Are There Subjective Reasons?
I like coffee and you like tea. This gives me a reason to choose coffee, but it doesn’t give you a reason to make that choice. The reason is relative to me—to my preferences. You would choose tea given the choice. Thus we might say that reasons of this type—desire-based reasons—are “subjective reasons”: they are relative to the individual subject making the choice. They are not like “objective reasons” that apply to everyone equally, such as (allegedly) moral reasons, which are indifferent to the individual’s personal preferences. Everyone has a moral reason not to murder his neighbor, no matter how much he might prefer him dead—viz. that it would be morally wrong to do it. But some reasons (perhaps most) are subjective in the sense that they don’t generalize: they apply only to individuals with appropriate desires or wishes or tastes or inclinations. They have no rational hold over anyone else. It would be wrong to criticize someone for not acting on them, given their personal preferences. When it comes to matters of taste, the right response is: “It’s all completely subjective”.
But this is mistaken for two reasons. The first is that your preferring tea gives me a reason to offer you tea, while I contentedly stick to coffee: that is, the fact that you have a preference for tea works as a reason applicable to me to act in certain ways in relation to you. You have a certain property—being a tea-fancier—and that gives me a reason to supply you with tea in appropriate circumstances. So that reason applies to everyone equally: it is objective. It is objectively the case that everyone has a reason to give you tea not coffee: there is nothing subjective about that. Second, ifI shared that property I too would have a reason to choose as you do. So we can generalize as follows: everyone is such that if they have a preference for tea they have a reason to choose tea. It is not as if you could have that preference and it still be a question what you have reason to do. It isn’t “up to you” what it is rational to do, a matter of subjective whim. True, you may not actually have the property in question, but it is an entirely objective matter that ifyou do a certain choice is rational. It is an objective property of the property that it requires a certain choice. It functions as an objective reason whenever it is instantiated. There is nothing subjective about the reason once the facts are fixed. The reason may be said to be a conditionalreason, i.e. it depends on instantiating certain properties, but there is nothing “subjective” about it. Salt only dissolves if certain conditions obtain—that doesn’t make it “subjective”. We might call desires “subjective states” because they are psychological properties of conscious subjects, but that doesn’t imply that they provide merely subjective reasons. Whenever a reason applies it always generates objective requirements: on others to act in certain ways, and on anyone who has the property that grounds the reason. There is never any purely subjective (or “agent-relative”) rationality: all rationality is objective (impersonal, absolute, general).
We might compare this to subjective facts. There are no purely subjective facts, i.e. facts that have no objective reality. There are psychological facts about subjects, but these are objective facts in the sense that they exist absolutely, not forsome people and not others. Bat experiences are facts in the objective world (there is no other). They might be knownonly by bats, but their existenceis not relative to bats—they are part of objective reality (not fictions or dreams or projections). To be is to be objective. Not everyone has bat experiences, but they don’t exist only from the perspective of bats (whatever that might mean). In the same way not everyone has a preference for tea, but that preference exists objectively and gives rise to objective reasons for action that apply to anyone. Even a taste shared by no one else, say a fondness for grilled cactus, has its objective reason-giving power: this idiosyncratic individual can expect to be offered grilled cactus at a barbecue, and if anyone else were to acquire the taste they would have every reason to act on it. There are no reasons that apply to an individual in isolation without implications for anyone else. Rationality is never purely personal in this sense.
We might then say that there are two sorts of objective reason for action: the sort that depends on the psychological make-up of the individual and the sort that doesn’t so depend. The former would include personal tastes; the latter would apply to moral reasons (assuming we accept this view of morality). There are not “subjective reasons” and “objective reasons”.