Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Test for Intrinsic Value

A recent email exchange with a fellow graduate student has caused me to look at the idea of "intrinsic value".

This graduate student presented an argument concerning G.E. Moore's test for intrinsic value. In response to this, I asked the question "what kind of intrinsic value are you testing for?"

There are two types of intrinsic value that one can be concerned with.

Type 1 intrinsic value is best described as what J.L. Mackie called "objective, intrinsic prescriptivity". It is a power, within certain states of affairs, that inherently calls people to realize that which has this value.

The problem with any test for this type of value is that it does not exist. Testing for intrinsic value of this type is like testing for angels or ghosts. Whatever it is one is testing for, it is not "objective intrinsic prescriptivity". Instead, one has, at best, found something real that one then misdiagnosis as "objective intrinsic prescriptivity".

Type 2 intrinsic value comes from Aristotle and is best understood in relationship to "instrumental value". One wants money so that one can buy some water. One wants water because one wants to quench one's thirst. And why does one want to quench one's thirst? Well, it is the nature of being thirsty that it motivates the agent to realize a state where this condition no longer exists - it motivates the agent to get something to drink. Why quench one's thirst? There is no answer to this question. "I am thirsty and that is all there is to it."

We may understand this type of intrinsic value as the ends of intentional action. The previous acts - the buying the bottle of water and even drinking from the bottle of water are both means to an end. The end is to quench one's thirst - to bring about a state in which "I am thirsty" is no longer true.

This type of intrinsic value exists. However, there is no good reason to divorce this state from the mental states of the actor.

G.E. Moore rejects the idea that we value only those things that give us pleasant experiences (and dislike unpleasant experiences). When Henry Sidgwick said that nothing beautiful can have value independent of somebody's contemplation of it, Moore objected that this was not true.

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire—mountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. Such a pair of worlds we are entitled to compare: they fall within Prof. Sidgwick’s meaning, and the comparison is highly relevant to it. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.

Now, we are often faced with a false dilemma, and I think Moore presents his case in this way. We have two options. Either the existence of this beautiful planet has objective, intrinsic prescriptivity, or the existence of the planet without anybody to contemplate its beauty has no value whatsoever.

There is a third option.

An agent can desire that a beautiful world exists. This desire would be quite distinct from the desire that a beautiful world exist and that there is some person who can enjoy the contemplation of it. The person with a desire that a beautiful world exists quite simply has nothing more than an internal disposition to realize a state of affairs where "a beautiful world exists" is true. This proposition can be true without it also being the case that there is a person around to contemplate it. Consequently, this desire can motivate an agent to choose to realize such a state. It is not at all irrational for such an agent to hold that it is better that such a world exists - that they would choose the realization of such a state - over the available competitor.

However, these desires that provide for the ends of intentional action need not be the same for each and every individual. In fact, they are not. Even when it comes to the aversion to pain, each person seems to have a stronger aversion to "my own pain" than for anybody else's pain. "Relieving my pain" for agent A is not the same interest as "relieving my pain" for agent B. So, here we have an example of two different agents having two different ends for their intentional actions.

Consequently, if we are looking for a test for intrinsic value, we are looking for one of two things.

Option 1, we are looking for a test for objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. Any test of this type will fail since it is testing for something that does not exist.

Option 2, a test for the ends of intentional action. However, there is no reason to believe that every agent seeks the same ends. In fact, we have reason to believe that different agents seek different ends, as each person has a specific interest in avoiding a state in which they are in pain. Here, our tests will not necessarily - or even probably - discover something that is common across all individuals.

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