Sunday, August 23, 2009

Acquired (Non-instrumental) Value

In 'The Mark of the Instrumental', I argued that things (e.g. relationships) could have contingent non-instrumental value. This is because 'merely instrumental' values must be fungible, whereas contingent values need not be. In this post, I want to show that even if one accepted Keller's premise (ii) -- that we don't have any reason to create new relationships (e.g. between happy hermits) that would have no further beneficial consequences -- it still doesn't follow that relationships have merely instrumental value.

As it happens, I think (ii) is false: it seems better for people to experience meaningful human connections in their lives, even if the instrumental benefits thereby obtained could just as well have been gotten from (say) robots.

But even if you believed (ii), instrumentality still wouldn't necessarily follow. For it may be that even if relationships don't essentially add to the value of the world (independently of their good consequences), their loss (and replacement by an instrumentally equivalent substitute) would nonetheless be undesirable or detract from the value of the world. In this case they would have a kind of intrinsic value (being non-fungible and all), despite lacking what we might call contributory value.

To get a better sense of how this might work, consider the claim that Achieving X, where X is among one's life projects, is intrinsically valuable. Given that philosophy is among my life projects, it would seem odd to say that I should want to philosophize as a means to achievement. Rather, doing philosophy well would constitute achievement for me. And even if prior to fixing on this goal I might just as well have chosen any number of others, it remains true that I now have reason to care about philosophy for its own sake, and to be unwilling to substitute in some completely new project in its place. (Cf. inducing desire satisfactions.)

Now it seems open to one to say much the same thing about the value of relationships. Prior to having this kind of good life -- one involving meaningful human connections -- one might just as well have chosen a very different kind of life that would contain just as much happiness, achievement, etc. But it doesn't follow that relationships are merely instrumental to happiness, achievement, etc. They may instead instantiate or comprise the other goods, in non-fungible fashion, without adding to them.

Sound plausible?

Update: For a more clear-cut example, note that many philosophers (e.g. average utilitarians, and various non-utilitarians) hold that we may have no reason to bring additional people into existence, but it would be odd to conclude from this that people have merely instrumental value! Deontologists, especially, may simply hold that intrinsic value calls for being 'respected' rather than 'promoted'.

[For more on acquired value, see my post on Cohen-conservatism.]


  1. Richard,

    Do you think the value of relationships are fungible in the sense that you do not have any reason to prefer the preservation of your ACTUAL relationship to a rewinding and replaying of history on which you have a different, but equally happiness engendering relationship?

    Sometimes I think utilitarians DO think that people are merely instrumentally valuable, precisely because vis-a-vis utilitarianism there is no reason not to prefer that the world be rewound and replayed in such a way as to bring about different, but otherwise similar people.

    It is as if what you call 'contingent non-instrumental value' is actually more like de facto non-fungible value: value that is non-fungible, but for entirely extrinsic reasons, namely in this case the fixity of the past. That would seem instrumental to me.

  2. Hi Jack, I'm not sure what I think of your rewind-and-replay case. If I imagine such a different-but-similar possible world, I certainly find that I'm glad to be in this one, and I'm happy enough to endorse my biased preference, regardless of whether it's really rationally supported (let alone mandated). But from a god's eye view the two possibilities would (ex hypothesi) be on a par. So there's a question whether the demands of reason stem from such an impartial standpoint, or whether they may be more responsive to our contingent commitments (to such a degree that we're actually rationally warranted in disprefering some impartially better states of affairs).

    However, this question of im/partiality seems largely independent from questions of non/instrumental value.

    N.B. Although I've been stressing that instrumental values must be fungible (so that any kind of non-fungibility straightforwardly implies a corresponding kind of non-instrumentality), it is less clear that the converse holds. It may be that some fungible values are also non-instrumental.

    Another possibility is to say that there is a reason to prefer the actual state of affairs -- a reason given by the intrinsic value of the actual people who would no longer exist in the other case -- but that this is balanced or outweighed by countervailing reasons to prefer the world where other intrinsically valuable people existed in their place.

    What this brings out is that there's an important difference between the substitutability of mere instruments and the equal weighting of intrinsic goods. In the former case, the swap makes no difference. In the latter, there is a normatively relevant difference (Bob no longer exists!), it is just that the result is equally desirable. There are distinct reasons offered up by the competing intrinsic values; it merely happens that they are in balance. I expect that any plausible view of value will need to accommodate this possibility.

    Indeed, as noted in the linked post, I think even Cohen would accept something like equal desirability in impartial rewind-and-replay cases. Consider a random child born in the last minute. Now entertain the alternative scenario whereby a different-but-similar child was born in their place. Surely that alternative state of affairs is just as desirable as the actual one? And surely that doesn't commit us to thinking that the children in question are of merely instrumental value?

    P.S. I take it you're not objecting to the possibility of 'contingent non-instrumental value' in general, but just to the utilitarian's interpretation of it. For, as mentioned at the end of my post, it may be non-utilitarians who should be most familiar with this possibility. And even if we were merely to conclude that relationships are of "instrumental" value in the same sense that people are, that's probably good enough for the purposes of my dispute with Keller. After all, that's clearly very different from the sense in which (say) hammers are of merely instrumental value! [Compare my first and third distinctions in goodness.]

  3. Say just a bit more, if you would, about the difference you are trying to get at between "the substitutability of mere instruments and the equal weighting of intrinsic goods."

    What would be an example of a case where the swap *makes no difference*?

    I presume a hammer would be such a case. But to the extent that I am with you that there is *a* reason, countervailed though it is, to prefer the actual world to a rewound-and-replayed world, I am equally moved by the following bit of reasoning--

    I am building a fence. Hence, I have *a* reason, countervailed though it is, to prefer that God not annihilate my hammer, EVEN IF God will immediately replace that hammer with another equally useful hammer. After all, there is a normatively relevant difference: the ever so useful, and for that reason instrumentally valuable hammer no longer exists!


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