Chapter Two: Reason And Action, Part 1

This is the second installment in my ongoing series of posts on The Point of View of the Universe by Peter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. The previous post was an introduction and overview of sorts. I recommend reading it first for some context. In this post, I go through the first half of the second chapter of the book and examine the authors’ arguments against normative internalism and metaethical subjectivism. I should point out at the outset that the book doesn’t use these specific terms, and lumps them both together under the category of “subjectivism.”

Normative internalism 

David Hume famously argued that reason “is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” This view of practical rationality falls under the category called normative internalism. Normative internalists argue that the only kinds of reasons for action that exist are “internal” reasons – reasons that depend on our desires, emotions and goals. If I desire A, or a have goal to achieve B, then I may have a reason to do X, Y or Z. If I want to get good grades, I have a reason to study hard and not waste a lot of time. But it makes no sense to talk about reasons that exist independently of my subjective desires and interests. This is a widely accepted and, I think, highly intuitive view. But this is the view that most of this chapter argues against.

Recall that Sidgwick’s view on moral “ought” statements is that they are precepts or dictates of reason. When I say “You ought (morally) to do X,” I mean that you have an overriding reason to do X, or that it would be irrational of you not to do X. But if normative internalism is true, there aren’t any objective reasons for action, and Sidgwick’s moral realism falls apart. Singer and Lazari-Radek spend some time discussing how Sidgwick defended his view of ethics from the challenges of normative internalism, and then provide their main argument against the view, which draws on the work of philosopher Derek Parfit.

Consider Parfit’s thought experiment of a man with ‘Future Tuesday Indifference (FTI).’ This man cares about pleasure and pain most of the time, like all of us, with one difference. He doesn’t care about his pains if they happen to him on a future Tuesday. This is not because he holds any false beliefs. He simply doesn’t care about what he feels on future Tuesdays. If he had to choose between slight pain today and extreme agony on a future Monday, he would choose the former.  But if he had to choose between slight pain today and extreme agony on a future Tuesday, he would choose the latter. Now, intuitively, it seems that there is something irrational about this person. As Parfit says: “That some ordeal would be much more painful is a strong reason not to prefer it. That this ordeal would be on a future Tuesday is no reason to prefer it.”

How could a normative internalist agree that the person with FTI it is irrational? If he only has reasons for action that depend on his desires, then he has no reason not to prefer an agonizing ordeal on a future Tuesday over slight pain today.  Singer and Lazari-Radek consider many possible responses, the strongest of which goes along these lines: “The person with FTI can predict today that he would, on the future Tuesday, regret choosing something that led to a lot of pain. This gives him a reason to prefer slight inconvenience today to agony on a future Tuesday.” But this won’t do. The FTI-person knows perfectly well that he will probably feel regret on a future Tuesday, but right now, he does not care about his future feelings. Unless I have a present concern about future feelings, I do not have a reason to act now in a way that takes into account my future condition. So if I am a person with FTI, I have no reason to act so as to avoid agony on a future Tuesday. And that just doesn’t feel right. It’s highly implausible that there’s nothing irrational about this kind of behavior. It would appear, then, that Hume was wrong, and normative internalism is false. There are objective reasons for action.

The authors recognize, of course, that FTI doesn’t really exist, but point out that we all act like FTI-people every now and then:

We may postpone going to the dentist, for instance, even though we are well aware that the postponement will mean more pain in future, overall… Our acting in this way seems clearly irrational but, if it is the best means of satisfying our present desires, a subjectivist [i.e., normative internalist], cannot say that it is irrational (p. 46). 

There’s some more discussion on this topic in the part of the chapter that deals with moral motivation. I’ll try and go over it in the next post.

Metaethical subjectivism 

Metaethical subjectivism is the view that moral statements are utterances of personal preferences or opinions. More precisely, moral statements are descriptions of what one feels when considering a moral issue. So when I say “Killing innocent people is wrong,” what I mean is, “I disapprove of killing innocent people,” or “Killing innocent people disgusts me.” I’ve always found this to be a highly implausible view. Singer and Lazari-Radek address it in a short section entitled Why Morality is Not Like Football. I don’t think their discussion adds anything new to the debate. This is not a surprise, since they spend a very short amount of time on this topic. But there are some very strong arguments against moral subjectivism (which I’m pretty sure is an extreme minority position among philosophers) out there. For a brief introduction to these arguments, check out David Enoch’s highly accessible Why I Am an Objectivist About Ethics (And Why You Are, Too).

Singer and Lazari-Radek ask us to imagine the experience of trying to persuade a friend to do two things: support Brazil in the next FIFA World Cup, and help victims of a recent famine. When we talk about the latter, it seems like we would appeal to independent reasons to justify why we think that not helping famine victims is wrong, and to persuade our friend of the same. On the other hand, the authors point out:

[W]e would acknowledge that one’s choice to support a football team may be arbitrary. Perhaps we would explain it – by saying, for instance, that we had a close friend from Brazil, with whom we used to watch the games. But this is an explanation more than it is a reason, and it is certainly not a reason for others to support Brazil (p. 49-50).

In other words, helping famine victims really matters, in a way that football (soccer) doesn’t. Our first-person experience of a discussion about the former, as well as the content of the discussion itself, make it seem like we’re arguing about a matter of objective fact and not just personal preference. Hence, it seems like metaethical subjectivism is false, and ordinary moral discourse presupposes objectivity.

And that’s it for today! The next post will cover rationality and moral motivation. Thanks for reading, and please keep an eye out for the next post.

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2 Responses to Chapter Two: Reason And Action, Part 1

  1. SamL says:

    Great post! I’ve not seen the Future Tuesday Indifference argument before—it seems like a good one. (Was flicking through one of Parfit’s books yesterday as it happens, could barely lift the thing!)



    • Thanks! Yeah, I think it’s a good argument – I haven’t been able to point out where it goes wrong.

      Ha, I really wanted to read Parfit’s On What Matters a while ago. But then I saw it was two volumes and like 600 pages long. That seriously put me off. Maybe I shouldn’t be so lazy. 😀


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