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:
- Intrinsic values must be unconditional.
- Intrinsic values require something spooky.
- 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.