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!