Value and Objectivity
by Daniel A. Kaufman
Recent exchanges with Robert Gressis and Spencer Case have led me to think a lot about obligation and objectivity. My focus thus far has been on the question of force, and my main goal has been to show that accounting for it is not made easier – or facilitated in any way, really – by obligation being objective.
This has left me wondering about value and objectivity more generally, beyond the question of obligation and force. For just as I see no good reason to think that our account of force benefits in any way by conceiving of obligation as objective, I don’t see any good reason to think that value is better explained or understood by conceiving it as objective either, and that’s what I want to explore here.
Up until now, the discussion has focused entirely on morality, but I want to shift gears to aesthetics for two reasons. First, since most people think artistic values are subjective, we can ask ourselves whether we would understand them better if they were objective. Second, the reasons for thinking objectivity adds nothing to our understanding of artistic value can be transferred quite straightforwardly to the question of ethical values.
But first I want to say a few words 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 any conceptual scheme or frame of reference,” then one might think that the rules of chess or tennis are objective, while not being “Real” in the philosophical sense. (I will capitalize ‘Real’ to indicate that I am using the term in its philosophical, rather than its ordinary sense.) Indeed, every aspect of social reality is objective but not Real insofar as it is a human creation. What something’s being objective comes down to, then, is its not being variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion.
There was a point in my dialogue with Spencer, when he insisted that the Real need not be characterized in terms of mind independence or independence from any conceptual scheme or frame of reference, and I wondered whether he was just collapsing the Real into the objective and engaging in an argument by way of stipulated definition, viz: “Given that what I mean by ‘Real’ is this, I don’t need to worry about all those arguments against Realism.” I hope he will elaborate further.
Massimo Pigliucci and I have discussed this question of ‘Real’ vs. ‘objective’ as it applies to ethics, over the course of multiple dialogues, and his inclination is to take values and obligations as being objective, though not Real.  In these conversations, I expressed uncertainty as to what I thought (of course, I haven’t been a moral Realist since I was in my early twenties, when I was essentially a Kantian), but I remained open to the idea of moral objectivity, partly out of my love for Aristotle for whom virtues are objective facts about people. At this point, however, I’m pretty committed not just to anti-Realism with respect to values, but subjectivism as well.
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 being objective.  The dominant view in aesthetics, greatly influenced by Hume and Kant, is that artistic values are subjective, so the question that remains is whether we can retain or recover any sense of the normativity of evaluative judgments pertaining to the arts, in spite of their subjectivity. I was convinced that one could not, and as I thought at the time that at least some critical evaluations must be normative, I set myself to the task of finding some variety of artistic value that could be plausibly deemed objective.
What I settled upon were judgments pertaining to the fulfillment (or lack thereof) of demonstrable artistic purposes or functions. That audiences widely find The Producers (1967) funny entails that it is good, given that the The Producers is a comedy and the purpose of comedies is to offer audiences humorous experiences, and it would be quite strange for someone to suggest that it is bad, nevertheless. Of course, The Producers may fail 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 see at the time (and do see now) is that artistic value in this objective 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 that “this funny comedy [The Producers] is good” is itself dependent upon The Producers being funny, which is subjective. For another, even if The Producers is funny, in that that large numbers of people find it so, and is thus objectively good, what difference does this make if I dislike it nonetheless? Imagine, indeed, that I find no humor in it at all. Does the fact that its goodness is objective matter as far as I am concerned? Would there be any point in telling me that I “ought” to like it, because it is objectively good? If unanimity on the subject mattered enough societally, people might decide to silence me, shun me, or prevent me from participating in discussions of the film, but the fact that The Producer’s goodness is objective would have no significance with regard to the question of what to do about my comedic heresy. What would matter is only that it mattered.
Now take any assertion that X is good, around which there is a sufficiently wide consensus such that the claims “X is good” and “You ought to value X” are credibly deemed objectively true. Imagine a person who does not believe that X is good and does not value X. Does the fact that X’s goodness and status of being deservedly valued are objective rather than subjective make any difference to him? Would pointing that objectivity out affect what he believed about it or whether he valued it? And suppose unanimity on the matter is sufficiently important to a sufficient number of us that we collectively decide to remove this person from our company. Would it matter to this decision whether the goodness of X was objective or not? I don’t see why it would or should.
Value judgments are essentially motivational in both their meaning and performative force. Their purpose is to point our actions and affections in various directions. Empirical judgments and the sorts of a priori statements one finds in logic and mathematics, in contrast, are essentially descriptive and epistemic – the purpose of making them is so that someone might come to know something – and whatever motivational role they play is secondary and is always mediated by a valuation or set of valuations. Knowing that exercise and a diet rich in vitamins and minerals is necessary for one’s physical health, for example, will only motivate a person to exercise and pursue such a diet if he values – i.e. cares about – his physical health.
Notice, here, that we are talking about the kinds of facts that are uncontroversially, obviously objective – what could be more objective than “calcium is necessary for maintaining healthy bones” or “ 3+5=8”? – and their objectivity still doesn’t matter with respect to whatever motivational effects they may have when entertained or stated.
This is why in my discussion with Spencer and elsewhere, I have repeatedly maintained that one does not engage in ethical theorizing or discourse, ultimately, in order to come to know something, and I would broaden the point to include theorizing and discourse about value more generally. We theorize and talk about value in order to develop and direct our affections and actions with regard to various persons, things, and states of affairs, and whether or not value is objective or Real is irrelevant to that aim.