If one listens to the way moral theorists talk, two things become apparent: 1) facts and values are distinct, and 2) moral theorists themselves are largely ignorant of this. It is not as if they are performing experiments and obtaining results—“huh, it turns out rape really is wrong.” (That’s not the kind of thing that is discovered—it’s the kind of thing that’s decided.) Rather, they propose rules based on what they would like to see. “If we were to make this a rule,” theorist 1 starts in, “it would have these results, which I think we would all agree are favorable.” “Ah, but what my esteemed colleague fails to point out,” theorist 2 retorts, “is that if we were to agree to act based on that principle, it would also result in this, which I think we would all agree is something we would not like.” And this would be fine, except that they generally do not actually say things like “we would find this favorable” or “we would not like this.” Rather, they say things like “this is good” or “this is wrong,” and seem to actually think they are discovering these values as preexistent realities independent of the desires of individuals—which is not quite the case.
Of course if you have a group that agrees to certain goals (to obey the dictates of “God,” to maximize happiness and minimize pain irrespective of oneself, to treat “rational” agents as ends in themselves, etc) then you could probably discuss your inter-subjective morality as morality in general without too much confusion (similar to how we refer to our moon as the Moon) and rate given actions in terms of how they relate to those goals comprehensibly. But if individuals within your group choose to act in ways contradictory to the attainment of your group’s goals, it would be because they either 1) were not aware that their actions were contradictory to the group’s goals (in which case they would be wrong factually, but their intention would be in line with the group’s) or 2) because other goals were more important to them, at least at the time of their choosing (in which case they may be an “enemy” to the group, but it would seem strange to call them “wrong”).
Needs, shoulds, purposes, and meanings are all subjective (subject dependent, relational). They are predicated upon goals posited by given subjects. Unless certain consequences are desired, there is nothing one need do, nor that one should do. Subjects set purposes and find given conditions meaningful or not based on how they relate to their wills. Organisms want to feel themselves as powerful and fully engaged, exercising the fullest range of their potential from the deepest levels of their being. When this state is achieved, they feel that the given situation is meaningful. When they are faced with circumstances that do not seem to serve their set purposes or engage the deepest aspects of themselves, they come to feel that things are meaningless.
What do I mean when I say that values are subjective? I mean that when a fox eats a chicken, it is good for the fox and bad for the chicken. In my way of thinking, asking whether it is objectively good is a bit like asking whether something is “objectively up”—unless you have a reference point, up and down don’t mean anything. For all practical purposes, the word desire and the word value are synonyms. To say that you value something is to say that you desire it, and vice versa. We can talk about the values (desires) of different parties, but to talk about objective desires (values) doesn't make much sense.
Talking about objective values is like talking about green sounds or squared circles. It is a category error. It is not as if some information down the road may lead to the conclusion that there are objective values (values that are subject independent and nonrelational—externally imposed rules), because it is not an empirical matter. The idea of objective values is a priori wrong. Either you are talking about the way things are, in which case you are being descriptive and objective (the store is five miles from my house), or you are talking about the way you would like things to be, in which case you are being prescriptive and subjective (we should go get some pizza). But the difference between an objective fact and a subjective value may be nothing more than the difference between being on the outside or being on the inside. Values are not less real or less powerful because they are subjective than they would be if they were objective—the difference between something objective and something subjective is one of type, not degree. Asking whether or not you should do what you want is like asking whether sounds are green or red. Should has no meaning outside of posited goals. It is a concept that only makes sense within the context of the faculty of intention in the same way that the experience of color only makes sense within the context of the faculty of sight.
While it may seem that this would lead to complete moral relativism, however, that is not quite the case. Given a certain goal, there are more and less effective ways of accomplishing it. People that present different values may in fact have similar meta-goals but merely disagree about the facts concerning how to most effectively accomplish those meta-goals. The “how” of the matter is an objective issue. The “what” of the matter is a subjective issue. But being a communal species of similar organisms with similar constitutions, we tend to want similar things and have goals that are generally commensurate with one another (and beyond this, the question of structural integrity may apply to all power arrangements). We could very well establish an inter-subjective moral system predicated upon common goals, but we have no objective basis for criticizing individuals that do not share those common goals. Wanting something different from us, our arguments would have no hold on them. It is merely a ratiocination to call them “wrong” and to deceive them or ourselves into thinking that there is some objective basis by which to find fault in them. Hitherto, morality has largely been a game whereby A seeks to convince B why A should be allowed to hurt B but B should not be allowed to hurt A. This is intellectually dishonest. There is no objective basis for claiming oneself to be morally superior to anyone else—or anything else, for that matter—but nor does there need to be. It is not as if tolerance is an objective value—there are no objective values. If someone contradicts your will, you do what you have to in order to defend it. That is what you are doing anyway, so why play these games? Are they really getting us where we want to go? Values are inherently selfish things. A value says, “Me and not the other in place of me.” So just be honest about your selfishness, your “I demand it be this way.” That is all I ask. Because if we cannot do that, how can we ever have a truly mature conversation about morality? The basic question of morality is still intact: What do we want to do with ourselves? It is just that categorical imperatives don’t map onto reality and don’t really aid us in answering this question responsibly.
The perspective I would prefer morality to come from is this: The world is made up of different holons with different interests. The goal of morality is to orchestrate harmonious interaction between these holons to produce win-win situations for the various interests wherever possible. The promotion of understanding and the removal of ignorance will probably go a long way in itself to allowing this type of organizing to occur naturally. But where win-win situations can’t be achieved? Well, at the very least neither side is “wrong.” It’s no one’s fault, although we are all responsible. The key is in creating situations in which we are not in the way of one another—adding something to the situation to allow us to transcend whatever problem is experienced.
Society (the superorganism) makes certain demands of the individual. It does this for the purpose of its own functioning—out of its own biological necessity in order to survive as an organism—and it maintains its control and adherence to its desires through force. This is summed up by the phrase “Of course society wants you to be unselfish—that is merely the selfishness of society.” Because these demands are conditioned by the desires of the society and not by the individual, the individual receives these orders in the form of the categorical. Society does not care whether you want to or not—it demands what it demands. This is the origin of the concept of duty. Your duty—that is to say, your due, your debt—what society claims you owe it as a result of the social contract and what, like any bookie or mob member, it will come to collect by force. Children are hard wired biologically to accept what they are told by authority figures unquestioningly because this is evolutionarily advantageous. Individuals are conditioned to accept these categorical demands—that is to say, these demands that are contingent upon the will of the community rather than the will of the individual—because their survival and ability to function relies on their receptivity to the will of the community of which they are a part. Duty, then, is nothing more than the will of the community forced upon and internalized within the individual and accepted by the individual as being necessary to submit to regardless of personal preference. But why should anyone at all take such demands personally? The only duty I would regard as worth having would be one which one chose for oneself.
Hobbes does perhaps the best job describing the reason for the cross-cultural conformity in values—that of structural integrity (that is to say, we find conformity not because there are rules, but because there aren’t). For a society to exist at all it has to have certain controls that allow it to maintain itself. For example, all societies have a prohibition on murder, but no society in the world has an absolute prohibition on killing. In order to survive, people generally have to kill things. Even if you are a fruititarian that only eats food once it has died of natural causes, your body is still killing off bacteria and other predators constantly. If it did not, you would be eaten alive. One must kill to survive, and so all living organisms, to be living organisms, posit that their existence is more important than that of others, even if only behaviorally. But all societies do have a prohibition on murder. So what is murder? Unlawful killing. In other words, you can kill who they say you can kill, and you can’t kill who they say you can’t kill. That is nothing but society protecting its own internal structure. Any society that didn’t do that would not last for long.
Or consider the idea of theft. This is predicated upon the belief in property—but property is not something that actually exists. It is a psychosocial construction. You “own” something because we collectively agree that you own it. Nothing makes it yours ontologically. And look at history. If we decide that we want something and someone else is using it, what do we do? We tell them that it really belongs to us and we take it from them. We make up some reason to justify to ourselves our taking it from them, and we take it from them. And without doing this there would not even be nation states in the way that there are. “Everything that the state says is a lie, everything that it has is a theft.” There wouldn't even be organisms in the first place without the tendency to reorganize the elements of one's surrounding environment for one's own purposes—often by force.
So if we look cross-culturally, what we don't find our external moral rules, per se, imposing themselves on us and creating conformity through some negative pressure. What we do find is a sort of positive pressure motivating us. We have a desire to live in a stable society, and we have certain needs if this desire is to be fulfilled. We need some guarantee that others will tell the truth, for we are weak and cannot always tell a lie from the truth (weakness of the mind). We need some guarantee against theft, for we are weak and cannot secure our own circle of influence (weakness of the body). We need some guarantee against murder, because we are weak and cannot survive attacks brought against us (weakness of the soul). But what's more, when we are all working together cooperatively, the group succeeds more than if we were all tearing each other apart. If someone is to transgress against the social order there is a contradiction between what that individual wants and what society wants. In fact, these principles may be so essential to the maintenance of a social group that they may even be encoded in our DNA as a result of the evolutionary advantage they provide to such a group. Ideally, society would be able to integrate both the desires of the dissenting individual and itself and find some mutually satisfactory ground, but failing that society opposes the individual. It is nothing personal. Society has no objective basis for faulting the individual for its trying to function and extend itself, but where society’s desires conflict with the individual, it chooses itself over the other. The individual and society are equally justified in their actions. By that I mean that outside of the personal standards presented by the individual or society, we are left with the reality of two forces seeking to assert themselves. Ending contradiction with opposition is wasteful, however. Were society stronger/more refined/more intelligent, it would probably end contradiction with integration instead. And we can see that this is indeed the case—more stable societies have less rules and softer penalties; less stable societies have more rules and harsher penalties.