can value judgements be objectively realized, or is morality always subjective?

May 5, 2018
I remember 5 years ago, being struck by this passage from the chapter "Total Turnaround", in Augusten Burrough's book "Magical Thinking" and is about the author hiding his boyfriend's old formula moisturizer skin cream so that he'll try some new stuff:
He returned, indignant. "I mean it. Where is it?"

I sighed. "Okay, fine," I said. I padded across the floor and went to the closet where I barely reached--certainly no stretching--to the top shelf and produced his favorite pale green bottle. I handed it to him and became serious. "But will you at least try the new one?"

"I'll try it," but I knew he wouldn't .

I explained the situation to him, doctor to patient. "Look. This will be better for your skin because it will remove more dead epithelial cells. I mean, I know it's just lotion, but there have been advances." I emphasized the word "advances," knowing that Dennis is wary of advances.

"Fine," he said, "I'll try it."

I was somewhat annoyed by his resistance to change, and I also felt like he was still angry with me for hiding his oily lotion, so when we crawled into bed that evening I said, "Are you pissed at me for hiding it?"

"Yes," he said, like a child who was very mad at having his blocks taken away.

I smiled and nestled against him. He kissed my shoulder. I'd never felt closer to him because I did know that he was mad and yet it didn't matter: He loved me enough to be mad at me and not then have to reconsider the entire relationship.

5 years ago I wrote "You know, I think I have trouble feeling that in general, though I don't think it's the fault of the people who love(d) me."

So now - I feel like this resonates for me less in a familial way but in what I was taught about the divine; screw up too badly and eternal punishment awaits. I'm over the literal belief in that, but a deep anxiety-tinged concern about in line with a universal sense of what one should do still resonates.

Been talking with EB, who thinks the hope for an overarching objective moral framework is misguided; everyone does their moral reasoning based on their subjective view, one impressed on them by their culture and then later firmed up by their experience and growth.

On the one hand, parts of that are undeniable; you aren't going to be able to convince anyone of anything if it's too far outside their current landscape. And yet I don't quite believe that our attempts to convince, to mature the moral reasoning of ourselves and others, is totally dependent on hopping from one lily pad of subjective belief to another.

If someone says to another "It's wrong that he treated her that way", that person's not meaning "in my current moral calculus, that was wrong" or "in the shared overlap of our moral outlooks, that was wrong" or even "in the weighted average of every moral landscape of people that you and I would find reasonable, that was wrong". It's just wrong. ("R, O, N, G, *wrong*" as Mr. Pawlowski, my 11th grade math teacher would say)

My reasoning is that there is a sense of objective morality there - as Rebecca Goldstein says, "Universal consent is not what makes for moral truth." so even if the Nazis had triumphed and killed everyone who didn't agree with them and there wasn't a single morally reasoning creature left who demurred, that would not make them morally correct.

But - I do think people are useful guideposts to what might be most likely universally true. Or, maybe it's even more subtle than that - weirder in an emergent way, in the Taoist way "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" pointed me to.

Human morality doesn't pre-exist humans doing moral and immoral things, just like the platonic ideal of a chair wouldn't have pre-existed humans selecting or making items to sit on. Instead, in a dang near impossible to put into words way, the boundary of actual chairs (or moral acts) and our interactions with them build up a transcendent guidepost of what chairs, or moral acts, "should" be - the only meaningful guidepost to the discernment of what is of higher and lower quality.

(EB pointed me to Plato's The Form of the Good which got further to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than I expected - but if this lay summary of Plato's forms is a guide, I'm not sure if Plato sets out where the forms come from. The form of the idea chair only emerges from actual chairs. Plato says the forms are eternal, but I don't know if he means into the past or merely the future.)

And it might be virtue is objective, but still only applicable in relative ways - you can compare two outlooks or put them roughly on a scale, but there is no ultimate singular virtuous ruling.

So in short, if EB is right, I don't see how we escape an existential relativist landscape. No way to tell someone they're wrong in a meaningful way, just hope to point out internal contradictions and hope they're wise enough to accept that, or make a pitch that "sure your moral system is decent, but here's one that's a bit better, and hopefully your current moral system is at least strong enough to recognize that superiority..."

But, getting back to the original Burroughs passage; even if I find EB's outlook rather dour, and almost postmodern (not that everyone's entitled to their own facts, but they are entitled to their own value judgements), it might free me a bit to be more relaxed that it might be true, at least reminding me that I don't believe there's singular judge waitin' to get me in the end - and that even without Objective Virtue, people are still keepin' on keepin' on.