On Intrinsic Value

Posted in Common Sense Atheism, Ethics, Morality, Philosophy on  | 5 minutes | 7 Comments →

As opposed to his usual complaining that he “doesn’t have time” or falsely accusing me of “not listening” to his arguments, Luke Muehlhauser actually had some salient things to say about my response to his article, In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism. I will respond to Luke here, and use those responses to articulate my broader position on the concept of intrinsic value, and how it relates to our ongoing discussions of morality.

Here are Luke’s definitions for value and intrinsic value, respectively:

[The term] value as a noun refers to a relation between desires and states of affairs.

Intrinsic value usually refers to value that a thing has in itself – that is, it would have value even if no beings valued it. It would have value if it was all alone by itself in some universe.
-Luke Muehlhauser, In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism, comment October 16, 2010

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines intrinsic value thus:

The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value that that thing has “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” [Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value]

If that is what intrinsic value necessarily means, then I don’t believe that intrinsic value exists. In fact, I don’t believe that anything can have value “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” This is because the act of valuing requires a valuer. Along the lines of Luke’s definition, imagine a universe with no sentient beings, and a planet full of rocks. Would it be absurd to claim that these rocks have value? I think it would.

In the interest of maximizing clarity, I don’t think philosophers should use the term value as a noun anymore, except to refer to a particular belief or set of beliefs held by an agent [e.g., “Bob and Susie have traditional values”].

In my response to Luke’s article, I suggested that he use value as a verb. Luke wrote statements such as, “A cup of coffee has value when I desire it,” and I argued that this language was potentially misleading because it implies that some “thing” or “entity” called value actually exists, if and when an agent desires it.

Although such language is sufficient to communicate a point in everyday conversation, I believe it is insufficient for rigorous philosophy. I do not believe that anything can ever “have value,” nor do I believe that “value exists” under any circumstances. Rather, I will argue that value occurs – or more precisely, the act of valuing occurs – whenever objects, brain states or states of affairs are instrumental in allowing sentient beings to fulfill their desires.

A stepladder does not “have value” without a sentient being for whom the stepladder is instrumental in fulfilling a desire, perhaps the desire to grasp an object otherwise out of one’s reach. Going further, a stepladder does not “have value” even with a sentient being for whom the stepladder is instrumental in fulfilling a desire. That is because this type of value cannot exist; it can only occur. A state of affairs in which value is occurring can exist, but that is different. A value can also exist in the sense that a bargain or good deal can exist, but I believe that is irrelevant to moral philosophy.

So then, why have I said before that I believe in intrinsic value? As I explained to Luke in the thread of his article, when I say that I believe in intrinsic value, this means I believe certain acts are intrinsically morally right or intrinsically morally wrong regardless of any human opinions about them. Luke responded that this differs substantially from the traditional definitions of intrinsic value supplied above, and I agree. However, that is a semantic objection that does not challenge the claim itself. As far as any actual challenge of my claim is concerned, Luke writes,

If you think intrinsic value exists, then explain what you mean by that, what predictions your theory makes, and show me that the predictions turn out to be correct.

Well, I’ve already explained that I don’t think intrinsic value exists, but I do think that certain acts are intrinsically morally right or intrinsically morally wrong regardless of any human opinions about them. What predictions does my “theory” make?

Consider the claim that barring instances of Daltonism, all human beings will perceive the cloudless midday sky as the color that falls between 475 and 510 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. Though it is true that English-speakers might call this color blue, and Spanish-speakers might call it azul, both speakers refer to the wavelength of light that falls between 475 and 510 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. We can test this claim by asking people without Daltonism to correlate their perception of the cloudless midday sky with colors on a chart. Note that this is not an example of collective subjectivity, but an example of an empirical, falsifiable claim.

Next, consider the claim that barring instances of Antisocial/Psychopathic Type, all human beings will perceive infantophilia as morally repugnant. At least in theory, we can test this claim, perhaps by retrieving neuroimaging data from non-Antisocial/Psychopathic Type individuals responding to infantophilia, and using inverse inference to identify any correlations that might exist. We might expect something like “similar or identical brain states” in response to the stimulus. Similarly, this would be an example of an empirical, falsifiable claim that, if true, would not reduce to collective subjectivity.

So then, if all or even the vast majority of people have a similar or identical brain-state response to an instance of infantophilia, would that justify the claim that infantophilia “really is” morally repugnant in the same way the cloudless, midday sky “really is” blue?

Why or why not?

Can anybody suggest a better method for apprehending “objective morality,” if in fact such a thing exists?


7 comments

  1. I just have one question regarding whether things have a value “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” I guess this would include human beings, but I think Christians are committed to the belief that at least humans have intrinsic value since they are made in God’s image. Do you think that is the case?

  2. cl

     says...

    …I think Christians are committed to the belief that at least humans have intrinsic value since they are made in God’s image. Do you think that is the case?

    No. I would say Christians are committed to the belief that God values humans. To argue that humans have intrinsic value because they were created by God seems illogical to me. Humans don’t come to possess the entity of “intrinsic value” just because God values humans; humans do not possess an entity called “intrinsic value.” Now, you might say something like, “humans are intrinsically valued by God,” and that’s a statement with which I would concur.

    You might think the difference is simply semantic, but I don’t see it that way. To say that something “has intrinsic value” can lead to an entirely different conclusion than to say something “is valued.” I suppose we could say that humans have the property of “being-valued-ness” with regards to God, but to me, that’s would just be an unnecessary linguistic aid. So, I prefer to write statements like, “X is valued by Y” instead of “X has value.” I believe this helps clarify things. Nothing can “have value,” ever. Rather, anything can “be valued” by a sentient being.

    Does that answer the question? Or, did it just introduce confusion?

  3. No, that was a good answer, and pretty much where I thought you were going. I think there is merit to what you are saying, though I’m not sure I agree.

    I wasn’t saying that just because God created humans they have some value, but that He created them in His image. The imago dei is the aspect of humanity that makes us intrinsically valuable.

    I guess the question that crops up in my mind from this position is why does God value us? Is it just something He has arbitrarily chosen to do? It seems to me there has to be some reason for God’s placing a value on humanity, though He places some value on the rest of creation as well, but I think you know what I mean.

    I guess the bottom line in my mind is that if God’s valuing us is what makes us valuable, then it seems it is arbitrary.

  4. cl

     says...

    The imago dei is the aspect of humanity that makes us intrinsically valuable.

    Of course, but if you take away the Valuer, then, there is nothing about humans that would make them valuable “in their own right,” “on their own,” etc.

    I guess the bottom line in my mind is that if God’s valuing us is what makes us valuable, then it seems it is arbitrary.

    Wouldn’t all “acts of valuing” be arbitrary? That’s pretty much my conclusion, and I don’t think we lose anything to say that they are. One person values one thing, another person values another. Even though these people value arbitrarily, the question remains: is there any one thing or things that all people should value? I think that’s the moral question, and to me, it can only be answered in the affirmative if humans were created for purpose.

  5. But then wouldn’t this mean that God could have valued different things? I think that we have strong prima facie reasons to think that things like rape and murder are always wrong in any possible world, but if God’s values are arbitrary, then there are possible worlds where God could value those things. Or am I missing something?

  6. cl

     says...

    Well, let me clarify: when I said, “Wouldn’t all “acts of valuing” be arbitrary,” it was from a human POV: i.e., one person values one thing, another values another.

    I think that we have strong prima facie reasons to think that things like rape and murder are always wrong in any possible world, but if God’s values are arbitrary, then there are possible worlds where God could value those things.

    I don’t think that the God of the Bible can value rape or murder. I do think some other “god” in some other possible world could. So, if we’re talking about the God of the Bible, then, no – I wouldn’t say such a God has arbitrary values.

  7. cl

     says...

    So I found some snippets in my notes that seemed pertinent to this thread:

    “Are any of you familiar with the MSNBC television show To Catch A Predator? If not, here’s the basic run-down: local police team up with online watchdog groups and set traps for potential sexual predators. They impersonate young teens and entice older men to come to the trap house alone, where the men are accosted by Chris Hansen and then arrested on the basis of intent to have sex with a minor, usually demonstrated in their chat logs with what they thought were young teens. Without fail, every time Chris Hansen asks one of these men how they would feel if, say, a 50-year-old man were to show up at their house when their young teen was home alone, the predators always reply with some degree of repugnance. So, my “theory” holds even for those individuals who may not experience guilt after actually perpetuating on another the very same act that produces a brain state of repugnance for them.”

    Isn’t it reasonable to describe this phenomenon as suggestive of something like “intrinsic value?” Not in the superficial sense of, “value without a valuer” as Luke defines it, but in the sense of, “an act that stands as right or wrong regardless of what people think about it?”

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