Monday, September 21, 2009

Smith on Parfit 1 of 15: Having a Reason

For some time, Luke Muehihauser has been sending me articles in moral philosophy that are relevant to the desire utilitarian theory I defend in this blog in the hopes that I would address their points. I loaded those articles onto my laptop to read during my vacation.

In the context of a blog, I do not have the ability to write up full-fledged philosophical articles on any topic. However, I do have the opportunity to write some notes in the margins as it were. That is to say, I have the ability to underline a few passages in the text and comment on them.

The first of the articles I seek to comment on was: "Desires, Values, Reasons, And The Dualism Of Practical Reason," Michael Smith (© 2009 The Author; Journal compilation © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Ratio (new series) XXII 1 March 2009.

In this article, Smith wrote a criticism of Derek Parfit's views on reasons for action. Specifically, Smith seeks to show that Parfit's arguments suggest that there are two or perhaps three different types of goodness that either (1) cannot be compared with each other, or (2) require that Parfit do additional work to explain how they can be compared to each other. In the course of making this argument, Smith makes several statements on the nature of practical reason, and presents some of the views of Parfit and Henry Sidgwick as well.

In the next several evening posts, I wish to highlight some of those statements and scribble some comments about them.

The first sentence I wish to highlight is:

Parfit consider(s) two practical claims in the early chapters. One is a claim that he takes to be a datum, namely, that we all have reasons to want to avoid future agony and thus to try to avoid it if we can.

Smith wrote in a footnote, All quotes in the text from On What Matters are taken from the 7 November 2007 version of the manuscript which was at that point called Climbing the Mountain.

Parfit eventually attempts to use this datum to reject all desire-based theories of value. Whereas I defend a desire-based theory of value (all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires), this is relevant to the theory I defend in this blog.

My scribbled notes in the margins would say:

False, I think, depending on what the statement actually says.

Note that Parfit is not quoted as saying that an agent has a reason to avoid future agony. He is quoted as saying that an agent has a reason to want to avoid future agony. That is to say, the agent (or all of us, actually) has a current reason to acquire a current aversion to future agony, according to Parfit.

Parfit tells us that this is datum. This is a raw observed fact that, allegedly, desire-based theories of value cannot explain, but which Parfit’s value-based theory supposedly can handle.

This means that Parfit sees an apparent problem with the desire-based theory of value that I use and defend in this blog.

The desire-based theory that I favor says that a person has a reason to create a state S if and only if a person has a desire that P and P is true in S. Correspondingly, a person has a reason to avoid a state R only if a person has a desire that not-P and P is true in R.

This is allegedly a theory that has trouble handling reasons to avoid future agony.

Let me look at the aversion to pain (or, in other words, desire that I not be in pain) for a moment. This current aversion to pain is not an aversion only to pain that is occurring at this specific moment in time. It is an aversion to any state in which the entity referred to as I is in a state of pain. This includes current states and future states. It is my current aversion to the entity I feeling pain that makes me take steps today that make it less likely that I will be severely burned in the near future, and I is an entity that persists over time.

On this account, we evolved desires as a way of motivating intentional action. The aversion to pain work to motivate intentional action that aims to avoid states in which the proposition, I am in pain is true. However, intentional action can only avoid future pain. It cannot avoid current pain. So, having a desire play a role in intentional actions requires that the desire can be fulfilled in a future state.

In fact, if my aversion to pain is only an aversion to current pain then it provides no reason for me not to put my hand on the hot stove. Even after I put my hand on the hot stove and feel the pain, a Parfit-style aversion to current pain would not even motivate me to remove my hand, since removing my hand is only a means for avoiding the continuation of that pain – not a means for avoiding current pain.

So, it seems that Parfit has failed to see an essential link between desires and future states that is necessary for desires to play a role in motivating intentional action. This, then, motivates him to add additional complexities to fill a gap that does not actually exist.


Luke said...

Some background for your readers:

Derek Parfit is a moral philosopher who became famous after his publication of Reasons and Persons (1984). For the past decade he has been writing a new book (originally called Climbing the Mountain but now called On What Matters). He has posted drafts of this book for comment, and keeps revising the document in response to extensive comment from other philosophers. At least a dozen papers which respond to Parfit's unpublished book have been published in academic journals, though the book itself has still not been published.

I have not yet read Reasons and Persons or On What Matters, so I unfortunately I can't say much about his views.

But I think Alonzo's point is lucid!

Luke said...

By the way, Alonzo, a lot of people who read my blog would love to hear more about why you do not submit your views to peer review.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Because I do not have the time to do a proper job.

I specified that this blog posting constitutes 'notes in the margin' to indicate that I do not have the time to do proper research on the matter. This would require reading Parfit's material, other criticisms of Parfit, and his responses.

If somebody were to provide me with an opportunity to do the type of research such a project would require, without giving up food, shelter, and medical care, I would happily accept the offer.

In the mean time I read what I can, scribble some notes in the margin, and hope somebody with more time than I have finds it useful.