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Sobel on Parfit on Subjectivism
By S. Matthew Liao

Professor David Sobel (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) gave a talk recently at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar on ‘Parfit on Subjectivism.’ A copy of the paper can be found here, and he would welcome any comments/suggestions. Here’s an abstract of his talk:

Derek Parfit argues that all subjective accounts of normative reasons make wildly implausible claims. He rightly insists that we have reasons to get sensations that we like and to avoid agony now and in the future. Subjective accounts cannot accommodate this thought, he claims, because likings are importantly different from desires and because subjectivists are forced to give weight only to desires that the agent currently has. One might, even after informed deliberation, fail to desire now that one avoids future agony. So subjectivists cannot vindicate the obvious claim that we now have reason to avoid tomorrow’s agony.

I will argue that Parfit’s argument against subjectivism fails because he has not adequately justified either the claim that likings are importantly different from desiring or the claim that subjectivists cannot adequately accommodate the reason-giving force of future desires. I will go on to explore the prospects and problems for justifying these key aspects of Parfit’s argument and hopefully have time to consider other arguments Parfit offers against subjectivism as well.


  1. 1. Posted by Otto Bruun | October 19, 2009 3:59 pm

    Enjoyed the paper.

    Some objections:
    Sobel’s response depends on the availability of his Reasons Transfer Principle for subjectivists.

    RTP: “If one will later have a reason to get 0, then one now has a reason to facilitate the later getting of 0.”

    The principle seems kind of an ad hoc patch to save subjectivism against the Agony argument. Unless it is derivative of a further more general principle available to the subjectivist. And though it isn’t laid out explicitly in the paper, it seems that Sobel regards it as derived from the more general

    “Maximal lifetime desire satisfaction principle”

    whereby subjectivists can appeal to a constraint on rationality such that any rational agent “should act so as to maximally comply with one’s subjectively determined reasons over one’s life” or “achieve lives that involve getting as much of what we really want over time as possible”.

    So the RTP seems just to be a special instance where future reasons providing present reasons, because of the general principle that any reason had at T to facilitate that (F at T*) provides reason at any other Tn to facilitate that (F at T*), insofar as such facilitation is possible at Tn. I.e. reasons had at any time provide reasons at any other time – whether future reasons providing present reasons, present reasons providing future reasons, past reasons providing present reasons, etc.

    Neither of these principles seem plausible and so aren’t available to a subjectivist as general constraints on practical rationality.

    Do future desire-based reasons provide present reason to facilitate the fulfillment of those future desires? If I, per hypothesis, presently see no value in the object of my future desire, I don’t see why someone should rationally at present seek to facilitate the fulfillment of that future desire. The usual Ulysses and Siren type examples (that Sobel explicitly lays aside) are the most flagrant counter-examples to RTP. But let me try another (more awkward) one that avoids the implication of present-future conflict of values: I now desire to lose weight and to this end take a pill that will make me want to win the London marathon (an goal intentionally unlikely to be achieved), and so make me train intensely. I am at present also given the one-off possibility of taking a wonder-drug giving me temporarily the super-endurance necessary to win one such marathon. Do I have reason to take the drug? It would facilitate the fulfillment of my future desire, but it is absurd to say I should rationally take it.

    More generally, RTP ends up taking subjectivism from ‘too few reasons’ to ‘too many reasons’: The Agony argument shows that some future desires provide present reasons, but clearly not all. Even with the supplementary constraint of ‘real’ (i.e. ideal deliberator) desires, there are still too many. For a subjectivist endorsing desire-based reasons AND the RTP constraint will create implausible present reasons derived from future arbitrary desires that I do not presently have. If during my future mid-life crisis I shall (‘really’) want a Porsche, that creates no present imperative to facilitate that future endeavor, if, say, I now find that future desire merely frivolous and not contributive to my future well-being.

    Maybe some of the apparent plausibility of RTP comes from the tacit sense that being in a state of desire as such involves suffering. And so facilitating future ambitions in the present may seem like something I should be concerned to do. That is clearly the case for some desires – such as the agony case – but clearly does not apply to all desires. Some desires are both frivolous and not unpleasant – so not being concerned to fulfill them before I have them is perfectly rational. And yet, once I do have them, they provide reasons to satisfy them (given they survive ideal deliberation).

    As for the underlying principle of lifetime maximal desire satisfaction, it also seems an implausible constraint. I can quite rationally want a life where many (most?) of my desires are thwarted under the agis of a philosophy of ‘the journey/struggle is more important than the destination/victory’ or simply put little store in the aim of maximal desire satisfaction. I can want, for each of my desires, that it be satisfied, and yet not want all of my desires satisfied. (what Kenny once called Omega inconsistency).

    Anyway, I’m running on, so better stop.

  2. 2. Posted by David Sobel | October 20, 2009 9:01 pm


    Thanks very much for the comments which I hope to find time to study soon. I am afraid attempts to e-mail you back directly bounced back to me.


  3. 3. Posted by Otto Bruun | October 29, 2009 6:53 pm

    must have put in the wrong address. This should work better

  4. 4. Posted by Allen Wood | February 11, 2012 8:20 pm

    Sobel thinks that because Parfit appeals to the way our states feel, he is committed to subjectivism about reasons regarding some of them – the ones we are in now — and the only issue is whether these reasons transfer to future feeling states. That is a mistake. The way pleasure or its opposite feels is not a preference, desire or attitude. These are facts, which provide object-given reasons for the preference or desire to seek one state and avoid another, or for positive or negative attitudes about our states. This is why the subjectivist cannot account for our reasons to seek or avoid feeling states by appeal to desires, preferences or attitudes.
    Sobel thinks that my preferring chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream gives me a reason for choosing chocolate ice cream. That I prefer chocolate to vanilla might explain why I do choose chocolate ice cream, but it does not do so by revealing any reason why I make this choice. If there is no reason for me to prefer chocolate to vanilla, then I also have no reason to choose chocolate. There might be such a reason – for example, the ways chocolate and vanilla taste. These are not preferences, desires or attitudes, however, but facts, that might provide object-given reasons for me to prefer chocolate to vanilla.
    Sobel claims in this paper that the issue between subjectivists and objectivists is whether states you have no reason to be in can constitute or give rise to reasons. I think that might be a fair way to state the issue, so long as we are clear about what kinds of states we mean. The state of having a reason to do something, prefer something, etc. is a state that (trivially) provides a reason even if one has no further reason to be in that state. But a conative or attitudinal state which one has no reason to be is one that self-evidently involves no reason (either to be in it or to do, prefer, etc. anything else).
    Preferences, desires, attitudes never provide reasons for anything, unless they are grounded on object-given reasons. So if you pose the issue fairly in these terms, it is evident that the objectivist is right and the subjectivist is wrong.

  5. 5. Posted by David Sobel | February 14, 2012 3:40 pm

    I had hoped my paper was clear enough to ward off Wood’s interpretation. Parfit certainly is. He writes (and I quote this in my paper):

    “It is sometimes claimed that these sensations are in themselves door or bad in the sense that their intrinsic qualitative features give us reason to like or dislike them. But we do not, I believe, have such reasons. Whether we like, dislike, or are indifferent to these various sensations we are not responding or failing to respond to any reasons.”

    “When we are in pain what is bad is not our sensation but our conscious state of having a sensation that we dislike. If we did not dislike the sensation, our conscious state would not be bad.”

    Parfit is not, as I point out in my paper, what I call a Benthamite Hedonist who maintains that some sensations provide reasons independently of our favorable or unfavorable attitudes towards those sensations. Rather, as I say in my paper, Parfit’s attempt to deny that desires provide reasons hinges on accounting for such reasons of mere taste by making use of likings rather than desires and then explaining the difference between the two states. In my paper I discuss this case Parfit makes for this difference and explain why I think the difference Parfit points to between likings and desires is unconvincing. But, more importantly, I also go on to wonder why likings should not be thought to be the sort of state that subjectivists have had in mind all along since they are contingent individualized pro or con attitudes that we have no reason to have.

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