The great discussion on the previous posting got so much off
the topic that I thought I’d start another threat just on the interesting issue
we were discussing. This is Parfit’s account of state and object given reasons.
I’m sure we’ve touched in this in our virtual-reading group too but I’ve
forgotten what we concluded then.
Start from the desires for some things for their own sake.
That is, on occasion we desire something for a property which that thing has
and not because we have another, more fundamental desire for something else
that requires us getting the thing in question.
One view Parfit introduces would say that there are two
kinds of reasons for desires for things for their own sake. First would be the
object-given reasons. In this case, the object we desire has some property that
favours our desire for the object in question for the features it has. Second,
there are state-given reasons. So, for instance, when an evil dictator commands
me to want to be tortured for its own sake or she will actually torture me, you
might say that the state of affairs I am in gives me a reason to want to be
tortured for its own sake. In this case, the object, torture, of that desire to
be tortured for its being-torturedness does not give me a reason – the
favouring force for that state comes from elsewhere, the threat of the dictator.
I’m starting to warm up to this proposal but Parfit (and
Sven and Doug) argue against it. Parfit’s argument begins from the premise that
the reaction of rational agents to reasons is automatic and non-voluntary.
However, rational agents only react with the appropriate desires to
object-given reasons and not to the alleged state-given reasons. In a case
where a rational agent is given an option of eating a lifesaving pill, he will
automatically desire to take it in the same way as being aware of some decisive
evidence for a belief makes us directly have the belief in question. Yet,
rational agents do not react in the same way to state-given reasons. When a
rational agent is told about the dictator’s threat, she does not begin, by that
token, to desire to be tortured for its own sake. This is because torture
itself lacks the favouring features.
Parfit’s argument against the state-given reasons then is
that there is a ‘response requirement’ for reasons. In order for there to be a
reason, substantially rational agent must be able to react directly to it by
getting the appropriate desire on a basis of a belief about the reason. As we
saw, this does not happen in the dictator’s threat case, and therefore the
state I am does not give me a reason to want to be tortured for its own sake.
The same is supposed to go for all alleged state-given reasons, and therefore
there are no such things. Of course having the desire to be tortured in the
dictator case would be good for me. This feature of the desire gives me a
reason to want to have the desire to be tortured. This reason is something a
rational agent can respond to but it is not a state-given reason but rather an
object-given reason like all reasons.
My first problem with the argument is that it seems to beg
the question. If substantially rational agents are defined as those who desire
what they have reason to desire, then the claim that a substantially rational
agent does not react to the threat assumes that she has no reason to do so.
But, this was supposed to be the conclusion not the premise. If there is such a
state-given reason, then substantially rational agent reacts with the desire to
be tortured. Granted many of us would not probably be able to do, but this only
shows that we are not substantially rational.
I’ve also started to think that there is a bigger problem
looming which Parfit himself acknowledges elsewhere. It’s based on Korsgaard’s challenge
for Humeans in the “Normativity of Instrumental Reason”. The question is how
can I have reason to do something that is a means to an end that I have no
reason to have. Parfit makes the same challenge against the desire-based
accounts of reasons. According to those views we have reason to satisfy desires
even though fundamentally there are no reasons for the basic desires. Now, I
think Parfit’s object-given account of the dictator’s threat faces the same
problem. I’m told that I have no reason reason to desire being tortured at all.
I’m also told that I do still have a reason to desire to desire to be tortured.
Yet, in this situation then, I do have a reason for doing something (desiring a
desire) that is merely means for an end (desire to be tortured) I have no
reason to have. I’d rather say that we
have a reason to desire to be tortured for its own sake and having this reason
gives us a further reason to desire to have that desire. The latter reason just
is easier to respond to.