On What Matters: Objectivism vs Subjectivism About Reasons

If we’re going to look at how Parfit may not be being fair to Subjectivism, we should take a quick look at what he means by Objectivism and Subjectivism, which he covers in Part 2. It turns out here he isn’t talking about morality directly here, but instead is talking about reasons. In particular, he is talking about practical reasons, which presumably are the reasons that can and ought to drive and justify actions and behaviour. He ends up defining Objectivist views about practical reasons as being views where the reasons are derived from the objects of the aims, which leads to a somewhat odd Objectivist view in this context. It looks like he’s taking the term “object” too literally here in calling this an objective view, since “objective” in this context usually implies neutral or third-person, not just in objects. However, as he shakes out his idea and, particularly, contrasts it with Subjectivist views, it ends up being pretty much that way: Objectivist views say that reasons are derived from the facts of the matter about things external to the agent in some way.

So, then, what is a Subjectivist view? Essentially, it is a view that argues that one’s practical reasons are derived from facts about the person themselves. More specifically, it seems that Parfit defines such views as being ones where the aims of the individual are what gives one reasons to act in those ways. In short, one’s practical reasons can only be defined in terms of the aims, goals and desires that the agent has, and cannot be derived from the nature of the aims, goals and desires themselves. As Parfit presents Subjectivist views, they hold aims and goals have no inherent value; the only value that can be given to them is given by the fact that they are the aims and goals of a specific individual, and no one, therefore, can say that they have reason to do something that they don’t, in fact, value themselves.

In short, then, Objectivist positions by Parfit will claim that there are some aims or goals that are inherently valuable or desirable and so give reasons to do them even if the person themselves doesn’t see those reasons of think that those things are valuable. Subjectivists are going to argue by Parfit that there are no such aims, and that the facts about the aims cannot determine the value of the aim independently of the individual’s assessment of those aims. In the next two parts, Parfit is going to try to show that Subjectivist views are wrong, and I think he’s going to trip over himself a bit trying to do that.

That’s all I want to say about Part 2, although Parfit does talk more about Objectivist positions there. I don’t feel that he proved that Objectivist positions are correct there, and my purpose for these posts is to pull out a couple of interesting points per part, not do a full critique. I will, however, probably have more to say about the next two parts in the next couple of posts.

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