Monday, June 05, 2006

Means, Ends, Survival, and Reason

There is a view, popular among some atheists in particular, that says that reason is the root of all of morality, and reason says to value survival above all else.


Well, you can't do very much if you're dead. You also can't value any much if you're dead. Your ability to realize things that you value -- even your ability to value -- depends on survival. Therefore, survival is the most important good.

The fact is, this view is nonsense. It reaches its conclusion by blurring the distinction between means and ends, and argues (for all practical purpose):

(1) survival has value as a means

(2) survival should be the ultimate ends

This distinction between means and ends, and the relationship between both and reason, is important in a number of areas. It's useful to understand it. This is also, in some circles, described as the distinction between "instrumental" and "intrinsic" value, but this way of presenting the distinction contains a false assumption or is, at best, confusing.

'Instrumental value' or 'value as a means' does represent the value that something has as a tool. This laptop has instrumental value, or value as a means. It is a useful tool for creating these postings while I ride the bus (another useful tool) to work. At the end of the day, I can easily copy and paste my file into my blog (which is another tool -- its usefulness being open to debate).

However, following Aristotle, instrumental value borrows this quality from the value of the "ends" that the instrument helps to realize. The value of this laptop is determined precisely by the value of the ends that this laptop is useful in realizing. If there are no ends that have value, then tools such as this laptop could have no value as means.

The real question is: What are 'ends' and what is the nature of their value?

The argument above for the value of survival all point out the usefulness of survival as a means. This much is true; survival is a very valuable tool. If I do not survive until the end of the day, then I cannot post this article. One of these days I want to go back to college and actually complete that PhD I started long ago. I just got this new DVD about the space program that I want to watch. Somewhere around the year 2012, I hope to take a long vacation in Alaska to watch the northern lights. All of these things require survival.

Furthermore, reason has a great deal to say about matching means to end. If a person wants a bicycle, and has a bundle of bicycle parts laying on his garage floor, reason dictates that there are only a limited number of paths that one can take to go from bundle of bicycle parts to a functioning (defined as 'ends-fulfilling') bicycle. People who ignore the dictates of reason are bound to be frustrated. (Note: This is a claim about the instrumental value of reason itself, and says nothing at all about the value of reason as an end.)

However, it is entirely invalid to argue, "X has survival as a means; therefore, reason dictates that we value X as an end." All of the evidence that one can muster showing the value of X as a tool will never allow one to make any inferences about X as something other than a tool -- its value as an end.

As I said above, the value of survival as a tool depends on whether it is actually useful in realizing one's ends. As soon as survival looses its value as a tool -- as soon as one's ends are those that survival cannot help realize -- then survival is no longer good. So, if one's end is 'freedom from pain,' and one is in lots of pain, and survival does nothing but force one to endure a pain that one has an interest in avoiding, then survival (for that person) loses its value, and may acquire negative value.

The same is true of the person who has a particular end of keeping his children healthy and safe, who is faced with a situation where their children are threatened. To the degree that a person values this 'end', and to the degree that survival ceases to be a useful means to that end, to that degree one has reason to risk their life for the benefit of their children.

So, people risk their lives for the benefit of others. We go to war against those who would harm our children because our survival has less value to us than the welfare of our children, and the welfare of our children is better protected by doing battle against those who would enslave or kill them.

Where do these ends come from? What give these 'ends' value?

Evolution and the forces of nature have caused us to have certain ends. Evolution has shaped our desires for food and drink -- causing us to want to eat and drink those things that, when eaten and drank, kept our biological ancestors alive long enough to procreate. Note that evolution fit our desires to our ancestors' environments, it does not fit them to our own environment. Our ancestors lived through long periods of food scarcity where there was no such thing as "eating too much." We have changed our environment into one of food abundance. In this environment, the desires of our ancestors regarding what and how much to eat may not serve us very well.

We have a desire to have sex. Please note that we do not have a desire to procreate; or, at least, there is no particular reason to believe that such a desire is particularly strong. Evolution has given us a desire for sex, and simply made procreation a frequent byproduct of getting what we desire.

We tend to have a desire to care for our young. There is reason to believe that evolution has favored this disposition.

However, our ends are malleable, to some extent. We learn desires, just as we learn beliefs, as a result of our interaction with our environment. A person raised in one environment will acquire different desires than a person raised in a different environment -- this much is certain. The desires we learn are still 'ends'. The fact that one set of desires comes from biological sources and others come from learning does not imply that they are two different things -- any more than a diamond made in the earth and a diamond made in the laboratory are both still diamonds.

This account of ends tells us something very important about ends.

There is no such thing as a pure 'end'. Every desire that we have identifies particular ends. However, every desire that we have is also a means -- a tool -- useful in the fulfillment of other ends. Reason, which matches means to ends, does not give us any help when it comes to the value of ends. The value of ends simply exists. However, reason, with its capacity to match means to ends, can tell us about the value of desires, not as ends, but as means.

To determine the value of survival as a means, we look at what survival is useful for -- what survival will bring about, and determine the value of those ends.

To determine the value of survival as an end, we must look at the value that the desire for survival has as a means. We need to look at what the desire for survival is useful for -- what the desire for survival will bring about, and determine the value of those (secondary/further) ends.

The value of X as an end, and the instrumental value of the desire for X, are the same thing. We answer one question by answering the other.

These are two different conclusions drawn from two different sets of evidence.

The argument that I criticized above makes the mistake of looking at the evidence for the value of survival as a means, and drawing a conclusion about the value of survival as an end, without respecting the fact that these are two different arguments.

Nothing in nature has intrinsic value. Reason allows us to determine the value of things. However, it only allows us to fit means to ends -- to pick the best tool for the job. Survival is a useful tool, but it is still just a tool. Its value as a tool depends on the value of what it brings about. If the desire for survival has value, this value needs to be established on its own merits.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for replying so late, but the argument should not appear as:

(1) survival has value as a means

(2) survival should be the ultimate ends

It should rather be:

(1) There is no subjective value for an individual without survival

(2) Achievement of any goal has subjective value for an individual

(3) Achievement of goals without survival has no value for an individual

One could argue that it has - as you pointed out, one could value achieving a certain goal as more important than one's survival, but once he is gone, that goal has no value to him - it has suddenly become non-existant together with every other goal and value that person might have had.

I hold that, for a single person, there is no goal which is worth as much as or more than all the other goals that person has.

I have arguments to support this position. They might or might not be valid, but if you are interested in debating them we can cantinue in these comments or e-mail me at

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ivan Fischer

Your (1) is merely a statement that value as a means. The claim that there is no "subjective value" without simply states that only living things have desires. If a being ceases to live then its desires cease to exist. Survival has value as a means for the existence of a particular set of desires, but from where does the value of the existence of those desires come from?

Your statement, "Achievement of anyg oal has subjective value for an individual" is translated into desire utilitarianism as, "each person is motivated towards the fulfillment of his own desires." This is true. I have no problem with it.

However, "Achievement of goals without surival has no value for an individual" is simply false. The "achievement of a goal" is merely making true a proposition that is the object of a desire. One's own survival has value only to the extent that the proposition cannot be true unless the agent survives. However, the truth of a great many propositions can be made compatible with the death of an agent, so there are a great many things that can have value for a person independent of his own survival.

We see evidence of this every day, where people perform actions that threaten their survival. This only makes sense if there are things that a person values that do not require survival, and they are willing risk death to obtain this object of value.

Sure, it is the case that "once he is gone, the goal has no value to him" (or, "dead people have no desires.") However, this does not change the fact that the goal has value to him while he is alive, and the goal need not be compatible with his survival. You are assuming that "continues to have value to me" has value, without giving an account of where its value comes from.

I would be interested in a debate. However, I do not have much time to write as it is, and do not know of my ability to carve out some time. However, I would not mind meeting you in a public forum someplace to have a discussion. That way, I can incorporate that discussion into my other writing and save myself a bit of time elsewhere.

nsfl said...

I find this topic very germane to a recent discussion I had with theists in discussing the foundational premise of our morality. What do we say is "good" for all, at all times, if not survival? Where can we begin? Desires? Happiness? Much more subjective and difficult to arbitrate between competitive values in quality and quantity than survival.

I would love to read more of what you have to say on this topic.