Chocolate ice cream is objectively better than vanilla. Coke is obviously superior to Pepsi. Snickers is the best candy bar. Most people would consider these statements a mere opinion or preference, but what if there was more to it than that? Could one actually be better?
Earlier this year I was talking with my brother Josh, and he made a comment about how chocolate was objectively better than vanilla. I’ve heard this kind of joke many times. “Oh obviously Coke is better than Pepsi, if you disagree then you’re just wrong.” It’s funny because we all know that neither is better (or rather, it was funny before I explained the joke). It struck me as odd, because Josh does believe in objective truth and objective beauty about some things at least. He believes it is not just a matter of preference where there is more stark contrast, such as when comparing a sunset with a decaying corpse. Is he inconsistent?
If so, then his is a common inconsistency. I have especially noticed it in Christian circles as a way to describe moral relativism. “The moral relativist thinks that morals are like flavors of ice cream, it’s all just a matter of preference.”
To be clear, I don’t think which flavor is better between Pepsi and Coke is knowable. But just because one cannot know something, that doesn’t mean there can’t be truth about it. I think I’ll never fully grasp the nature of God or higher mathematics, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth about those things. I’m quite sure I will never know the number of leaves in the world at this moment, but I think the number exists and that God knows it.
So why would I believe something so counter-intuitive—that there probably is an objectively superior flavor of ice cream? To begin with, I think beauty is objective, at least about some things. I am not going to put any effort into arguing for it, it’s just one of the most obvious truths to me. A sunset must be more objectively beautiful than a decaying corpse. Many interesting discussions could be had arguing for or against it, but my project is to assume it as my first premise and consider the possible implications.
If the sunset is more beautiful than the corpse, then might the sunset be more beautiful than something else that is obviously beautiful, such as a rose? Why not? If beauty is objective about some things, is it more plausible that there is truth about less obvious claims, or that beauty stops being objective when people begin to disagree?
One may think, perhaps there is objective beauty about the sunset and the rose, but beauty doesn’t apply to taste. Perhaps it doesn’t. But is it really plausible that when one person prefers skittles to a steak that he is not deeply mistaken? I don’t think so. I don’t think good cooks are just figuring out what people like, I think they are making art in a similar way that a good painter does. The great painting isn’t great because people like it, but because it truly is beautiful. It seems infinitely more plausible to me that the same is true of food. And if that is the case, then it seems plausible that there is truth about less obvious cases, such as chocolate and vanilla.
The presence of disagreement need not imply the absence of truth. But, one might ask, how then are we to understand why we have such irreconcilable disagreements? Some people hate Coke, some people hate Pepsi, and others couldn’t tell the difference between them in a blind taste test if their lives depended on it.
One explanation that seems to ring true is that we are sometimes bad at appreciating good things. For example, I used to hate fish. I would try eating it at the university cafeteria and would almost gag every time. I tried better fish in a backyard barbecue and hated it just as much. But it seemed plausible to me that God created good things for us to enjoy and that if so many people seemed to like fish so much, then it’s more likely that the problem is with my ability to appreciate fish rather than with fish itself. I decided to try to make myself like it, and over the course of a couple of years, grew to love it. I have not yet been successful in my effort to learn to like pickles. Make of that what you will.
This doesn’t prove that there is objective truth about fish; I don’t think I can positively demonstrate any of this. I’m merely attempting to paint a plausible alternative to the explanation that when some people like fish and others don’t, neither is right.
Another reason we have such disagreements is that we have different preferences, which I think is perfectly compatible with my theory. How many men have you known, who, upon falling in love, found their girlfriend or wife to be the most beautiful creature on the face of the planet? I’ve both witnessed it and experienced it. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that one hundred (a very conservative estimate) men simultaneously have the belief that his beloved is the most beautiful. In one sense, they cannot all be right, there can only be one most beautiful woman. But in another, I think they all are right: to each of them, his beloved is clearly the most beautiful. Similarly, perhaps when two friends cannot come to an agreement on Coke or Pepsi, perhaps Coke tastes the best to one and Pepsi tastes the best to the other. This could be a result of positive or negative associations, it could be because one of them is slightly worse than the other at appreciating good things, or, most likely, they have different preferences. My point is that having different preferences about things does not imply that there is not objective truth about them.
An (admittedly) odd implication of this view is that, when it comes to aesthetics, there is an objective hierarchy. God could line up all the men, or women, or paintings, or foods exactly in order of most aesthetic quality to least. I think if God were to show me some of these foods all lined up that I would have preferences for some over others, even amongst almost indistinguishably delicious food. Perhaps in the all-knowing mind of God, there is an objective ranking or an awareness of a precise level of aesthetic value.
“Aha!” one might say at this point. “Maybe there is such a hierarchy for some things, but that the aesthetic value of, say, chocolate and vanilla ice cream happens to be identical, so it isn’t true that one is better than the other! Perhaps this is even true for all of the controversial cases.” While this is possible, I suspect it isn’t the case for the same reason that I think determining which is better is unknowable: if the answer exists, it would be incredibly complex. If, given infinite knowledge, one could quantify something as complex and mysterious as beauty, it strikes me as implausible that very different foods, people or art could happen to wind up with the exact same amount of beauty.
Even if you are persuaded, you may be wondering, “Why should I care? If it’s unknowable anyway, what does it matter? Why am I even reading this?” Or maybe even, “I want the last ten minutes of my life back.” Perhaps it isn’t significant outside of entertaining food for thought (pun intended). It is certainly far less significant than the fact that many people don’t know God, so don’t spend so much time thinking about this that you miss an opportunity to talk to people about more important things.
There are two reasons I do think it matters though. The first is that while I care much more about the objectivity of the sunset over the corpse than I do about less obvious cases like Coke and Pepsi, I suspect denying the objectivity of the one may undermine the objectivity of the other. If we assume there isn’t truth about one, why should there be truth about the other? The second is that it seems more likely that one will try to learn to appreciate art if she thinks there is beauty to be appreciated than if she assumes a given style or artist just isn’t her “cup of tea” (a terribly misleading phrase, if my theory is correct, and the aesthetic value of tea is objective).