Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Can Objectivists Account for Subjective Reasons?

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Can Objectivists Account for Subjective Reasons?

Article excerpt

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN objective and subjective reasons is quite intuitive, in part because the two seem to play different roles in normative thought. If a blue pill would cure Anna's disease, there is an objective reason for her to take it. If Anna believes that only the red pill would cure her, there is a subjective reason for her to take it. And if Anna received misleading evidence that taking the red pill causes nausea, there would be a less weighty subjective reason not to take it. The objective reasons bear on what Anna objectively ought to do (take the blue pill). The subjective reasons bear on what she subjectively ought to do (take the red pill). Objective and subjective reasons also seem to play distinct roles from the second-person standpoint: the objective reasons bear on what a fully informed interlocutor should advise Anna to do, but do not bear on what that interlocutor should criticize her for doing, and vice versa for subjective reasons, which bear on whether a fully informed interlocutor should criticize Anna, but not on what that interlocutor should advise her to do.

If there are objective and subjective reasons, how are they related? Are they species of a genus? If so, what is the differentia? Does one reduce to the other? If so, how does the reduction go? Perhaps the most popular view on this issue is objectivism, which holds that subjective reasons reduce to objective reasons.

My main aim in this paper is to offer two objections to objectivist accounts of subjective reasons. They concern probability and possibility. A secondary aim is to offer a diagnosis of why objectivists face these two objections.

A quick methodological point will be helpful before we begin. I appeal to intuitions about existential claims about subjective and objective reasons. These can be challenged. One way to resolve such challenges--which I apply extensively below--is to consider the distinct roles that objective and subjective reasons play in normative thought. If one contends that p is a subjective (objective) reason to [phi], it should play the same kind of roles as other plausible candidates for subjective (objective) reasons to [phi]. For instance, a putative objective reason for Anna to take the blue pill should play the same kind of roles as the fact that the blue pill will cure her: it should bear on whether she objectively ought to take the pill, and whether a fully informed interlocutor should advise her to do so. (1) I consider this to be a simple litmus test. It might admit of exceptions. But none of the cases I consider below is an exception to the rule. If one wishes to contend otherwise, the onus is on them to defend this.

1. OBJECTIVISM

Let us start by homing in on objectivism. Various objectivist accounts of subjective reasons have been developed and defended by Mark Schroeder, Jonathan Way, Derek Parfit, Eric Vogelstein, Daniel Whiting, Kurt Sylvan, and others. The central objectivist commitment is that we should analyze subjective reasons in terms of objective reasons. Most objectivists commit to a fairly narrow version of this view wherein we analyze all subjective reasons to [phi] directly--that is, in terms of objective reasons to [phi]. (2) This will be part of my diagnosis of why extant forms of objectivism face the problems below. But let us not jump ahead.

It is easier to understand objectivism by focusing on a particular account. Many prominent objectivists have been attracted to counterfactual analyses:

For R to be a subjective reason for X to do A is for X to believe R,
and for it to be the case that R is the kind of thing, if true, to be
an objective reason for X to do A. (3)

Subjective reasons [are] believed propositions that would be reasons if
true. (4)

If we have certain beliefs about the relevant, reason-giving facts, and
what we believe would, if it were true, give us some reason,... such
beliefs give us an apparent reason. … 
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