The Key In The Wine

In one of Plato’s early dialogues, The Euthyphro, Socrates asks this perplexing question:

“Now think of this. Is what is good good because the gods approve it, or do the gods approve it because it is good?”

Later, after asking Euthyphro a series of bewildering questions, Socrates suggests the answer:

“So it is because [a thing] is good that it is loved; not is not good because it is loved.”

Euthyphro agrees, albeit reluctantly. But Socrates has asked, and answered, the pivotal question in value theory: Is something valuable because we value it or do we value it because it is valuable? Since, in Socrates’ view the latter is the case, this provides grounds for defending the objectivity of values. They are there, in the world, and we respond to them. We approve of things because in some sense we should. Our response is not the key, rather the key is what it is we are responding to, or what we should respond to if we are open-minded and discerning.

Years later, many years later, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, Don Quixote de la Mancha, is listening to Sancho Panza who is telling him about his talent in tasting wine, a gift that has passed down in his family for years. He goes on to say he can prove it

“. . .by telling you what happened to those ancestors of mine, once upon a time. They gave them some wine from a barrel, once, and asked them what condition they thought it was in, whether it was any good, or whether it had gone bad. One of them just touched it with the tip of his tongue; the other only waved it under his nostrils. The first said there was an iron flavor; the second said it was more like leather. The owner said it was an absolutely clean barrel, and nothing had been put in the wine that could make it taste either like iron or like leather. In spite of which the two famous wine tasters insisted they were right. So after a while the wine was sold, and when they cleaned out the barrel they found a little key, hanging by a little leather strap. . . . “

The tastes of the iron and the leather were there, in the wine. I am told there are tasters in China who can differentiate among hundreds of different teas. There are cooks who can taste a bit of a dish and tell us exactly what is in the food. There are artists who can see so much more in a painting than I can. There are musicians who can hear when the third violin in the orchestra is slightly flat. I cannot. There are people who are compassionate and sympathetic and who therefore respond instantly to another’s pain or happiness. The things these people are responding to are there, despite the fact that most of us are like the owner of the wine keg: we can’t detect them. And these tastes, colors, and sounds are values. They are there, in the world and we simply need to know how to gain access to them.

The key lies in the Socratic question: do we value things because they are valuable or are they valuable because we value them? We often confuse value with valuation. Valuation is relative, subjective. We can’t all differentiate among hundreds of teas or spot the key in the wine. That is our problem, but it does not give us adequate grounds for insisting that the values themselves depend upon our ability, or lack of ability, to detect them.

When a young girl works to collect cans and bottles until she has enough money to buy 60 raffle tickets to support Joseph’s House, a place for homeless mothers and pregnant women to raise their children, and, upon winning the valuable prize donates it to Joseph’s House as well, most would agree that this is a generous act. Generosity is a value. It is there in the selfless acts of working, saving, and donating. If someone insists that these acts are stupid or a waste of time we think him a dunce. He is missing something important in the world we both share. We may even feel sorry for him. But we certainly cannot agree with him.

This is not to say that we are always right about what is and what is not valuable. It is simply to say that two people who disagree cannot both be right. It is a question that requires discussion and debate, with open minds and a willingness to admit we may be wrong. I would be interested to know why the dunce thinks the generous act was a stupid waste of time. But I bet he can’t tell us why he thinks so! The objectivity of values requires that we admit that values are there, it does not imply that you or I are always correct in our assessments of what is or what is not valuable. We are not gods. On the other hand, ironically, subjectivity does imply infallibility: we cannot be wrong if values are merely subjective, because we are talking about ourselves, not about things outside ourselves. We most assuredly can be wrong if values are objective — just as we can be wrong about the third violin being slightly flat or whether there is a key in the wine.

There is no question that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Tastes vary and opinions about what is and what is not good very often conflict. This allows us to draw no conclusions about the things being discussed, however. The act of the little girl is generous and if someone doesn’t see that then we suspect he is value-blind — much like a color blond person who cannot tell green from brown or the tone-deaf person who cannot hear subtle music changes. It’s also possible we are mistaken. We all differ in our sensibilities and capacities, our imagination and our intelligence. Our perspectives are different as well. This much is clear. But it does not provide grounds for insisting that the world is a subjective construct, that there are no objective properties in the world to which certain people respond with approval or reject with disapproval.

If we remain open and attend to what is going on “out there” and discuss with others what they see and hear we may just learn a thing or two about our world, about things that are there in front of us whether we are aware of them or not. Remember, the key with the leather strap was in the wine!




20 thoughts on “The Key In The Wine

  1. I’ll repeat my reply to you regarding The Muir Tree:

    “Is something valuable because we value it or do we value it because it is valuable? The objectivity of values are there, in the world, and we respond to them. ” and ” …f we remain open and attend to what is going on “out there” and discuss with others what they see and hear we may just learn a thing or two about our world, about things that are there in front of us whether we are aware of them or not. Remember, the key with the leather strap was in the wine!”
    Perhaps that fox illustrates a key and leather strap lurking somewhere in the psyche of the tree – or the artist that painted it.

    Thanks Hugh; I’m enjoying your series regarding values we place on items…

  2. When I was an undergrad, many decades ago, one of my favourite classes was philosophy … I took 3 semesters under a prof whose first name was David and whose last name has become lost in the crusty recesses of my mind. Even back then, I loved to argue a point, and I probably drove him nuts, as I do you sometimes, but most of the time I was the only one in class who was willing to expound on my opposing views, and secretly I think the prof loved it, though he would just sigh and shake his head, with a bit of a grin, when I started. My only point with this being that you should understand I just like to argue … always with respect.

    On the first reading of this post, I had a comment all set that would disprove two of your points. It involved the value of an old, ragged, holey pair of sweatpants. But then, on second reading, I concluded that your point goes beyond the issue of how I value that particular pair of sweatpants when nobody else would, and you speak to greater sorts of value. Values like compassion, honesty, etc.

    I need to think about this some more — I know there’s a viable argument in here somewhere. 🙂 As always, you make me think, professor! I would have loved to have taken one of your classes, but perhaps I am now! As always, you have given me food for thought. Good post, mi amigo!

    • I would have loved having you in my classes! I worry that I must be wrong when we disagree (which is seldom). But I think I have it right this time — unless you convince me that I missed something, which is always possible!

      • 🙂 You should never assume you are wrong just because I disagree! You are the professor in this subject, and I tend to argue whenever I can see a path to take! 🙂 ‘Tis just my nature. I’m still pondering on the statement that “if two people disagree, they cannot both be right”, because I think there’s an argument there, but I haven’t found it yet 🙂

      • They can both be right if they are simply talking about their own responses, but they cannot both be right if they are talking about the object in front of them. It either is or it is not valuable, just as it either is or is not red or blue, hot or cold. It cannot be both.

      • If you and I are standing in front of a huge diamond, would you say it was valuable? I would say it is not, because I cannot eat it, I cannot wear it, it will not clean my house nor feed my kitties nor write my blog posts, and I cannot snuggle with it, therefore it is not valuable. And … if I owned it, I would just have to find a place to put it in a house already overcrowded. 🙂

      • There are many things that lack intrinsic properties that make them valuable — such as diamonds (though they are pricey, which is another thing altogether). But there are many more that have those properties which we must open ourselves up to — such as acts of kindness and generosity like those exhibited by the kids you wrote about earlier in the week!

  3. Hugh, your thoughts are valued. I came across an interesting example of value. In history, tulips in the Netherlands were a rare commodity, so the value rose and only the rich could afford them. Then, a gardening afficionado was able to make them sustainably plentiful, so everyone could enjoy. They became so plentiful they became an industry for commerce and tourism. So, the value increased significantly for the whole, while it decreased for the wealthy few. So, if I get this right the wealthy valued them because they were valuable, but eventually they were valued by the masses and became even more valuable. Make sure I got that right. Keith

    • Yes, except that you are talking about price — which is only one form of value (and the least interesting from my point of view!). Fun example, though!

  4. There are purportedly, “Objective “, works of art. That is ….they are not made or created by the subjective whims of the creators, but works that follow mathematical formulas, designed to elicit exact responses from all who view such works. Examples are the great cathedrals, Chartres. And Notre Dam, the Taj Mahal .the great Pyramids, etc. I agree with this and although subjectivity is all around us today in many forms of desires, whims, wants, so called unalienable rights to something etc.. I remain staunch in supporting that a very real, objective world exists, you just need to look very carefully and very deeply at the world around you.

    • We need two be clear about the differences between subjectivity and objectivity. Just because subjects vary in their estimation of works of art and ethical conduct does not mean that there are not objective values out there in the world eliciting appropriate responses.

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