So, is all of this philosophizing about the nature of value just another example of debating the relationships between dancing angels and heads of pins? Or can it have real-world significance?
I want to expand on a response that I wrote to yesterday’s post about the nature of intrinsic value mostly because of its real-world implications. I would argue that the doctrine of intrinsic value, like the doctrine of God-given value, is not only mistaken. It is a pernicious doctrine used to seduce good people into doing bad things.
Intrinsic vs Objective Value
What I am going to be calling ‘intrinsic value’ is what others (confusingly) call ‘objective value’. Typically, when I am asked whether I think that values are objective, I think that the questioner is actually asking me if values are intrinsic.
Do I think that intrinsic values exist? The answer is, “No.”
Do I think that objective values exist? The answer is, “Yes, but they exist as relationships between states of affairs and desires, not as intrinsic properties.”
This post concerns intrinsic values, and I do not want anybody to make the mistake of thinking that I deny objective values.
What Are Intrinsic Values
More specifically, I want to deal with the view that there are properties in the word that are intrinsic to objects (works of art, wine), states of affairs (distribution of income), or actions (stabbing somebody with a knife) that determines their value as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Specifically, intrinsic value theory holds that there are properties where the mere apprehension of them motivates an agent to pursue that object, state, or action (or to prevent that object, state, or action in the case of intrinsic badness).
As I wrote to Richard yesterday, there is something incoherent in saying, “X has an intrinsic property whereby those who apprehend it are motivated to pursue X, I apprehend this property in X, but I am not motivated to pursue it.”
Consequently, people cannot sensibly assign intrinsic value to things they are not motivated to bring about.
However, desires are the only reasons for action (motivational force) that exists.
So, in practice, what we are going to get from the concept of intrinsic value is people applying it to things that they are already desire-motivated to bring about. If they are under no motivation to bring something about, they will find it incomprehensible to assign intrinsic value to that thing.
Intrinsic Value and Personal Preferences
In this sense, “X has intrinsic value” is similar to the statement, “I like X”. It is incomprehensible for a person to say that he likes something that he has absolutely no interest in bringing about, because “I like X” means “I have reasons to bring about X.” However, while ‘like’ statements explicitly tie the motivation to bring something about to the desires of the agent, “X has intrinsic values” deny that there is any such relationship.
In fact, the agent is only assigning intrinsic value to things that he is desire-motivated to bring about. However, by using the term ‘intrinsic value’ he is making a false claim about the nature of that relationship, assigning the motivation to a property in the object, rather than his own desires.
Additional Implications from Intrinsic Value Claims
Now, there is also an important difference between “I like X” and “X has intrinsic value.” In saying, “I like X” I do not imply anything about what others should like. It is as coherent for me to say, “I like X, but my friend Mike does not,” as it is for me to say, “I am over 6’ tall, but my friend Mike is not.”
However, when we attribute intrinsic value to things, we are drawing implications about how others should regard that thing. If I say that something has intrinsic value, then I am saying not only that I am motivated to pursue it, but that all people who appreciate the properties of that thing would be motivated to pursue it. In other words, those who do not feel the motivation to pursue that state of affairs is somehow defective.
Here, the issue gets complicated, because I argue that we can get something very close to this through desire utilitarianism. Desires have the capacity to fulfill or thwart other desires. So, people generally have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires. So, if it is a ‘good thing’ in a desire-utilitarian sense that people value X, then there is reason to condemn those who do not value X. However, desire utilitarianism does not base this on any type of ‘intrinsic proprty’ of X. These reasons to condemn those who do not desire X are, themselves, entirely desire-driven.
The difference between these two accounts is that, under intrinsic value theory, nobody can say that something is morally good unless they are motivated to bring it about. In other words, if an agent feels no particular motivation to repay a debt, then all claims that he is under an obligation to repay a debt fall on deaf ears. “How can you say that I have an obligation to do something when I have no motivation to do it?”
On the other hand, desire utilitarianism holds that repaying has value in virtue of the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to repay debts. It is perfectly coherent for a person to say, “Repaying debts is morally good; however, I feel no motivation to repay debts.” It is not coherent for a person to say, “Repaying debts is intrinsically good; however, I feel no motivation to repay debts.”
Even though the desire utilitarian statement is a coherent statement, there is practically no reason for a person to actually say it. Because to say that repaying debt is morally good is to acknowledge that others have reason to promote a desire to repay debts, in part by using condemnation and punishment against those who do not repay debts. People typically have little reason to invite condemnation and punishment.
The Harm of Intrinsic Value Theories
The dangerous part of intrinsic value theory in that, by linking the value of something to the agent’s motivation to pursue it, intrinsic value theory in practice tells agent to elevate their own desires to god-like status. “It is not my desire for X that motivates me to pursue it; it is X’s intrinsic value. Which means that those who do not value X must be defective. Their ailment must be treated or cured. At the very least, we certainly have reason to look down upon those poor, pathetic, handicapped individuals who are not capable of perceiving the true value of things.”
Effectively, intrinsic value doctrine tells each person to do what they want to do (since there is only ‘intrinsic value’ in that which they are already motivated to do), and to consider the well-being of others only to the degree that they are motivated to do so.
Technically, intrinsic value does not imply these conclusions. After all, it is still coherent to go to the agent and say, “No, you are the poor, pathetic individual who cannot appreciate true value. We, on the other hand, do appreciate value and recognize the intrinsic badness which you are pursuing merely as a matter of personal desire.”
There is no intrinsic value, so there is no way for either of these two agents to prove to the other that they are right and the other is wrong. They are both mistaken.
Yet, the belief in intrinsic value – that somebody gets to honestly claim that they have an appreciation of the true value of things simply by looking at what they are motivated to pursue (what, in practice, is such as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs), invites this kind of conflict.
Intrinsic value theory, like religion, is a set of false beliefs that invite conflict and encourage people to divide the world into ‘us’ who can appreciate the true value of things and ‘them’ who are defective in this regard.