Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Two Senses of Intrinsic Value

I think there are two quite distinct senses of 'intrinsic value'. We might value something for its own sake, rather than as a means to something else. We would then value it "intrinsically". But the value comes from us, the evaluators, and there is no guarantee that the object would still have any value if we didn't value it. So this brings us to the stronger sense of 'intrinsic value', which is when an object has value simply in itself, quite independently of others' attitudes towards it. The mere existence of such 'intrinsically valuable' objects - if there are any - makes the world a better place, and their destruction is a (pro tanto) bad thing.

Now, I'm inclined to think that only sentient beings can have intrinsic value in the strong sense. We are the creators of value, so without us there simply would not be any value in the world. Nothing that happens in a consciousless (I would say 'material', but that's not quite right) universe matters at all, one way or another. Hence my skepticism about intrinsic environmental value.

Nevertheless, I think that we ought to value many things - and perhaps the environment among them - intrinsically, for their own sake. Even though a pristine forest in a far away galaxy doesn't itself make the world a better place, perhaps it's something that we ought to value nonetheless. (And the conjunction of the forest with our appreciation might very well contribute real value to the universe.)

So when Brandon comments: "In a sense, the way we usually phrase the problem really makes intrinsic value a matter of taste, and the question about whether something has intrinsic value is a question of whether having a taste for that thing is an instance of good taste." I think he's captured something quite important. I might even grant that it's good taste to value the existence of distant pristine forests that no-one could ever visit. (I'm not entirely sure about that though.) But this isn't the full story, for it might be appropriate for us to value certain objects, such as truth and beauty, which nevertheless don't have intrinsic value in the strong sense that they would make the world a better place even if there were no conscious beings around to appreciate them.

Another way to see this would be in terms of the state/content distinction. Let's say value is linked to desires in some complex fashion. Sentient beings are the source of all value, for they are the source of 'desire' states. But our desires or evaluations are directed at other worldly objects. If I desire ice-cream, then ice-cream is the content of my desire. The ice-cream might then be valuable in the sense that it is valued, even though it is not itself the source of value, and indeed it would have no value at all if it were not for the fact that I valued it.


  1. I had somehow missed the 'pro tanto' qualification on destruction; with the 'pro tanto' you're right about the destruction point. I'm still not convinced that intrinsic value in the strong sense requires that the thing with positive intrinsic value make the world better; only that, considering itself alone, its existing is a good thing. To get to the world claim, I think you need to assume that intrinsic value is additive.

    Would your distinction be the same as Korsgaard's distinction between 'final value' and 'intrinsic value'?

  2. I'm not familiar with Korsgaard's distinction.

    Could you explain a bit more about how value might not be additive? I would have thought that it must be good for a world to have more of a good thing. Conversely, in what sense is something's existence "good" if it doesn't make the world any better?

  3. "Now, I'm inclined to think that only sentient beings can have intrinsic value in the strong sense. We are the creators of value, so without us there simply would not be any value in the world."

    I'm not sure how that leads to the conclusion that sentient beings are intrinsically valuable in the strong sense. The fact that we value things doesn't - by itself - mean that we are intrinsically valuable.

    Actually, when you wrote your first post on environmental intrinsic value, I would have guessed that it would be your position that nothing is intrinsically valuable (in the strong sense), including sentient beings. I would have expected you to say that we are valuable because we do, indeed, value ourselves. I, of course, have been known to be wrong before, though.

  4. Yeah, I'm not too sure about any of this, but here's my current position: People create value, i.e. (can) make the world better, quite independently of what anyone else thinks of them. (And even, perhaps, independently of whether they value themselves?)

    Though I guess we might question whether a source of value is necessarily itself valuable. If you denied that, then an individual's value would become dependent upon their being valued (whether by themselves or others). That would still leave self-valuers as being intrinsically valuable in the semi-strong sense that their value is not dependent upon anyone else's attitudes.

  5. Seems pretty straightforward.

    What does the stronger definition of Intrinsic Value mean, actually?

    Given that I think that meaning (and thus value) is conferred by consciousness, there appears to be no such thing as string intrinsic value. Thus, there is no problem.

    However, if you believe in some kind of objective truth, then all value is intrinsic.

    The problem seems to be reflective of the possible stances to value and meaning, more than any particular problem trying to pin down what "intrinsic" means.

    What kind of value is meant? Utility to a person? Moral goodness? Value just means the quantification of some quality. I don't think you can have "value as such".

    It seems to me that the problem disappears when you are more careful with language and meaning.


  6. In this context, 'value' of course refers to goodness, or normative worth, not mere numerical quantification. I think we all have a sufficiently clear understanding of this concept. (Sometimes when philosophers suggest we be "more careful with language", they're effectively pretending not to understand something which is really perfectly straightforward.)

    "What does the stronger definition of Intrinsic Value mean, actually?"

    It means that you could improve an empty universe by adding this object to it. It would make for a better world.

    Put another way, the destruction of an intrinsically valuable object is necessarily bad in itself, or pro tanto bad. (Though this may be outweighed by incidental benefits.) So, for example, it is necessarily bad in some sense to kill a self-valuing person (even though there may be incidental benefits from the action which would make it all-things-considered good). Destroying a painting, by contrast, is not necessarily bad in any respect at all. It might be bad in some respect, e.g. if someone happens to value the painting. But it isn't necessarily so. The painting is not valuable in itself.

  7. This is a useful summary of Korsgaard's distinction, at SEP.

    It's not obvious to me that more of a good thing in itself makes the world better (I shouldn't have restricted the discussion to the additivity thesis, since this move also requires a commensurability thesis, see below). It does mean that there are more good things in the world; but I don't see on what plausible principle one could conclude from this that the world itself must be better, simply for having a million and one intrinsically good things rather than a million intrinsically good things. The problem is complicated if we allow that things can have qualitatively different intrinsic values, since for such values to be additive they have to be commensurable (and for the added values to affect the world-value in any straightforward way, the values of worlds have to be commensurable with the values of things in a world).

    Think of a well-written novel. A novel might introduce into the story something that is intrinsically bad, e.g., torment of a good person; but it doesn't follow at all from this that the novel is less good as a novel (or the story less good as a story) because it includes something intrinsically bad. Likewise, just putting a few intrinsically good things in the story doesn't make it a better story. So why would we think the world is a better world because it has more good things in it? We do, in fact, have some reason to think that the goodness of the world isn't straightforwardly related to the goodness of things in the world, because in the former case we also have to consider relations among things and the extrinsic values due to those relations (at the very least). For instance, what if the addition of an intrinsic good tips the population past a critical threshold, and leads to a massive deterioration in the value of the relations between things? Surely that would affect the value of the world, which doesn't just consist of a set of intrinsically valued things. Thus more things of intrinsic value can make the world worse; in such a case, the things themselves would still have intrinsic value, but more of them would not make the world better. Likewise, merely adding a thing of intrinsic value to an empty universe won't make the universe better, unless it makes it better as a universe.

    But I have another worry, namely, that glossing intrinsic value in terms of making the universe better comes perilously near collapsing intrinsic value into extrinsic value; for 'making the universe better' is plausibly construed as an extrinsic value, since it depends on a relational property (the part-whole relation between the thing and the universe of which it is a part).

  8. If you accept (and I'm happy to) "without us (Ie some conciousness) there simply would not be any value in the world" then surely "the stronger sense of 'intrinsic value', which is when an object has value simply in itself, quite independently of others' (Ie some conciousness') attitudes towards it" describes nothing.
    What would "valuable even if there's no-one to value it" mean? Isn't it a little like the catchphrase of one of my old mates "handy even if you never use it"?
    Abandoning "strong intrinsic value" might seem a big blow to atheistic morality. But to see clearly that any such morality is grounded in specifically human values is actually a bonus.

  9. "It means that you could improve an empty universe by adding this object to it. It would make for a better world."

    Clearly this would depend on your position as to whether morality is absolute or relative. As I believe it's relative, I clearly believe the proposition to be false.

    Similarly, if one believes in an absolute morality, then intrinsic value is only assessed with regards to that absolute morality. Nothing is self-good.

    As to the distinction between "an end in itself" and "of absolute value", I'm not sure that's a real distinction. After all, nothing can be of value "in itself" when all things are in fact valued according to an absolute moral standard.

    Perhaps the only thing then, to have value "in itself", is the moral standard!


  10. Perhaps you can enlighten me.

    As I understand things, value is a relationship, not a reification. Something has a value to somebody. Or somebody values something.

    When we something has value, we often leave out who values it. As I see it, we either are (a) assuming the listener understands who the valuer is or (b) reifying value.

    I've called that latter problem "incomplete sentences", for lack of a technical term. (Please enlighten me!)

    So shouldn't this discussion just boil down to who values what or whether reifications can be justified?

  11. The desire to project meaning is the reflex that (always)checks for what's missing. Hopes are concepts causing minds to run crazy with bad cases of desireaha. If we thought less of intrinsic could it become more instinctual?


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.