Ethical Realism

January 14, 2010

How to Find the Meaning of Life

I have suggested that several things seem to “really matter.” If something “really matters,” such as happiness, then we can live a meaningful life when we promote it (such as make people happy). If something “really matters” then it has “intrinsic value.” I have argued that there is at least one meaning of life (one thing that has intrinsic value)—Pain. However, pain is “bad.” If pain is the only thing that matters, then nothing could make life worth living. I don’t want to suggest that pain is the only thing with intrinsic vale, but we need to know how to find out what has intrinsic value. I have discussed one way to provide evidence that something has intrinsic value—our moral experiences.

We can provide evidence that X has intrinsic value based on the following evidence:

  1. We experience X as good (or bad).
  2. We know X is good (or bad) for everyone.
  3. X’s intrinsic value explains our moral experiences.
  4. Our experience of X’s value can’t be fully accounted for as a “final end,” usefulness, and/or a pre-existing desire.

I will attempt to explain each of these elements of evidence:

1. We experience X as good (or bad).

We experience pleasure as good and pain as bad. This fact is undeniable. So far we still can’t say that pleasure or pain are intrinsic values because of several reasons. For example, we might just have a personal interest to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

2. We know X is good (or bad) for everyone.

It might be a universal fact that everyone experiences pleasure as good and pain is bad, but that’s not the point I want to make. (It’s possible that everyone lives within the same illusion.) I want to say that something with intrinsic value really matters even if you don’t personally care about it. If you want something intrinsically valuable, that valuable thing matters, even if I don’t care about your interests. For example, your pain matters even if I don’t care about you. Intrinsic value provides us with a reason to care about something (or to at least nurture our feelings of care.)

We can know that something is good (or bad) for everyone in at least two ways. One, through induction (generalization). We know it’s bad to feel pain and we know that other people can also feel pain (and therefore experience that their pain is bad) because we observe other people’s behavior and biology. Their biology and behavior is similar to our own, so we have good reason to believe that they also feel pain and experience it as bad.

Two, attempts to explain why the valued thing isn’t good (or bad) for everyone are less plausible than the alternative. It seems more plausible to think that pain is bad for everyone than to think that pain is only bad when we experience it. To say, “My pain is bad, but yours isn’t” might make sense given various assumptions, but I see no reason to accept those assumptions.

3. X’s intrinsic value explains our moral experiences.

One reason to choose one theory over another is that the theory is the best explanation of our experiences. This is not a controversial statement when it comes to science and the importance of observation to verifying scientific hypotheses. However, it is less clear that our moral experiences are relevant because morality might be nothing more than a human invention or psychological disorder.

I agree that our moral experiences don’t provide conclusive proof that something has intrinsic value, but they do provide some evidence. If there are any intrinsic values and we somehow know about them, then it is reasonable to think that we already know a little about them. Intrinsic values are a hypothesis in part to explain our actual moral experiences, and intrinsic values are in part meant to help us correct our false moral beliefs (and identify deceptive moral experiences).

How can we use moral experiences to help us justify the belief in an intrinsic value? Consider the following. We know that “all things equal, it’s wrong to give people pain.” This is evidence that pain is intrinsically bad insofar as pain’s intrinsic disvalue explains our belief that it’s wrong to cause pain willy nilly. It is possible that our belief that it’s wrong to cause pain willy nilly is false, but that would require us to reject just about everything we think we know about morality. Our belief that it’s wrong to cause pain willy nilly is just about as certain as moral beliefs get.

To repeat, the belief that it’s wrong to cause pain willy nilly does not by itself prove that pain is intrinsically bad. There might be a better explanation for this moral judgment, but such an intuitively appropriate judgment is something we want our moral theories to be able to explain.

4. Our experience of X’s value can’t be fully accounted for as a “final end,” usefulness, and/or a pre-existing desire.

We often say that something is good or bad because it is useful, a psychologically satisfying goal (a final end), or desired. If something is only good for one of these reasons, then we aren’t talking about intrinsic value.

Usefulness – We don’t say pleasure is good because it’s useful. Sometimes pleasure is the opposite of useful and tempts us to over-indulge in unhealthy behavior.

Final ends – Although intrinsic values we care about tend to be well-understood to be psychologically satisfying goals (final ends), we don’t understand pleasure to be merely satisfying in this way. Instead, we understand that pleasure is good because it feels good. A final end could be valued due to delusion, but pleasure seems to be valued for a good reason.

Desired – If something is valued merely because it is desired, then we have no reason to think it is really good. Money can be desired for its own sake, but money isn’t “really good.” To desire money in this way seems delusional. However, pleasure is not valued in this way. Instead, pleasure is valued because it feels good.


Some people seem to think that dozens of things have intrinsic value, and this doesn’t help us build a plausible view of intrinsic value. Even G.E. Moore was overly-liberal with identifying intrinsic values (and even suggested that books have intrinsic value). A healthy dose of skepticism is required to try to best identify intrinsic values, and the four criteria mentioned in this essay seem to allow us to provide plausible evidence of intrinsic values. Although I argued that pain has a great deal of evidence of having intrinsic value, it is possible that my evidence is insufficient. We could use the criteria here to find out that nothing has intrinsic value after all.

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