On What Matters: Subjectivism and the Agony Argument

In Part or Chapter 3, Parfit starts his assault on Subjectivism about reasons, which he thinks is wrong and things he has compellingly proven wrong. In this chapter, he focuses on two main arguments: the analogy of the snake from earlier, and the “Agony Argument”.

Let’s revisit the snake analogy first. Recall that this analogy is basically that if you are faced with a poisonous snake who will only strike if you move, but if you believe that the only way for you to survive is to run away, what you have most reason to do is really to stay still, despite your belief that doing so will kill you. The reason is that that action is the only one that will actually achieve your goal, which is to save your life. So Parfit concludes that that is what you have the most reason to do, and then argues that Subjectivism insists that what you have the most reason to do is, in fact, to run away, despite the fact that that will kill you. This is incorrect, so Subjectivism must be incorrect.

The problem was outlined in the first post: making this move sunders normative reasons from reasons that can actually motivate behaviour. Parfit will talk about the Subjectivist response that “Ought implies can” and that we can only do that which we want to do in the next chapter, but we can look at my specific take on it here. The argument is that what we have the most reason to do in this case is to stay still, but based on the beliefs and desires we have the obvious move for us, in this situation, to make is to run away. For Parfit to say that what we have the most reason to do is what we have a normative reason to do, he has to say that we ought to do that move. This implies that we ought to stay still. But those normative reasons can’t motivate our behaviour, because we aren’t aware of those reasons. If Parfit wants to claim that we ought to act in the manner specified by our normative reasons, then he’s lost, because we simply cannot do so if our normative reasons aren’t, in fact, determined by the beliefs and desires that we actually have as opposed to the beliefs and desires that we ideally would have. If we knew that the snake would only strike if we stayed still, then it’s clear that we should stay still, but we don’t know that, and so can’t act for reasons that we don’t know exist. This doesn’t eliminate an objective idea of reasons, but does mean that we can’t condemn someone normatively for not taking an action that they didn’t know would achieve their goal, which blunts this attack on Subjectivism.

The Agony Argument is essentially this: If Subjectivism is true, if someone for some reason didn’t care about future agony, they’d have no reason to try to avoid it. But we always have reason to try to avoid future agony. Therefore, Subjectivism about reasons cannot be true.

There are two main issues here. The first is that I think Parfit relies too much on our normal reactions to agony in general and future agony in particular to make his case. We’re asked to imagine the case where someone didn’t care about future agony, but obviously that is incomprehensible to us because avoiding pain is such a strong desire for us and we do, generally, think about the future and understand that actions today will produce results tomorrow. So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine someone actually being in that state; we definitely think that they are at least being irrational if not that they have some kind of disorder. But that doesn’t actually impact the argument, which is that if someone really had no desire to avoid future agony, then they wouldn’t have any reason to avoid it. Following on from the first point, how can they have a reason to avoid something that they are unaware that they ought to avoid? In the first point, they were missing an appropriate belief, and here they are missing what we think is an appropriate desire. In both cases, they can only act based on the beliefs and desires they have, not the beliefs and desires we think they should have. So, at that point, the Subjectivist approach doesn’t seem as problematic as Parfit makes it seem.

The second issue is that to make this argument work, Parfit has to assume that there is something inherent to agony that makes it such that we always have reason to avoid it (unless given a stronger reason not to). However, he can face opposition from Objectivists about reasons. The Stoics, for example, are not going to accept that our normative reasons are all subjective, but also deny that agony itself gives us any inherent reason to want to avoid it. That’s the reason they subordinate things like pain to the things that are inherently good and inherently desirable, which are the virtues. Avoiding pain is not a virtue, so there is nothing inherent to pain/agony that could possibly give us reasons to avoid it. Now, you can argue that this is indeed an argument between Objectivists and not relevant, but Parfit’s example relies critically on us accepting that we always have reason to avoid agony because of its inherent qualities. If we can cast doubt on that, then his argument fails, and he’s left trying to find other reasons to dismiss Subjectivism, which we’ll likely get into next time.

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One Response to “On What Matters: Subjectivism and the Agony Argument”

  1. On What Matters: Subjectivism and Ought Implies Can | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as briefly noted last time, there is a potential issue with Parfit’s idea of reasons, especially if he wants them to be […]

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