“Objective Merit”, Subjective Values, and Arguing About Taste

It’s easy to forget that there is really no such thing as “objective merit”. At some level, all judgements of merit are based on human preferences, and driven by individual tastes. There is no other way.

While I would quickly agree that some preferences—and some systems of judging merit—may be “better” than others, I’d have to just as quickly agree that I need to make a subjective leap of faith in order to do so.

You and I might agree for instance, that based on objective evidence, things like peace, or trade or avoiding nuclear war are preferable to their alternatives—perhaps because these things are more likely to lead to greater human flourishing.

But this begs the question: How does one first establish that “greater human flourishing” is preferable to the absence of human flourishing? To do so requires a subjective leap at some point. (Admittedly, one that I am more than willing to make.)

All we can do is to say that greater human flourishing leads to more of other things that we like in the world, perhaps more love or discovery or art or really good episodes of House of Cards to binge watch. But how can we establish that these things are themselves good without first pointing to some other subjective value?

We could go down the rabbit hole on this for hours, and if you’re not convinced, I suggest you try it for yourself sometime. You’ll soon find yourself in a loop of subjective values with no end:

Greater human flourishing is preferable because it increases the amount of love and science and art in the world, which is good in turn because it promotes greater human flourishing, which is good because it increases the amount of love and science and art in the world which is good because….ad infinitum.

Getting stuck in this kind of infinite loop will force you to recognize that objective arguments are wonderful and extremely useful, but that they cannot stand on their own. They can only be used, ultimately, in support of some subjectively-held value.

At some point in any objective argument, you’re just going to have to resign yourself to say that something is good or desirable “for it’s own sake.” And as soon as you have done so, you have made a subjective value judgment and would have to recognize that at root, there is no such thing as “objective merit” on its own. There is only merit in the context of some subjective value.

This is not just some idle thought experiment, however. It has very real practical implications in your career, your relationships and your daily life, whether you make art, run a shop, trade stocks or build furniture.

When you recognize that there is no inherent “objective” truth when it comes to values, you may more readily begin to notice that different people tend to value different things differently. We are diverse in that way.

As much of a nuisance as this can seem when you want things to be your way or the highway, this quirk of our nature is precisely what makes voluntary exchange so effective at improving outcomes for everyone. This is a basic economic reality is known as “subjective value“:

When you buy a cup of coffee at a deli for a dollar, you are demonstrating that you value the cup of coffee more highly than the dollar. In turn, the deli owner is demonstrating that he values the dollar more highly than the cup of coffee.

The fact that the coffee and the dollar do not have one single “objective” value is what makes the exchange possible at all.

The beautiful thing is that through this trade, and through your mismatch in subjective values, both you and the deli owner are made better off than you otherwise would have been. You have each gotten something that is worth more to you than what you gave up.

Without this kind of inequality in values, voluntary exchange—and the very advance of society that we have come to take for granted—would not and could not occur. We would be stuck in place, frozen in time, ready to decay.

This is an important realization to make: Even a dollar does not have a fixed value. It has different value to different people. So does a cup of coffee. So does your art. So does everything. The implications are enormous.

Start by understanding this, and the world of business and of market transactions will come into much greater focus overnight. If you want to make an honest living doing anything, whether it is playing music or selling coffee or designing buildings, this is essential to understand.

In some sense, this realization is also at the root of what people mean when they say that “there is no arguing about taste.”

Art is perhaps the realm in which we get to play most heavily and directly to subjective values, with the most minimal reliance on objective argument. In art, you either appeal to people’s subjective preferences or you do not. A good story does tend to help, but even that story is itself a form of art.

In making art, in appealing directly to others’ subjective values, you may challenge some of their values even as you confirm others. You may often end up bundling subjective values that others quickly accept with ones that they may not. (At least at first.) And you do so by bypassing objective arguments almost completely, instead confronting subjective values right at their source.

This is both the strength and the danger of art. It can appeal to us even if it doesn’t appeal to our reason. This is also why people will likely continue to argue “objectively” about art as long as there are people.

But when people argue about art, they are not arguing about taste. They are merely arguing around it.

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