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Desirism holds that value exists as a relationship between desires (as propositional attitudes) and states of affairs (where those propositions are either true or false).

Different value-laden terms describe different relationships between different objects of evaluation and desires.

For example, “illness” and “injury” describe deviations from normal physical or mental functioning or changes in physical or mental function that thwarts the desires of those who have them. They get in the way of an agent with a desire that P realizing a state in which P is true. “Illness” differs from “injury” in that the former has a cause that cannot be easily seen (a bacteria or genetic defect), while the latter has a cause that can be easily seen (falling off a ladder or getting trampled by a horse).

A “virtue” is a malleable character trait – a desire that can be promoted or inhibited through social practices such as praise and condemnation – that tends to objectively satisfy other desires and, as such, is a trait that others have reason to use these social tools to promote or encourage.

This model provides a list of four questions that are answered by each value-laden term.

(1) What does it evaluate?

(2) What desires are relevant?

(3) Does the object of evaluation objectively satisfy or prevent the objective satisfaction of those desires?

(4) Does the object of evaluation satisfy or prevent satisfaction of those desires directly or indirectly?


The concept of "Useful" understood in these terms answers these questions as follows:

(1) What does it evaluate?

Unlike “illness” which applies to mental and physical functioning, or “virtue” that applies to malleable character traits, “useful” can apply to anything. There is nothing within the meaning or use of the term that tends to limit its use.

(2) What desires are relevant?

The relevant desires for a “usefulness” claim can vary from instance to instance. They are usually picked up in context. For example, if a pair or robbers were talking about about robbing a convenience store, one of them might bring out a ski mask. The other could say, “That’s useful.” The desires in this case revolve around preventing the effects of being caught. However, a home owner may say that a couple of gallons of latex paint are useful at preventing rust or wood rot without increasing the hazards of fire. Often, the person using the term does not need to state explicitly which desires he is referring to. The listener knows the relevant desires simply by knowing the context in which the claim is made.

(3) Does the object of evaluation objectively satisfy or prevent the objective satisfaction of those desires?

Useful items help bring about states where desires are objectively satisfied. An object that has no potential to contribute to the objective satisfaction of desires is useless.

(4) Does the object of evaluation satisfy or prevent satisfaction of those desires directly or indirectly?

Useful items, insofar as they are useful, objectively satisfy desires indirectly. It is possible that a useful item can also be beautiful, or taste good, or feel good, or in some other way fulfill desires directly. However, insofar as we are talking about its usefulness, we are not talking about its beauty or taste or any direct effect on desires. We are talking about its capacity to fulfill the relevant desires indirectly. In fact, the ability to fulfill desires indirectly is the defining characteristic of those things that are called useful.

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