In the Sunday-morning flight from Budapest to Amsterdam, those who sat next to me couldn’t resist their urge to start a conversation.
“Did you go to Sparty too last night?”
Sparty is a foam party with loud music, lots of alcohol and, well, foam. Drunk tourists, cheap booze, blaring EDM beats. You get the idea.
“No”, I said briskly.
Although it felt good to speak Dutch again, I hate these things with a passion.
“Then where have you been last night?”, their ringleader wanted to know. Not ‘having been anywhere’ wasn’t a possibility in his universe.
As it happens, I had a very enjoyable conference last night, but I feared that the whole idea of ‘philosophy conferences’ and ‘doing a PhD at CEU in Budapest’ would be too much conversation material. I settled on answering by saying that I didn’t really ‘do anything’ last night.
“Well, I actually study here, so …”
Enthusiastic interruption: “Ah, so you live in Budapest?!”
“Wow, you’re so cool!”, he exclaimed. (This might not be exactly what he said, but it was something like that.)
As the plane started climbing, the ringleader offered me a gum. He was chubby, had small sleep-deprived eyes and smelled. I accepted and we chatted about their weekend. He and his friends had had a bachelor’s party and “were so fucking broken”.
As Korsakoff kicked in, he forgot that I live in Budapest and insisted on showing me his pictures of the city’s highlights.
Oh geesh, that’s what the CEU building looks like? Thanks for letting me know.
When he farted twice in two minutes, I decided to start reading a book. To signal this decision, I put on my headphones.
This attempt at communication failed to get through, because five minutes later I was surprised to hear his loud voice slice through Chet Faker’s 1998:
“AND? IS IT INTERESTING?”
I wasn’t sure whether to feel offended or amused.
I put my book and headphone away and told him about the philosophy I was reading. His response would be the ultimate litmus test for whether we were going to do this thing called talking during our 2 hours of shared destiny. If this wasn’t his thing, no hard feelings, but Sparty isn’t my thing, so if that was the alternative I’d prefer two hours of blissful ignorance, Chet Faker, and reading.
His response: “Wow! That is so cool! Dude! I’m a philosophy major!” It turned out he even knew some philosophers who had attended the conference I just came from.
That was unexpected.
I explained meta-ethics to him — “it’s about what it would be for a normative judgment or a claim about reasons or values to be true” — and he outed himself as an ethical realist, believing that “right and wrong are out there”.
Talking philosophy like this is what I love, so, brimming with excitement, gesturing widely with my arms and turning up the volume of my voice, I almost hit the flight attendant.
“So how do you think that works, normative truths being out there, for us to discover? Sounds mysterious, don’t you think?”
“No, because God allows us to uncover them through Revelation.”
Many people have believed that the existence of a God is the only coherent way to make sense of objective morality. Dostoyevsky, for example, wrote that “if God is dead, everything is permitted.”
He: “I believe, for example, that universal human rights are such truths God enabled us to see.”
For me, his response about a God and knowledge through Revelation didn’tquite alleviate the mysteriousness of the whole view.
“When I say that claims about humans having certain rights are true, what I mean is all of us have most reason to organize this whole living together thing like that, but there’s no corresponding Eternal Truth.”
If he was a philosopher, he undoubtedly would have objected that this is equally mysterious, for it is not clear what it is for there to be most reason to take claims about universal human rights to be true.
Reasons, however, don’t ‘are’ in that sense. Yet, the question what it ultimately, ‘at bottom’, is for a judgment about reasons to be true is marvelously fascinating, and apparently something you can discuss with a hungover stranger.
I don’t go to Sparty, but that I find extremely cool.