Normative source and extensional adequacy.

Author:Behrends, Jeff

Take SOURCE INTERNALISM TO be the position that all facts that constitute objective, practical reasons do so in virtue of a relation in which they stand to the pro-attitudes of agents, or the proattitudes that agents would have under some specified set of circumstances. For instance, on such a view, some fact might count as a reason for me to act because it is part of what explains why so acting would get me closer to the satisfaction of one of my desires. (1) This kind of internalist view is typically contrasted with the position that practical normativity is never grounded in this way: Source Externalism. (2)

Source Internalism is typically thought to have the consequence that the reasons any agent has depend on the details of her mental states, such that if she had different pro-attitudes then she would have different reasons. (3) Many have found that consequence objectionable, on the grounds that there are some practical reasons that should not be held hostage to the psychological details of agents in the way that Source Internalism seems to imply that all are. Source Internalists, so the objection goes, cannot account for all of the reasons that there are. This kind of difficulty is what Mark Schroeder calls the Too Few Reasons objection, and is a species of the more general alleged difficulty that Source Internalism is extensionally inadequate--that it does not render the correct verdicts about what reasons there are in important cases. (4)

My project in this paper is motivated by an interest in that alleged inadequacy. The question that I wish to consider is this: does Source Internalism, despite initial appearances to the contrary, have the resources to accommodate our pre-theoretical intuitions about the kinds of cases its detractors utilize in their objections? I organize the bulk of my discussion around Derek Parfit's All or None Argument. (5) It is one of several arguments that Parfit offers in an attempt to undermine Source Internalism, and it proceeds by demonstrating that an internalist picture yields unsavory results about certain kinds of cases. However, the argument has a somewhat surprising conclusion. Rather than aiming explicitly at the denial of internalism, it concludes with the logically stronger position that no practical reasons could be grounded in the way that internalists believe that all are.

I argue that Parfit has overstated his case, and that understanding how he has done so may have an important upshot in the debate concerning the source of practical normativity. In what follows, I agree with Parfit that source internalism cannot vindicate our commonly held intuitions about the cases he imagines. Fully demonstrating that failure requires showing that the most recent and sophisticated attempts to defend internalism are unsuccessful. However, I also argue that Parfit's argument nevertheless fails to establish its ambitious conclusion. In so doing, I draw attention to the possibility of an alternative to both Source Internalism and Source Externalism: Source Hybridism. (6) If the arguments of this paper are successful, I will have shown that Source Hybridism enjoys at least one theoretical advantage over Source Internalism--not a decisive result, to be sure, but an important one for the project of determining which theory of the source of practical normativity enjoys most theoretical support, all things considered.

  1. The All or None Argument

    Here is Parfit's All or None Argument in its entirety:

    (1) If we have desire-based reasons for acting, all that would matter is whether some act would fulfill the telic desires that we now have after ideal deliberation. It would be irrelevant what we want, or would be trying to achieve.

    (2) Therefore, either all such desires give us reasons, or none of them do.

    (3) If all such desires gave us reasons, our desires could give us decisive reasons to cause ourselves to be in agony for its own sake, to waste our lives, and to try to achieve countless other bad or worthless aims.

    (4) We could not have such reasons.

    (5) Therefore, none of these desires gives us any reason. We have no such desire-based reason to have any desire, or to act in any way. (7)

    I will soon begin an assessment of this argument, but, before I do, some preliminary comments concerning Parfit's understanding of internalism are in order. Parfit makes mention here of the "telic desires that we now have after ideal deliberation." Telic desires are those the objects of which we desire for their own sakes. (8) Parfit argues that any plausible version of Source Internalism must have it that some, but not all, of our desires are the kinds in which reasons can be grounded. (9) He concludes that the best candidates for reason-generating desires are the telic desires that we would have after ideal deliberation. (10) I will have more to say about this restriction when I consider premise (1) in more detail.

    It will be helpful also to look at an example of a case that is supposed to motivate premises (3) and (4). Here is a case from Parfit's own discussion:

    Case Two. I want to have some future period of agony. I am not a masochist, who wants this pain as a means to sexual pleasure. Nor am I a repentant sinner, who wants this pain as deserved punishment for my sins. Nor do I have any other present desire or aim that would be fulfilled by my future agony. I want this agony as an end, or for its own sake. I have no other present desire or aim whose fulfillment would be prevented either by this agony, or by my having my desire to have this agony. After ideal deliberation, I decide to cause myself to have this future agony, if I can, to the exclusion of any other alternative action open to me. (11)

    Parfit's worry is that, if Source Internalism is true, then the agent in Case Two has decisive reason to cause herself to be in agony for its own sake, regardless of what else that agent could otherwise do. Since that is implausible, he contends, we ought to reject Source Internalism. Again, there will be more to say on this topic when I consider the premises in more detail. In short, though, the appeal to Case Two explains Parfit's support for both premises (3) and (4).

    The inference from premises (2), (3) and (4) to the conclusion in (5) is obviously valid. So, an attempt to resist the conclusion must involve at least one of the following: the denial of premise (1), the denial of premise (3), the denial of premise (4) or the rejection of the inference from (1) to (2). In what follows, I argue first that, even if premise (1) as stated is false, it can survive in a modified form. Next, I demonstrate that the inference from (1) to (2) is in fact invalid, but not in a way that would enable Source Internalists to resist a modified version of the argument. Following that, I argue that, although premise (4) as stated is false, the argument can be run with a suitably modified version of it, and that rejecting the modified premise is theoretically costly to Source Internalism. Finally, I argue that, although premise (3) is false, internalist attacks on the premise all fail. In order to cogently resist that premise, one must endorse Source Hybridism.

  2. Premise (1)

    Premise (1) tells us that:

    If we have desire-based reasons for acting, all that would matter is whether some act would fulfill the telic desires that we now have after ideal deliberation. It would be irrelevant what we want, or would be trying to achieve. The premise consists of two separate propositions. The first concerns what kinds of desires are reason-generating according to the best version of Source Internalism. The second has it that, however that class of desires is delineated, the actual content of one's duly purified desires does not make a difference for whether those desires can ground reasons. So, then, there are two ways to object to premise (1): deny the first of its claims, or deny the second.

    Consider the first of the two claims. Ought we to deny it? While it may be right that Parfit has misidentified the class of desires that are most plausibly reason-generating, arguing for that does little to aid the internalist. (12) This is because it is not enough for Parfit to have made that mistake--he must also have made it in such a way that it results in erroneously treating the desire of the agent in Case Two as reason-generating. That Parfit has made a mistake of that kind, though, is implausible. Parfit has already suggested a stringent restriction requirement: desires must be telic, and they must be such that they would survive, or be generated by, a kind of idealization process. The desire in Case Two meets these requirements, and it is not clear what kind of independently motivated additional requirement would rule it out. The most plausible additional requirement of which I am aware comes from Donald C. Hubin, who argues that desires can be reason-generating for an agent only if those desires are not in conflict with the agent's values. (13) Hubin endorses that restriction because he is concerned with a certain kind of alienation that can sometimes occur between one's deepest commitments and one's desires. (14) But adding Hubin's restriction to Parfit's preferred restrictions assists internalists only if it can explain why the desire in Case Two does not generate reasons for that agent, and it cannot do that. The agent in Case Two has a very odd kind of psychology; none of her aims or values conflicts with being in pain for its own sake. So the proposed additional restriction, even if adopted, does no work for the source internalist in resisting the All or None Argument. In short, modifying the first claim in premise (1) is helpful only if it makes premise (3) come out false, and no plausible modification seems capable of doing that.

    A more robust defense of premise (1) might involve a discussion of many more proposals for restricting the class of reason-generating desires. While that kind of defense may be...

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