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February 04, 2014


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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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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).

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. :)

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.

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.

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.)

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.

I'm also with Daniel and David Faraci in thinking that the Reasons First Objection is a good one.

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...)?

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.

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.

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

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.)

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?

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.

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?

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.


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.

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).

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.

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.

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?

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.

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...

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

I too was wondering along the lines Nick mentions.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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".

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.

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.


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.

(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.


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.

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."


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.

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