Well, not quite. The survey showed that about one-third of the respondents shared my intuition that I (qua subject of the example) have no reason to purchase ITEM and that about two-thirds of respondents have the contrary intuition that I do have a reason to purchase ITEM. This doesn’t show that I’m wrong, but it does show that my intuition is not widely shared.
Now, here’s why this is important. In his excellent paper “Parfit’s Case against Subjectivism,” David Sobel argues that subjectivists – those who think that an agent’s reasons for action are all ultimately determined by the contingent pro and con attitudes that she would have under some procedurally specified conditions – can accept Parfit’s claim that we have current reasons to do what will prevent us from suffering future agony regardless of whether or not we have any current pro attitudes towards our avoiding future agony. Sobel argues that subjectivists will claim that anyone who will be in future agony will, in the future, necessarily have a future desire (when in agony) to get out of agony and so will, when in agony, have a reason to get out of agony. And he argues that, by appealing to this fact and what he calls the Reasons Transfer Principle, the subjectivist can hold not only that anyone who will be in future agony will have a future reason to get out of agony, but also that those who can avoid future agony have a present reason to avoid future agony. According to Sobel, the Reasons Transfer Principle (RTP) says: “If one will later have a reason to get O, then one now has a reason to facilitate the later getting of O.”
I have three main worries about Sobel’s argument.
(1) Suppose that I have no current desire to avoid future agony but that my X-ing will cause me to avoid future agony. That is, suppose that if I X, I will not suffer future agony, and if I do not X, I will suffer future agony. It’s unclear to me how an appeal to RTP will allow the subjectivist to accept the plausible claim that I have a present reason to do X. It seems that RTP allows the subjectivist to say only that if there is some act, Y, that will allow me to stop (as opposed to avoid) suffering some future agony, then I have a present reason to facilitate my later doing Y. But let us imagine that, despite my lack of any desire to avoid future agony, I’m going to X (moreover, let's assume that, as a matter of fact, I am moved to X even though I would not be motivated in the least to X or favor my X-ing were I under the subjectivist’s procedurally specified conditions), and let us imagine that my X-ing will prevent me from suffering any future agony. In that case, it seems that RTP doesn’t apply. Since I won’t be suffering any future agony (given that I will be performing X), it is not the case that I will have any reason in the future to get out of future agony (I can't have reason to get out of the future agony that I won't be experiencing). And since I would have no current pro attitude towards my avoiding future agony if I were in the subjectivist’s procedurally specified conditions, then I have no present reason at all to X. And I take it that this is absurd. Surely, I do have a reason to X givent that it will preven my future agony.
(2) One of the main motivations for adopting subjectivism, I take it, is that it is compatible with metaphysical naturalism – the view that the only facts and properties are naturalistic facts and properties. Thus, the subjectivist wants to identify the seemingly spooky normative property of one’s having a reason to do X with the perfectly naturalistic (and, thus, non-spooky) property of one’s being such that one would be motivated to do X if one were under some procedurally specified conditions. But, of course, anyone who appeals to RTP must deny that the property of one’s having a reason to do X is simply to be identified with the naturalistic property of one’s being such that one would be motivated to do X if one were under some procedurally specified conditions. So I wonder what naturalistic property the proponent of RTP is going to identify with the having-a-reason property referred to in the consequent of the principle.
(3) I wonder whether RTP is plausible. It’s seems to me that although what I will later have reason to do depends on what intentions I’m forming at present, what I have reason to do now does not depend on what intentions I’m forming at present. So if I’m now forming the intention to discard the anesthetizing pill and will follow through with this intention, then I will later have a reason to take the amputating pill. But I don’t think that I now have a reason to take the amputating pill or to facilitate my taking the amputating pill. For, at present, taking the anesthetizing pill is an option given that I need only respond appropriately to my reasons and thereby form the intention to take the anesthetizing pill. In any case, that was my thought. So the example was supposed to be a counterexample to RTP. But I take it that it wasn’t a very good one.