On What Matters: Subjectivism and Ought Implies Can

So, as briefly noted last time, there is a potential issue with Parfit’s idea of reasons, especially if he wants them to be normative, if they go against the beliefs and desires that we actually have. If we act based on the beliefs and desires we have, but don’t have certain beliefs or desires, it seems like a normative push to act in another way will violate the set rule of the normative that says that “Ought implies can”, which works out to essentially say that I cannot be normatively bound to do something that I simply am unable to do. In Chapter 4, Parfit tries to reply to the argument of the Subjectivists that this is indeed what rejecting Subjectivism does, but he does it in the annoying way that I’ve seen throughout most of the book so far: by taking an analogy or example, analyzing it shallowly, and then insisting that therefore he’s proved his point.

The example he uses is this one: if I say that you ought to have helped that blind man across the street, if you reply that you couldn’t have, it wouldn’t be a good justification of that claim to say “I didn’t want to”. Certainly, it is the case that you physically could have done it, but since the Subjectivist views Parfit is criticizing do accept that we can only that which we have some desire to do, that’s not sufficient for Parfit’s purpose. If we return to the snake analogy, we can see that someone who had no idea that running away would result in the snake striking and that staying still would result in it calming down enough for you to get away, we can see that while we might be able to physically stay still that there is a sense in which we can say, at least, that we simply cannot expect anyone to actually act that way. The same thing, then, can apply to this case: can we say that we can expect someone to do something that they have absolutely no desire to do?

In the example Parfit gives, it seems that when we reject the “I didn’t want to” argument, we don’t do it on the basis that the person really didn’t have any desire to do that. We seem to assume that in some way they knew that that is something that people expected and so had some reason from that to want to help the blind man across the street. So when they said they didn’t want to do it, they didn’t mean that they had no desire to do it, but that their desire not to help overwhelmed their rather slim desire to do that. In short, “I just didn’t want to” is not an expression that they completely lacked the desire, but an expression of the fact that avoiding the inconvenience of doing that is what they wanted more. We then judge them as a person based on that condition, and note that their desires are selfish and shallow. But they still, in fact, had those desires, and had the desire to help them across the street … but, after consideration, helping them simply wasn’t as important as it was for them to avoid that inconvenience.

So this isn’t an example of completely lacking the desire. In these cases, we generally presume that the person understands why it would be good to do that, as the reply is not “Why would I do that?” but instead a shrug and a “I just didn’t want to”. While we’d still judge the former person harshly, that’s closer to simply having absolutely no desire or no motivation to actually help them. To put it better, it might be a case of someone who merely calculates the pros and cons of helping the blind person, decides that they ought to help the blind person … and yet simply never moves to help them. Essentially, to have absolutely no real desire to do something might be like analyzing dispassionately a situation and deciding that the ideal course of action is to help the blind person, but even knowing that simply doesn’t do it, and when asked for reasons it isn’t the case that they want to do something else more, but that even with that calculation simply having no desire to actually act on that calculation.

If this can happen, then this is very bad for Parfit’s structure, because he would be committed to saying that we could indeed have the most reason to do something that we have no motivation to do, and if we have no motivation to do it we’d be incapable of doing it. Parfit’s structure of inherent reasons that he relies on so much for agony seems to encourage this sort of impartial, idealized calculation to get to what you should do, but he doesn’t link it to any motivation. If this sort of calculation is self-motivating and so always results in the appropriate motivation, then Parfit’s arguments don’t really work, as Subjectivists now have reason to say that it still always boils down to the desires you have, but that reasoning ideally will always lead to you having reasonable desires. If, however, it is possible to reason yourself into one of Parfit’s objective reasons and still lack the motivation to actually do that which Parfit says is objectively what you have the most reason to do, then Parfit would insist that someone is normatively bound to act in a way that they are not capable of acting, violating ought implies can.

There is more in this chapter, mostly discussions of Frankfurt and Rawls, but this is enough for this post. I may or may not pick those up in the next post.


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