Ethical Realism

June 15, 2010

14 Arguments That Intrinsic Values Exist

If anything has intrinsic value, then something really matters.1 When we make decisions we often hope that our action will be as beneficial as possible and we hope our actions aren’t harmful. We often think some of our actions can produce truly good consequences. Making people happy seems to be really good and causing people suffering seems to be really bad. I suggest that we often assume happiness is intrinsically good and suffering is intrinsically bad. I have already given one argument that intrinsic values exist, but I now want to give more. I will present 14 arguments that help us understand why intrinsic values can make sense to a rational person. These are merely simple arguments that could be worthy of consideration and expanded in the future. I have discussed some of these arguments is more detail in the past.

Argument 1: Intrinsic values are necessary to make sense of uncontroversial commitments about morality.

  1. Intrinsic value beliefs can make sense of many of our uncontroversial (common sense) moral commitments that would have to be dispensed with if intrinsic values don’t exist.
  2. If intrinsic values are necessary to make sense of our uncontroversial moral commitments, then we have some reason to believe in intrinsic values.
  3. Therefore, we have some reason to believe in intrinsic values.

The following commitments about morality seem to require intrinsic values:

  1. We should help people even if we expect no benefit in return. An anti-realist (person who rejects intrinsic values) can reward and punish people to give incentives for moral behavior, but that suggests that we should only help others because some benefit is expected in return. On the other hand if people or their experiences have intrinsic value, then helping people would make a lot of sense.
  2. We should try to care for people even if we currently don’t. An anti-realist can argue that we have social instincts to care for others, but if anti-realism is true, then this instinctual response (1) is limited and certainly has not guaranteed moral behavior and (2) can’t be rationally endorsed to those who lack it. On the other hand, if people or their experiences have intrinsic value, then we have a good reason to want to care for other people.
  3. Morality is seen as rationally “action-guiding.” We ought to help people and we ought not hurt them. Anti-realists can guide our actions through indoctrination and incentives (reward and punishment), but these action-guiding elements are irrational. On the other hand, if intrinsic values exist, then it is rational to promote them. (“Ought” could indicate that some actions are preferable in the sense of making a real difference rather than just a way to achieve personal goals or satisfaction.)
  4. Morality is seen as rationally important. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then morality could be important in the sense that we feel it to be important, but it would not be rational. On the other hand if intrinsic values exist, then morality is rationally important insofar as it encourages us to promote intrinsic values, which really matter.
  5. Morality is seen as categorical in the sense that morality applies to everyone. If intrinsic values don’t exist, we can commit ourselves to a moral standard, but that is merely a personal choice. It wouldn’t really be wrong to choose to be immoral. On the other hand, if intrinsic values exist, then our actions will cause intrinsic benefit or harm whether or not we commit ourselves to moral standards.
  6. We realize that it is important to protect and help everyone. We might have to attack or kill people if it is necessary to save people from genocide even if they are in another country. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then attacking and killing people from another country would not be rationally justified. It would be oppressive because it would impose one’s own preferences onto others in another culture. However, if people have intrinsic value, then it makes perfect sense to save them all from genocide no matter what country they are from.
  7. We accept that morality is overriding. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then moral goals are just as important as any of our other goals. “Importance” without intrinsic values would only refer to or desires. If we desire money more than we desire to be moral, then it might make perfect sense to steal from people.

Argument 2: There are uncontroversial objective moral truths.

  1. Certain objective moral truths are uncontroversial. (e.g. Killing people willy nilly is wrong.)
  2. The best explanation for there being uncontroversial objective moral truths are intrinsic values. (e.g. Human life has intrinsic value.)
  3. If the best explanation for uncontroversial objective moral truths are intrinsic values, then we have some reason to believe in intrinsic values.
  4. Therefore, we have some reason to believe in intrinsic values.

uncontroversial moral truths include the following:

  1. It is often wrong to kill people.
  2. It is often wrong to steal from people.
  3. It is often wrong to do bodily damage to other people.
  4. It is often good to save people’s lives .
  5. It is often good to help educate people.
  6. It is often good to help people be happy.

Argument 3: uncontroversial emotions often involve intrinsic value beliefs.

  1. Our emotions of love, grief, joy, and anger are uncontroversial and legitimate in at least some situations.
  2. Such uncontroversial and legitimate emotions are often based on intrinsic value beliefs.
  3. Therefore, it is a uncontroversial assumption that some things have value or disvalue.
  4. We shouldn’t reject uncontroversial assumptions unless we have good reason to do so.
  5. We don’t have a good reason to reject our ordinary evaluative judgments involving intrinsic values.
  6. Therefore, our beliefs in intrinsic values are justified.

Non-controvesial emotions involving intrinsic values include the following:

  1. We love people because we believe they really have value.
  2. We feel grief when a loved one dies because we believe that someone of value might no longer exist.
  3. We feel joy when a child has been born in our family because we believe that someone of value has been added to the world.
  4. We feel anger when someone tortures an innocent person because we believe that something bad has happened.

Argument 4: Pleasure is good.

  1. We don’t merely value pleasure because we like it.
  2. We aren’t deluded into valuing pleasure from our instincts.
  3. We don’t only value pleasure because of our cultural customs.
  4. We value pleasure because we believe it is good.
  5. We believe pleasure is good because of our experience of pleasure.
  6. If something isn’t valued merely because we like it, or because of our instincts, or because of our cultural customs; then it might have intrinsic value.
  7. Therefore, pleasure might have intrinsic value.

Argument 5: Pleasure is good in itself.

  1. We don’t value pleasure only because it is useful to achieve some goal.
  2. Either we value something because it’s useful or because it is worthy goal for its own sake (good in itself).
  3. Therefore, pleasure is a worthy goal for its own sake (it is good in itself).

Argument 6: Pleasure has intrinsic value.

  1. If something is a worthy goal for its own sake; then we either value it because we desire it for its own sake, or it has intrinsic value (we desire it because it is good).
  2. We don’t value pleasure merely because we desire it.
  3. Therefore, pleasure has intrinsic value.

Argument 7: Intrinsic values best explain our moral experiences.

  1. Our moral experiences are best explained by the absence of intrinsic values (error theory [i.e. nihilism], non-cognitivism [e.g. emotivism], reductionism [e.g. relativism]), or by the existence of intrinsic values (moral realism).
  2. If intrinsic values best explain our moral experiences, then we have some reason to believe in intrinsic values.
  3. Intrinsic values do make the best sense out of our moral experiences.
  4. Therefore, we have some reason to believe in intrinsic values.

Argument 8: Against error theory

  1. Error theory claims that there are no intrinsic values but it admits that we do assume that intrinsic values exist.
  2. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then our experience that pleasure is good would be delusional.
  3. But the delusion of pleasure’s value would still seem to have intrinsic value. Even a delusional experience of pleasure is a good one to the extent that it’s pleasurable.
  4. Therefore, Error theory cannot make good sense out of our moral experiences.

Argument 9: Against non-cognitivism

  1. Non-cognitivism claims that our evaluative judgments are not based on beliefs. Instead, they are merely emotional expressions or commands.
  2. If our evaluative judgments are merely emotional expressions or commands, then we value pleasure merely because we like it (either because of instincts or indoctrination).
  3. However, we like pleasure because it feels good; not because of an instinct or indoctrination.
  4. Therefore, Non-cognitivism can’t make good sense out of our moral experiences.

Argument 10: Against reductionism

  1. Reductionism claims that our moral beliefs are actually about non-moral facts (such as preferences, instincts, or indoctrination).
  2. But the value of pleasure can’t be reduced to instincts or indoctrination; we value it because of the experience.
  3. Therefore, reductionism can’t make good sense out of our moral experiences.

Argument 11: Given the evidence, intrinsic values are the default position and we have no good reason to reject them.

  1. If there is no reason to reject the existence of intrinsic value, then we should believe intrinsic value exists.
  2. There is no reason to reject the existence of intrinsic value.
  3. Therefore, we should believe in intrinsic value.

Argument 12: We should reject intrinsic values if they are unnecessary and strange, but they don’t seem to be particularly unnecessary or strange.

  1. Although intrinsic values are referred to in our uncontroversial moral commitments and experiences, the best reason to reject intrinsic values is if they are unnecessary and strange.
  2. If intrinsic values are strange and they aren’t required to explain our moral observations, then we should reject them.
  3. It has been argued that intrinsic values are strange because they are irreducible to non-moral facts of the natural world.
  4. However, intrinsic values are accepted as irreducible to non-moral facts because that is how we observe them.
  5. Additionally, irreducible facts aren’t very strange.2 There could be emergent facts that are irreducible, such as certain facts of psychology and chemistry.3
  6. Therefore, we shouldn’t reject intrinsic values insofar as they are not strange and insofar as they are required to explain our observations.

Argument 13: We are more sure that intrinsic values are real than that they are illegitimately strange.

  1. Either intrinsic values are illegitimately strange or we have good reason to believe in intrinsic values.
  2. I am more certain that my moral experiences are legitimately explained by intrinsic values than the idea that intrinsic values are illegitimately strange.
  3. If I am more certain that my moral experiences are legitimately explained by intrinsic values than the idea that intrinsic values are illegitimately strange, then we have more reason to think that intrinsic values aren’t illegitimately strange than to think that they are.
  4. So, if we have to decide whether or not intrinsic values are illegitimately strange, then we should decide that they aren’t.

Argument 14: Intrinsic values should be accepted because we have good reason to accept them, but no good reason to reject them.

  1. If we have good reason to accept intrinsic values, but no good reason to reject them, then we should believe in intrinsic values.
  2. If the best reason to reject intrinsic values is because they are unnecessary and strange and that is not a good reason to reject intrinsic values, then we don’t have any good reason to reject intrinsic values.
  3. We shouldn’t reject intrinsic values insofar as they are necessary and not strange.
  4. Therefore, there is no good reason to reject intrinsic values.
  5. Additionally, we do have good reason to accept the existence of intrinsic values.
  6. Therefore, we should accept intrinsic values.

Conclusion

Many people think that intrinsic values require God or are too spooky to exist, but my arguments above give us reason to believe in them whether God exists or not, and they don’t seem so spooky after all. Intrinsic value could be quite ordinary and uncontroversial considering our emotions, commitments, and experiences.

If anything has intrinsic value, then “moral realism” is true, which is the view that morality has some sort of relation to reality itself. Morality is not merely a human invention, and morality is not merely about accomplishing goals.

Update (8/19/10): Fixed Argument 6. It was supposed to be a version of the Euthyphro dilemma.

Notes

1 For more information about intrinsic value, you might want to see “What does ‘Meaning of Life’ Mean?” and “Mischaracterizations of Intrinsic Value.”

2 Intrinsic values are as strange as certain psychological facts if not slightly more so. We don’t know exactly how intrinsic values could exist, but we also don’t know exactly how minds could exist. This might indeed be a reason to have some doubt concerning their existence, but it is not clear to me how good of a reason it is to doubt their existence.

3 See Eric R. Scerri’s “Reduction and Emergence in Chemistry.”

9 Comments »

  1. “uncontroversial moral truths include the following:

    1. It is often wrong to kill people.”

    Can an often really be considered a truth? It seems like without saying the absolute rightness or wrongness of an action, it would not be a fact. That is, unless you believe the situations themselves to either be black or white right or wrong.

    I have many other questions, but I first must ask, do you think these arguments to be proofs, insofar as you believe the premises to be incontrovertible?

    Comment by Evan — August 18, 2010 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

    • Evan,

      True statements are statements that match onto the facts. General statements, such as, “Most Humans have two arms” can be true despite being general. What actually exists in the world is not general. There are actual humans with two arms and the statement is true as long as most of them have two arms.

      “Killing people is wrong” is “generally true.” It will be true in most situations. “Killing people is usually wrong” is a true statement because the actual things that exist (actual situations people are in) make it true.

      Comment by James Gray — August 18, 2010 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  2. Fair. Could you also provide an answer to my question above? That being, “I first must ask, do you think these arguments to be proofs, insofar as you believe the premises to be incontrovertible?”

    Comment by Evan — August 18, 2010 @ 10:26 pm | Reply

    • Nothing is “incontrovertible” in philosophy. Even self-evident truths are called into question. My philosophical arguments are meant to be persuasive and reasonable. At best, my philosophical conclusions might be “rational requirements” in that it would be irrational to disagree. (Not irrational in the sense of being illogical or incoherent, but irrational in the sense that one would have to willfully ignore justification and reason to disagree.)

      I don’t think moral realism or beliefs in intrinsic values are rational requirements and few conclusions of philosophy are. The “10 myths about beliefs/10 myths about morality” might include some conclusions that are rationally required.

      A simple rule of thumb is to find out what is truly controversial for philosophers. If a respectable philosopher believes something based on a set of arguments, then it is probably something that is compatible with rationality.

      Comment by James Gray — August 18, 2010 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

  3. poor phrasing, sorry. As a lover of Hume, I am in agreement that nothing is incontrovertible. What that was meant to express is whether you think that the if then statements are of logical necessity. If I accept the if statement as true, would you argue that the then statement you follow it with, also must be accepted?

    Comment by Evan — August 19, 2010 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

    • I’m not sure what you are asking. Are you asking whether or not my arguments are valid? Statements I make in general are not true “by definition.” They would be what Hume calls “matter of fact” statements.

      Comment by James Gray — August 19, 2010 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

  4. “a lover of Hume **and a skeptic in general**”

    Comment by Evan — August 19, 2010 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

  5. It seems to me that much of what you speak of in this age can only be grasped by most people, a priori and yet this very ability has been almost eliminated by culture, insensitivy and the lack of common self dignity. I am an agnostic, but wonder often about such thoughts…We are a culture of violence, war, trauma and extinction. These have built up walls of denial, narcissitic attitudes and psychic defenses along with our fears of death. Our species has become pathetic, week, self seeking and so on.

    Long live embodied consciousness. Please respond!

    Comment by Kathy — March 17, 2011 @ 5:37 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think we are so much worse now than we ever were. People have done horrible things throughout history, but everything tends to seem peaceful and great as long as we don’t have to actually face the world’s problems. 9/11 and the damage done to the economy has made many of us more sensitive to the world’s problems and might help motivate people to fight for a better world.

      I think people are pretty smart and can understand morality pretty well. The main problem is motivation and occasional lapses in rationality. More education in philosophy, ethics, and logic can help.

      Comment by James Gray — March 17, 2011 @ 8:24 pm | Reply


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