Suppose that the Earth was doomed to destruction in the near future. But fortunately for us the international community has created a number of space ships, each of which is to preserve some part of the planet. People go in one ship, animals in another, art in a third, and so on. But of course there is not enough room to fit everything in.* The ark problem then is to decide what to take and what to leave behind. The ark problem is interesting for two reasons. The first of course is that it forces us to come up with a scheme for deciding the relative importance of things. But, more importantly, it reveals that some things are better than others, whether we would like to admit that or not. Someone may claim that there is no objective standard for art, and that works of art cannot be compared to each other. But when it comes time to actually load the ark I think we will find that even such people will leave out some children’s drawings to make room for the Mona Lisa.
Now the ark problem might just show that we have common preferences with regard to art. Maybe there isn’t really any way to compare works of art, but that we just happen to all prefer the Mona Lisa. It is unlikely however that the loader of the ark will just pick whatever they like best to save. No, the loader of the ark will probably try to correct for their own preferences. They will put on art that seems historically significant even if they don’t personally like it, and they will leave off the art that only they like, although it may pain them to do so. Now it could be that the ark loader is delusional, that art really is incomparable, and so it doesn’t matter what art they load the ark with. But if they actually loaded the ark in that way I do not think future generations would forgive them. If we arrived at our destination and opened the ark to find that it only contained medieval frescos we would think that the ark loader had made a mistake.
This puts someone who thinks that works of art can’t properly be compared to each other in a bit of a bind. They might try to weasel** their way out by arguing that the works of art should be selected by their historical or cultural impact, so that while the works of art do not have intrinsic value with which they can be compared to each other there is still some way of selecting among them. But that is essentially to admit that works of art do have objective value and can be compared to each other, we simply take their value to be their historical or cultural impact. And this is true no matter how we choose to load the ark; if we choose a systematic method which prefers some works of art over others then we are effective admitting that works of art do have comparable value, and that our criteria of selection roughly track that value. Or we can dogmatically maintain that there really is no way to compare art, and thus that every possible way of loading up the ark is equally good.
To deny that some ways of loading up the arks are better than others is, I think, patently absurd, which thus forces us to conclude that all things are comparable in value to each other. But of course this doesn’t mean that we actually know how to compare them. This is the second part of the ark problem then: how do we create a selection criteria that saves the most valuable pieces of art despite the fact that we don’t know exactly makes a piece of art valuable? As I see it there are two criteria we can use. One is simply to go by the historical and cultural impact of the piece of art, which we can calculate roughly, for example, by measuring how much it is referred to in other sources. But I do not think that that criteria necessarily saves the art that is the best art, it saves the art that is most essential to human culture, which only roughly aligns with the best art. Assume then that we have the ability to make judgments about whether a piece of art has positive or negative value (it’s hard to think of an example of art that clearly has negative art, unless we are talking about art that promotes certain undesirable ideas, but obviously I am giving a general analysis that can be applied to more than art). Take all the art that has positive value then and save those pieces that the most effort was put into making, and which the effort put into them had the desired result. Those pieces of art are the ones we should put on the ark. Now this is not to claim that the effort put into a piece of art correlates directly with its value. However, better art will of course require more effort to create, and we can assume that artists have some sense of what makes art valuable. Of course most of them are wrong to some extent (since we have already established that no one knows with certainty exactly what makes art valuable), but we can assume that at least some of them were more right than wrong. Thus the criteria is likely to save the best art, even though we don’t know exactly which art among the pieces that are saved is best. (Mathematical analogy: you have a set of vectors which you only know the magnitude of but not the orientation. Given a subset of size z, we can maximize our chances of picking the vector with the greatest extension in the x dimension by picking the z vectors with the greatest magnitudes.)
Obviously the ark problem applies to more than just art, it applies to human lives as well. And I would say that the same process we used for selecting the best art can be used to select the best people. We consider only the people with positive value (those who aren’t massively unethical) and then select from them those who have successfully put the most effort into their lives. Of course effort in this context doesn’t mean calories; while I have no desire to try to pin down exactly what it is I will say that effort involves striving to be better than we already are.
* Assume the arks are just for the preservation of Earth, not for starting over again; the practicalities of starting over skew things in ways that are irrelevant to the task at hand.
** In the technical philosophical sense.