Ethical Realism

January 7, 2010

Mischaracterizations of “Intrinsic Value”

Filed under: epistemology,ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:53 am
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Intrinsic values state that some things are “good just for existing” and such things are good no matter who has them. Happiness seems like it has intrinsic value because it’s good for anyone to be happy. I have already clarified “intrinsic value” and identified many misunderstandings people have about it in my essay, “What Does ‘Meaning of Life’ Mean?” Some people have some very strange ideas about how intrinsic values should be understood, so I will now clarify them by discussing the following three mischaracterizations about intrinsic value:

  1. Intrinsic values must be unconditional.
  2. Intrinsic values require something spooky.
  3. Intrinsic values require a moral sense.

I will then present an alternative view of intrinsic value that only requires an intuitive, common sense view of the world.

Intrinsic values must be unconditional.

Many people assume that if something has intrinsic value, then it must be totally good or totally bad. If happiness has intrinsic value, then it will always be right to do whatever is necessary to be happy. If pain is bad, then it will be wrong to do anything that causes pain. But this is false.

Why don’t intrinsic values have to be unconditional? We often assess the benefits and harms of each action we can take, and we want to choose the action that will produce the greatest benefit. We know that doing your homework can be painful at times, but it is still usually a good idea because of the positive consequences involved.  We fear that a thief who steals from others can become happier as a consequence, but stealing is still usually wrong because of the negative consequences involved. We know that some experiences are more pleasurable than others and are therefore preferable (all else being equal). We know that some experiences are more painful than others and we should choose the least painful experience (all else being equal).

Intrinsic values require something spooky.

One view of intrinsic values is that they are so strange that they couldn’t be part of the natural world studied by science. Although scientists might not study intrinsic values at this time, it might be possible for ethics to become a natural science in the future. Of course, that would never happen if intrinsic values are supernatural or non-natural (other worldly). In particular, some people think that intrinsic values are somehow connected to Plato’s Forms or God. I have already discussed how intrinsic values could have nothing to do with Plato’s Forms or God in my essay, “Does Morality Require God?”

Even if we reject the connection between intrinsic values and God (or Plato’s Forms), some people will think that intrinsic values are some other strange sort of entity in the universe.

I don’t really understand the idea of intrinsic value as some kind of strange entity, but Alonzo Fyfe has discussed intrinsic values in this sense when he says the following:

Now, for the sake of argument, let us assume that there is a property ‘out there’ that we can call ‘intrinsic value’. Certain states of affairs in nature emit ‘goodons’ or ‘badons’. Would we have evolved a faculty that would have allowed us to perceive these emissions? If so, then would it have included a component whereby we reacted appropriately to them, promoting the existence of goodon emitters and inhibiting the development of badon emitters?

These questions already assume that an impossible barrier has been cleared — the question of how entities that emit ‘I-ought-to-be-preserved’ (goodon) radiation or ‘I-ought-not-to-be-preserved’ (badon) radiation can even exist. It makes the equally unlikely assumption that we have a hidden faculty of goodon detection that allows us to distinguish these states and accurately measures their level of goodon emissions. (Desire Utilitarianism)

I agree with Fife that this conception of value is probably false, but I don’t know anyone who believes it. I suppose a couple “moral sense theorists” might have accepted something similar, but I couldn’t find any serious philosopher to use the words “goodon” or “badon.”

What is a moral sense theory? Read on to find out.

Intrinsic values require a moral sense.

Moral sense is a theory that speculates about how we can know moral facts. I don’t know if anyone still supports such a theory, but a crude version by the Earl of Shaftesbury sometimes made it sound like we have a sense organ to perceive moral facts from the outside world. This might require something like a property to emit “goodons.” I will argue that we can understand our moral experiences without having a moral sense of his kind, but no one really agrees with Shaftesbury anyway.

An Alternative View of Intrinsic Value

We don’t need such strange, supernatural, or non-natural elements to corrupt something as simple as intrinsic values. How do we know how terrible torture is? Because we have felt pain and we know that other people’s intense pain is horrible for the same reason our own is. How do we know how good happiness is? Because we have experienced happiness and know other people’s happiness is good for the same reason our own is.

Don’t we need intuition to know moral facts?

Some people argue that we can’t know about intrinsic values without “intuition” which is a form of evidence we have a hard time fully explaining or justifying. (Intuition is not a supernatural ability to know about the universe.) As far as I can tell, arguments involving just about anything in philosophy requires intuition. I justify the use of intuition in moral arguments in my essay, “Objections to Moral Realism Part 2: Intuition is Unreliable”.

Whether or not we can personally know anything about intrinsic value without intuition is another question because we don’t necessarily know things based on arguments. Our experience of happiness might be enough evidence of intrinsic value for us to justify our belief in it during everyday life.

The way we know about moral facts seems similar to how we know about mental facts. To suggest that we couldn’t know that other people have minds without a “mental sense” that could detect “thought particles” would be absurd. We know others have mental activity because they have it for the same reason we do. It is also unconvincing to argue that we can’t know anything about intrinsic values without a moral sense that could detect “goodon particles” for the same reason.

Don’t intrinsic values require something spooky to exist?

We have minds, which are pretty “spooky” when you think about it. I don’t think intrinsic values necessarily require anything more spooky than that. I agree that intrinsic values are a unique part of the world. They aren’t reducible to nonmoral facts. We found out that water was “nothing but” water. In the same way it might be possible to find out that morality is “nothing but” human flourishing (or desire satisfaction). However, intrinsic values do require that morality isn’t “nothing but” something else. In other words intrinsic vales require that morality is “irreducible to nonmoral facts.”

The reason why it’s reasonable to speculate that morality is irreducible to nonmoral facts is because it’s reasonable to speculate that mental activity isn’t irreducible to nonmental facts. I consider the objection that moral facts are too spooky in more detail in my essay, “Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness.”


We don’t know for sure whether or not intrinsic values exist, but many people are overly dismissive of intrinsic values based on their misconceptions about them. Intrinsic values don’t necessarily require Plato’s Forms, God, overly-spooky entities, or a moral sense. We can know about intrinsic values through various experiences that indicate to us that something is good just for existing, such as happiness.

We don’t currently know everything about intrinsic values, but that does not require outrageous speculation about reality, and it isn’t evidence that intrinsic values don’t exist. At one time we didn’t know what lightning was, but we still knew that lightning existed. Right now we don’t really know what mental states are, but we know they exist. The fact that we don’t know everything about intrinsic values doesn’t prove that intrinsic values don’t exist either.

I admit that we knew that lightning and mental states existed before we learned more about them unlike intrinsic value, but that is just because the evidence for intrinsic values is less clear. Some people deny that happiness is good for everyone equally and instead assert, “Happiness is only good when I experience it.” In my essay, “An Argument for Moral Realism” I argue that such a selfish understanding of value is probably false.



  1. Fascinating analysis. I’m still not convinced that we can get away with intrinsic value though. And I find parallels to philosophy of mind just as problematic as claims about intrinsic value; philosophy of mind is hardly an uncontroversial field. I’m also much more wary about the reliability of intuition – or the conclusions we can draw from it – than you.

    Personally, I’m more inclined to see value as being akin to ‘health’ when talking about the body, or ‘working’ when talking about a toaster. One is only ‘healthy’, and a toaster is only ‘working’, given parameters specified by us, but then it’s down to natural facts whether or not that thing satisfies those parameters.

    This makes value purely instrumental, and thoroughly naturalistic. The parameters that define value are also ultimately arbitrary – although given our evolved psychology, it’s very likely that most people will agree on certain values, such as pleasure (because pleasure is an evolved mechanism that tries to direct us towards stimuli that improved fitness). Hence, my moral anti-realism.

    Comment by Tim Dean — January 10, 2010 @ 7:24 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your comments. I didn’t actually give my full argument for intrinsic values here. I don’t know if I need the analogy with the philosophy of the mind, which was introduced by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. You might want to take a look at my post “An Argument for Moral Realism” to see my actual argument.

      I’m not necessarily against naturalism. Does “thoroughly naturalist” mean “reducible to atoms?” I accept that some phenomena is irreducible and is emergent, but that can all be explained from causal forces (or physical laws) in the universe.

      Of course, my arguments are not necessarily the best arguments in the field. I heard that there is an argument for moral realism based on an analogy with health in Moral Reality by Paul Bloomfield. The Normative Web by Terence Cuneo gives a recent argument for moral realism, which I think is based on an analogy with logic (non-moral normativity). I have both these books, but I haven’t had time to read them yet.

      I wrote a post called An Anti-Realist Perspective where I give my thoughts on anti-realism as a possibility. An anti-realist might be able to give non-arbitrary goals, but altruism would would seem to be arbitrary. To want to universalize morality would seem to be arbitrary.

      Comment by James Gray — January 10, 2010 @ 8:48 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for the reply James. I’ve read several of your posts (I follow your RSS feed – and enjoy your blog immensely), but haven’t replied in detail to them all yet (there’s a lot to reply to!). I’ll give your post on anti-realism a read – haven’t read that one yet. And I’ll check out those books you mention too.

    But basically I’m exploring the significance of evolution on morality at the moment, and I’m leaning towards an anti-realist metaethical perspective with a mix of cognitivism and non-cognitivism, but it’s all thoroughly naturalistic – not in a greedy reductionist way, but in a way that doesn’t require the positing of non-natural entities or properties. Still a long way to go before I can tell the full story, but fragments are on my blog at

    Comment by Tim Dean — January 10, 2010 @ 11:25 am | Reply

    • I’m glad that you have enjoyed my website. You have some interesting ideas on your website as well. Considering cogitoergosum’s comments on our websites, I think I figured out why he didn’t understand my argument that morality doesn’t require God. A lot of people are getting used the argument “No God, so morality exists, but it’s a convention/instinctual.” My argument was quite unusual in not saying anything like that

      The whole natural/non-natural distinction is unclear. I don’t want to have to say that moral properties or entities are non-natural. Searle’s discussion of dualistic mental vocabulary corrupting our understanding of mental facts is similar to how we might think of morality dualistically.

      I agree that evolution could have significant implications for morality. Someone wrote a book recently that argued that we have social instincts and morality is actually unnecessary for that reason. We want to be nice to each other without the need for moral rules or theory. Dawkins seems to have a similar view to that as well.

      Comment by James Gray — January 10, 2010 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

  3. Hi James. I didn’t see that you had a definition of intrinsic value. From your first paragraph I take it that you mean something like “happiness is an intrinsic value if it is always good irrespective of anyone’s opinions about it.” Thus, it just is valuable, even if no one values it. I don’t want to assume, so correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t understand what that means. I want to ask, “valuable to whom?” Also, there’s a scientific explanation for empathy. The reason I believe that if I experience happiness positively and pain negatively, then you also experience happiness positively and pain negatively, is because my brain possesses mirror neurons. That’s the leading theory anyway. But that leaves two questions unanswered. It’s still possible that I experience your suffering positively, as in revenge. So, why think happiness is good and pain bad if it depends on whose perspective we’re talking about? Why not just say that whether pain is good or bad depends on someone’s perspective? You could say that pain is bad for whoever is experiencing it, but that’s not independence. You seem to need to say that pain is bad, apart from anyone’s experience, or in other words that something is disvalued, even if no one were to exist to disvalue it. Apart from trying to justify moral realism, I don’t see that there are any good reasons for thinking this way. What is value? It’s a subject’s attitude toward a desired object. To think of value as subject independent requires some further work. If I were to tell you that Fred is taller, not taller than Jim or Bob, but just taller, you’d say, “That’s not a very natural way of understanding taller. You’ll have to do some further work to explain that to me.” So my question is why should I think of value as subject independent.

    Comment by douglasbryant — January 17, 2010 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

    • Douglass,

      Thank you for taking the time to post here. I think a lot of your questions are probably answered better in my other posts, but here is a quick reply to your concerns:

      I thought that I intrinsic value on my post What does “meaning of life mean”? My definition isn’t reductive. There are various things that make something intrinsic value. Overall, it’s the idea that something “really matters.”

      I want to say that pain could only be seen as “punishment” and a part of revenge if we recognize that it has intrinsic disvalue. We realize that it is horrible, but we want horrible things to happen to someone. Revenge separates the reality of one person from the rest of the world and makes it seem good for something intrinsically bad to happen to one individual. The fact that something bad happens to someone rather than to the universe at large doesn’t make it an illusion or less real. Something bad is happening in part of the universe.

      I don’t say pain can’t happen “apart for anyone’s experience.” We can’t recognize intrinsic value without experiencing it. However, I recognize that other people’s pain is bad without it being part of my experience. I recognize that something could be bad without badness depending on my beliefs. I might believe nothing bad happened to someone experiencing pain, but that might just be evidence that I don’t know what pain is (or I don’t know this particular person is in pain).

      Intrinsic value is something we are tempted to say is good or bad “for someone” (whoever experiences it directly.) There is something right about this, but I still think that we realize that it is bad period. It is right that only minds experience intrinsic values. We think of minds as particular things that are in some sense separate, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t part of the universe. So, it is in a sense subject dependent. That doesn’t make it less real. Subjective doesn’t mean “not real.”

      You want to say that something is only bad because it’s part of a perspective. I either already answered that issue or I don’t quite understand what you want to say about it. What is it about a perspective that makes pain not “really matter” after all? How could pain be bad for others but not bad just for existing?

      I think empathy tends to be based on the assumption of intrinsic value. If what is happening to someone “doesn’t really matter,” then I don’t need to worry about it. Empathy might also be nothing other than a kind of neurological problem that could be unnecessary for ethics.

      “The reason I believe that if I experience happiness positively and pain negatively, then you also experience happiness positively and pain negatively, is because my brain possesses mirror neurons.”

      Does that mean that the pain isn’t real? You are explaining the physical cause of pain. I don’t deny that there is a physical cause. I’m not sure that the physical cause proves anything in this situation.

      Comment by James Gray — January 17, 2010 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  4. My pleasure. Mirror neurons are responsible for empathy, not pain. They also explain the appeal of pornography, and why I wince when I see an athlete injured. Mirror neurons allow us to place ourselves in others’ shoes.

    I don’t think that pain is not real. I don’t think anything ‘really matters.’ I think some things really matter to certain people, just like I don’t think anything is really beautiful, only some things are beautiful to some people and other things to other people.

    I recognize the distinction between the metaphysical point that whatever has intrinsic value has value irrespective of what anyone thinks of it, and the epistemological point that an intrinsic value has to be valued by someone to be recognized as a value. I can appreciate that same point in aesthetics, but it still seems absurd to me that a Monet that existed in a world without people would be beautiful, though not beautiful to anyone. Beauty describes a relationship between a subject and an object. I think the same thing about value, although value can exist between an object and an object with some further distinctions. I think value is a relation. Taller than, less than, prettier than, are also relations. I don’t understand what it means to talk about value or talk about what really matters without also talking about to whom it is valuable or to whom it really matters. I also don’t see that ‘really matters’ sheds any light on ‘intrinsic value’. But I’ll read your post ‘what does meaning of life mean?’ and see if that helps.

    Comment by douglasbryant — January 17, 2010 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

    • I agree that beauty requires people. And you need a person to have pain or there is no pain. I don’t see intrinsic value as floating “out there” as some people might say.

      But the judgment “pain is bad” could be true in some sense even before pain actually exists. It’s like saying, “If there is pain, then it’s bad” similar to how physical laws would state something like, “If an object is dropped, then it will fall.” Pain and intrinsic value based on pain requires the right material and psychological conditions. Morality is supervenient on the physical world.

      It might be that minds are necessary for intrinsic value to exist. It has to be manifested in reality to be worthy of consideration.

      I think you read my argument for moral realism a while back and it might be helpful to take another look. I try to look at the possibility that intrinsic value doesn’t exist. Each alternative possibility seems implausible. If I missed a good alternative to intrinsic value, then I need to know exactly how it works. That’s why I asked about what it means to say something is “bad for so and so” and why such a thought is a problem. I agree that it might be a problem if it can be adequately described and be an alternative to intrinsic value.

      I don’t know much about empathy and it is a slippery subject. I can abstractly consider people in pain and understand why their pain matters without really feeling bad about it. I don’t see how empathy is relevant, though. I agree that an ethical egoist could use empathy as a reason to be altruistic (helpful), but such behavior is not necessarily justified.

      You agree that pain is real, but is the badness of pain real? I think that is my main idea here.

      Comment by James Gray — January 18, 2010 @ 4:20 am | Reply

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