Normativity and Misunderstandings: Parfit

Notes and Thoughts on Parfit’s “On What Matters”, Vol. 2, Chapter on Normativity

Oh! Before we start…Welcome my 100th published post! That’s a lot of rambling…Thank you for reading my stuff.  Here are a couple of fun facts about my blog: 

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Ok, back to philosophy…


In the last post we talked about the disagreement between Parfit and Williams on whether there is such a thing as intrinsic good.  The debate continues but in the context of reasons for action.  For Williams having a reason to act means that you have some desire that you act to fulfill.  For Parfit reasons are facts that count in favour of (or against) a certain act.  You can have a reason to act without having some corresponding desire you seek to fulfill.  

Parfit uses an example to illustrate his point.  It’s called the Early Death example:

Suppose that you know that unless you take a certain medicine, you will die much younger, losing many years of happy life.  Though you know this and you have deliberated in a procedurally rational way on this and all of the other relevant fact, you are not motivated to take this medicine. 

On Williams view you have no reason to take the medicine because there is nothing in your motivational set (the set of desires, dispositions, tendencies, etc that motivate your actions).  On Parfit there are facts that give you good reasons that count in favour of you taking the medicine.  The split between the two, in the simplest terms is that for Williams reasons for action must by definition motivate action.  For Parfit reasons needn’t in themselves motivate actions, but they can count in favour of certain actions when considered by a rational agent. 

Ok, I’ve already jumped into the arguments and we’re not even out of the intro yet!  I know you’re anxious for more, so lets enjoy philosophy! Yay!

[Note: If you get tired of reading what Parfit and Williams say you can skip to the bottom section entitled “My Thoughts”!  Regarding my thoughts on the issues, I appreciate any feedback ‘cuz it’ll help me identify weakness in my future paper on the topic.  Thanks!]


So, check it.  Parfit is all “the problem is that Williams doesn’t understand what reasons are”.  Again, for Williams reasons can only be things that motivate action, and the only things that can motivate action are internal to us (the things in our motivational set).   The extension of Williams’ position is that it is unintelligible to conceive of an “external” reason; that is, a reason for action that is not part of our pre-existing motivational set (i.e. desires).  Now that I think of it, we can say this about Williams’ concept of a reason for action:  

1. A reason must have motivational force on the agent

2. Since the only things that have motivational force on an agent are elements of his motivational set, all reasons are internal to the agent. 
3.  Since all reasons are internal, any talk of external reasons for action is stark nonsense. 

Case 1
Parfit’s all, “dude, you sooooo don’t understand what I mean by external reasons”.   Lets go back to the early deph example.  Williams says that when we say that Sick Sam has a reason to take the medicine, it’s true that we might mean that it would be better for him to take the medicine.  But Williams doesn’t think that taking the medicine would be a reason for Sam.  The distinction is that other people might perceive the facts of the situation and say that they are reasons for taking the medicine but it doesn’t mean that the same facts would be reasons for Sam.

Case 2
Lets use a different example to bring out the distinction.  Suppose an unfortunate young girl is raped and gets pregnant as a consequence.  For some people all the facts of the situation would be reasons for her to get an abortion.  For others, the same facts would not be reasons for an abortion.  Suppose the young girl has a motivational set that disposes her toward wanting an abortion.  The anti-abortion group can rant and rave about the facts that are reasons for them for why she shouldn’t have an abortion.  

But Williams would argue that unless the girl has some sort of desire (after rational deliberation) to have a child, these facts won’t constitute reasons for her.   They don’t constitute reasons for her because they don’t have any “grip” on her; they can’t motivate her to act.  They have about as much motivational force on her decision as do the facts about her perpetrators favorite sports team.  

Again, Parfit wants to deny that reasons need to have motivational force.  He says that reasons are simply facts that count in favour (or against) some action.  But it seems we need to ax, reasons for whom? in favour of what?  Regarding the latter, ultimately in explaining our actions we will say something like “because doing x is right or good”.  But good for whom?  How do you know?

I think Parit’s position seems most plausible when we give uncontroversial examples.  Examples where “common sense” would tell us what is good.  But Parfit’s claim is that there are objective values.  There are things that are objectively good.  When we give examples where people’s intuitions or “common sense” differs, his position becomes less plausible.  

I feel like in making this post, I’m repeating myself a lot.  Maybe that’s because that’s what Parfit’s doing in this section.  

Case 3
I don’t know why but I’m going to give one more example to contrast the two positions…Suppose Bob the Bully enjoys hurting others; it gives him more pleasure than anything.  It’s just the way he’s wired.  He also believes that he is more important than any other person.  His motivational set is such that he doesn’t care about the suffering of others at all.  There are certain facts that most of us (I hope) could point to that give reasons against acting like Bob.  The question is whether Bob would see these facts as reasons against him acting how he does.  He might agree that certain things are facts, but, given his psychological make up he probably wouldn’t see them as reasons that count against his behaviour.  

Of course, Williams position is unappetizing for people who really want to believe in objective right and wrong.  We want to say something like, “look, bullying causes suffering and suffering is bad.  These facts are reasons against bullying-type behaviour.” The problem is that while Bob might agree that bullying causes suffering (i.e., the facts), for him it’s not a reason that counts against doing it.  Causing suffering makes him happy.  Bob has no reason to stop bullying although most people will think that he does.   The problem with Bob is that, despite being presented with all the facts, he has no reason to stop bullying. 

I just noticed something.  When I’m writing Williams’ arguments I agree with him, but when I write Parfit’s I want to agree with Parfit.  Moving on…

Normativity and Why Does It Matter?
So how does this all relate to normativity?  In short, normativity for Williams is particular to the agent’s psychology.  Facts can only be reasons in favour/against something in relation to a particular agent’s values and desires.  What will constitute a ‘reason in favour’ for a particular agent is a “psychological prediction” based on their desires and psychological make up.   For Parfit reasons are facts in favour/against actions that bring about objectively good/bad things/states.  

Resolving this question is important to Parfit because he believes that certain ways of living are intrinsically better than others.  How are we supposed to decide how to live our lives if we can’t appeal to reasons that are for or against one way or another?

My Thoughts
I partly agree with Parfit that some ways of living are better than others.  I’m just not sure that we can say that this is an objective fact.  But suppose for a moment that Parfit’s right, that there are intrinsically better ways of living than others and that we can appeal to reasons for or against certain ways of living. The problem is that how we respond to facts and states of affairs is a consequence of our evolutionary, biological, psychological, historical, and cultural history.  How could we possibly hope to disentangle the facts that we consider to be good reasons from our historical, individuals, cultural, and biological biases?  Parfit could reply that that’s no reason not to try.

Ok, lets continue with the supposition.  How could we possibly adjudicate between differing opinions.  I think that part of what makes things ‘right’ hangs on certain biological facts about humans.  For instance, we are social animals thus require some sort of sanction on violence if we are to survive as a species.  I’ll admit right now I have some Hobbesian tendencies.  Now, does the fact that a requirement for sanctions on violence is necessary (which arises out of our biology)  make sanctions on violence intrinsically good?  

What if the facts of our biology were different.  Suppose we were like some strange insect species where the female rips the head of the male in order to procreate.  Then would decapitation be an intrinsic good because it arose out of our nature and was necessary for the survival of the species? 

Lets set that worry aside.  There’s another worry I have.  There is an assumption in Parfit that all rational individuals would respond the same way to facts that count as reasons in favour of something.  This arises out of his assertion that there are intrinsic goods.  The idea, I think, is that facts that give us reasons to act in ways that aligne with these intrinsic goods (happiness, compassion, knowledge, etc…) will be reasons for all of us.  

Think of it this way.  Fact A counts as a reason for an action because the action alignes the individual with some intrinsic good.  Every rational person who becomes aware of fact A can acknowledge that fact A is a reason in favour of acting a certain way.  But this can only be true if both people recognize the aim of the action as an intrinsic good.  I have trouble accepting the idea that there can be such consensus.  I think there is something to Williams here in that what we consider ‘good’ has much to do with our psychological make up.

Consider this example.  Suppose I’m walkin’ down the street and I see some guy playing an instrument I’ve never seen before: a kazuba.  I think it sounds amazing–a cross between a kazoo and a tuba.  I’m totally inspired.  I go on the intertubes and look up what it is and order one with an handy instructional DVD.   Here’s the thing.  A hundred other people walk by and none of them think the instrument sounds any good.  Non of them order themselves one.  

Pafit’s reasons story goes something like this.  The facts about the sounds of the instrument were reasons in favour me learning to play.  But why didn’t the others respond to those same facts?  Just as I did, they all heard the sweet soothing sounds of the kazuba.  The plausible story is something like what Williams says: the facts of that sweet kazuba sound gave me reasons in favour of learning to play because there was something in my psychological make up that made me perceive the kazuba sounds good.  If there weren’t that particular fact about me, no amount of kazuba sonatas could ever give me reasons in favour of playing the kazuba.    The upshot is that what we value is deeply intertwined with who we are as individuals.  

Given the wide variety of individuals, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there is a corresponding variety of ways to ascribe values to things and concepts.  If it’s true that there are differences in how  value ascribed to concepts and things, then some facts will count as reasons for for some people, and those same facts might be irrelevant or against an action for other people.  

The problem for Parfit is this:  It only makes sense to talk about reasons for or against something if that thing has some kind of normative value.  But, as Mackie pointed out long ago, there is ample empirical evidence to suggest that there are important normative disagreements between people and cultures.  Unless Parfit can give us some guidance and to what these objective normative values are, he going to have a difficult time making his case that there are such things.  

Even if he can point to instances of agreement, the fact that there is agreement is not evidence of objectivity.  It is only evidence of agreement.  Parfit for his part can turn things around and say that the burden of proof lies on the skeptic: that there are moral disagreements is only evidence of disagreement, not that one side isn’t right.

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