In my post a few days ago on the Archbishop of Westminster's views about assisted suicide, I said he was confusing objective with absolute value, but I set to one side the issue of whether there could be objective value. So, can there be?
Well, what would it mean to say that value is objective? One thing it could mean is that the value - in this case, of a human life - exists independently of us human beings, independently of our placing a value on it. This, it seems to me, is at least part of what Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop, means, because he wants it that the value of a human life is God-given and, as it were, out there whether any of us happens to acknowledge it or not. Calling value objective in this sense is like saying that it is an object and independent of us, irrespective of whether we accept it as a value or not, of whether we value it or not. To this extent it is rather like an object in nature, like a rock, which exists whether we know about it or not, whether we like it or not, or like dinosaurs, which existed before we did and whose existence, therefore, wasn't dependent on our thinking about them. They weren't, of course, called 'dinosaurs' back then, but that's another story; on the best evidence we have, they existed without the need of human beings to give them their existence.
Values can't be objective in that way. To exist at all, they need valuers, and for the purposes of this discussion I shall take it that the valuers we're interested in here are human beings. In principle that equivalence doesn't have to obtain. Another sentient and intelligent species can also provide a population of valuers. But in order not to complicate the discussion I shall go between humans and valuers as if humans were the only valuers there were. Can the sort of values, then, that we humans typically value - life, liberty, happiness, justice, rights, compassion, friendship, love, etc - be objective in the sense of having an existence that is independent of us, independent of our actually valuing them? I think an affirmative answer here would be absurd. For there to be moral values, there must be valuers. Otherwise, we should be able to hypothesize a universe in which, though it contained no sentient or intelligent beings, there would still be ethics, somehow written into the structure, into the materiality, of mere things. And that strikes me as being rather like the assumption of a divine presence, seeking to moralize the universe on the basis of no more than a wish.
This doesn't mean, however, that values are simply subjective states, states of mind. To say that values need valuers in order to exist is not like saying that intentions need intenders in order to exist. An intention can't float free of the person whose intention it is. But values have a public existence beyond the minds of the people whose values they are. They exist in languages, practices, sets of rules, social norms and juridical and other institutions. If you die, your intentions die with you. But if humankind were to perish entirely, its values would still be recoverable by intelligent interplanetary travellers arriving on Earth and beginning to decipher whatever records had been left of human life here. So human values have an objectivity in this sense, a public existence outside the minds of any particular human valuer or group of human valuers, though not independent of us in the sense of being intelligible without reference to who and what we are or were, to our needs and interests.
If in this second meaning there is a kind of objectivity - or at least non-subjectivity - of values, I don't think it's one that would suffice for Vincent Nichols. For a set of values could well be public, out there, and yet wrong by his lights - allowing, for example, assisted suicide and consequently not assigning absolute value to each human life, as he purports to believe Catholic teaching requires. There is nothing about the 'embodiment' of values in a set of public discourses, rules and institutions that guarantees that those values will be of a (putatively) optimal kind.
Which brings me to a third possible meaning of objectivity in the present context, and that possibly the most important of them. Is there a set of right answers about moral issues, not dependent on this or that opinion, your view or mine, the norms internal to one culture or to another? In other words, are there objective moral truths? A difficult question. All I will say about this for the time being is: from the fact that values are not objective in the first meaning I explored here it doesn't follow that moral questions are merely subjective, all 'a matter of opinion'. That human values aren't already inscribed within nature, so to speak, but depend on us as valuers to be what they are does not entail that anything goes. Here's an analogy. The game of chess would not exist but for its creation by human beings. Nonetheless, there are better and worse opening strategies, and better and worse variants within particular openings. Future non-human chess players from amongst those interplanetary travellers would also find it to be so. Mutatis mutandis, if human morality is concerned broadly with human flourishing, the realization of basic human interests, the minimization of needless suffering and so on, then not any old ways of life and not any old interpersonal practices are as good as any other. There's better and worse.
Obviously, there's much more that can be said on this subject.