Are There Intrinsic Goods?
August 24, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Ethics, G. E. M. Anscombe, G. E. Moore, Moral Philosophy, R. M. Hare, Stuart Mirsky

ONE WAY OF dividing up the different principles by which we acknowledge or ascribe goodness or badness to things (whether objects, actions, goals, states of affairs, etc.) is to suppose that there are some things that are good because they help us achieve other things, some of which must be just good in themselves. The first sort of goodness, the one dependent on the effectiveness of the object of reference (whether physical objects or other type) to perform some function for us or bring something about, is often classified as "extrinsic," as in being outside the object itself. That is, we would not care to obtain or achieve or use such objects if they did not serve our purpose in achieving something else. Some of those things which fit into the class of "something else" are then taken to have so-called "intrinsic" goodness, i.e., to be good no matter what purpose we mean to put them to because we desire their possession just for what they are.

Thus, philosophers have often divided the world of possible goods between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. The notion of extrinsic, or instrumental, goodness is easy enough to understand and largely uncontroversial. We have no reason to doubt the goodness of a thing which serves to get us whatever it is we want, that is to say, we have no reason to doubt its goodness for that purpose. And no one seems disposed to claim that there is no such thing as this kind of goodness (to the extent they are prepared to acknowledge that there is goodness at all). The problem arises when we turn to the moral case, however, for here what we want to call "morally good" produces a special class of things (actions, generally) which, if they are called good just because they are thought to be instrumentally so, do not seem to fit that case.

That is, while there are any number of moral claims we can make, far and away the most important are those which are motivated by concern for another's interest and not strictly for our own. Giving charity, avoidance of doing harm to another, reaching out to support others in moments of pain, respecting their persons, avoiding lying to, stealing from or otherwise injuring them, etc., all typically fall under the moral case. And yet, if we do any of these sorts of things because we wish to obtain some benefit for ourselves, we would not grant that they were motivated in a moral way.

To the extent that we undertake a so-called moral act only to bring about some other good that we want or need for ourselves, that act appears self-interested – and self-interest abrogates the moral basis since, in any case in which self-interest is the predominant basis for acting, a different action, which lacks moral standing according to ordinary moral usage, may be justified or more justified. And so the fact that a presumptively morally good act may be justified by self-interest undermines that very justification for, if some things were different, the same justification would support our acting in what we take to be an immoral way. Such an underlying principle fails to support a large class of what we normally take to be moral claims because it supports claims that seem, on their face, to be distinctly non-moral.

Instrumental, or so-called extrinsic, goodness seems thus to fail to support a moral account. Moreover, the very idea of instrumental goodness cannot be sustained without a notion of some object of reference that it is aimed at but which is not, itself, instrumentally valued, i.e., at some point we must reach bottom or be caught in an infinite regress. Instrumental claims of goodness seem to demand that there be some claims about what is good that are not, themselves, instrumental. Most especially in the moral case, because of its apparent requirement for something beyond the self-serving and, hence, the instrumental, there is often a strong feeling in the valuer that some things must be good in themselves, i.e., that their goodness is "intrinsic" to them in a way that goodness is not, say, intrinsic to a hammer. * * * *

For a carpenter, or one playing at carpentry, a hammer is valued for its feel (how easily it may be handled) and for how effective it is in driving home a nail. Other factors also come into this, of course: Does it stand up to the job over the long term (hold its surface area instead of chipping or denting) and keep its head on firmly over multiple uses? All of the features that make a hammer good can be explained as doing so because they make the hammer an effective instrument for its user. But what then, in the case of the hammer, is the intrinsic good that the hammer enables its user to achieve and which, by so enabling it, derives its goodness? The bench being built is not, itself, intrinsically good either, since it has a purpose of its own and is only good to the extent that it meets that purpose, i.e., that the carpenter, wielding his or her hammer, gives it the right height, sturdiness and stability. Perhaps the intrinsic goodness is in enabling the carpenter to do what he or she wants or believes is necessary then? So are we bound to say that enabling the carpenter to do carpentry is the intrinsic good which grants instrumental or extrinsic goodness to bench and hammer?

It depends on whether doing carpentry, itself, is intrinsically good and the goodness of such a vocation depends on what one wants to do, namely to be a carpenter or do some work suited to carpenters. But choosing to do carpentry, either for one's vocation or for some particular purpose, isn't something that seems intrinsically good. Perhaps it’s just being able to do what one wants when one wants to? How about just enabling us to do carpentry when we want to, or whatever else we take it in mind to do? Is that the intrinsic goodness which supports the hammer’s extrinsic variety? But enabling people to do whatever they want may not be such a good idea either since there are certainly going to be times when it would be better not to be able to just do whatever one wants, even not to be a carpenter! Suppose our aspiring carpenter really has no skill for that and cannot hope to do good work, no matter how good a hammer he or she lays hands on. Or suppose it will be insufficiently lucrative for the financial needs of the aspirant. Suppose, too, that being a carpenter, or doing the work of one, only serves to distract the aspirant to carpentry from something more important he or she ought to be doing, or perhaps enables someone to build things which are harmful to others and thus actually bad? And, even supposing we can make a case for the intrinsic goodness of doing just whatever it is one wants to do (hence the goodness of a career in carpentry and of choosing the right tools for that career), can doing whatever it is we really want to do (in this case being a carpenter but, in fact, any other sort of thing we may want to be) serve to underwrite the kinds of claims we make as part of our moral discourse?

If moral discourse is about what are the right and wrong things to do, and doing them, and instrumental claims about goodness cannot provide a basis for some or all of the core claims we want to make in moral discourse, then we must look for something more, for what’s good in a moral sense. And here it happens that some, who have looked in this direction, have concluded that, since extrinsic goodness cannot support an important class of moral judgments, as we seem to have them (and perhaps none at all in some scenarios), there must be something intrinsic in some things (acts and goals) we wish to morally evaluate which we can know as good in themselves, i.e., without recourse to a calculus that enables us to measure goodness as a derivation of effectiveness. So we get claims that some things we can do or not do are just good or bad in themselves! Murder, for instance, is said by some of this mind to be among those things that are intrinsically bad (others include things like lying, stealing, betraying, abusing, etc.) while other things, like love, beauty and justice, are thought to be among those we take to be intrinsically good. These things (states of affairs or conditions) are then supposed to form the basis of our various moral claims. That is, we are presented with the idea that we know the morally good and bad by virtue of their nature – and the behaviors we want to praise or condemn in a moral way are thought to be derivable from their relation to (capacity to bring about and sustain, or avoid or suppress) such intrinsic goods and bads.

G.E.M. Anscombe has suggested, for instance, that some things, like murder or abortion, are simply "disgraceful," hence morally bad under any conceivable circumstance. How do we know? Well any human being who thinks about the matter deeply enough will see it. The moral choices we make will thus have to do with minimizing or eliminating such states of affairs, i.e., with bringing about and maximizing those states thought to be "intrinsically good" or minimizing or suppressing those thought “intrinsically bad.”

Can this make sense? If murder is intrinsically bad then it must always be so and if things like love and beauty and justice are intrinsically good then they, too, must always be that. But there are certainly cases where these ascriptions will not always be the case. * * * *

A recent movie with Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher (based on a book published in 2005), which dealt with a rogue mercenary played by Cruise enlisted to help solve an apparent series of random shootings, exemplifies such a case. In the course of his investigation Cruise's character, Reacher, discovers that the supposedly random shootings he is looking into were just an elaborate ruse to kill one particular person in furtherance of a nefarious scheme and that the individual behind it is a ruthless criminal who has turned to capitalism to build his secret empire.

When finally confronted, after a host of justified killings by Reacher of those trying to kill him, the master criminal surrenders peacefully (wheelchair bound he could hardly do otherwise) and calmly proceeds to inform Reacher that his arrest is irrelevant since he has the money and influence to effect his acquittal, should the matter even come to court, and that, as a crippled old man, he will seem more cvictim than victimizer to the jury. And then, he says with wry amusement, he will have his revenge on Reacher and the lady defense attorney who retained him both and continue his ruthless career despite the temporary hiatus Reacher's interference has caused him. Reacher's girlfriend, the court-appointed defense attorney for the innocent man who had initially been accused of the series of killings which the arch-criminal had orchestrated, has by this time phoned for the police. As Reacher and his lady friend wait, the culprit calmly tells them his back story so they will understand why it is he who shall have the last laugh.

No one is likely to convict such a sick old man and all the witnesses are dead anyway, thanks to Reacher's efforts to uncover the truth. As the old man chuckles about how everything Reacher and his girlfriend have done will be for nothing, Reacher abruptly turns and shoots him in the head – to his girlfriend's instant horror. But, as she considers the situation, she loses her sense of shock and tacitly becomes complicit in Reacher's murder of their defenseless prisoner.

So have we got a case here of police brutality by proxy or something else? Certainly, from a legal perspective, Reacher's action is wrong, as is the defense attorney's complicity in it. Murder is murder after all in the eyes of the law. But we know, just as the characters left alive in the story know, that this time murder was necessary, that, as the old man had crowed, no one would ever know the full facts beyond a reasonable doubt in the court system which is what would have been required to effect his punishment and permanent remove him from society. And so we conclude, with Reacher and his friend, that the murder was justified. Not legally justified to be sure, but morally justified. But if that can be the case, and there are any number of similar scenarios we can conjure up like this one, then this murder cannot have been "intrinsically" bad even if it was lawfully wrong.

Similar stories can be constructed re: claims of intrinsic goodness for things like love and beauty and justice. If two adulterous lovers act in ways that hurt their respective spouses, is their love good? Perhaps it's good in that it makes both of them happier than they would otherwise be, but the moral dimension, at least within our own culture, seems to oblige us to reject such a love as morally wrong. If Les Miserables' Jean Valjean is pursued until he is brought to justice for having stolen a loaf of bread while starving and in order to feed others who were starving, was the justice finally meted out morally good?

Better to speak about such things on a case by case basis. But then the idea of murder or justice, etc., in the abstract (extracted from all concrete instances) doesn't provide us the necessary moral guidance. If we think that murder is intrinsically bad but it can still be shown that sometimes it's morally right to commit it, then that makes the murder the morally right choice, whatever its status in the abstract. The only intrinsicness to be found lies in what attaches to the concept in general terms, i.e., those beliefs and feelings we hold concerning it, all other things being equal, beliefs and feelings which are subject to how we have been brought up, educated, indoctrinated via shared cultural practices and belief systems.

In some societies what we may call "murder" (and so think intrinsically bad) may not count as murder at all, in fact. So, to the extent there is intrinsicness here, it is put there in the definition of the term by the persons and groups of persons who use the term in this way. Does that kind of intrinsicness help to define what we take to be morally good when it's time to act? * * * *

The moral case clearly reaches beyond those particular associations we make re: particular concepts we use in our lives and discourse. It wants a basis that is not dependent on the contingencies of this or that culture and set of customs. But the notion of intrinsicness doesn't offer the way out of this that it seems to promise. Indeed, if what is intrinsic is only what attaches to a concept in its general form, then there is no thing which the concept picks out that, itself, has something good about it that we can think of as "intrinsic."

To understand this more fully, I think we have to examine what "good" means in contexts like this. While Hume proposed that asserting the goodness or badness of a thing was just to express our sentiments (though some sentiments, he allowed, may have more force than others and so demand more allegiance from us) and while G. E. Moore proposed that what is good must be understood to be some “non-natural quality” in some things whose presence we intuit upon encountering it (things of beauty, the life of the mind, friendship, etc.), others have suggested that the term "good" merely serves to denote our preferences or the preferences of the community with which we affiliate. Still others have proposed that the term "good" has no cognitive content at all, that it does not denote anything, contra its appearance, but only serves to express our feelings about some things (the emotivism of the logical positivists) or that its content presents a special case because it serves a commendatory or prescriptive linguistic function (R. M. Hare's prescriptivism).

Explaining the moral case, and understanding its apparent dependence on this notion of intrinsicness, requires a prior account of what "good," itself, denotes, connotes or otherwise serves to do for us in the language game. If "good" names a thing that occurs, either as an object itself or as a feature of an object in the world, then it seems to make sense to look for the one thing or things that have this "intrinsic” form of goodness, that which occurs bound up with the things said to have it in the world. But if “good” doesn't name anything discoverable in the phenomenal world, whether state of affairs, physical phenomenon, etc., then there seems little point in looking to intrinsicness as a feature of a concept only known in the abstract. * * * *

Here I think the suggestion I have previously made about the meaning of a term like "good" offers a way out. I've proposed that to speak of anything as "good" is just to say of it that it provides us a reason to choose it when the circumstances are right for doing so. This look looks somewhat like a rehash of Hare's prescriptivist account in which he proposed that, rather than denoting something in the world, "good" serves to prompt others to action. If I say "X is good," on Hare’s view, all I really mean is that "I approve of X and you should do so, as well, all other things being equal – and that you should act in accordance with that when circumstances warrant such action." (The latter “should” claim reflects the underlying action principle which supports prescriptive.)

Hare gets to the moral case by uniting his supposed commendatory/prescriptive usage (X is good just means you should choose X in the case at hand, or when presented with an appropriate opportunity) with other premises, where the prescriptive statement, “Do X,” serves as a conclusion in a syllogism that includes a factual premise, about how things are, and a principle premise about how we should act when things are a certain way (in this case the way the factual premise asserts). That is, the prescriptive "X is good," meaning "I approve X and you should, too" is warranted as a conclusion, Hare thinks, when the principle in question calls for act X and the facts are such that the principle is activated. The view I've sketched isn't like that.

When I propose that "X is good" just means "there is something about X which is also a reason to choose it" I am not suggesting that "good" fails to denote anything in the moral case as Hare does. Nor am I saying that calling something good means others ought to do it, for the ought element only kicks in when the need or want of the other we are addressing is triggered by the facts of the situation.

Contra Hare, no one is obliged, in this formulation, to act based on a universalizing principle invoked by a speaker. The assertion that X is choosable, based on certain facts about it, is entirely disconnected from the occurrence of those particular facts. The proposal I’ve offered says only that what we mean by the term "good," in cases in which we use that term to perform a valuational function, is just to say that whatever is said to have goodness has it because there is, about it, some features or characteristics that are also reasons to go after, choose, obtain or perform it, etc., etc.. The particular features in question will depend on the nature of the object referred to, of course, and their desirability will depend on the exigencies of the particular situation (including the facts that may obtain and which may thus affect the totality of the valuer's valuational judgments).

My claim is only this: That all valuing usages of “good” are about (and so denote) the condition in which some object stands in relation to some valuer (i.e., to a speaker using the value term in question). Thus, to say "X is good" is really no more than to specify its relation to the valuer and/or to those the valuer is speaking to as fellow valuers. An ascription of "good" in every case depends, then, not on the good-making feature itself, which may vary with the contingencies of the world, but on the effect of the feature in question on the valuer(s). * * * * If this is an adequate account of "good" (and its cognates), then the whole idea of "intrinsic goodness" can be seen to be both unnecessary and implausible because any given feature may affect different valuers in different ways, leading to different ideas about the goodness of the object in question, i.e., to different decisions about the ascription of goodness. And, of course, different objects (whether physical phenomena, states of affairs, goals or actions) will have different kinds of features, leading to differences in how they affect different valuers.

Just as one speaker may prefer chocolate ice cream and another strawberry, so a speaker may prefer being in a state he or she calls "happiness" which they understand to be the condition of always being pleased with what they have, or are experiencing, while another may favor a state or condition that looks quite different, perhaps a life of effort and struggle vigorously pursued (without regard to the number or status of one’s possessions). Still another might choose a life of introspection (which may seem quite dull to another from the outside looking in). What one person considers a happy state may leave another feeling quite indifferent about it – or worse.

We may want to say of any or all of these choices that that's what makes the speaker happy so surely it all boils down to happiness in any case, does it not? But now the term "happiness" has become so broad as to be devoid of any necessary content except, perhaps, that the person having it doesn’t object to having it when they do but, in fact, positively seeks it when given the opportunity to do so. Yet that has the look of a tautology since to say someone does that is just to say that they value whatever it is that they are positively seeking – another way of saying that they value what they value. * * * *

If one can say, as I have suggested, that terms like "good" do their work not by picking out some thing in the observed world but, rather, by specifying a relation in which any object stands to any speaker, then something is definitely being denoted, just as our usage of "good" as a nominative suggests, in this case the condition of the object in question. So the use of “good” can no longer be seen as just another way of commending or urging others to do this or that. What's denoted is not any particular physical thing, or complex of things, of course -- the sort of “thing” that may be supposed to have some sort of intrinsic valuation attached, in some inexplicable fashion, to its physical nature or just to the idea of it -- but, rather, a type of relation between an object and a subject. That is, the goodness in the object resides not in the object but in the condition in which it stands to an observing subject and the term "good" specifies that relation.

And then it seems pointless to look for "intrinsic goodness" somewhere in or attached to it, for what is in it, as an attribute or feature of it, is merely neutral, absent a valuer – while what's "good" about it is just that it happens to stand in relation to the valuer as something that’s rational for the valuer to seek.

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