Should any reader turn to this page expecting a philosophical discussion, I wish to declare at the outset that I am not competent to paraphrase leading ideas in axiology, far less to comment on them or to criticize. Indeed, that inability is in a way my point, for I wish to suggest that value of all sorts is, like other aspects of reality, always and inevitably subjective, though that fact does not mean that value judgments are arbitrary or without significance.
In pragmatic decision-making, some, however, may seen hardly disputable: if one wishes to turn a screw, a screwdriver is good, because it does the job efficiently; a city map is good if one wishes to find the train station; food is good since it is required for life. Yet even these include an implied subjectivity. One cannot assume that turning the screw is desirable, or finding the train, or even continuing to live. Each of these consequences is a concrete result. When no such observable cause and effect is involved as in theoretical ethics and even more so in aesthetics, a demonstration of value becomes exceedingly obscure.
If a critic prefers the novels of Samuel Richardson to those of Henry Fielding (as Leavis does), he may provide ample reasoning and bolster his arguments with supporting evidence from the books in question, yet he cannot, like a scientist, present a compelling “objective” case. Literature and criticism have histories, to be sure, yet it is difficult to conceive of those histories as recording incremental progress over the centuries. The same might be said for all aesthetic judgments. To one individual opera provides the most moving and powerful experience of beauty while another may react only with snores in the manner of George McManus’s comic strip character Jiggs.
Indeed the situation is no different with all acknowledged matters of taste. Not only art, but food, clothing, style in general is highly subjective. Is Greek retsina wine tasty? Are tattoos becoming? Is a huge SUV beautiful? There is no reasonable way to convince either opponents or proponents to change their attitudes.
While some would be willing to concede that aesthetic judgments are not subject to proof, many would consider moral and ethical decisions a different matter. Most commonly, due to religious teachings which specifically resist rational investigation, requiring instead faith, people of various traditions claim an absolute, “revealed” certainty in their ethical precepts. Here is a clear case of the power of subjectivity. For internal intuitive reasons that cannot be conveyed to an unbeliever, the faithful accept dogmatic teachings.
The fact is that, contrary to the claims of some religionists, an entirely adequate system of morality can be elaborated from a simple principle of self-interest. By a secular application of the Golden Rule the entire legal code can be constituted. But my own preference to shrink from theft in order not to worry about my neighbor’s thieving from me, while compelling in practical terms to govern my behavior, is not in fact universal. A considerable share of people do, in fact, steal. Plenty of medieval knights went campaigning for booty. Big businessmen steal from us all while thinking they are exemplary and “successful.” Further, these last examples point out the fact that individuals, ages, and cultures may have significant differences in their definition of theft. Even such an apparently self-evident and natural conclusion as the evil of slavery was never recognized by Moses, Plato, Aristotle, or Christ.
Furthermore, ethics is clearly a matter between human beings, a social issue, not one related to Ultimate Reality in any way. The cosmos is indifferent to my conduct and any view that looks beyond the human sphere will see that morality does not exist in the Milky Way, only magnificent grandeur. The regulation of human behavior, though a critical element in making life livable, is wholly functional; it exists to accomplish a purpose and not for its own sake.
Yet, if I might be considered in some ways to display “good behavior,” my motive is not to protect myself. In fact my actions are most generally shaped by a desire to look good if only in my own eyes. Base behavior is ugly; to act in a degraded fashion diminishes oneself. Generous-hearted and compassionate behavior, on the other hand, is beautiful; to act nobly is to become more comely. With eyes open to the phantasmagoria of this world, I selfishly seek to spend my time in the best possible way, keeping myself healthy, learning constantly, bathing in art, trying to deal sympathetically and magnanimously with the people I encounter. And for no other reason than that it feels right to me, it seems the more beautiful choice. I feel as though I react spontaneously and naturally to each choice. While I am quite aware that I have been taught a code of moral response to various situations, I nonetheless experience each decision as a fresh mover expressing my nature. Awareness of my earlier training does not eliminate or invalidate it, though I experience my moral, aesthetic, and culinary decisions as expressing myself, not replicating a formula.
This should be hardly surprising. It is impossible to escape the subjectivity of our experience of reality. The images on my retina are transformed by strange and elaborate codes translating the activities of all those sub-atomic particles hovering in my office and looking so settled and inert as desks and books and rugs. It means nothing to ask what is real when one’s human consciousness cannot escape setting the parameters of the investigation.
So we muddle on, making constant value judgments, almost always without conscious consideration, making fallible predictions, feeling our way through the darkness of our general ignorance. If one acquits oneself well, the reward must be in the performance, a graceful turn, a beneficent influence, a settled sense of self at day’s end. Just as some people define themselves through their postings of products on Pinterest, others may turn to Homer, but who is to say which is “best”? We can object if a stranger treads on our toes, but we cannot prescribe a code of morality as though it had absolute value.
In this way ethical, gastronomic, and aesthetic decisions have much in common. Should a constellation formed of caritas and Beaujolais and Charlie Parker, one evening at a dinner party, cross that of mind-your-own-business and IPAs and Verdi, the two might cross-fertilize like the joyful reshuffling of genes or the vast drifting of galaxies and produce wholly new configurations.