[U02] Intrinsic values


In reasoning about value, the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value is of fundamental importance. But first we need to understand the distinction between means and ends.

§1. Means and ends

Ends are goals. Means are ways, methods, instruments, or tools to achieve goals. If you desire (or want) something, then that which you desire is an end (or a goal) of yours. Ends of yours are just that which you desire. Suppose you desire owning a dog. Then, owning a dog is an end of yours. Note that one and the same thing can be an end as well as a means to promote something else. For instance, you might want to own a dog because you want a companion. Then owning a dog is not only an end of yours. It is also a means to achieve a further end, namely having a companion.

  1. What ends do you have?
  2. Do you have some ends which are also means to promote your other ends?
  3. Mary wants a dollar coin for using a public phone to call John's home phone in order to wake him up in the middle of the night. (i) What ends does Mary have? (ii) What corresponding means does she have for those ends of hers?

§2. Desiring something as a means vs. desiring something as an end-in-itself

As we have seen, you may desire X (which is an end of yours) because you believe that X is a means to promote some other ends of yours. In that case, we say that you desire X as a means to promote some other ends. But you may desire X regardless of whether you believe that X is a means to promote your any other ends - i.e., you simply desire X for its own sake. In that case, we say that you desire X as an end-in-itself. Note that a person may desire one and the same thing as a means and also as an end-in-itself. For instance, you may desire freedom as a means (e.g., to promote happiness) but at the same time you may also desire freedom as an end-in-itself, regardless of whether it promotes your any other ends. Finally, you may desire X as a means to promote Y because you desire Y and believe that X is a means to promote Y. But in reality, X may not be a means (or an effective means) to promote Y. In that case, we say that your desire of X is based on a false belief about it.

  1. Is there anything which you desire as an end-in-itself?
  2. Is there anything which you desire as an end-in-itself and also desire as a means to promote some other ends?

Read the passage and answer the questions below:

John wants to visit Mary because he wants to borrow her car for the weekend and he believes that he will have the car for the weekend if he visits her and asks. Unfortunately, Mary's car is staying at the garage over the weekend to be repaired and John does not know that. But even if he knew that, he would still want to visit Mary. For he also thinks that if he visits her, then he can play with her dog, which is something he wants to do. But Mary's dog died last week. When John finds that out, he will be very upset because he really likes Mary's dog. The company of Mary's dog is one of the few things that he wants for their own sake.

(a) What ends does John have? (b) Among John's various ends, which one(s) does John desire as a means to promote some other ends? (c) Among John's various ends, which one(s) does John desire as an end-in-itself? (d) Which desire(s) of John's is based on a false belief?

§3. Having value as a means vs. having value as an end-in-itself

Just as there are two ways in which someone may desire something, there are also two ways in which something may have value (or may be valuable). If X has value because it is a means to promote some end Y, then we say that X has value (or is valuable) as a means to promote Y. But if X has value regardless of whether it is a means to promote anything else, then we say that it has value (or is valuable) as an end-in-itself.

Now, we are ready to define two different kinds of value. Their definitions are as follows:

  • Something has instrumental value if and only if it has value as a means to promote some ends.
  • Something has intrinsic value (or non-instrumental value) if and only if it has value regardless of whether it is also useful as a means to promote some other ends.

Note that one and the same thing something may have instrumental value as well as intrinsic value. The two very different notions can be true of the same object.

Some examples:

  • Money has instrumental value. It has value as a means to deliver something else, such as food, clothing, shelter, and education. But it is quite clear that money does not have intrinsic (i.e., non-instrumental) value. For it has no value once it ceases to be a means of getting us something else.
  • Certain fruits, for another example, have instrumental value for bats who feed on them. They are means of brings nutrition (and perhaps also pleasure of taste) to the bats who feed on them. But it is not widely agreed that fruits have intrinsic value. It is unlikely that they have value as ends-in-themselves - i.e., value regardless of whether they are means for achieving something else.
  • We can likewise think of a person who teaches others as having instrumental value for those who want to acquire knowledge. But in addition to any such value, it is a common view in modern moral philosophy that a person, as a person, has intrinsic value - i.e., value in his or her own right independently of his or her prospects for serving other ends. The intrinsic value of persons is often taken as the moral foundation of basic human rights regardless of occupation, economic status, social class, nationality, race, gender, etc.
  • The notions "instrumental value" and "intrinsic value" may also apply to objects of environmental concern. For example, wild plants of a certain species may have instrumental value because they provide the ingredients for some medicine or serve as aesthetic objects for human observers. But if the plants also have some value in themselves independently of their prospects for furthering some other ends such as human health, or the pleasure from aesthetic experience, then the plants also have intrinsic value.
  1. What things do you think are instrumentally valuable? And why do you think that?
  2. What things do you think are intrinsically valuable?
  3. For each of the following things, say whether you think it is instrumentally valuable, intrinsically valuable, both, or neither: (a) friendship, (b) health, (c) wealth, (d) youth, (e) fame, (f) beauty, (g) romantic love, (h) knowledge, (i) wisdom, (j) physical pleasure, and (k) power.
  4. Is there anything which you desire as an end-in-itself (see Q4 above) but do not think of it as intrinsically valuable (i.e., valuable as an end-in-itself)?

§4. A few more points

Finally, there are a few more points to make about intrinsic value and instrumental value.

  • As the intrinsically valuable is that which is valuable as an end in itself, it is commonly agreed in moral philosophy that something's possession of intrinsic value generates some moral duty (or moral obligation) on the part of moral agents (i.e., those who are capable of moral reflection and choice) to protect it or at least to refrain from damaging it. For this reason, intrinsic value is also often called "moral value".
  • The notion "value" is often used as a close synonym of "good" (or "goodness") which is another basic notion in ethics. For instance, when people say that happiness is an intrinsic value (or intrinsically valuable), they may as well say that happiness is intrinsically good. Since the notion "goodness" is just as fundamental as "value", if someone does not know what the term "value" means, it is very likely that he or she does not know what the term "good' means. Hence, it is not very informing to define value as that which is good. For your information, there is actually a huge philosophical literature in the 20th century devoted to the analysis and the study of the meaning of the notion "value" (or "good"). But we will not discuss them here. It suffices to know that it is not an easy thing to define "value".

(Written by Norva Lo)

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