Ethical Realism

December 6, 2009

Denying the Meaning of Life

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 8:27 am
Tags: , , ,

Imagine that you will no longer exist within the next two seconds. If done properly, you will think about what your existence really means and appreciate the fact that you still exist. You will realize how amazing it is to be alive. Expect to no longer exist every moment and you will appreciate your life every moment. This is evidence that either our life really matters, or our life is worth living for some other reason. If we are not deluded when we imagine the value of our own existence, then we have evidence that something really does matter. However, it isn’t easy to be sure.

Do you want people to stop doing horrible crimes? Do you want to live a meaningful life? Do you want to make the world a better place? If so, you need to know if “anything really matters.” Philosophers have been trying to find out if “anything really matters” for thousands of years, and we have a lot we can learn from them. I am not going to currently attempt to prove that “something really matters.” Instead, I want to prove to you that the question, “Does anything really matter?” is something we should be asking ourselves, and we should want to know the best answers to the question available.

We are sometimes tempted to believe that “nothing really matters.” This temptation is perfectly reasonable. We know that tables and chairs exist, but we can’t know that moral values exist in that way. Perhaps we only think that rape and murder are wrong because those are our cultural beliefs. Some people even claim that they really believe “nothing really matters.” If nothing matters, then there can’t be a real “meaning of life.” Life will have no real meaning.

If “something really matters,” then we should accept that intrinsic values exist, which are values that are really good or bad irrespective of our beliefs. If pain is intrinsically bad, then it makes sense to give someone an aspirin when they have a headache. If pleasure is intrinsically good, then it can make sense to eat a chocolate bar. If anything has intrinsic value, then there is a meaning of life, and our life can be truly meaningful.

The vast majority of people have little interest in learning what philosophers have to say about the question, “Does anything really matter?” but what they have to say is actually quite important. I would say that everyone might even have an obligation to learn about it. It might be something that needs to be taught in high school alongside math and formal logic.

I will argue that a philosophical understanding of intrinsic values are very important for the following reasons:

  1. Intrinsic values help explain why some behavior is categorized as moral and other behavior is immoral.
  2. Intrinsic values might be a necessary assumption for love, grief, joy, and other emotions.
  3. Philosophy clears away our doubts and motivates us to be virtuous.
  4. It is reasonable to want to justify our beliefs.

I will discuss each of these propositions.

1. Intrinsic values help explain moral categories

Corporations have occasionally been involved with crimes that end up killing innocent people, such as dumping toxic waste in third world countries. When a CEO makes a decision that causes many people to die in order to raise the profits of their corporation, we might wonder if he or she believes that human life has real value. It is hard to believe that people could sincerely believe that human life has real value, but they would prefer for people to die than allow their company to make less profit. If we accept that intrinsic values exist, then we have a pretty good way to explain why certain actions are praiseworthy and others are blameworthy.

If something is intrinsically good, then we have a reason to promote it. If pleasure is intrinsically good, then we have a good reason to give ourselves and others pleasure. In that case a stand up comedian could be motivated to give people a good time, and it would be strange to question the comedian and say, “So what? I want the real reason to be a stand up comedian!” If intrinsic values exist, then something can be a truly worthy goal because it leads to something objectively good.

On the other hand most things are said to be “good” only because they’re useful. Food is useful to stay healthy. Guns are good at helping us kill other people. And so on. “Usefulness” isn’t the same thing as “intrinsic value.” Useful values are often called “instrumental values.”

If no intrinsic values exist, then all goals are questionable. In that case no goal will be “truly worthy,” and the stand up comedian probably just has a desire to give other people a good time, even though it “doesn’t really matter.”

Consider the following moral explanations using intrinsic values:

  • If pain is intrinsically bad, then we have a reason to give a person with a headache an aspirin.
  • If human life has intrinsic value, then we have reason to maintain ourselves, stay healthy, save lives, and feed starving people.
  • If pleasure has intrinsic value, then we have a reason to eat chocolate, be entertainers, and write an enjoyable novel.
  • If knowledge has intrinsic value, then we have a reason to want to be philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and teachers.

To say that pain is intrinsically bad seems to imply that, “All things equal, it is wrong to cause pain.” It doesn’t mean that pain isn’t useful. We evolved pain to help us survive. If pain is necessary for survival, then it might still be important to feel pain sometimes. In that case survival itself might have a greater significance than pain.

At this point we might wonder whether or not intrinsic values actually exist, but I just want it to be clear how intrinsic values seem to be a pretty important part of our moral experience. If we found out that we merely desire pleasure and dislike pain, then it would no longer be clear why giving someone an aspirin seems to make so much sense. I don’t have to care about that person’s pain in order to realize that their headache matters. It would be strange to tell me, “Don’t give him an aspirin because you don’t currently feel any empathy! Giving him an aspirin is irrational!”

Additionally, we think people have moral obligations. These are not merely obligations required “if you want to be moral.” Instead, we seem to be forced into moral obligations whether we like it or not. This seems to imply that there are intrinsic values. It would be strange to say that it is immoral to harm others just because I have a social instinct to dislike other people’s pain. If I don’t want other people to feel pain, then “it would be a good idea not to hurt them,” but it would not necessarily be impermissible to give them pain. If “nothing really matters,” then it seems strange to say that behavior can be obligated or immoral.

It might be possible to explain why something is called “moral” or “immoral” without intrinsic values, but intrinsic values seems to do a pretty good job.

2. Intrinsic values might be a necessary assumption for some emotions

Consider how we understand the following emotions:

  • If you love someone, then you think that person “really matters.” It is good that the person you love exists, and it is terrible if that person dies. So, love might imply that the beloved has intrinsic value.
  • If you feel grief, then you think it was terrible that the person died. It was better for them to exist. So grief might also imply that the person who died had intrinsic value.
  • The joy we feel when a child is born indicates that we believe that the child is something good. It is better for the child to exist than to not exist. It would be terrible if the child dies. This might also indicate that we believe that the child has intrinsic value.
  • If you crave chocolate, then you want to get pleasure. The pleasure you get is appreciated because it feels good. So, not everything is good “because it is desired.” Instead, sometimes things are desired “because we think they are good.” The desire for chocolate might imply that our pleasure is intrinsically good.
  • If you feel bad after a friend is harmed, that implies that you think his pain matters. You know how terrible it is to feel pain and know it is the same for your friend. This might imply that pain is intrinsically bad.

Having these emotions might be an indication that the person who has them has assumptions involving intrinsic values, but it might also be possible for to find a different reason that we have these emotions. The explanation of these emotions involving intrinsic value beliefs seems like a fairly good explanation, so we have some reason to accept such a proposition.

3. Philosophy motivates us to be virtuous

Believing in intrinsic values can help motivate us to help others and become virtuous. Giving to the poor, helping alleviate people’s pain, and so forth would all be justified forms of behavior. If we decide that intrinsic values don’t exist, we might then decide that other people don’t really matter, so we might as well encourage ourselves to be self-centered.

We can decide that believing in intrinsic values makes sense without delving into philosophical literature, but we might not yet be certain that they really do exist. To have a strong and sincere belief in intrinsic values requires a strong justification. It isn’t honest to say, “I know that intrinsic values exist for certain” if we don’t really know much about it. We need to consider the arguments against intrinsic values before we can really know for sure whether or not intrinsic values exist. This is one reason why it’s helpful to learn about what the philosophers have to say.

Additionally, having a strong belief in intrinsic values could help motivate us to behave morally, and it can help us avoid doubts. At one time I wasn’t sure if intrinsic values could be justified. At that time I decided to have faith in them because I couldn’t yet verbalize why they seemed so plausible. However, faith is not a sign of certainty. A person who merely has faith could be lying about their certainty, and they will have doubts. Those doubts will tempt us to act in our self-interest even when it harms others. People do it all the time. Although a deep knowledge of intrinsic values might not guarantee that everyone will become virtuous, it will at least help motivate us to nurture our social instincts and try to be less self-centered. Without intrinsic values it is much less clear why we should nurture our social instincts when it so often requires degrees of self-sacrifice.

Of course, we might worry that philosophy will convince us that intrinsic values don’t exist. That finding might indeed be disheartening, and it might invalidate some of our motivation for learning about the relevant moral philosophy. However, I don’t know of any philosophers that actually reject morality. That is merely what an uninformed rejection of intrinsic values leads to. Ethical philosophers agree that some actions are moral and others are immoral (and they tend to be fairly virtuous as actual human beings), even if they don’t believe in intrinsic values. Our belief in morality is more certain than our belief in intrinsic values, so it is possible to believe moral behavior is justified even after rejecting the existence of intrinsic values. How exactly this can be done is not something I fully understand.

The fact that morality is important seems to be something all philosophers agree with. So, no matter what conclusions sufficiently informed people reach about intrinsic values, they will all agree that morality is important. This might not make any sense to someone uninformed about the relevant philosophy, so uninformed people will be tempted to reject morality altogether, and an uninformed person will be much more dangerous than an informed one.

Philosophy helps us have well-reasoned justified moral beliefs, and that’s very helpful in motivating moral behavior. Therefore, philosophy could greatly benefit society, and it appears quite dangerous to be ignorant of moral philosophy. Some people might have faith in morality (and intrinsic vales), but that is an unreliable position.

4. It is reasonable to want to justify our beliefs

It is not reasonable to have a belief without any justification. That isn’t to say that it is irrational and wrong. It’s simply not a belief we have a good reason to have. If you want to have a reasonable belief concerning intrinsic values and morality, then you will need to be able to justify your belief. There is a great deal of philosophical literature written by people who devote their entire lives to these questions. We can’t all do that, but the least we can do is take some time to find out more about what the experts have to say. They’ve spent more than learning about it than the rest of us can, and the easiest way to justify our ethical beliefs is to ride on their coat tails.

In order to be reasonable, we need to learn not only about what people who agree with us think, but also what people who disagree with us think. Justifying moral beliefs isn’t about proving we are right at all costs. It’s about improving our beliefs and considering all the difficulties of having them. Having a reasonable belief requires a genuine interest in the facts and making sure our belief has justification.

Not only is it a good idea to learn about philosophy “if we want to have reasonable beliefs,” but we have little choice in the matter. We have moral beliefs and we depend on those moral beliefs to do the right thing. We can’t opt out of our moral obligations, and we have to do whatever we can to live up to our moral obligations. The best way to live up to our obligations is to understand them and justify our moral beliefs.


I have attempted to answer the question “Why should I want to know about intrinsic values?” Although I have explained how it could be reasonable to believe in intrinsic values, I have not answered the question, “Are there intrinsic values?” That is a very difficult question and it requires a lot of background information. I have provided my argument that intrinsic values exist in my post, An Argument for Moral Realism, but this one essay should not be considered a sufficient education on the question, “Does anything really matter?” If you are interested in the philosophical question, “Does anything really matter?” then you can look for arguments for and against “moral realism.”

We are tempted to believe that “nothing really matters” from time to time, but the opposite belief seems reasonable. Intrinsic values can make sense of our moral beliefs and emotions. Additionally, the temptation to be selfish is increased with uninformed beliefs, and we seem to have an inescapable moral obligation to have reasonable beliefs concerning intrinsic values. Learning about intrinsic values helps us fight against our selfish temptations and helps assure that our beliefs concerning intrinsic values are reasonable.

1 Comment »

  1. […] have already discussed intrinsic values in Denying the Meaning of Life, but I will briefly describe them again. Most values are just about how useful something is. Money […]

    Pingback by Does Morality Require God? « Ethical Realism — December 21, 2009 @ 10:24 am | Reply

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