The circumstances of time, context, and perspective are like delicate filaments that connect the economic actor to the world. We risk destroying these with too many aggregates and abstractions.
The question of “moral truth” is inseparable from questions about the factual status of values – a value being some principle that must be chosen to sustain life. This is the starting point for Ayn Rand, who emphasizes the objective necessity of values for a creature of volitional consciousness. Whatever anyone may say about old Alice Rosenbaum, she got that much right.
Similarly, Sam Harris says that “Values reduce to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.” That's pretty weak tea, since any offered example admits of obvious counter-examples.
Kant must have been dissatisfied with his own efforts to establish moral truth, since he offered several versions of his Moral Imperative, none of them compelling.
On the other hand, it seems dishonest to follow Hume, who defines “virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary.” This statement weirdly admits the possibility of virtue in the absence of any objective moral truth. (Was this the seed of “existentialism”?)
Here is the problem: Those who ask for a “moral truth” typically want a truth of the same nature as a mathematical truth, that is, a truth universally true for all objective instances. But while 2+2=4 is always true for any objects offered for counting, it's impossible to give one universal prescription for every offered moral scenario. Nevertheless, I do hold that there are “moral truths,” but not of that nature.
If I had to give a formulaic answer, I'd say: A moral truth is any value recognized as promoting man's life as a rational animal.
If I were allowed a more suggestive answer – which gets at your question “‘recognized’ by whom?” – I'd say: Like a quantum particle that's objectively known by measuring one of its many aspects, we have partial knowledge of a moral truth by its being practiced by all those in a small community.
The concept of subjective value in economics is important, and this discussion shows a strong understanding of it. To that extent, bravo!
BUT the article reminds me at times of someone driving a fire engine to an emergency site and spraying hoses, only it happens to be the site of a flood. Our society doesn't really suffer from too little deference to subjective value. We face a vast array of choices almost all the time, far more we could possibly assess. That's often innocuous, but sometimes distracting or confusing. And it tends to make community formation hard because people have so little in common. And many people ruin their lives through bad choices against which society hardly even warned them, being so relativistic and deferential to individual preferences and choices.
People are irrational in systematic ways that policy can exacerbate or exploit. I'm very reluctant to coerce from paternalistic motives, but if you can really be a "libertarian paternalist" and influence people for their good simply by structuring choices, that's worth doing. And exhortation, persuasion, advocacy, good self-help books -- that's all fine, and praiseworthy and valuable if the advice is good. Don't let subjective value theory dissuade the wise from imposing their values on the young through persuasion! We need more of that!
Hi Max, nice article. I think the issue with the labor theory of value goes deeper.
If a person makes a T-shirt and sells it for $100, that’s $100 in sales revenue, not wages. If there are no money expenses, that is $100 in profits, not wages.
If a person uses $50 in materials and capital to produce a T-shirt, transporting costs are $10 and he sells it for $100, the person has made $40 in profit, not wages.
If the person pays someone to work for them to produce a T-shirt, the wages come out of his capital and the profits. It’s not profits that comes out of the wages, so Marx, Ricardo and even Adam Smith got it all backwards.
See George Resiman explain it all here, https://mises.org/library/classical-economics-vs-exploitation-theory.