problems.
    But introducing idealizations weakens the connection between reasons and motivations. Now I have a reason for action only if some idealized version of me would be motivated to perform that action. Some of the intuitive appeal is gone, and reasons can no longer serve as efficient causal explanations for my actions.
    2. I take it that reasons are the kinds of things that can answer questions like “Why did you do that?” and can help us answer questions like “What should I do next?” These ordinary language questions are vague, and can be made more precise in ways that suggest subjectivism, but also in (other) ways that suggest (various kinds of) objectivism. And our ordinary language answers often slide between subjectivist and objectivist answers. “Why did you eat the entire cake?” “Because I was hungry and it tasted really good.” “Why did you shovel your elderly neighbor’s sidewalk?” “Because it was the right thing to do.”
    All this suggests to me that both subjectivism and objectivism are getting at important features of the way we use reasons in ordinary situations. But, in getting their respective things right, they tend to miss the other important features that their “rival” accounts get right. This leads me to a kind of pluralism. I don’t think subjectivism is wrong as an account of certain features or specific uses of reasons, namely, that when things are going well there’s a connection between reasons and motivations. But it’s incomplete.

  14. Daniel (and Doug and David F.)
    Can you say more about the reason’s first argument that you find compelling? It is obscure to me at this point
    I take it that subjectivists can use available strategies to distinguish valuing from craving without invocation of reasons…they can appeal to higher order attitudes, emotional resonance, etc. (Frankfurt, Scheffler, etc)
    So is the worry that they can’t motivate the *use* of the psychological distinction without appeal to independent facts about reasons (in the way that Enoch worries subjectivists can’t motivate idealization)?
    If so, is there an argument for why they cannot motivate it? Or is it an argument by elimination of failed attempts? Is this in the Parfit Tome (which I am sad to say is still sitting on my self…)?

  15. Subjectivism seems more plausible as an account of certain kinds of reasons and not others. The clearest counterexamples to subjectivism come in the domain of morals. Surely the fact that A-ing harms a great many others provides S with a *moral reason* against A-ing, irrespective of her desires or cares or values. But if we turn to reasons for acting, i.e., reasons for living one’s life in certain ways and not others, the issues are not so clear, and I find myself leaning on the side of the subjectivist. If S is like the knave and (genuinely) cares not a wit for morals, then the fact that A-ing harms a great many remains a moral reason for S not to do A, but doesn’t count as a practical reason for action against S’s A-ing. In short I follow those who pair objectivism about moral reasons with subjectivism about reasons for acting—this strikes me as a nice package. I wonder if queasiness with subjectivism might be mitigated if people viewed it as something that needn’t be adopted wholesale, but might be applied more narrowly to one particular sort of reason (i.e., one’s practical reasons for acting) and not others.

  16. Subjectivism seems more plausible as an account of certain kinds of reasons and not others. The clearest counterexamples to subjectivism come in the domain of morals. Surely the fact that A-ing harms a great many others provides S with a *moral reason* against A-ing, irrespective of her desires or cares or values. But if we turn to reasons for acting, i.e., reasons for living one’s life in certain ways and not others, the issues are not so clear, and I find myself leaning on the side of the subjectivist. If S is like the knave and (genuinely) cares not a wit for morals, then the fact that A-ing harms a great many remains a moral reason for S not to do A, but doesn’t count as a practical reason for action against S’s A-ing. In short I follow those who pair objectivism about moral reasons with subjectivism about reasons for acting—this strikes me as a nice package. I wonder if queasiness with subjectivism might be mitigated if people viewed it as something that needn’t be adopted wholesale, but might be applied more narrowly to one particular sort of reason (i.e., one’s practical reasons for acting) and not others.

  17. That the Parfit tome is sitting on your self, Brad, is one of the funniest malapropisms I’ve seen in a while.

  18. I feel a little worried that this is going to sidetrack the discussion, but I am surprised that so many people think there is no good reason to believe subjectivism about reasons.
    Besides the reams of Williams literature, including contemporary Kantian literature (which, I take it, typically supposes that the Williams considerations are fairly powerful and seeks to respond to them), and also Mark Schroeder’s independent argument, and then recently Julia Markovits’ substantive normative arguments. I can understand how anti-subjectivists might think none of those works, but the idea that there is nothing to be said in favor of subjectivism I do find quite surprising.
    (For what it’s worth, I am sympathetic to Sven Nyholm’s comment, and I think it’s well put too.)

  19. It feels like some are worried that subjectivism is unable to capture the agent’s own point of view. The worry, I take it, would be that only an account that focused on what the agent believes to be valuable or most worth doing can capture the agent’s point of view and that no conative stance can do so. Is that what people are thinking? Or perhaps the worry is that there is no subjectivist friendly rationale for picking and choosing between various aspects of the agent’s conative system? But if we could make out the case that some of the agent’s conative states better capture that agent’s point of view, as I assume we can in weakness of will cases, wouldn’t that provide a natural rationale for focusing on the conations that best capture the point of view of the agent?

  20. Jamie: Could you point me to the Markovits you have in mind? If it is in the forthcoming book and you knew the chapter(s) to focus on, that would be very handy.

  21. Dave S: That makes sense as a strategy to take care of weakness of will cases but I guess I am just worried about the relevant notion of “believing things to be valuable” being a non truth evaluable attitude. And I was taking it that your sketched view was supposed to take the distinction between cravings and valuings as a distinction between non-truth-evaluable attitudes.
    An account of valuing along Frankfurt & Scheffler lines could let us mark distinctions between valuing, craving, etc and do so without making valuing a truth-evaluable attitude. But then those accounts don’t seem amenable to explaining WOW cases. It sure seems like I can judge that I have reason to Y even when I have no desire to Y, my strongest second-order desire is not to Y, I am disposed to feel ashamed of Y-ing etc. Imagine a racist who sees the light, but who is still psychologically entrapped by a racist ladder of conative attitudes.
    We can say that he believes that overcoming his racism is valuable even though he does not really value overcoming it yet, but I don’t see how the subjectivist account of believing valuable is supposed to go here. It can’t be that he believes he has most reason to value it! Does this worry make sense?

  22. Brad: Yes, I was thinking that people like you might claim, against subjectivism, that only beliefs can capture the agent’s point of view. And that would be bad for subjectivism. I agree that subjectivism needs to try to capture the agent’s point of view with some conative state.
    So perhaps you are imagining a case where the agent thinks they ought to value something but they do not? Or in any case they lack the conations that they judge that they ought to have. They might judge that “I ought to love him but I don’t” for example. Is that the sort of case you have in mind? I guess in some such cases we would say that it makes sense for the agent to be guided by the conations they in fact have, not the one’s they believe they ought to have or the one’s they wish they had. And of course the belief could recommend either a morally better situation, as in your example, or a morally worse one. Further we want to say that it is possible to not know or be omniscient about one’s own values, so I don’t know that we want to say that the nod always goes with the agent’s beliefs in such cases.

  23. Jamie,
    Certainly, saying that there are no reasons to favor Subjectivism would be hyperbolic. But most of the arguments I’ve seen seemed to me not to actually do very much to support the view at all. So, for instance, I actually do find a lot of Williams-style arguments that normative reasons have to be able to serve as our reasons compelling. But without the Humean theory of motivation—which I reject—that does nothing to move me towards Subjectivism. As for Schroeder, I think Slaves is easily the best defense of the view. But that’s precisely how I read it—it shows why Subjectivism doesn’t fall to a rash of important worries. It does very little to tell me why I should accept Subjectivism in the first place, other than that it accommodates my intuitions that some guys have reasons to go or not go to parties because of their desires about dancing. I have those intuitions, but I think Objectivism can accommodate them, too. And for the reasons I mentioned in my last comment regarding Subjectivism as an error theory, I’m pretty motivated to go in that direction.
    As for Markovits, I’m not sure I’m familiar with the relevant stuff. Are you talking about the anti-Parfit thing she presented at the UNC workshop we were both at, or is this something else? I do recall that in the workshop paper she tried to alleviate the error theoretic concerns I mentioned. I didn’t find her balms very soothing. And for reasons already mentioned, that sort of seals the deal for me.
    I don’t mean to ignore your question. I just don’t have much to say because I don’t actually support the Reasons First argument so much as I think it can be fruitfully read as a (perhaps failed) attempt to make concrete these much more vague worries about guidance.

  24. James, I also find it remarkable that some people say they don’t see the attractions of subjectivism (even a committed subjectivist like myself sees the attractions of objectivism). I suspect this must have to do with problems with its formulation or interpretation. A proper subjectivism doesn’t have to countenance grass-counters or anything like that, at least not in actual people with anything remotely like our actual psychologies (and for those without anything remotely like our actual psychologies, our ‘intuitions’ about what such creatures ought to do are either worthless or are expressions of our own commitments–in either case a proper subjectivism isn’t threatened).
    David, I continue to be fascinated (and frustrated) by the idea that if normative guidance is ultimately a matter of being guided by one’s deepest or highest values, then normative guidance loses all interest (thought I might agree that ‘theorizing’ does). Do we think it easy to be effectively guided by the values we hold most dear (recall Emerson’s challenge to hold by your own commandments for one day, if you think that law lax)? Are we sure we know what our deepest or highest values are in the first place? Have we investigated this question in earnest, on the lookout for the powerfully biasing influences of what our cultural norms say our values *ought* to be? These and related questions all seem terribly interesting and (normatively) important to me.
    I know the thread isn’t supposed to be defending subjectivism, but the search for the strongest objections to subjectivism is only interesting if subjectivism is interesting, and I think many of the objections aired here mistake subjectivism for a much less interesting and plausible position than it is (or could be).

  25. Dave S., I am partly thinking of the paper that David F. mentioned, which is on her web page — “On what it is to matter, and other matters”. The older Oxford Studies paper too, and “Internal reasons and the motivating intuition”.
    David F., Mark argues that his view explains why, e.g., Ronnie has a reason to go to the party and Lonnie(?) doesn’t, while the anti-subjectivist alternatives do not.
    I do understand the thought that although a subjectivist view seems plausible some of the consequences of the view are unpalatable. I just find it surprising that someone would not see any attractions in the first place.

  26. One would like to hear more about the objective view that well explains Ronnie’s reason to dance and my reason to eat chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream while providing the unity of the subjective account, organically explaining the differences in strength of reasons, captures our sense (or at least my sense) that my reasons are at least in part strongly connected to my own point of view rather than just being a function of what there is good reason for anyone to make happen, etc.

  27. One more thought: do people really think that my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla only gives me reasons to get the former over the latter insofar as I have good reasons for that preference? That seems a very odd thought to me. One might well expect me to be somewhat articulate about what it is about the taste of chocolate that I like better than the taste of vanilla, but surely this articulateness will run out and end with a brute preference. And just as obviously to me, that brute preference will still ground reasons for me to go one way rather than another despite my not having good reasons for the preference. Or are people denying this in the case of what I have called matters of mere taste?

  28. Adding to the last comment: Some try saying that the reason for the preference for chocolate over vanilla is that the former gives me more pleasure. That turns us to the topic of what pleasure is. If pleasure were just a flavor of sensation and not necessarily liked then one could claim that we are not just dealing with yet another preference but something that justifies the preference. But surely it is quite implausible that I have good reason to want something just because it has a particular flavor of sensation. Much more plausible, to my mind, to say that the normatively significant notion of pleasure is that of a sensation that one likes while one is experiencing it. And if we say that, then we are back to allowing favoring attitudes to do the justification rather than themselves being justified by something other than people happening to favor this rather than that for no good reason.

  29. Hi Dave,
    It would seem odd to deny that there are unliked pleasures and liked pains, so I take it you are granting those can exist and just claiming that pleasures are normatively significant only if they are liked. But there seems to be a step from that to the claim that when pleasures justify the liking attitude is doing all the justificatory work. Perhaps the liking attitude just enables the pleasant sensation to be a reason.
    Just playing devil’s advocate here…

  30. Brad: I’ll grant that I can’t argue against your “perhaps” but I have tried to argue against the versions that people have tried to work out, most notably Scanlon. I want to see the rival view before I worry about it. And I would think the plausibility of the thought that favoring attitudes can only ground reasons insofar as we have reasons for those favoring attitudes should itself hinge on whether someone can come up with a remotely plausible and motivated version of the idea you outline. I recommend against confidence in that claim without a plausible and motivated version that explains how we could have reasons in matters of mere taste if that were so.

  31. Eric, Jamie and David S.,
    Sorry this is long. Hopefully it’ll be helpful.
    Let’s suppose that Schroeder’s arguments at least show that Subjectivist explanations of Ronnie and Lonnie’s reasons are much more powerful than Objectivists’. Indeed, let’s suppose, David, that no Objectivist explanation could, even in principle, have all of the advantages you’ve mentioned to the same extent as the best Subjectivist one. Even granting all that, I’d be unlikely to embrace Subjectivism.
    I’ll try to explain why with an analogy. I think of my deepest deliberative questions as similar to questions about the meaning of life. Sometimes people say that, in life, we create our own meaning. I can’t stand that answer. Telling me that I create my own meaning seems to me no better than telling me that there’s no meaning at all. Of course, it could turn out that this view has all sorts of other theoretical advantages in terms of understanding how people use the term ‘meaning’, in terms of broader naturalistic credentials, in terms of how a theory of meaning impacts other questions in philosophy, etc. But in my mind none of that matters very much, because I see it as a constraint on a theory of meaning that it give me an (non-error-theoretic) answer to a deeper question I have. I don’t think the “we create our own meaning” view meets that constraint. I feel much the same way about Subjectivism, with respect to the question of whether (in, again, admittedly frustratingly floofy terms) reality provides any Guidance for us.
    In light of that, let me adjust my claim about there being no good reasons to accept Subjectivism. It’s not that there’s nothing to say in favor of Subjectivism on some understandings of what Subjectivism is trying to accomplish theoretically. For instance, Subjectivism might well be the view that best captures certain kinds of folk reasons-talk. What I don’t see are any good reasons to accept Subjectivism as a view about reasons, where reasons provide Guidance. (I’m not saying they couldn’t be forthcoming. I just haven’t seen and can’t think of any that would be compelling enough even initially to move me in this direction. The closest is probably Schroeder’s stuff.)
    I take it that for their part, Subjectivists can either claim that subjective reasons do provide Guidance or they can deny that it needs to. I’ve just said I haven’t seen any successfully take the former tack. And, in any case, my impression—one I’m happy to be disabused of—is that most Subjectivists take the latter anyway. Some might do this because they simply don’t think Guidance is what’s at issue. Maybe they’re just looking for a good account of how reasons-talk works, or something like that. Those people aren’t engaged in the same project as I am. I’m not sure what to say about how we should resolve to talk to one another, given that there’s obviously overlap between our projects. I think that’s a hard question, and an important one, and not one I can address here.
    I suspect though—perhaps wrongly—that some Subjectivists do or at least did care about Guidance. Unfortunately, they concluded that there was none. Indeed, I think lots of people think it’s just obvious that there’s no Guidance, obvious that there couldn’t be these mysterious objective reasons. But unlike me, they don’t see the ability to provide Guidance as a constraint. Rather, that ability is just one more thing that goes into the hopper when we ask what theory comes out on top. If no theory has that ability, it just stops being a relevant criterion, and maybe Subjectivism wins along other paths.
    I’m not happy with this view. For one thing, I think it’s a large part of what leads people to talk past each other. But I won’t say much about this metaphilosophical issue here (though I’m happy to talk about it if someone wants to). Rather, I’ll just say that I’m not entirely convinced there’s no hope for objective reasons and that, if I were, I’d just be an error theorist with respect to reasons that provide Guidance. Maybe then I’d go on to embrace Subjectivism as a post-error-theoretic view, as people sometimes do with Fictionalism. Probably not. But if I were to do so, it would explicilty be with the acknowledgement that my Subjectivism is no longer a view about the same thing as remaining Objectivists’.
    That brings me to my last point about your question, Eric. I wholeheartedly agree with you that there are difficult and potentially interesting questions for Subjectivists to pursue. I certainly don’t think it’s easy to figure out what I value or what that would require of me. What’s at issue for me here is philosophical import. The project of answering those questions seems to me roughly on a par with tackling the challenge to create the funnest possible game and then figure out the best strategy for winning it. And that just doesn’t get my philosophical hackles up.

  32. David,
    I just don’t feel what you feel here and I guess subjectivists, Kantians, constructivists more generally, and presumably expressivists as well have not been feeling it.

  33. Brad (and others):
    The “Reasons First” objection is inspired by chapter 2 of Dancy’s Practical Reality; I can’t remember whether it shows up in On What Matters. I’m not familiar with subjectivist strategies for distinguishing urges from (what I’d call) reasonable desires. But I’m suspicious: what can a reasonable desire do that an urge can’t?
    And even if the subjectivist strategy works, the principle still seems plausible: a desire had for no reason can give no reason.

  34. Daniel,
    Parfit does offer an argument of this sort in On What Matters. He concludes:
    Such reasons would have to be provided by some desire or aim that we have no
    reason to have, and such desires or aims cannot be defensibly claimed to give us any reasons. So, we can now conclude that, on these widely accepted views, nothing matters.
    I thought of myself as offering an argument against the line you and Parfit assert above. I don’t see you as responding to the argument I offered.

  35. I’d just like to register some confusion about what the capitalized word “Guidance” refers to in David’s response above. I take it that we are not assuming that subjectivism provides us with no practical guidance, full stop. Furthermore, on the subjectivist view, “reality” does provide us with guidance… unless we think that our motivations are not part of reality.
    David seems to object to a theory that tells you that you create answers to questions of what to do, but we (famously) cannot just create desires out of thin air. It is true that for a subjectivist, finding out what to do is in part a process of self-discovery, but even Objectivists must admit that facts about agents play a huge role in determining what reasons they have. So, I’m having a hard time seeing why the two views differ with respect to their ability to provide practical guidance.

  36. David,
    Certainly, I know not everyone feels what I’m feeling. I wasn’t trying to convince so much as just explain why I (and perhaps others) are sometimes tempted to say we see no reason to embrace Subjectivism.
    You may not want to get into this here, but I do wonder what you do feel. Do you simply not feel the force of the search for Guidance? Is there something else you were searching for that led you to Subjectivism? Or do you think Subjectivism provides Guidance after all?
    It worries me that, as Subjectivists and Objectivists, we seem to be so mutually baffled by our attitudes to each other’s views. It suggests to me that something has gone seriously wrong.

  37. Oops, didn’t see Nick’s comment. I think it popped up while I was composing my last one.
    I think Subjectivism provides us with practical guidance only in a limited sense. Suppose I am looking for restaurant guidance. I want to know where the best restaurant is. Zagat (purportedly) provides such guidance. It tells me what the best restaurants are and directs me to them. Does Google Maps provide restaurant guidance? Well, in one sense it does. If I know what the best restaurant is, it will tell me how to get there. If I know the best restaurant is in a particular town, it will show me where all the restaurants are in that town. And so on. But there’s a clear way in which Google Maps provides no restaurant guidance whatsoever, in that it has nothing to say about which restaurants are the best restaurants. Subjectivism seems to me like Google Maps. If I already know what I’m aiming at, it tells me how to get there. If I know roughly what I’m aiming at, it gives me some ideas about how to narrow my search. But it can’t tell me what to aim at, at least not without just extrapolating from other things I’m aiming at.

  38. But of course subjectivism tells you what you have reason to do even if you have no idea whatsoever of what you would want after ideally informed and procedurally impeccable deliberation.

  39. Yes, the analogy isn’t perfect. Perhaps we need a Google Maps that can read your mind to gather any information that’s pertinent to determining your destination. Even then, Google Maps still won’t be guiding you the way Zagat purports to. (Unless, of course, some of the information in your head concerns the objectively best restaurant, but we can set that aside for obvious reasons.)
    Of course, you might think that there is no fact of the matter about what the objectively best restaurant is; there’s just a fact about which restaurant you’d go to given all the facts about you. That might very well be true. But suppose I came to you and asked you what site I should use to find the objectively best restaurant. It seems to me that if there is no such thing, you should tell me that no site will give me the answer I seek. You might then suggest I use Mind-Reading Google Maps to find the ideal restaurant for me, as a sort of second-best option. What you shouldn’t do, I think, is just tell me right off that the answer I seek can be found at Mind-Reading Google Maps.

  40. If someone told me there was an objective answer to what the best restaurant was for me to go to but that I would most prefer a different restaurant after fully understanding all the facts about the restaurants, I myself would not be tempted by the restaurant that was “objectively best” but would think it would make sense to go to the other one.

  41. Hm, David F., you started your restaurant analogy like this:
    I want to know where the best restaurant is.
    Why is it relevant, according to the anti-subjectivist, what you want?
    Subjectivism seems to have a very good explanation for why it makes sense to start with “I want”.

  42. David F.,
    I appreciate your response. Here’s the best I can here to address those concerns.
    Suppose that the following non-normative claim is true. All our normative judgments are made from our own (often complex, interactive, sometimes very difficult to discover and articulate) rationally contingent evaluative perspectives. In that case, any judgment you have ever made to the effect that something is a reason that gives you Guidance–no matter how convinced you were that this reason was attitude-independent–was made from the perspective of your own values, broadly construed. I think this rough sort of claim is what has motivated (the best forms of) subjectivism, Humean constructivism, expressivism, and perspectivalism.
    I think there are excellent explanatory reasons for why it would seem that many reasons that give Guidance are robustly attitude-independent. The basis of these reasons is that conceiving of reasons as attitude-independent serves a very important committing function. In my view, the question whether to accept attitude-independent reasons is a normative question. *Very* roughly, the reasons to accept them are related to getting their commitment-related benefits, and the reasons not to are related to avoiding the many and potentially serious practical downsides associated with such judgments. I can’t describe these downsides here, but they include and derive from a lack of normatively important forms of self-knowledge, especially of one’s own motives and values (If you’re interested, I argue for the claims in this paragraph in an article forthcoming this April in Ethics).
    Much like giving up belief in God can seem tantamount to giving up on any sense of meaning or value in life, for many people, giving up on objectivist reasons can seem much the same. As I understand it, this is roughly what you (and Parfit) are trying to express. This basic phenomenon is what some subjectivists/perspectivalists (best of all Nietzsche, but also Sharon Street recently) have been pointing to when they charge that objectivism leads to practical nihilism, though it presents itself as the only way to avoid nihilism (lack of Guidance).
    By no means all, but I think part of the phenomenon of mutual ‘bafflement’ comes down to normative/aesthetic differences, which are roughly analogous to those you might find between someone who can’t imagine how a person could find meaning and purpose in life without being a servant of God in some important sense, and another who finds that conception of life demeaning and stifling.
    For a subjectivist (more accurately, perspectivalist) like myself, finding out what our deepest/highest values are (broadly construed, where this includes collective values) and how to best live according to them has only superficial similarities with coming up with a fun boardgame, and is not only of philosophical interest, but there is literally nothing of greater philosophical or normative interest.

  43. David S:
    Thanks for reminding me of that part in Parfit!
    Anyway, in my last comment I wasn’t trying to defend my view against your arguments. Now I’ll give it a try:
    Suppose Ronnie knows that he enjoys himself at parties and Lonnie knows he doesn’t. Ronnie has some reason to party; Lonnie doesn’t. Can the objectivist explain this difference?
    I think it’s obvious that she can: Ronnie and Lonnie are in relevantly different situations, and that’s all the objectivist ever needs to explain a difference in reasons. At the party, Ronnie will have a pleasant experience—what Parfit calls a “hedonic liking”—while Lonnie won’t. The prospect of a pleasant experience gives Ronnie reason to go, but Lonnie has no such prospect and thus no such reason.
    The relevant difference, in these cases, is grounded in the preferences of R & L. But this isn’t even prima facie evidence for subjectivism: the relevant difference could just as easily have been in out in the world. Suppose R & L have identical preference structures, and Ronnie has been invited to a delightful party while Lonnie has been invited to an evening in the torture chamber. The objectivist has no trouble explaining why a party-liker like Ronnie has reason to go party while a torture-hater like L has no reason to spend his evening in the chamber. And, I think, there’s no deep difference between this case and the original R & L case, from the point of view of the objectivist. There is a relevant difference between R’s situation and L’s in each—whether that difference is inside or outside of the head is immaterial.
    (This is why I find the party example pretty scandalously unhelpful.)
    As for the ice cream case: here the objectivist has an equally good explanation. Our desire for the ice cream isn’t itself the source of our reason to eat ice cream. Our reason is given by either (i) the hedonic liking one would have upon eating the ice cream or (ii) the unpleasantness caused by having an unsatisfied desire. Because hedonic likings are experiences, not attitudes or mere preferences, I don’t think this cedes anything to the reasons subjectivist (as you claimed). There’s an objective difference between the prospect of a pleasant eating experience and the prospect of an unpleasant one.
    This might seem like a theory-laden explanation, but I think it’s actually pretty natural. (Would we have reason to satisfy a craving if doing so would bring us no pleasure and relieve us of no anxiety?)
    In fact, many objectivists think that the only objectively reason-giving things are subjective experiences (the pleasurable ones)—this is independent from the question of whether our subjective attitudes constrain or ground our explain our reasons in some deep way, which is the question at hand.
    One thing that this discussion brings out: the Reasons First principle is really best thought of as an objection to subjectivism, not as the objectivist’s manifesto. This is because objectivists typically don’t think that our reasons come from desires at all. More plausibly, when we do get reasons from our desires, these reasons are grounding in something else (e.g., whatever grounds the reasons we have for that desire). It’s not as if objectivists and subjectivists are disagreeing about which attitudes are the reason-giving ones; objectivists don’t think that attitudes play this sort of central role at all.

  44. Jamie,
    The “I want” there was supposed to be a project-determining claim. My project is to find restaureasons, which are facts about what restaurants are objectively best. There might be a good meta-level argument that this is a silly project. Maybe that’s because there are no restaureasons, or because restaureasons aren’t the right thing to care about. Maybe the right alternative is just to look for the restaurant I’d enjoy most given all the facts about me. The point is just that whatever else is true here, it seems true that finding out what restaurants I’d enjoy isn’t the same as finding out what restaureasons there are.

  45. (Tried to post this earlier, but TypePad is apparently a Subjectivist and wouldn’t let me.)
    Fair enough. But surely it doesn’t follow that if someone is looking for the objectively best restaurant, you should just tell him how to get to the one he’d most enjoy. That would seem rather disrespectful to his project.

  46. Susan,
    So your topic is subjectivism as a theory of well-being. A fine topic but slightly different from the one I started with. On your topic, I am not sure why the person could not continue to have the desire that the stranger on the train do well. Suppose they could. Would you still think that the strength of that desire is well correlated with the degree to which the person with the desire is benefitted if the desire is satisfied? I guess more generally the issue here is whether we need to restrict the desires (even the idealized desires) to some subset that is especially about the agent and her own life and not count, for example, moral desires. It seems to me that we should restrict the desires that count in this way.

  47. David F:
    If someone is looking for the “objectively best restaurant,” they’re looking for the restaurant that there is most reason to go to. Our reasons to go to restaurants, typically, are grounded in the pleasurable experiences we have there. Since the character of our restaurant experience depends in part on certain facts about us—e.g., what foods we enjoy eating, what mood we’re in—which restaurant is “objectively best” depends in part on us, even on an objectivist view. So we can’t say what restaurant is best independent of what state the restaurant-goer is in. (For reasons I give in my previous comment and below, I don’t think this is even close to being evidence for subjectivism.)
    Of course, not all “restaureasons” come down to reasons to enjoy. In plenty of other ordinary situations we could have non-hedonic non-prudential reasons to go to restaurants. Suppose I’ve promised a close friend to meet her at the Olive Garden to discuss some troubling news about her family member—I’ve got some pretty strong reasons to go to the Olive Garden rather than somewhere nicer, even though I don’t enjoy being at Olive Garden.
    So there are two kinds of relevant considerations we attend to in choosing where to eat: features of ourselves and features of our “outside” situation. I don’t see these as deeply different; they’re both potentially relevant to our choices—they can affect our reasons. Since our restaureasons depend on facts about ourselves and our situations, we can’t say which restaurant is objectively best unless we’ve fixed those facts. But this is to say that restaureasons are holistic, not that they’re subjective. “Objective” doesn’t mean “context-insensitive.”

  48. Chandra,
    I completely agree that the case of morals provides the best argument against subjectivism. It is just very hard to believe that anyone could lack a reason to take into account that their actions greatly harm a large number of innocent people, regardless of what that person’s desires are. I also agree that it is available to the subjectivist to allow that there are moral facts but that these moral facts need not give reasons to some people. But I regard the case of morality as the hardest case for subjectivism to handle and I am not at all sure that the subjectivist ends up being able to say convincing things in reply.

  49. Daniel M.,
    I don’t think subjectivists should say that desires are the sources of reasons, or that the fact that I have a desire entails that I have a reason (even Scanlon, who spends some time arguing against the subjectivist so construed in What We Owe, concedes this is not the best formulation of subjectivism).
    Desires (construed as pro-attitudes including values) are not sources of reasons that are provided to an extra-desiderative self. To put the subjectivist’s claim this way is already to build in a Kantian conception of practical deliberation and agency that the subjectivist must reject. Rather, the subjectivist should hold that reasons are relative to ‘desires’. In my view, (also agreeing with Scanlon in more recent work) this metanormative judgment is itself a normative judgment, specifically a normative judgment about how to think about normative reasons. If we were to think about normative reasons as all relative to ‘desires’ in Scanlon’s ‘attention-directed sense’, this would be a terrible normative proposal. But if we think of ‘desires’ as including our deepest or highest values, then it’s a great one, in my view.
    Again, the view ultimately derives from the recognition that normative *judgments* are made relative to ‘desires’, combined with a normative commitment to bring awareness of that fact into our normative discourse, partly to avoid practical nihilism and partly for other normative reasons, centered on the intrinsic (final, not non-relational) and derivative value of self-knowledge.

  50. Eric:
    I honestly don’t understand what you mean by your claim that “the subjectivist should hold that reasons are relative to ‘desires’.” I agree that what reasons we have may be affected by facts about our desires—this would be the case if I promised to give you what you wanted for Christmas. I also agree that desires aren’t the sources of our reasons, in the sense that they don’t typically ground our reasons.
    But I don’t know what else it could mean for reasons to be “relative to” desires. Could you explain your view a bit more for me, or is there a paper/chapter you could point me to? (I’m assuming you don’t just mean that the judgments we actually make depend on the attitudes we actually have—no one would deny this.)

  51. David F.,

    But what relevance does your project have to what reasons you might have? Maybe none at all. Maybe what projects you have is just unrelated to your reasons.
    You might, indeed, be trying to find the objectively best restaurant. You might be trying to find the patron saint of modesty who blesses all and only those who do not bless themselves. Those might be impossible tasks. But all that seems irrelevant unless somehow the fact that you have projects makes some difference to your reasons.

  52. David F: If someone wants to (or has it as their project to) go to the best restaurant, and we assume this favoring attitude would survive idealization, then according to subjectivism this person has some reason to go to the best restaurant. What the best restaurant is, however (assuming we mean by “best restaurant” what people usually mean by that phrase and that is not code for restaurant I would most enjoy or anything relativized to me) would not be something that our subjectivist theory would be offering a theory of. Often we are talking about the best movie or best ball-peen hammer or whatnot and such topics are not topics the subjectivist purports to have a theory of. Hume’s On the Standard of Taste might be a place to look to start thinking about these sort of cases.

  53. Daniel,
    I guess I take you to still not have engaged with the argument I offered above against a fully objectivist view being able to handle cases where intuitively I have a reason to get something I happen to like. The issue is what we mean when we say that some experience would be pleasant. Rather than go on about this I’ll point you to my “Parfit’s Case Against Subjectivism” in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 6.

  54. Hi David,
    I don’t know whether anyone else has responded to this, as I’ve been traveling over the past couple of days and haven’t yet caught up on all the interesting discussion. But I did want to respond to what you said here:
    “surely it is quite implausible that I have good reason to want something just because it has a particular flavor of sensation”
    Why do you believe that it is so implausible to think that the quality (or “flavor”) of some sensations provide us with reasons to desire them as well as to desire the things (like chocolate ice cream) that are instrumental to our obtaining them? It seems to me that the quality of a certain project can provide me with a reason to desire its achievement. And it seems to me the quality of a certain relationship can provide me with a reason to desire that it is maintained. Indeed, it seems to me that, in general, it is features/properties/qualities of X that give us reasons to desire X, whether X be a sensation or anything else. In any case, that is what the objectivist holds, I believe.
    So do you think that there is something special about sensations as opposed to other possible objects of desire that make it particularly implausible to suppose that their qualities can provide us with reasons to desire them? If so, what is so special about sensations?
    My guess is that you don’t want to claim that sensations are special in this way, for I can’t see any reason to think that they’re special. I suspect rather that you or the subjectivist might like to argue that you (the chocolate lover) would get all the same sensations/experiences with the exact same qualities when you eat chocolate ice cream as would, say, Smith, who thinks that chocolate is okay and loves strawberry ice cream much more. I suspect, then, that you might want to claim that it is yours and Smith’s differing attitudes to those qualitatively identical sensations that explain why you have a reason that Smith lacks to choose the chocolate ice cream over the strawberry ice cream. Is that the thought?
    But I would be surprised if you and Smith were to have qualitatively identical sets of sensations and experiences when eating chocolate ice cream. And if I were convinced that you and Smith did, I would wonder why you would have any more reason to eat chocolate ice cream than Smith would or to desire those same experiences. And I don’t know why this is so implausible. Perhaps, you don’t share my intuitions. But I think that there is just a clash of basic intuitions here between the objectivist and the subjectivist.

  55. I focus on the cases of matters of mere taste because they seem especially uncontroversial. I can grant that there will be a difference in sensation of how chocolate ice cream is experienced by me and the person who hates it. But this is partly because liking it is part of the experience. Two wine experts with different tastes in wine might be able to carefully explain the taste of the wine and agree about it even while one is having a different full experience with the wine because one likes it and the other does not.

  56. Okay, so you grant that “there will be a difference in sensation of how chocolate ice cream is experienced by me and the person who hates it.” But why do you believe that it is so implausible to think that the quality (or “flavor”) of some sensations provide us with reasons to desire them? Do you think that there is something special about sensations? Or is it just that you’re a subjectivist who generally thinks that there are no reasons to desire (or to take any favoring attitude toward) one thing over another in virtue of their differing qualities?

  57. David S:
    I must be missing the problem. I take it that the “pleasant” bit of “pleasant experence” characterizes the what the experience is like, not what attitudes we take towards it. (But these may be murkier waters than I realize.)
    Thanks for the suggested reading (and for starting this thread), and sorry if my earlier comments sounded rude! I get too worked up when I think about these issues…

  58. Doug: I am skeptical that the objectivist can point to something about the flavor of sensation that both I and the person who does not like it gets from chocolate ice cream that vindicates the idea that I but not he has a reason to taste it. Obviously (I think) no one is just saying that the taste of chocolate is itself more reason providing for all than the taste of vanilla. I take it, the idea is that there is a more general sort of sensation, presumably one that I get from chocolate and others get from vanilla, which we all have reason to get. One quick answer is the one that people have given against Benthamite Hedonists for a long time: namely, I notice no such phenomenological commonality between the various sensations that seem to provide me with reasons other than that I like them, to paraphrase Sidgwick.

  59. Doug: Also, I guess I don’t really see the pressure being brought to bare here. The subjectivist admits that liked primary sensations can give reasons and that liking can affect the character of the overall sensation. Why should any of that be thought to make it tricky to say that primary sensations that are not liked cannot provide intrinsic reasons?

  60. Hi David,
    I’m not sure that I’m following. So I think, as you suggest, that there is some sensation, flavor of sensation, quality of sensation, or character of sensation that you get from chocolate and that others get from vanilla, which we all have reason to get. And I thought that you were saying that it is surely quite implausible to think that there is reason to want a sensation because of its quality, flavor, or character. Am I mistaken here? And I was asking you why you think that this is so clearly implausible.
    And if I’m following (not sure), your answer is that there is no phenomenological commonality (no phenomenological flavor, character, or quality) that is shared by all the various sensations that we seem to have reason to want other than that we have some favoring, not truth assessable, attitude toward them.
    But how does this show that it’s implausible to think that there is reason to want a sensation because of its quality, flavor, or character?
    Perhaps, you would admit that it doesn’t. And, perhaps, you would say that the subjectivist view will be more unified or more simple than the objectivist view, for, given that there is no phenomenological commonality, the objectivist will have to hold that there are several different phenomenological qualities/flavors/characters of sensations that give us reason to desire them.
    Please let me know if you want to stick with the claim that it’s implausible to think that there is reason to want a sensation because of its quality, flavor, or character or simply withdraw to the claim that the subjectivist gives a more unified account even though there is nothing particularly implausible about appealing to the quality of sensation as a reason for desiring it. If so, I have a response, but I want to figure out whether you want to stick with this earlier claim and if so why?

  61. In one sense, of course, we agree that the nature of my experience with chocolate gives me reason to seek it and the nature of someone else’s experience with chocolate a reason to avoid it and seek vanilla instead. I think we can characterize the nature of what I taste independently of my favoring response to it. I take you to be claiming that the nature of my experience with chocolate, independently from my favoring response to it, provides a reason to go for it. I then ask about the nature of that phenomenological experience. I assume that others can have that same phenomenological experience, I called it a primary sensation to highlight that it is striped of my favoring reaction to the primary sensation, without liking it. I assume that is exactly what happens most of the time in the case of people who try chocolate ice cream and don’t like it. I see you as either having to say that that taste of chocolate ice cream provides all a reason to go for it regardless of whether the person likes it or not, which I take to be implausible, or you have to claim that there is a more general primary sensation that the taste of chocolate gives us all and that all have reason to go for that more general primary sensation regardless of whether we like it or not. Against that latter claim I claimed that there is no such sensation. More generally, I am asking you to tell me what the primary sensation is that is reason giving regardless of our favoring or disfavoring responses to it. It it just the primary sensation of chocolate? If not, then what? I don’t see a plausible candidate here.

  62. Eric,
    Thanks for that; it’s really helpful. The first thing I’ll say, which I’m sure won’t surprise you, is that the first paragraph just looks to me like an argument for error theory. If my normative judgements are all just representatives of my perspective (and necessarily are so), then that sounds to me like excellent evidence that they’re all false (barring some incredible coincidence, or maybe some sort of Enoch-style pre-established harmony with Guidance).
    Of course, you’re going to go on and offer a normative argument for why it’s good to think of reasons in this way, which I take it is supposed to undercut the idea that this is an error theory, and instead put it forth as a genuine theory of what reasons are. I’m not clear on whether I’ll be able to accept that story, given my other committments. I’ll have to check out your paper!
    Anyway, I think you’re right that this comes down to something like the disagreement you allude to between people who think only God can grant meaning or that only atheism can. (I’m personally fascinated by the similar disagreement between people who think that only immortality can allow for meaning vs those who think mortality can. I also wonder whether there are any statistically significant correlations between these views about meaning and normativity.) The question is whether this difference comes down to a matter of taste or temperment, or whether there’s something neutral to say on one side or the other.
    Maybe it’s the former. But in my more optimistic moments I think there’s still something to be said for Objectivism. I imagine that I’ve been convinced that Subjectivism is true. Then someone comes along and shows me, beyond all doubt, that X is the Thing To Do, even though I have no route to X-ing through my S, or whatever. I would sure as hell X. Or, at least, if I didn’t, I think that would make me pretty darn irrational. If that’s right, then surely I should go in for Subjectivism only if I’m totally certain there are no objective reasons.
    Unfortuantely, when I tell Subjectivists this little story, they often reply that they simply wouldn’t care about the Thing To Do. I suspect this has to do with your use of the term “stifling.” I think sometimes Subjectivists imagine objective reasons as tyrannical in some way. I just don’t see that. They’re guides, and I’d be very happy to find them, because otherwise it really just doesn’t matter what I do.

  63. Daniel,

    If someone is looking for the “objectively best restaurant,” they’re looking for the restaurant that there is most reason to go to.

    I wasn’t thinking about it this way. I was imagining the best restaurant as being determined by some objective criteria of aesthetic quality. It might turn out that very few people have most reason to go there. I certainly agree with you, though, that when I am trying to decide what restaurant I have most reason to go to, facts about me are quite relevant.

  64. Hi David,
    or you have to claim that there is a more general primary sensation that the taste of chocolate gives us all and that all have reason to go for that more general primary sensation regardless of whether we like it or not
    Why do I have to claim that there is a more general primary sensation that the taste of chocolate gives us all? I claim either (1) the taste of chocolate doesn’t give the chocolate lover a reason to eat chocolate ice cream or (2) there is some sensation *or* quality (or flavor or character or dimension) of sensation that the chocolate lover (not all of us) gets from the taste of chocolate ice cream that she has reason to want independently of her favoring response toward that sensation or quality of sensation (but not necessarily independently of her favoring response to the taste of chocolate ice cream, for maybe the favoring response produces a certain quality of sensation that we have reason to want).
    What might this quality/flavor/character/dimension be? Perhaps, it’s the pleasantness of the sensation, which (in the way that sound is a dimension along which various phenomenologically distinct sounds vary) is a dimension across which various sensations vary. But, in any case, I’m not sure why I owe you an account given that I’m willing to admit that if there is nothing that the chocolate lover has reason to desire here independently of what favoring response she has toward it, then she would have no reason to eat chocolate ice cream. That is, I don’t see how she could have a reason to get something that she has no reason to want independently of her having some favoring attitude toward that something.
    In other words, I find the view that we have no reasons more attractive than the subjectivist account of how we come to have reasons.

  65. I should not have said that one of your salient options was to say that the taste of chocolate gives us all some primary sensation. I think it would be better for you to say that that taste gives some but not others some primary sensation. But if all one can say is that it is the sensation of “pleasantness” this seems to not much advance the debate. Volume of sound, as it gets greater, tends to become the focus of attention and to distract from other activities–not so the pleasantness of a sensation. Why should we believe in this phenomenological feeling of pleasantness which is divorced from favoring attitudes? Gotta turn to teaching now so I will be much slower to respond for the next two days.

  66. Jamie,
    We might well wonder why I should bother looking for facts about the objectively best restaurant. But I think that’s just a place where the analogy between the search for the objectively best restaurant and the search for Guidance breaks down. That’s because I think the search for reasons just is the search for Guidance. Do I need a reason to search for reasons?

  67. David S.,
    So that just sounds to me like you’re interested in guidance only in the weaker sense that Mind-Reading Google Maps would provide, not the sense Zagat purports to. I take it this means we have a disagreement about the success conditions for a normative theory. Here I think the discussion dovetails with my exchange with Eric. It seems to me that as long as there’s the possibility of Zagat-style guidance, I should keep looking for that rather than just going to Mind-Reading Google Maps. Of course, that’s only an analogy. And I might agree with you, as you said above, that if we were really talking about restaurants, I’d be more interested in the project of finding the one that’s best for me, rather than the one that’s objectively best. But I don’t feel the force of that at all when it comes to the normative. As I said to Eric, as long as there’s the possibility that there might be objective facts about the Thing To Do, it would seem like a mistake to focus on what I should do given the values I happen to have.

  68. David F.,
    No, you don’t need a reason to search for reasons. That is significant. Subjectivists seem to me to have a very good explanation of why our deliberation ends just when we’ve identified our reasons. (Expressivists do, too.)
    This is why the analogy seemed to me to support the subjectivist view. Getting the map information or even the Zagat information doesn’t count as getting guidance until we add something to the story. What must we add that makes it clear why the information in question counts as guidance? We need to add stuff about what the agent wants, according to the subjectivist. And, that’s what you did.
    The alternative seems to leave it mysterious why rational beings try to find out what their reasons are, and then act on them when they find them. I’m optimistic that some people can say things to relieve the mystery (which is why I said ‘seems’ several times above), but subjectivists start out in a very good position.

  69. Hi David,
    Volume of sound, as it gets greater, tends to become the focus of attention and to distract from other activities–not so the pleasantness of a sensation.
    It does seem so with pleasantness — at least, to me. People that are feeling intense pleasure (such as those high on some narcotic) do seem to get distracted and have a hard time focusing on other activities. In any case, even if it didn’t, why should we assume that all dimensions have the same effects on our ability to focus?
    Why should we believe in this phenomenological feeling of pleasantness which is divorced from favoring attitudes?
    Why does it have to be “divorced from favoring attitudes”? Why couldn’t it be, as I suggested above, that I have a reason to want sensations that are pleasant and more reason to want them in proportion to their pleasantness and that this is so independently of my having a favoring response toward the pleasantness itself but not independently of my favoring responses, for maybe my favoring response toward, say, the taste of chocolate causes it to be pleasant or more intensely pleasant for me?
    Why should we believe in this phenomenological feeling of pleasantness? Well, because it seems that some sensations are pleasant and that sensations differ in their degree of pleasantness and that the pleasantness of a sensation is a quality of a sensation that gives one a reason to want that sensation independently of whether or not one has a favoring response to the pleasantness of that sensation.

  70. Jamie,
    I take it there are three questions here: (1) why it is appropriate that deliberation ends when I draw a conclusion about what I have most reason to do; (2) why I actually end my deliberation there much of the time; (3) why I deliberate by looking for reasons in the first place (rather than, say, just doing whatever they feel like in the moment). I’ll confess this isn’t stuff I’ve thought about all that much, and I think even my inchoate views are rather idiosyncratic, but FWIW:
    (1) I think I’ve always assumed I would get the appropriate end of deliberation for free just because reasons are (by definition?) facts about the proper ends of deliberation. If I’m deliberating about what to do and I conclude that this is what I have most reason to do, that’s the same as concluding that it’s the thing to do, which is the same as concluding that it’s the proper end of my deliberation. Surely I’m irrational if I don’t then (intend to) do it. I think I want to use something like Wedgwood’s stuff to fill in the details.
    (2) Given what I think about (1), the question of why I actually end my deliberation is just the question of why I’d be rational most of the time. But I don’t see this as any more puzzling than why, typically, if I conclude that I have most reason to believe P, I actually believe P. I’m guessing other people worry about this because they accept something like the Humean theory of motivation. But that stuff has never struck me as particularly plausible.
    (3) I don’t know what psychologically explains why I deliberate. Anecdotally, I deliberate because I can’t shake the sense that some actions are preferable to others, so I try to figure out what those are. Sometimes I consult my desires. Sometimes not. Do Subjectivists really have something better to say about this one? (Other than another appeal to Hume.)

  71. David;
    short version: I think it’s bad if a theory doesn’t answer those questions together.
    Of course it’s “for free” that the discovery of reasons ends deliberation, if what that means is that it is obvious and (perhaps) a priori. The theory doesn’t have to vindicate that bit of common sense, but it should explain why it’s true. Some facts have this feature: the discovery of them (actually and properly) ends deliberation. Most facts do not have that feature. Why do reason facts have it? Subjectivists have a very good answer to this question.
    I wonder why you think those with a Humean theory of motivation do or should get more worried about why it’s rational to be motivated by your acknowledged reasons. A Humean theory of motivation wedded to a Humean theory of reasons provides an explanation for why it’s rational. It’s the competition that has the worries, as far as I can tell. Or maybe you meant: Humeans tend to be more worried about finding explanations in general. In that case, I agree.

  72. David F,
    Again, subjectivism is a theory of reasons not restaurants. It is perfectly compatible with the view to say that the best restaurant (in your sense) is not determined by my or anyone’s desires. I would not recommend such a view, but that is a different matter.

  73. Jamie,
    I tend to agree that we should be worried about explaining why some facts end deliberation (i.e., I take it, why they are reasons) while others don’t. I’m not sure everyone else thinks we need to do this. I think non-naturalists can’t, for instance, and as I read him Enoch isn’t much bothered by that. That’s one of the main reasons I’m not a non-naturalist!
    As for Humeans, I was thinking that given that I rejected a Humean theory of reasons, if I accepted a Humean theory of motivation I’d be more worried about my answers to those questions, because I’d think (I take it) that even if a general tendency to be rational could explain why I believe as I judge I ought, it couldn’t explain why I act as I judge I ought, since I would still need to reference a desire somewhere.

  74. David S.,
    Sorry, I think I must have lost the thread somewhere. I thought we were still just talking about seeking the best restaurant as an analogy for seeking the Thing To Do. Of course I agree that Subjectivism doesn’t have to actually tell us what the best restaurant is. But now I fear I’m still missing your point. Darn you for creating such an interesting thread with so many issues to tackle.

  75. David S.,
    Once we realize that it is only extremely rare, if not purely imaginary people that literally have no desires related to avoiding harming large numbers of innocent people (under that description), and that at any rate what we have reason to do about those people is a different question than what reasons they have (their lack of reasons wouldn’t begin to entail that we shouldn’t lock them up, etc.), I don’t see what the big problem is. Or rather, I see the problem as psychological, not philosophical.
    I don’t mean ‘psychological problem’ as an insult any more than I would mean ‘philosophical problem’ that way). Psychological problems are real, and for those who are uncomfortable or otherwise averse to allowing that it is even conceivable that someone could have no reason to avoid harming innocents, perspectivism allows you to say that the ideally coherent Caligula (a fictional character) has these reasons. It’s just that it encourages you to recognize that that judgment is made from your own motivated perspective(s).

  76. Daniel,
    Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, all I have at this point on my view of reasons is a very long chapter-in-progress of the book I’m working on (derived from an equally long dissertation chapter).
    Also unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your pov), I don’t think I can explain what I mean by their being related to desires without motivating/explaining the view a bit. Perhaps you will help me think of a better way to capture the normative relationship between reasons and motivated perspectives I’m aiming to capture. Maybe I will ultimately think I might as well say reasons are grounded in desires, though at this point that way of putting it is too associated with ways of thinking about agency and metanormativity that I want to avoid.
    One of the reasons I avoid the claim that desires (motivated perspectives) are the sources of reasons is that it suggests a conception of agency according to which any and all desires can be normatively evaluated by a rational agency which transcends all such desires and judges the rationality of acting according to the bidding of any of them.
    Beginning with the claim that all reason-judgments are made from motivated perspectives, I then explain why it would seem that many of our (most important) reason-judgments are as of robustly attitude-independent reasons. This explanation is given in terms of such perceptions and associated concepts serving a motivational, especially committing function. This committing function depends on and motivates a lack of awareness of our own motives and values, and has potentially severe but widely unrecognized practical downsides (you can see an explanation of and argument for these claims here: academia.edu/4131457/Breakdown_of_Moral_Judgment.)
    I don’t think there is a perspective-transcendent answer to the question whether there are ‘really’ attitude-independent reasons. I think the quasi-realists (and Dworkin, Street and others) are right about this, i.e., that the question whether there are moral truths or attitude-independent reasons can only be answered from within normative discourse. It is itself a normative question, which moral quasi-realists have effectively answered in the affirmative (sometimes by appeal to the value of the committing function/power of the concept of attitude-independent reasons).
    Unlike the moral quasi-realist, I answer this normative question in the negative, for roughly the reasons appealed to in the paper linked above, which have to do with the downsides of subjective commitment strategies that depend on a lack of self-awareness. Where the quasi-realist will acknowledge that the normative *judgment* against torture is made from a motivated perspective that is ‘against’ torture, but then say that the normative *reason* not to torture is attitude-independent, I say that the reason not to torture is relative to exactly those motivated perspectives that are either directly or derivatively opposed to it. The point of saying this is to draw attention toward what the quasi-realist is drawing attention away from–the motivated perspectives generating the judgment.
    The quasi-realist thinks it a terrible way to justify opposition to torture to suggest that the legitimacy of such opposition is dependent on our contingent attitudes. I recognize the danger here, but also recognize the danger of systematically deflecting awareness of the fact that our reason-judgments, including and especially against torture, are generally made from our motivated perspectives that oppose torture (sometimes such judgments are instead made from the motivated perspective to agree with one’s peers, or signal such agreement, and much more of explanatory and normative interest. They are never, by hypothesis, made from ‘nowhere’).
    So the proposal to think of our reasons as relative to our ‘desires’ is at heart a normative proposal to foster the kind of normatively significant self-knowledge that I think attitude-independent conceptions of reasons and justification tend to inhibit, without falling into the kind of Kantian conception of agency I rejected above, and also without falling into the various subjectivist/Humean attempts to provide perspective-transcendent accounts of normative reasons. Thinking of them as grounded in desires suggests that nonnormative facts about desires can explain and justify claims about what reasons we have, or that subjectivism should attempt to give a non-normative characterization of which desires do and which desires don’t ground reasons–or worse, grant that all desires ground reasons.
    But so long as I can get across the fundamentally normative and perspectival character of the view, that’s all that matters to me. To me, the idea of finding a grounding for *all* practical reasons suggests a project that attempts to capture that ground in non-normative terms (as most metaethical projects do). But while we should ground our substantive reason-claims whenever possible, these justifications must come to a stop somewhere. In my view, they come to a stop with our (highly complex and elusive) motivated perspectives, and so it makes sense to say that my reason for having chocolate over vanilla is relative to the (relatively simple) motivated perspective that we can call my desire to have the experience that is more pleasurable to me.

  77. Doug,
    I hope to be able to work on your many questions tomorrow.
    For now let me just say that I quite disagree. I think that the fact that subjectivism claims that some actual psychopaths have no reason whatsoever to avoid exploiting the weak and vulnerable is a major problem for the view and potentially fatal. As I said before, I think this is THE problem for the view.

  78. David S.,
    Have you seen Sharon Street’s ‘Coming to Terms With Contingency’ in Lenman and Shemmer’s (eds) Constructivism in Practical Philosophy? There she says some of the main things I would say about this supposed problem. I’d be interested to hear why this is such a problem, once we take into account the things I mentioned in my last post. I can’t see why I should care–or why it should be troubling to a subjectivist–if some actual psychopaths have no reason to do such and such. Perhaps one day we could even create humans with no reason to take future Tuesdays into account. In both cases, such people would be deeply different than the rest of us, and these differences would also be relevant to how I think we should treat them.
    But in a way I’m glad you think this is THE problem for subjectivism, since it pits deep moral presuppositions about attitude-independence against subjectivism. So much the better when subjectivism wins.

  79. Eric,
    I myself favor thinking that morality is more like an army into which we should volunteer than one into which we are somehow conscripted, but I don’t see how you can be so sanguine about the issue of morality’s binding force.
    Are you unconcerned about saying that the horrors of the death camps did not provide Hitler with a reason to revise his plans? Or that Hitler did what he ought to have done? These conclusions clash with many people’s intuitions and they also make it harder to justify indignation towards people who are wholeheartedly engaged in horrific projects.
    These seem like serious worries to me! But perhaps you think Street shows us how to assuage them?

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