There can be no “Best Banana Pudding”. That’s the conclusion I reached last time in Part 1. The nature of banana pudding was determined to correspond to no ultimate rightness or wrongness. So if I like this pudding and you don’t, both of our perspectives are important and justified to those who matter the most — ourselves. Neither of us can be wrong.
Maybe it’s this easy, frictionless neutrality that has encouraged our age to extend the banana pudding principle to all manner of things. Maybe there’s no universal reality to ethics or virtue or beauty or humanity or religion. Maybe what we find to be important or “true” in any of those are simply our individual perspectives, and thus are relative to each of us. This idea, called relativism, is by no means a recent invention, but its widespread societal adoption in the last century is unique to the West. 2,400 years ago Protagoras told us that “Man is the measure of all things.” He, against Plato and the majority of people, thought that it’s the individual or the collective culture that decides the value and truth of each thing. But now, millennia later, our collective culture has decided it likes Protagoras’ approach, breaking away from thousands of generations before us. For us now, whatever we happen to like or dislike about gender, traditional morality, relationships, art, nature, or a thousand other things becomes un-challengable, because our perspectives are the measure of all things. What’s true for banana pudding is true for all things.
But last time we established that banana pudding is, in fact, not like all things. Color, for instance, can be objectively measured in light wave frequencies, and therefore corresponds to an objective reality. So if your and my different palates give us very different impressions about the quality of a banana pudding, neither of us can really be wrong; but if our different visions give us diverging impressions about the redness or greenness of an apple, one of us is likely colorblind — and incorrect (or at least less close to the truth). And most people throughout most of time agreed that most things in the universe were like color, corresponding to an objective reality. And like our vision senses the objectivity of color (to greater or lesser degrees), we have other faculties that should be sensing the objectivity of the transcendental realities –goodness, truth, and beauty– of things.
“Until quite modern times,” writes C.S. Lewis, “…all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.” In other words, things in this universe have an objective reality to them that our faculties –sight, smell, touch, etc, but also intuition, reason, nous— can (to greater or lesser degrees) apprehend and inform our judgements of them. Those faculties can also be trained and honed, based on the understanding that there’s something real to hone them on. Lewis continues,
“St Augustine defines virtue as *ordo amoris*, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind or degree of love which is appropriate to it.(11) Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.(12) When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.(13) Plato before him had said the same. …
“This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike…will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know [objective value] can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within [the doctrine of objective value] I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).”
This momentous assertion, at the heart of Lewis’ opening essay in The Abolition of Man, is diametrically opposed to the recent fashionable supposition that there is no such thing as objective value and thus no ultimate goodness, rightness, meetness, or fairness in the world, but only what we happen to legislate for ourselves. The idea that a value judgement could be true in any objective sense is heresy to the relativist. The idea that a feeling could be incongruous with reality is itself incongruous with the doctrine of the relativist. But humanity’s greatest thinkers, from ancient Greece to the Far East to deep India to Byzantium to Western Christendom, have all shared the belief in objective value. Despite their obvious differences in very fundamental beliefs about the world, creation, humanity, and God, they all believed there were ways of living, behaving, appreciating things, and creating things that were appropriate or inappropriate, harmonious or discordant with reality.
I suspect, however, that many modern disbelievers in objective value cite that very same diversity of traditions as one of their causes for disbelieving. They miss the monumental similarity in that all the traditions believe in objective value and instead trip over their differences. How could anyone confidently believe in the truth of one tradition, they reckon, when we now know that there are so many competing beliefs out there? “How can you think Christianity is true?”, asked someone to G.K. Chesterton. “What about all the other religions?” “It is perpetually said,” replied Mr. Chesterton, “that because there are a hundred religions claiming to be true, it is therefore impossible that one of them should really be true. …It would be as reasonable to say that because some people thought the earth was flat, and others (rather less incorrectly) imagined it was round, and because anybody is free to say that it is triangular or hexagonal, or a rhomboid, therefore it has no shape at all; or its shape can never be discovered; and, anyhow, modern science must be wrong in saying it is an oblate spheroid. The world must be some shape, and it must be that shape and no other; and it is not self-evident that nobody can possibly hit on the right one. What so obviously applies to the material shape of the world equally applies to the moral shape of the universe.”
Instead of thinking there is no real moral shape of the universe because some different people think it’s shaped differently, the wisest thinkers throughout time have instead tried to discover the truth for themselves. Instead of thinking there’s no true value to the beauty of a waterfall, or the sanctity of marriage, or simply the existence of a human life, merely because some people value them differently, the wisest of us have always instead sought to find their true value anyway. Maybe the answer would be sought through intense thought and meditation, or by amalgamating many different perspectives, or by seeking out the wisdom of elders, or through convinced metaphysical revelation. In any case, the conviction that real value, a real answer, was there to be discovered remained.
It’s my humble opinion that it’s either ignorance about this widely held and historic position, a misunderstanding of it, or an incredibly hubristic rejection of it that is to blame for the widespread relativizing of value in our modern West today. If there’s any respect for, or even calculated consideration of, the vast majority of people who have lived and experienced life before us, if there’s any democracy of the dead, then we would do well to consider what nearly all of them agreed on: there’s as much of an objective reality to goodness, truth, and beauty as there is to physical laws. Maybe more. And we have the capacity to discover that reality and to learn of it from others already better acquainted with it, if we make the effort. By all means, let’s agree to disagree about banana pudding. But about the objectiveness of value for other things in the universe — of their goodness, truth, and beauty– let’s work to discover it and to bring ourselves into harmony and conformity with it.