On What Matters: Normative and Apparent Reasons

So, I’ve started reading “On What Matters” by Derek Parfit again. I originally bought it to take a university course that I unfortunately wasn’t able to take, and so I started reading it for a bit and then, as usual, got distracted. Having just finished reading my two collections of Ayn Rand essays, I’ve decided to go back to reading it, and since I always need posts for the blog, I’ve decided to do some commentary on it as I do so. As I write this post, I’ve just finished reading the fourth chapter (or “Part”, as Parfit puts it), and again think that he’s being very unfair to Subjectivism in parts 3 and 4. But before I get into that, I want to talk briefly about a couple of issues in the first two parts. This post tracks the main thrust of part 1, which is about reasons.

Parfit uses a particular analogy here that he relies on heavily in his discussions of Subjectivism, which is as follows: Imagine that you are walking in the desert, and you disturb a poisonous snake. You believe that the option that will best save your life is to run away, but in reality the option that will best save your life is to stay still, as it only strikes when it detects movement. Parfit argues that what you have the most reason to do is stay still, despite the fact that you believe that the right thing to do is to run away.

At first blush, this actually seems fairly reasonable, but it immediately runs into issues when we ask — as Parfit does — what you ought to do in such a case. Given our intuitions, we can say, and reasonably so, that you ought to stay still. After all, assuming that you want to preserve your life, that is the action that will actually achieve that, while running away will almost certainly get you killed. But how can we expect you to stay still? Given your set of beliefs and desires, and all of the information you actually have, the right action is to run away. But it happens to be wrong. What reason could you give to justify staying still? The only way you could, in fact, do the action that we say you ought to do is completely by accident; there is no reasoning that could possibly cause you to conclude that you should stay still given the beliefs and desires you actually have in this situation. So even if you ought to stay still, there is no actual way you will do that in that situation … or, at least, no way that appeals to reason.

Parfit addresses this by distinguishing between “normative” and “apparent” reasons. Normative reasons are essentially those reasons that we would have if we have all of the information, all true beliefs, and all of the appropriate desires. Essentially, it is the reasons that we would have if the situation was evaluated from a neutral — and presumably omniscient — third-person perspective. Apparent reasons are the reasons that we in a particular situation given a certain set of beliefs and desires actually have. He argues that what it is rational for us to do is governed by apparent desires, but normative desires track what we really and factually have the most reason to do.

Again, this sounds reasonable … until you realize that making this distinction essentially sunders normative reasons from our behaviour. Given this distinction, it is clear that we will only ever and can only ever act for our apparent reasons, no matter how close they actually are to our normative reasons. We can only act on the beliefs and desires that we actually have, not the ones that we would have from a third-person omniscient viewpoint. So it turns out then that by this we can never really act according to what we have the most reason to do, because that is always the normative reason and we only act on our apparent reasons. Only if our normative and apparent reasons are identical can we act based on what we have most reason to do … but given that those reasons can only be formed from a neutral, third-person, omniscient viewpoint the chances of our normative and apparent reasons being the same is miniscule, to say the least. So if we have to say that our normative reasons define what we have the most reason to do, then we never act on the basis of what we have the most reason to do. This will be problematic for Parfit later when he uses this analogy against Subjectivism.

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