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Reply to Sobel
By Allen Wood

I am grateful that my post on Ethics Etc. finally reached David Sobel, and that he has taken the trouble to respond to it. On the face of it, his response looks pretty devastating – I am sure it must seem so to him. But I offer the following rejoinder:

I suppose I should have anticipated this reply, given the way Parfit presents what he calls ‘the agony argument’ and the way in which Sobel in his article exploits the notions of liking and disliking. Nor can it be my aim to speak for Parfit or defend the letter of his texts (he is surely more able to do that for himself than I could possibly be on his behalf). My aim, however, was to criticize the strategy Sobel uses in defending subjectivism about reasons against Parfit’s objections. In a short post, it was impossible for me to do this in a way that avoids misunderstanding. For this reason, the present note is quite a bit longer, because it will take longer to explain what I believe to be at issue. I agree that Sobel’s reply seems quite apt in relation to the letter of what Parfit says. However, this reply also perpetuates the fatal confusion on which I believe the argument of Sobel’s article rests.

It is quite possible to distinguish between “the way a sensation feels” or its “intrinsic qualitative features” (in one sense of the term), and whether it is pleasant or painful. That is what Parfit is doing in the passage Sobel quotes. There is a distinction between “the way a sensation feels” (or its qualitative properties), in this sense, and whether a particular subject finds it pleasant or unpleasant. For example: Some people find certain textures of cloth against their skin pleasant, while others find these same sensations annoying. Parfit apparently finds the taste of milk chocolate unpleasant (disgusting), whereas many people find it pleasant. (Honey meringues seem to be even worse.) I think that is the sense in which Parfit means that the intrinsic qualitative features of sensations give us no reasons to like or dislike them. However, the fact that we like or dislike a sensation (the feel of such-and-such fabric, the taste of milk chocolate) can also be regarded as (in another sense of the phrase) part of the way it feels to us. We have no reason to like or dislike the sensation in this sense, but the fact that we do like or dislike it could give us an object-based reason for seeking or shunning the sensation. That is the sense in which the way pain feels gives us a reason to avoid it or prevent it, if we can, and also to take certain negative attitudes toward it.

The notions of liking and disliking, however, lie on the cusp between (a) mere brute facts about the way things are experienced — which facts might give us reasons for conative states or attitudes — and (b) conative states or attitudes themselves, which might have, and sometimes even require, reasons for us to be in those states or to take those attitudes. I would like to say that the terms ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and their cognates, when used in sense (a), are being used in their ‘merely factual’ sense, or their ‘basic’ sense. But such terms can also be used in sense (b), which I will call their ‘conative’ sense.

The fact that Parfit dislikes the taste of milk chocolate, in the factual sense (a) might give him a reason for being in (b) the conative state of dislike or aversion toward eating milk chocolate, and then it might also give him an object-based reason for preferring or desiring not to eat milk chocolate. ‘Dislike’ when it refers to this conative state, is not being used in its basic or merely factual sense, it is being used in a different sense. Dislikes in the basic or merely factual sense can sometimes provide reasons for conative attitudes. I think Parfit takes our dislike of pain to be such an object-given reason for shunning sensations we find painful, because we dislike them in the basic or factual sense. But some likes and dislikes in this basic, factual sense merely motivate likes and dislikes in the conative sense, without providing reasons for them (or at any rate, without providing good reasons).

There is one single unique work of great literature which always contains somewhere within the rich texture of its drama and dialogue an apt illustration for almost any philosophical point, no matter what the point may be. No, it is not a work by Shakespeare, or Sophocles, or Goethe. It is The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. In this case, the illustration is this:

In the final scene, Lady Bracknell finds out that ‘Ernest’ was the name of her deceased brother-in-law, the father of Algernon and (as we have just discovered) also of the erstwhile ‘Jack Worthing’ – the brother-in-law Lady Bracknell describes as a general who was “essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life”. Her reaction to this information is: “Yes, the General’s name was Ernest. I knew I had a particular reason for disliking the name.” I submit that if we take her statement literally, she cannot be using ‘dislike’ in the basic or merely factual sense; she must be using it in the conative sense. For there can be no reason for disliking anything in the merely factual sense. At most there might be a causal explanation for this (e.g. the association of the name ‘Ernest’ with her late brother-in-law and his quarrelsome behavior). There might also be a causal explanation of why she dislikes the name in the conative sense. But she could have no reason – no good reason — for disliking the name in this sense. But of course Lady Bracknell is typical of her social class: she is arrogant and unreasonable enough to think that her likes and dislikes in the merely factual sense always give her legitimate reasons for any conative states or attitudes they might happen psychologically to motivate.

One trouble with subjectivism is that it might tend to license such an uncritical attitude toward one’s merely factual likes and dislikes, perhaps confusing them with the conative states they might (irrationally) motivate. Then these unreasonable conative states might be taken to provide reasons for further conative or attitudinal states (e.g. Lady Bracknell’s unwelcoming attitude toward her newly revealed nephew Ernest as the imminent marriage partner for her daughter Gwendolen). But – and here’s the point — conative states never provide reasons for the actions or attitudes they might motivate except insofar as we have independent, object-based reasons to be in these conative states in the first place. This is the decisive argument against the sort of subjectivism about reasons that Sobel is trying to defend. It is one of those arguments for which Lady Bracknell also expresses dislike: “I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar and often convincing.”

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, let’s now switch examples, descending from the heights of dramatic sublimity to the tawdry lives we academics lead in our petty everyday dealings. Suppose Sobel and I were colleagues in the same philosophy department; at the APA our department is interviewing Thomas Twit, a job candidate. After the interview, the Department takes a vote on whether to invite Twit for a campus visit and I vote no. When asked why I did so, I say: “I dislike him”. This might be merely a report of dislike in a factual or basic sense, and it might have a causal (psychological) explanation – for instance, Twit has a superficial mannerism that reminds me of someone I used to know who mistreated me. At this point, Sobel, who favors for inviting Twit for an on-campus interview, might legitimately ask me: “What reason do you have for disliking Twit?” If all I can say is what I have just reported, then Sobel could rightly reply: “That’s no reason at all for disliking him!” What he might mean by this is: that you dislike him in the merely factual sense gives you no reason for disliking him in the conative sense. And Sobel would be 100% right. I have no reason for voting against Twit. I shouldn’t have done so merely because I dislike him merely in the basic or factual sense. That gives me no reason for disliking him in the conative sense, and no reason for voting against inviting him to campus. If a subjectivist theory of reasons yields a different result (because it holds that my disliking him counts as a reason for the way I voted) then that theory has to be wrong.

But now consider a variant on this story. Suppose I reply: “The way he answered Professor Poynter’s objections was dogmatic, evasive, and intellectually dishonest.” If what I said was true, then that would provide me with a good (object-based) reason for disliking Twit in the conative sense. If Sobel decides on reflection that what I have said was true, then he might (and even should) agree with me that I have a good reason for disliking Twit and voting against inviting him. Indeed, if Sobel decides that what I said with true, that should give Sobel himself a good reason for changing his vote. It is the nature of genuine (objective, object-given) reasons that they are capable of doing this, in the way that subjective reasons never can — except perhaps contingently, based on the fact that people happen to share their (objectively groundless) likes and dislikes (in the conative sense).

In his criticisms of Parfit, I think Sobel is trading on the ambiguity between the merely factual or basic and the conative senses of ‘like’, ‘dislike’ and their cognates. When Parfit says: “Whether we like, dislike, or are indifferent to these various sensations we are not responding or failing to respond to any reasons,” he is (or at any rate, he ought to be) using these terms in the basic or merely factual sense. It is in this sense that disliking pain (along with, but in addition to, what Parfit calls the ‘intrinsic qualitative features’ of the sensation) is part of “the way pain feels.” That was the sense in which I used that phrase ‘the way pain feels’ in my earlier post. “The way pain feels” in this sense is a mere fact about it, which involves basic or factual dislike, and does provide us with object-based reasons for avoiding pain. It gives us such reasons because it also gives us object-based reasons considering pain bad — and also reasons for disliking pain in the conative sense. For disliking, in the conative sense, is very close to, if not equivalent to, a state of desire or aversion – in this case, the state of aversion to pain. But disliking pain in the basic or factual sense is not a state of desire or aversion. It is a fact about the way pain feels (in the broad sense I have just explained), that might give us an object-based reason for disliking pain in the conative sense.

Sobel writes: “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.”

It would indeed be unconvincing for Parfit to try to draw a distinction between likings and desires if ‘likings’ is used in the conative sense, since a liking in this sense is very close to a desire. But it is not in the least unconvincing for him to distinguish liking from desire, or disliking from aversion, if ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ are used in the basic or merely factual sense. I think Sobel’s argument trades on this ambiguity. In my post, I avoided using the terms ‘like’, ‘dislike’ etc. because they are dangerously ambiguous in the way I have just been trying to explain.

When Parfit speaks of ‘disliking’ pain, using the term (as I would read him) in the merely factual or basic sense, it looks to me as if Sobel takes him to be countenancing the thought that likes and dislikes (in the conative sense) can provide reasons. But for Parfit to have done that would, in my view, have been a mistake. Parfit should have kept distinct the following two things:

1. The true (objectivist) claim that certain facts (e.g. about the way pain feels, including our dislike of it in the basic or merely factual sense) give us reasons for certain desires
2. The false (subjectivist) claim that conative states, which we might be in for no reason at all, could provide us with reasons for doing things, or for being in further conative or attitudinal states

For instance, he should keep my dislike of Thomas Twit (caused by the way his superficial mannerisms remind me of someone else) distinct from my dislike of Twit based on the dogmatic, evasive and dishonest answers he gave to Professor Poynter’s objections. The former is a merely factual state, which may or may not give me reasons for the latter conative state – in this case, they give no reasons, or at most bad reasons for it. But the latter dislike is itself a conative state, which is based on certain (possibly quite good) reasons. The fact that a philosopher is dogmatic, evasive and dishonest in discussions might be a good reason (an object-based reason) for not liking him (in the conative sense) and also a good reason for not wanting to consider him further as a job candidate.

Summary: Subjectivism about reasons is false because no conative or attitudinal state (including likes and dislikes, when these terms are used in the conative sense) ever provides a reason for acting or for anything else unless we have a reason to be in it. But there are facts about our sensory states (which include likes and dislikes in the basic or factual sense of those terms) which sometimes provide reasons for us to be in certain conative or attitudinal states (that can also be described as likes or dislikes). However, these factual likes or dislikes sometimes merely motivate the respective conative likes or dislikes, providing no reasons (or only bad reasons) for them, and therefore also no reasons (or only bad reasons) for further attitudes or actions motivated by those states. Sobel’s critique of Parfit trades on a fatal ambiguity in terms such as ‘like’ and ‘dislike’, making subjectivism about reasons seem plausible when in fact it is nothing of the kind.

Allen Wood


  1. 1. Posted by David Sobel | February 21, 2012 5:58 pm

    I appreciate Wood’s thoughtful response. These seem to me quite interesting issues. I see the issue between us here as whether subjectivism comprises at least a part of the truth—that is, whether a privileged subset of conative attitudes provide reasons in matters of mere taste. Scanlon, Parfit, Quinn, Raz and Wood maintain that even in matters of mere taste concerning why I have a reason to, for example, eat chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla, my rationally contingent conative favorings and disfavorings are not part of what gives me such reasons. Scanlon and Wood, as I understand them, argue that what grounds such reasons is what an experience is like, broadly construed, rather than pro or con responses to what such experiences are like. Now this view is close to what I have called a Benthamite Hedonism which maintains that there is a flavor of sensation which we have reason to get quite independently of our favoring such sensations. I see such views as implausible not primarily because there is no such sensation unified by its qualitative feel, but rather because I think it is not true that there is a flavor of sensation that I have reason to feel regardless of whether I conatively like it, prefer it, or enjoy it. To think otherwise would be to think that, for example, everyone has more reason to eat chocolate ice cream than vanilla because the former sensation, regardless of one’s conative reaction to it, is a better sensation for everyone, regardless of their desires, to get. I take that to be implausible.

    As I understand them, both Scanlon and Wood agree. Thus they try to build more into the flavor of sensation to ensure that it in some sense “finds favor” with the contingent sensibilities of the agent. Scanlon, in What We Owe to Each Other, said that what grounds reasons in matters of mere taste is pleasure or enjoyment, not desire. In response to a paper by David Copp and myself challenging such a view, Scanlon writes:

    “The nature of pleasure and pain is a difficult question, but I agree that it is plausible to suppose that an experience is pleasant, or enjoyable, only if, among other things, the subject desires it while it is occurring. But this does not make a case in which we have reason to do something because it will be enjoyable an instance of our having a reason to do something because it will fulfill a desire. … I conclude from this that desire plays a role in pleasure by affecting the experience itself. When we have reason to bring about an experience in virtue of its being pleasant, what we have reason to bring about is a complex experiential whole that involves, say, having a certain sensation while also desiring that this sensation occur. So these cases remain ones in which the quality of the experience (considered broadly) is a reason to bring it about, rather than cases of
    having a reason to do something because it will fulfill some desire.” (Scanlon, 2002, p. 339–340).

    Scanlon’s goal here, as I see it, is to build more into the flavor of sensation such that it is not subject to the complaint that only people who happen to favor such sensations have a reason to get them, without allowing conative desires to play a role in determining our reasons. I discuss my reasons for not being persuaded by Scanlon’s proposal in my “Pain for Objectivists.” As I see it, Scanlon is trying to find a flavor of sensation that we cannot fail to find favor with by building into that state the causal phenomenological upshot of a desire. I offer several objections to Scanlon’s proposal including that it does not follow from the fact that sensation x is desired while it is occurring in a way that alters the sensation to sensation y, that we desire sensation y while it is occurring. As I see it, therefore, Scanlon’s attempt to build a reason-giving flavor of sensation that cannot point us in a direction contrary to desires that we have for occurent phenomenological states is unsuccessful.

    Wood’s proposal, as I understand it, is somewhat similar in trying to find an expanded flavor of sensation that is reason providing. Wood, as I understand him, claims that there is an aspect of our experience that earns the name liking and disliking (in its basic or factual sense) and that can be intrinsically reason-providing but is not a contingent pro or con response to a flavor of sensation but rather is part of the sensation broadly construed. It is not our contingent pro or con reaction to a sensation but rather part of the sensation itself.

    I doubt that there is the sort of state Wood points to here, one that can be reason-providing because of how it feels but does not involve the agent’s pro or con responses to the state. It seems to me Wood is trying to put something like a pro or con response on the part of the agent into the experience itself.

    I think Wood and I agree that there are types of sensations that do not sufficiently answer to the agent’s contingent sensibilities to be reason providing. These would be the sensations that an agent might or might not like in Wood’s basic/factual sense. Ordinary flavors of sensation cannot be reason providing, I take us to agree, because they need not “find favor” with the agent’s contingent sensibilities. The reason-giving state here, I take us to agree must necessarily “find favor” with the agent’s contingent sensibilities, lest it have the problems that Benthamite Hedonism has of not being reason-providing, but must not count as involving contingent pro or con attitudes on the part of the agent lest it allow that conative desire-like states are what grounds our reasons in matters of mere taste. I see this as saying that the state must involve and not involve the agent’s take on the intrinsic favorability of the occurant state. The neo-Hedonist here must earn the claim that there is an aspect of our experience that deserves to be thought of as a flavor of sensation finding favor with the agent’s contingent sensibilities but which is not a conative pro or con attitude on the part of the agent. I do not see space for such a state. I take Wood to so far merely have claimed that such a state exists, not to have argued for that claim.

    Finally, I should say that my central goal in the paper Wood addresses is to say that Parfit does not provide good reasons to reject subjectivism. But Wood seems not especially interested in what Parfit’s view is (as opposed to what it ought to be), which is obviously of central relevance to whether I manage to show that Parfit has failed to offer a good argument against subjectivism. The suggestion that my critique of Parfit trades on a fatal ambiguity would seem to hinge on what Parfit’s view actually is. I think Wood should either insist that he is offering the best reading of Parfit or not claim that my critique of Parfit rests on a fatal ambiguity. What Wood really wants to say, I think, is that I am wrong to think that contingent pro and con conative states provide reasons. Even if that is true, that need not show that my critique of Parfit is mistaken. The dispute about whether desires ever provide reasons takes us well beyond anything I was centrally arguing in the paper Wood is criticizing.

  2. 2. Posted by David Sobel | February 21, 2012 6:14 pm

    I should have linked to the previous exchange with Wood that this thread is in response to above. It is here.

  3. 3. Posted by David Sobel | February 21, 2012 6:18 pm

    Additionally, the paper Wood responds to is here. And the paper of mine I mention above about Scanlon is here. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link for the Scanlon paper I mention above but it is in the same volume as my “Pain for Objectivists”.

  4. 4. Posted by Allen Wood | February 23, 2012 7:11 am

    I am not sure how much farther this exchange can go: We may be getting to the stage where we are both doomed merely to repeat ourselves, each finding what the other says equally incredible on its face. But I will give it one more shot:

    For me, the issue here is entirely about reasons – what they are, where they come from. I think they come from things like facts and rational principles, items that can be rationally assessed. They do not come from, or depend on, people’s subjective likings and dislikings, favorings and disfavorings, pro and con conative attitudes. Those subjective states don’t always require reasons to be in them in order to be acceptable or justified, but sometimes they do, and when they do, the reasons have to come from objective facts or principles, not from (other) conative attitudes (at least not from those we have no reason to be in). At most, the fact that someone takes such-and-such an attitude, when taken together with other facts or principles, might together constitute a reason for doing or wanting something. But the other facts have to be objective reason-giving facts or objective rational principles.

    Sobel seems to think that we can begin with conative attitudes, likings, favorings (whatever you call them) and bootstrap our way up to reasons. My liking for chocolate ice cream, for instance, Sobel seems to think, is enough to give me a reason for ordering it at the sweet shop. Now I don’t think that I necessarily need a reason for ordering chocolate, or ordering it rather than vanilla. I might find myself with a pro attitude toward chocolate over vanilla. That would explain the fact that I order it, but it would not give me a reason, and the explanation would be a merely psychological explanation, not a reasons explanation. If I have a reason for ordering chocolate ice cream, it would have to lie in some kind of objective fact or principle.

    One possible kind of fact here might be the way the ice cream tastes to me. I agree with Sobel that there can be a distinction between “the way it tastes” in one sense of the term (what I guess he must mean by ‘the flavor of the sensation’) and whether that taste is something I like — in what I called the basic or merely factual sense of ‘like’ — that might give me a reason for liking it in some different (conative) sense of ‘like’, where this latter liking involves some degree of motivation to choose it, for instance.

    I think there are some sensations that we like or don’t like (in what I called the basic or merely factual sense) where there is no such disposition, no pro or con attitude that lines up with the liking or disliking. Some food I know is bad for me might be a food I know I will like in this basic or factual sense (that is, I know that if I ate it, it would taste good). But if ingesting it is likely to be very bad for me – life-threatening, say — then I should have no pro conative attitude at all toward it. If someone offers the food to me, I will run in the opposite direction. My conative attitude toward eating this good-tasting food is absolutely 100% con. I disfavor eating it, I have no desire to eat it, etc. etc. (I am happy to use here all Sobel’s words for the conative attitudes thinks accompany something’s being experienced as pleasant). The food is pleasant, and I know this, but all my conative attitudes are aversive.

    Or in other cases, some people might even think that eating some good tasting food is immoral — some people reject pork on religious grounds, even though they might admit that it tastes good. Vegetarians I know will admit that steak tastes good, but they are no longer the least bit disposed to eat it because they regard eating steak as morally wrong. Here they have (or think they have, I won’t try to decide for present purposes the moral merits of vegetarian principles) a decisive reason for taking only con attitudes toward eating steak, and no pro attitudes at all. Yet they know it to be a fact that steak tastes good.

    At this point, I fear Sobel is going to try to scare me off, using as his bogey man Jeremy Bentham’s ghoulish corpse preserved at UC London. I am not scared, though. If Bentham agreed with me in what I have just been saying, then I think he was right, because I think what I have just been saying is right.

    Sobel, however, challenges me in the following terms:

    “The neo-Hedonist here [I guess that’s me] must earn the claim that there is an aspect of our experience that deserves to be thought of as a flavor of sensation finding favor with the agent’s contingent sensibilities but which is not a conative pro or con attitude on the part of the agent. I do not see space for such a state. I take Wood to so far merely have claimed that such a state exists, not to have argued for that claim.”

    I don’t recognize or fully understand all this technical (theory-laden?) talk about ‘flavors’ and ‘favors’. What I would say is that it is just a fact that steak tastes good and that grasping a red-hot iron hurts like hell. Putting the steak aside for now (so as not to offend my squeamish vegetarian friends), I at least think that this last fact about the red-hot iron gives me a very good reason not to grasp any red-hot irons that might be within reach. And it does this independently of any conative attitude whatever –at least of none that I have no reason to be in. If this makes me a Hedonist (whether of the shameless unreconstructed Benthamite or the neo-variety), then so be it: I’m a Hedonist, at least to that extent. At any rate, I think the badness of the pain I will certainly feel if I grasp a red-hot iron is not dependent in even the slightest degree on whether I grasp it with a pro or a con conative attitude. This objective badness, however, does give me an object-based reason to be in a con conative attitude toward the pain, to avoid it or get out of it. I take this to be self-evident, and not in need of any argument. It seems to me that it is Sobel who (in Hume’s words) must now tug the laboring oar.

    Of course it would be absurd to describe me as a Benthamite hedonist. Pleasure (and displeasure) are phenomena far too varied and heterogeneous for it to make sense think of pleasure as the good, or as something measurable. For the same reason, with pleasure and displeasure there is space for every possible shading and combination of flavor and favor, so I take Sobel’s inability to see the space for any state as necessarily a theory-driven blindness. Intense physical pain, on the other hand, is a much simpler thing. Directedness of attention can make an astonishing difference at times in whether and to what extent we experience it, but when we do, it is just a plain fact that pain hurts. If Sobel thinks that his pro and con attitudes, likings, favorings or their opposites could have anything to do with the badness of intense pain, then he must have led a very sheltered life. I, on the other hand, as I sit down to write this reply, have just returned from a five hour visit to the dentist; so I know what I am talking about. But I am not as dogmatic about the badness of pain as Parfit is. He holds the naively charming view that nobody deserves to suffer. Parfit has spent a fair amount of time in the U.S., some of it in lower Manhattan, only a few blocks from Wall Street. But he must not have run into Republicans often enough to enable him to plumb the depths of what they deserve.

    If Sobel needs an even stronger current to row against, here’s another case where I think we can clearly separate the fact of something’s hurting from any conative attitude the subject takes toward it. Early in the classic David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence (played by the youthful Peter O’Toole) is ostentatiously exhibiting his superhuman stoical machismo to his fellow British soldiers. He grasps a lighted match between his fingers. They stare in astonishment. One of the others tries it and cries out: “That damn hurts!” Lawrence nods: “Doesn’t it hurt, though?” “What’s the trick, then?” asks the soldier, nursing his burnt hand. Cool as a cucumber, Lawrence replies: “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” If Lawrence had just been reading our exchange, he could have put it this way: “The trick is taking no con conative attitude whatever, no conative disliking or disfavoring (nothing whatever that Sobel could possibly be talking about) toward the plain brute fact that it hurts.”

    It may be that Sobel wants it to be true by stipulation (using some extended meaning of the term ‘con conative attitude’ — I can’t see any other reason besides such a stipulation for saying it) that something’s hurting like the dickens is just the same as my having some con conative attitude toward it – and that this is true by stipulation even in Lawrence’s case: by stipulation: that it hurts is already a con conative attitude, no matter what Lawrence minds or doesn’t mind. Or in the contrary case, maybe Sobel thinks the statement ‘steak tastes good ‘ just includes in its meaning that the person assenting to this proposition has some ‘pro attitude’ toward eating steak — even if the person is a fanatical vegetarian who would sooner die than eat steak. I would also say, however, that in such a case this pro attitude, such as it is, provides no reason at all for the vegetarian to eat the steak (assuming for the sake of argument the correctness of vegetarian moral principles). If the issue is whether conative attitudes by themselves can give rise to reasons, this is clearly a case where the pro attitude toward eating steak that is supposedly involved in assenting to the proposition that the steak tastes good absolutely does not provide the vegetarian with any such reason.

    I take it to be an important part of Sobel’s subjectivism that reasons are provided by conative states one has no reason to be in. (In his paper, he says several times that this is part of the subjectivism he is defending.) But it seems to me self-evident that if I have no reason for being in a conative state, then there can be no possible reason for me to do anything that state might motivate me to do. There might be a motive (psychologically speaking) that explains why I do it, but there is no reason. If I have no reason for being in the conative state of liking chocolate ice cream, then that state by itself provides me with no reason for ordering chocolate, or preferring chocolate to vanilla. Of course I don’t think most of the time that I need any reason when I order ice cream. But if I did need a reason (say because there is a moral or health reason not to order chocolate ice cream, or to prefer vanilla to chocolate) the mere fact that I am in a pro conative state toward chocolate ice cream – a state I have no reason to be in – would not provide the least bit of countervailing reason.

    Perhaps, however, someone could mount an argument to the effect that my eating food toward which I have the pro conative attitude that I have toward chocolate ice cream contributes in some way to my good. That fact, if it is one, taken together with principles about the objective desirability of promoting my good, might make my being in the conative state of liking chocolate ice cream part of a larger story explaining why I have a good reason to be in the pro conative state toward chocolate ice cream, or even why I have a reason to order it. But the larger story would have to be framed by objective, reason giving facts and objective principles, and the argument of one chapter of the story would have to be that I do after all have a reason for wanting chocolate ice cream (because it contributes to my good).The story could not consist solely of subjective conative states that I have no reason to be in. At least when it comes to reasons: Gigni de nihilo nihil. Reasons come from, and are grounded in, object-based reason-giving facts and rational principles. But rationally groundless conative states by themselves never get you to any reasons at all, just as adding zeros to your bank account never gets you any richer. I take the one truth to be just as self-evident as the other.

    Toward the end of his post, Sobel writes: “I think Wood should either insist that he is offering the best reading of Parfit or not claim that my critique of Parfit rests on a fatal ambiguity.” I am not sure why I need to make any claim about Parfit at all in order to say that his arguments rest on a fatal ambiguity. The ambiguity, I would say, consists in using terms like ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ in two ways (1) to report, for instance, about the way the hot iron feels in my hand, the brute (and object-based reason-giving) fact that it hurts like the devil and (2) to report that I take a certain con conative attitude toward that pain. Lawrence, for instance, could feel the pain while not taking any corresponding con conative attitude – he doesn’t mind that it hurts. But not being a stiff-upper-lip British military type, I think that the fact that grasping the red-hot iron hurts like crazy gives me a reason not to grasp it, to mind very much how it feels, and to take all sorts of other con attitudes toward grasping it, in a way that no con conative attitude that I have no reason to be in could ever do.

    All that seems to me 100% independent of anything Parfit says or thinks, or of any way that I might read Parfit. But without pretending to speak for Parfit, or to take any position on what the “best reading” of Parfit might be, I am inclined to think he is agreeing with me when he says the following:

    “When Mackie calls this feeling of pain [the way a red-hot iron would feel if I grasp it] a powerful reason [sc. not to grasp it], he may mean only that
    (I)The way the red-hot iron feels strongly motivates me to move my hand away.
    …But if Mackie had considered the distinctions I have drawn, he might have changed his view. Mackie might have come to believe that
    (J) the way the red-hot iron feels counts strongly in favor of my moving my hand away.
    If he had believed (J), Mackie would have started to use the concept of a purely normative reason.” (On What Matters, Vol. 2, p. 459)

    I take this passage to be Parfit’s endorsement of the claim that the way the red-hot iron feels (in some sense of this last half dozen words) constitutes an object-based and purely normative reason for desiring certain things (e.g. not to be touching the iron) and doing certain things (e.g. moving my hand away). And this purely normative reason is not constituted to the least degree by any conative state that we have no reason to be in (since such states might motivate me, but could not provide any purely normative reasons). But if I am wrong, and this is not the correct reading of Parfit (or even the “best” reading), I nevertheless think the above passage, so understood (or so misunderstood), still offers the correct view about what reasons are, and about why conative states we have no reason to be in can never by themselves provide any reasons whatever for anything at all.

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