–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Value and Objectivity

by | Jun 9, 2024

Exchanges with Robert Gressis (of Cal State Northridge) and others have led me to think quite a lot about obligation and objectivity. Up until now, the discussion has focused entirely on morality, but I want to shift gears to aesthetics, for two reasons. First, regarding the two types of value – aesthetic and moral – people are more inclined to be objectivists about the second than about the first. Second, the reasons why objectivity adds nothing of significance to our understanding of aesthetic values strike me as being transferable to the case of ethical values.

But first, I want to say something about conceiving of something as being objective versus being a Realist about it. If one is a Realist about X, then one believes X is objective, but one might reasonably think that someone could believe X is objective, and yet not be a Realist about it. If by “Realist/Realism,” one means something along the lines of “mind independent” or “independent of one’s conceptual schemes or frames of reference,” then one might observe that the rules of chess or baseball or tennis are objective, while not being “real” in the philosophical sense. Indeed, many aspects of social reality will be objective in this way, without being philosophically real. What something’s being objective comes down to, then, is it’s not being variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion.

Massimo Pigliucci and I have discussed this question of the real versus the objective over the course of multiple dialogues, and his inclination is to take values and obligations as being objective, though not real. On those occasions, I expressed uncertainty as to what I thought – of course, I haven’t been a moral realist since I was in my early twenties, but I was open to the idea of moral objectivism, partly out of my love for Aristotle – but am now pretty committed not just to anti-realism with respect to values, but subjectivism as well. And my aim here, in part, is to show why, and I deliberately say “show” rather than “explain,” for reasons that I hope will be evident.

My early work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art was devoted to the question of artistic value and whether there was a way one could construe it as objective. The dominant view in aesthetics, greatly influenced by the work of Hume and Kant, was that artistic values are and could only be subjective. The question that remained, then – to which both Hume’s and Kant’s work in aesthetics is largely devoted – is whether we can retain or recover any sense of the apparent normativity of evaluative judgments pertaining to the arts, despite that subjectivity. I was convinced that one could not, and as I thought at the time that at least some critical evaluations were normative, I set myself the task of finding some sense in which artistic value was objective.

What I settled upon were judgments pertaining to the fulfillment (or lack thereof) of reasonably expected artistic purposes or functions. That people find The Producers (1967) funny entails that it is an artistic success, given that the purpose of comedies is to offer audiences humorous experiences, and it would be quite strange for someone to suggest that a comedy that audiences found hilarious was not a good comedy. Of course, it may not succeed with respect to other artistic aims, but that does not alter the point that qua comedy, The Producers is objectively good.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that artistic value in this sense doesn’t matter. For one thing, whether something is funny or not remains entirely subjective (in my sense of “variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion”), so the objective fact, “a funny comedy is good,” is itself dependent upon the subjective fact that “this comedy is funny.” For another, even if a comedy is funny, in that large numbers of people find it so and is thus, objectively good, what does this mean if I dislike it, nonetheless? The overwhelming majority of viewers over the years have found The Producers hilarious, myself included, but suppose someone didn’t. Imagine that a person finds no humor in it whatsoever. In that case, what difference would its objective goodness make, as far as this person is concerned? And would there be any point in telling him that he “ought” to like it, because it is objectively good? If unanimity on the subject mattered enough societally, people might decide to silence him, shun him, or prevent him from participating in discussions of the film, but the fact that The Producer’s goodness is objective would have no significance either way. On its own, knowing that The Producers is objectively good wouldn’t make him find it funny, and in the case that a sufficient number of people deemed it important enough to take some kind of action against him, it wouldn’t matter whether The Producer’s goodness was objective or not.

I would maintain that the logic I have been describing with respect to artistic values and value-judgments is equally applicable in the ethical context. Take any moral prohibition, around which there is a sufficiently wide consensus such that the claims “X is wrong” and “You ought not to do X” are credibly deemed objectively true. Now, imagine a person who is not part of this consensus; who simply doesn’t feel or believe in the wrongness and prohibitedness of X. Does the fact that this wrongness and prohibitedness are objective rather than subjective make any difference to how this person feels or what he believes? Would pointing that objectivity out make any difference to what he felt or believed on the matter? And suppose unanimity was of sufficient importance to a sufficient number of us that we collectively decided to remove this person from our society. Would it matter to this decision whether the wrongness or prohibitedness of X was objective or not? I don’t see how it would or could.