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On What MattersVolume One$

Derek Parfit

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199572809

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199572809.001.0001

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(p.420) Appendix A State-Given Reasons

(p.420) Appendix A State-Given Reasons

Source:
On What Matters
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

According to what we can call

the State-Given Theory: Whenever certain facts would make it better if we had some belief or desire, these facts give us a reason to have this belief or desire.

To decide whether we have such state-given reasons, we can first ask how we might respond to such reasons.

Suppose that, in

Case One, some whimsical Despot credibly threatens that I shall be tortured for ten minutes unless, one hour from now, I both believe that 2 + 2 = 1, and want to be tortured. Some lie-detector test will reveal whether I really have this belief and desire.

On the State-Given Theory, this man’s threat gives me strong state-given reasons to have this belief and desire, since that is my only way to avoid being tortured. But I could not respond to such reasons by choosing to have this belief and desire.

One problem here is that I have object-given reasons that count decisively against believing that 2 + 2 = 1, and against wanting to be tortured. Suppose that, because I fail to have this belief and desire, this Despot tortures me. Someone might say: ‘You idiot! Why didn’t you believe that 2 + 2 = 1?’ But this remark would be absurd. I could not help believing that 2 + 2 does not = 1. It would also be absurd to claim that I was an idiot in not wanting to be tortured. I might want to be tortured if I knew that this would be my only way to achieve some great good. That might be true, for example, if I have some life-threatening illness, and great pain would trigger some healing process in my body. But this example is not of that kind. This Despot will carry out his threat (p.421) unless I want to be tortured, not as a means to some end, but as an end, or for the sake of being tortured. Since I am rational, I could not want to be tortured for its own sake. Given the awfulness of being tortured, I have a decisive object-given reason not to have this desire, and I could not help responding to this reason in the non-voluntary way.

Suppose next that this Despot gives me an easier task. In

Case Two, I shall be tortured unless, one hour from now, I believe that a certain closed box is empty.

On the State-Given Theory, this threat gives me a state-given reason to have this belief. And this reason would be unopposed, since I have no object-given epistemic reason not to believe that this box is empty. But as before, I could not respond to this alleged state-given reason by choosing to have this belief. Since I am rational, I could not choose to believe that this box is empty simply because I know that it would be better for me if I had this belief.

There are other possibilities. When it would be better for us if we had some belief, there are three main ways in which we might be able to cause ourselves to have this belief. One method is to make this belief true. In Case Two, for example, I might be able to open the closed box and take out anything that it contains. That would make me believe that this box is empty, thereby saving me from my Despot’s threat.

In some other cases, we might cause ourselves to have some beneficial belief by finding evidence or arguments that gave us strong enough epistemic reasons to have this belief. This method is risky, since we might find evidence or arguments that gave us strong reasons not to have this belief. But we might reduce this risk by trying to avoid becoming aware of such reasons. If we are trying to believe that God exists, for example, we might read books written by believers, and avoid books by atheists. While we are acting in this way, it is worth adding, we may be fully rational not only practically but also epistemically. We may always respond rationally to our awareness of any epistemic reason or apparent reason. This may be why we have to take such care to avoid becoming aware of epistemic reasons not to believe what we are trying to believe.

(p.422) In a third kind of case, it would be better if we had some belief that we know to be false, because we are aware of facts that give us decisive epistemic reasons not to have this belief. If we are rational, we could not have this belief while we are aware of these decisive reasons not to have it. But we might be able to make ourselves have this belief by using some technique like self-hypnosis. We could not choose to give ourselves beliefs whose content makes them too obviously false. When my Despot makes his first threat, I could not make myself believe that 2 + 2 = 1. No one could both understand this mathematical equation and believe it to be true. But suppose that, in

Case Three, this Despot threatens that I shall be tortured unless, one hour from now, I believe that he is the world’s greatest genius.

I might be able to hypnotize myself into having this false belief. I would have to make myself forget my epistemic reasons to believe that this man is not a genius. I might also have to make myself forget how and why I had caused myself to have this new, false belief, since my remembering these facts would be likely to undermine this belief. Since I am rational, I could not believe what I knew that I had no epistemic reasons to believe. For similar reasons, I might also have to give myself some false apparent memories of this Despot’s brilliant achievements. But if I am a skilled self-hypnotist, I might be able to do these things. I would then rationally come to believe that this man is the world’s greatest genius, because these false apparent memories would give me decisive apparent reasons to have this belief.

Most of us do not have such self-hypnotic powers. But we can imagine coming to have them. We could then make ourselves have many false beliefs at will, just as directly as we can perform various other mental acts.

Return now to the view that we can have state-given reasons. State-Given Theorists claim that

  1. (1) whenever certain facts would make it better if we had some belief, these facts give us are as on to have this belief.

(p.423) In cases of the kinds that I have just described, we would have no need to appeal to such reasons. It would be enough to claim that we have reasons to want to have such beneficial beliefs, and to cause ourselves to have them, if we can. These would be like any other reasons to want something to happen, and to make it happen if we can. There would be no point in adding that, as well as having reasons to cause ourselves to have such beliefs, we would have reasons to have them.

We can imagine another change in our psychology. It might become true that, when we believed that it would be better if we had some epistemically irrational belief, we sometimes didn’t need to make ourselves have this belief with some voluntary mental act, like self-hypnosis. We might find ourselves coming to have such beneficial beliefs, with supporting sets of false apparent memories, in a non-voluntary way.

It may seem that, in these cases, we could significantly claim that we had state-given reasons to have these beliefs. As I have said, when we are aware of facts that give us decisive epistemic reasons to have some belief, we respond to most of these reasons, not by voluntarily causing ourselves to have this belief, but by coming to have this belief, and then continuing to have it, in a non-voluntary way. We might similarly claim that, when we found ourselves coming to have such irrational but beneficial beliefs, we would be responding to practical reasons to have these beliefs.

We ought, I suggest, to reject these claims. There would be two other, better ways to describe such cases.

On one description, in coming to have these beneficial beliefs, we would still be responding, though in a non-voluntary way, to our reasons to cause ourselves to have these beliefs. We often find ourselves doing something that we could also voluntarily do. For example, we might find ourselves suddenly trying to catch some object that we have just dropped, or moving our body to regain our balance, or raising our arms when we are falling so as to protect our head. If we saw some hand grenade that was about to explode, we might find ourselves throwing ourselves onto this grenade, to save the lives of those around us. These (p.424) would be non-voluntary responses to our reasons to act in certain ways. Suppose that, when my Despot makes his third threat, I find myself coming to believe that this man is a genius. I might here be responding in this non-voluntary way to my practical reason to cause myself to have this beneficial belief. This may be what happens in some actual cases of unconscious self-deception.

We might instead claim that, when we found ourselves coming to have such beneficial beliefs, we would not be responding to any reasons. The truth might be only that, when we believed that it would be better if we had some other belief, this belief would cause us to have this other belief. This would be partly like the way in which, when we believe that we are in danger, this belief causes adrenalin to be released into our blood stream, thereby helping us to respond more effectively to this danger. This release of adrenalin, though beneficial, does not involve a response to some reason. Nor, perhaps, do some cases of wishful thinking.

Return now to the claim that, in such cases, we would be responding to our reasons to have these beneficial beliefs. We ought, I have suggested, to reject this claim. If we were causing ourselves to have these beliefs, this process might be rational, and involve responses to reasons. We would be responding to reasons for acting, which would be provided by the facts that would make it good if we had these beliefs. But if we were merely passively coming to have these beliefs, this process would not be rational, or involve any response to reasons. Suppose that I cannot hypnotize myself into believing that my Despot is a genius. As a result, he tortures me. Someone might say: ‘You idiot! Why didn’t you respond to your reasons to believe this man to be a genius?’ When we are aware of facts that give us decisive epistemic reasons to have some belief, we are less than fully rational if we fail to respond to these reasons by coming to have this belief. But if we cannot cause ourselves to have some beneficial but irrational belief, we would not be open to the slightest criticism if we failed to have this belief. And if we would be in no way irrational despite our failure to respond to our awareness of certain alleged reasons, this counts against the view that we have any such reasons.

(p.425) We have other reasons to reject the State-Given Theory. Two reasons, we can say,

compete when we could not successfully respond to both these reasons,

and they

conflict when they support different answers to the same question.

If we have a moral reason to keep some promise, for example, and a self-interested reason to break this promise, these reasons compete, since we couldn’t both keep and break this promise. These reasons also conflict, since they support different answers to the question of what we have most reason to do.

Suppose next that we are aware of facts that give us decisive epistemic reasons not to have some beneficial belief. According to the State-Given Theory, the benefits of having this belief would also give us state-given reasons to have it. These two sets of reasons would compete, since we could not both have and not have this belief. On one version of this view, these reasons would also conflict. When we ask what we had most reason to believe, these reasons would support different answers to this question. We would have to decide whether our state-given reasons to have this belief were stronger than, or outweighed, our epistemic reasons not to have this belief.

We would not, I believe, have such conflicting reasons. When my Despot makes this third threat, I would be aware of facts that gave me decisive epistemic reasons not to believe falsely that this man is the world’s greatest genius. If I had a state-given reason to have this belief, this reason would be provided by the facts that would make it bad to be tortured. I might ask whether, compared with being tortured, it would be worse to have such a false belief. But I would here be asking which of two outcomes I had more reason to want to prevent and to try to prevent. That is a question about the strength of two practical reasons, like any (p.426) other reasons for wanting to prevent and trying to prevent some bad outcome. I could not rationally ask whether my state-given reason to have this false belief is stronger than, or outweighs, my epistemic reasons not to have it. It makes no sense to compare the strength of my evidence for the falsity of this belief with the badness of my being tortured.

Having seen that such comparisons make no sense, State-Given Theorists might turn to the claim that these two kinds of reason do not conflict, since they support answers to different questions. When we ask whether we ought to have some belief, we might be asking either

  1. Q1: Is this a belief that I ought epistemically to have?

or

  1. Q2: Is this a belief that I ought practically to have?

On this view, in answering Q1, we should consider only epistemic reasons; and in answering Q2, we should consider only practical state-given reasons. Since these are different questions, we cannot ask what we ought to believe, or what we have most reason to believe, all things considered.

These claims are partly right. There are, indeed, two questions here. But these claims do not help to show that we can have practical state-given reasons to have beliefs. Q2 needs to be explained, since it is unclear what it means to ask whether we ought practically to have some belief. This question could be more clearly stated, I suggest, as

  1. Q3: What would it be best for me to believe? In other words, what do I have most reason to want to believe, and to cause myself to believe, if I can?

And this question is not about what I have reasons to believe. Like other practical questions, this question is about what I have reasons to want, and to do.

Since Q1 and Q3 are different questions, we never need to compare the strength of practical and epistemic reasons. We respond to reasons. And we could never have practical reasons to respond in a certain way, while having epistemic reasons not to respond in this same way. When (p.427) my Despot makes his third threat, I might respond to my practical reasons by acting in a way that would make me believe that this man is the world’s greatest genius. I have no epistemic reasons not to act in this way, since epistemic reasons are not reasons for acting. I do have decisive epistemic reasons not to believe that this man is such a genius, and while I remember the facts that give me these reasons, I might respond to them in a non-voluntary way by losing this belief. But I have no practical reasons not to respond in this non-voluntary way. My practical reasons are to act in ways that would make me keep this belief until I have passed this Despot’s lie-detector test, so that he will not torture me. These practical and epistemic reasons do compete, in the sense that I could not successfully respond to both sets of reasons. But these reasons do not conflict.

It is easy to overlook, or misunderstand, the distinctions that I have just drawn. As I have said, theoretical reasoning is a voluntary activity, in which we often engage for practical reasons. When we are doing mathematics, for example, we may have a practical reason to check some part of some proof, or to redo some calculation in a different way. These are reasons for acting in ways that may help us to reach the truth. While we are acting in these ways, for these practical reasons, we shall also respond to many epistemic reasons. While we are checking some proof, for example, we respond to epistemic reasons whenever we see what follows from what, and what must be true. Coming to have some such particular belief is not a voluntary mental act. Theoretical reasoning, we might say, involves both practical and pure epistemic rationality.

There are other close connections between practical reasons and certain epistemic reasons. Much of our practical reasoning consists in theoretical reasoning about practical questions. When we ask what we have most reason to do, we may be trying to reach some true answer to this question. And some facts may give us both a decisive practical reason to act in some way, and a decisive epistemic reason to believe that we have this practical reason. Return to the case in which your hotel is on fire, and you could save your life only by jumping into some canal. This fact would give you a decisive reason to jump, and a decisive (p.428) reason to believe that you ought to jump. But though our practical and epistemic reasons are often very closely related, and these kinds of reason can compete, they cannot ever conflict.

State-Given Theorists also claim that

  1. (2) whenever certain facts would make it better if we had some desire, these facts give us a reason to have this desire.

Compared with the claim that we can have state-given reasons to have beliefs, this claim is more plausible. We can object that, since beliefs aim at the truth, our reasons to have beliefs must all be epistemic, or truth-related. No such claim applies to desires. So it may seem that, just as we have an object-given reason to have some desire when, and because, what we want would be relevantly good, we have a state-given reason to have some desire when, and because, our wanting something would be good.

We do not, I suggest, have such reasons. Suppose that, in

Case Four, my Despot declares that I shall be tortured for ten minutes unless, one hour from now, I want him to kill me. If I have this desire, and ask him to kill me, he will refuse, and set me free. As I know, this man always does what he declares that he will do.

Suppose next that the rest of my life would be well worth living. I would then find it difficult to want this man to kill me. But I might be able to hypnotize myself into having this desire during the next few hours. That would be what I had most reason to do, and what I ought rationally to do. This mental act would be a riskless way to avoid some intense pain.

State-Given Theorists might claim that their view explains why I ought to act in this way. They might argue:

  1. (A) I have a decisive reason to want this Despot to kill me, since that would save me from being tortured.

  2. (B) When we have a decisive reason to have some desire, this fact gives us a decisive reason to make ourselves have this desire, if we have some riskless way of doing that.

  3. (p.429) (C) I have such a way of making myself want this man to kill me.

Therefore

I ought to make myself have this desire.

Premise (A), however, is false. I have object-given reasons to want this Despot not to kill me, and these are also reasons not to want this man to kill me. These reasons are clearly stronger than my alleged state-given reason to want this man to kill me. Losing a life worth living is much worse than being tortured for ten minutes. So I do not have a decisive reason to want this man to kill me.

State-Given Theorists might reply that I don’t have any reason not to want this man to kill me. If I had this desire, this man would not kill me but set me free. Since I have a reason to have this desire, and no reason not to have it, I ought rationally to cause myself to have this desire. On this view, all reasons to have desires are state-given, or provided by the benefits of having these desires.

To assess this view, we can suppose that, because my attempt to have this desire fails, this Despot tortures me. Someone might say: ‘You idiot! Why didn’t you want him to kill you?’ But this remark would be unjustified. As before, if I am rational, I could not want this man to kill me merely because I know that, if I had this desire, that would be better for me. This point is clearer in a simpler case. If I learnt that I was fatally ill, it might be better for me if I wanted to die. But that wouldn’t show that I had no reason to want not to die. It would be absurd for others to say ‘You idiot! Why don’t you want to die?’ We should admit that, even after this Despot has made his threat, I have decisive object-given reasons to want this man not to kill me.

State-Given Theorists might next suggest that, since these reasons are of different kinds, they do not conflict. On this view, we can ask two questions:

  1. Q4: What do I have the strongest object-given reasons to want?

  2. Q5: What do I have the strongest state-given reasons to want?

(p.430) But this suggestion fails. We can also ask

  1. Q6: What do I have most reason to want all things considered?

If we have reasons for and against having the same desire, these reasons do conflict, since they support different answers to this wider question. It is irrelevant that these reasons are of different kinds. It might be similarly claimed that moral and self-interested reasons are of different kinds: but, when we ask what we have most reason to do all things considered, these reasons can conflict, by supporting different answers to this question.

In cases of the kind that we are now discussing, there are two questions that are worth asking. But these are not questions about two kinds of reason for or against having the same desire. Q6 can be restated as

  1. Q7: Which desires do I have most reason to have?

We can also ask

  1. Q8: Which desires do I have most reason to want to have, and to cause myself to have, if I can?

In Case Four, I could ask:

If I wanted this Despot to kill me, would I be wanting something that I have decisive reasons to want?

If I caused myself to have this desire, would I be doing something that I have decisive reasons to do?

My answers should be No and Yes. If I wanted this man to kill me, this desire would be in itself irrational, since I have decisive reasons not to want this man to kill me. But it would be rational for me to cause myself briefly to have this irrational desire, since this act would save me from being tortured.

There is another kind of case that gives us reasons to deny that we have state-given reasons to have desires. Suppose that, in

(p.431) Self-defeating Desire, I have a strong desire to get to sleep, because I need to sleep to improve my performance in some interview tomorrow. But I have one kind of insomnia. Whenever I strongly want to get to sleep, this desire makes me anxious about my failure to become sleepy, thereby keeping me awake. So I shall get the sleep I need only if I lose my desire to get to sleep.

My need for sleep gives me an object-given reason to want to get to sleep. According to the State-Given Theory, this need also gives me a state-given reason not to have this desire, since that would be my only way to get to sleep. These reasons would conflict, since they would be reasons for and against having the same desire. On this view, to decide whether I ought to have this desire, I should compare the strength of these two reasons. I should ask what I have most reason to want, all things considered.

I could easily compare the strength of these two reasons. My object-given reason to want to get to sleep is provided by the fact that I need sleep to improve my performance in my interview tomorrow. My alleged state-given reason not to have this desire would be provided by this same fact, together with the fact that having this desire would keep me awake. Since these reasons would both get their normative force from my need for sleep, their strength would be precisely equal. Since these reasons would also conflict, they would cancel each other out. The State-Given Theory therefore implies that, on balance, I have no reason to want to get to sleep. If that were true, I would have no reason to have the aim of getting to sleep, and no reason to cause myself to lose this desire, so that I could achieve this aim. These claims are clearly false.

We ought, I suggest, to reject this State-Given Theory. I have no state-given reason not to have my desire to get to sleep. What I have are object-given reasons to want not to have this desire, and to cause myself to lose this desire, if I can. Unlike my alleged state-given reason not to have this desire, these reasons do not conflict with my object-given reason to have this desire. On this view, we reach the right conclusion. My need for sleep gives me a strong and unopposed reason to want to get to sleep, and this need also gives me a strong and unopposed reason (p.432) to cause myself to lose this desire, since that is my only way to fulfil this same desire, thereby getting the sleep I need.

Whenever it would be better if we had certain beliefs or desires, we have reasons to want to have these beliefs or desires, and to make ourselves have them, if we can. But we do not, I suggest, have state-given reasons to have beliefs or desires.

We may have state-given reasons to be in some other kinds of state. I might truly claim, for example, that I have a reason to be in Paris next April. But as I have argued, such reasons would have no importance. It would be enough to claim that I have reasons to want to be in Paris next April, and to go there, if I can.