Desirism holds that there are no objective values - though moral claims can be objectively true or false and are sometimes true.
This apparently paradoxical statement is a result of the very confusing way the term "objective" is used in moral discussions. To add to the confusion, the term "objective" used in discussing morality is significantly different from the same term used in science. If we use the scientists' definition of "objective" then there are objective values. However, objective values in the scientists' sense are not the same thing as objective values in the ethicists' sense.
Objective Values in the Moral SenseEdit
There are no objective (in the ethicist’s sense) moral values.
When people discuss morality, they often mean by the term "objective value" a property that is intrinsic to that which is being evaluated that gives it value independent of its relationship to anything else. In particular, it has value independent of any relationship to what people may want or believe.
Objective values in this sense would require something like a state whereby certain arrangements of matter emit a form of value radiation that we can perhaps think of as waves of "goodon" particles or "badon" particles. The brain, in turn, has a goodon and badon detector. When this faculty is operating properly it can accurately detect sources of goodon and badon radiation - often just by focusing one's thoughts on the state of affairs to be evaluated. Furthermore, the very nature of this value-radiation is such that goodon detection demands that the agent acts to create or protect sources of goodon emissions, while acting to destroy or prevent the creation of sources of badon emissions.
We see evidence of people treating value in this way when people claim that particular states deserve a particular type of appreciation “just because”. For example, a patron of the arts demands that a particular work of art is good, and insists that those who do not appreciate the art as she does is defective. In this case, she is treating the art as a goodon emitter and treating those who do not appreciate the art appropriately as people who have defective goodon detectors. They are tone deaf, or have poor taste, or simply have failed to cultivate the appropriate appreciation of things.
In another example, homosexuality is often talked about as if it is a badon emitter. Anybody who has an interest in a homosexual relationship is “perverse” in that he lacks the appropriate response to the badness intrinsic in homosexual acts. This assertion of badness is often expressed by claiming that such acts are "unnatural". A person with a properly functioning badon detector would be repulsed by the badons emitted by homosexual acts. People who are not repulsed by the badness of homosexual interactions must be suffering from a defect in their badon detectors in the same way that a person suffering from an inability to distinguish blue from yellow must have defective photon detectors.
Desirism holds that nothing like goodon and badon emitters exists in the real world - not in this specific sense, or in any sense that behaves in ways like this. Any claim that treats an object of evaluation like a goodon emitter or a badon emitter is false.
The philosopher J.L. Mackie argued not only that there are no objective values, but that a claim of "objective intrinsic prescriptivity" is built into the meaning of all moral terms. Consequently, whenever a person uses a moral term one is making a false claim that the object of evaluation is something like a goodon emitter or badon emitter - though Mackie did not use these exact terms. A theory that holds that all claims of a particular type are false because they contain a false assumption is known as an "Error Theory" Insofar as error thoery is substantially a theory about the meaning of moral terms, desirism holds to be of little importance. However, Mackie's arguments against the existence of an objective, intrinsic prescriptivity are still relevant to questions about what exists.
Arguments Against Objective, Intrinsic PrescriptivityEdit
Argument from StrangenessEdit
One argument that aims to show that objective values in the ethicists' sense do not exist is J.L. Mackie's Argument from Strangeness.
Reading through the description of goodon and badon emitters above one can get a sense that there is no way that such an entity actually exists in the real world. What we do know about the real world leaves no room for an emission of value-radiation or of a radiation detector built into the brain.
In particular, it is strange at best to postulate that the real world contains a property whereby detection of this property commands - simply in virtue of its nature - a particular response. Goodon emissions are a type of emission that absolutely demands that others protect the source and create new sources. Badon emissions are a type of emission that absolutely demands that others destroy its source and prevent the creation of new sources. The argument from strangeness says that it is highly unlikely that such a property will ever be found in nature.
Argument from DisagreementEdit
Mackie’s second argument against objective intrinsic prescriptivity was his Argument from Disagreement.
Though some people are blind, some suffer from hallucinations, and some suffer from other defects to their vision and hearing, people are substantially in agreement concerning what they see and hear. Our photon detectors and sound wave detectors tend to provide us with a common set of experiences. When we compare our own experiences with those of others, we tend to discover a great deal of agreement. Furthermore, when we find disagreement we can often trace this back to actual physical systems - color blindness or a reduced range of hearing.
However, our goodon and badon detectors do not provide us with nothing like a common set of experiences. People frequently detect different value emissions from the same object of evaluation. Furthermore, the value they detect is heavily influenced by their culture.
If our photon detection (sight) and sound-wave detection (hearing) gave us the same variety of experiences as our goodon and badon detection gives us, this would provide us with good reason to reject any theory of photon detection or sound-wave detection. This would be particularly true if we also had no known eyes or ears but, instead, merely a hypothesis that photon and sound-wave detectors must exist. Correspondingly, the variety of experiences from our alleged value detectors, combined with the fact that we have no known value detector, should call into question a claim of objective, intrinsic prescriptivity.
This way of understanding Mackie's argument from disagreement protects it from a common response to that argument. People often answer Mackie by saying that scientific agreement does not prove the subjectivity of science; therefore, moral disagreement does not prove the subjectivity of morality.
This objection is sound when applied to the claim that moral disagreement disproves objectivity. However, it does not touch Mackie's argument as described above. A lack of agreement does give us reason to doubt that there are goodon emitters in the universe and reliable goodon detectors in the brain.
Argument from EvolutionEdit
A third objection - one that does not come from Mackie - against the "objective value" thesis is an "Argument from Evolution".
Assume that there were goodon emitters. How could we possibly evolve an ability to detect them and respond to them appropriately?
To illustrate the problem, assume that the act of killing one's own offspring was a powerful goodon emitter. If this were the case, then any creature that acquired a functioning goodon detector would quickly go extinct. Goodon blindness would give a creature an evolutionary advantage. A creature could, perhaps, gain an even greater evolutionary advantage by evolving a capacity to detect this goodon radiation but to respond to it in a perverse way. This creature responds to the goodons emitted from the act of eating one's own offspring with a strong sense of revulsion and disgust. This creature may have more offspring survive into adulthood than competing creatures.
The important quality to keep in mind here is that, unlike photon detection or sound wave detection, goodon detection is supposed to come with a prescribed behavioral response. Goodon detection requires that those who detect it preerve its source and create new sources. Photon detection and sound wave detection make no such demands. Consequently, there is no such problem in evolving a reliable (though not infallible) capacity for photon detection and sound-wave detection. There is a serious problem with evolving a reliable capacity for goodon detection.
Evolution would tend to treat goodon detection the same way it treats photon detection and sound wave detection. It would strip the detection from any sense of “appropriate behavioral response” and, instead, select a behavioral response that makes the organism biologically fit. Only if we postulate the most unlikely coincidence between what emits goodons and badons and what promotes human evolutionary fitness can we expect to find a reliable link between the behavior demanded from goodon detection and our evolved response.
There are no objective values.
However, this is true using the ethicists' definition of "objective". If we adopt the scientists' definition of "objective" instead, then we are surrounded by objective values. The thing is, they are not anything like goodon emitters. They are relationships between states of affairs and desires. These relationships exist in the real world in such a way that scientists can discover them and describe them in statements that are testable and knowable. Moral values, in this sense, are real.