Ethical Realism

February 25, 2011

Why Intrinsic Values Are Common Sense

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 5:42 am
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I will argue that the belief in intrinsic value—that at least one thing is good or bad just for existing—is common sense.1 It’s not only intuitive and compatible with our moral beliefs and emotions, but the denial of intrinsic value seems to be highly counterintuitive and lead to absurdities. (I don’t know how an alternative hypothesis could avoid being counterintuitive, but it might be possible.)

I recently said in “Intrinsic Values and Beliefs About Reality” that “intrinsic values are necessary to make sense out of our uncontroversial and highly plausible moral beliefs, and these beliefs shouldn’t be rejected without a good reason to do so.” I will now explain why I think intrinsic values are so important to our “uncontroversial and highly plausible moral beliefs” but I cannot prove that there are no possible equally intuitive alternative hypotheses.2 It is sometimes necessary to reject common sense and embrace “revisionistic” (counterintuitive) beliefs and theories. We know that the world is not always as it seems. The Earth is not flat and the Sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth. At the same time common sense is worth something and we shouldn’t reject common sense unless we have a good reason to do so. Perhaps the best reason to believe in intrinsic value is the fact that it’s common sense (and denying the existence of intrinsic values seems to be counterintuitive). In particular:

  1. Intrinsic values make sense of certain emotions.
  2. Intrinsic values make sense of our experiences and understanding of pleasure and pain.
  3. Intrinsic values tell us why morality is overriding.
  4. Intrinsic values tell us why it’s rational to be moral.
  5. Intrinsic values tell us why “morality isn’t up to us.”
  6. Intrinsic values make sense of right and wrong.

1. Intrinsic values make sense of certain emotions.

Certain emotions—such as love, joy, and grief—seem to imply assumptions about intrinsic value and we don’t think these emotions are always “inappropriate.”

Love – When we love someone we are often willing to harm ourselves to protect that person. We think the person we love has value beyond our own desires. We don’t just hope that the person we love gives us various benefits. We want the person we love to live a good life even at our own expense. If people or their experiences can be intrinsically good, then it makes sense that we love them. It makes sense to be willing to make sacrifices when we know those who will benefit from our sacrifices have value and are worthy of our love.

Joy – Having a child is a cause for joy precisely because we assume the child (or that child’s experiences) are good just for existing. Having a child is not a cause for joy just because we hope the child gives us benefits in the future. Having a child is a lot of work and is not always a good way to achieve happiness. The whole point to having a child should be to create someone good for its sake, not our own.

Grief – When someone dies it can make us quite sad, even if we didn’t have a strong personal relationship with that person. This makes sense if that person’s existence is taken to be good just for existing, and the death of the person is a loss of something “good in itself.”

If intrinsic values don’t exist, then is isn’t clear whether or not love, joy, and grief are “appropriate” emotions; and it would be even less clear whether they could be coherent with the rejection of intrinsic values. Love in particular is a problematic emotion if intrinsic values don’t exist. If you love someone, but think that person has no real value, then it’s not clear we are even talking about love.

2. Intrinsic values make sense of our experiences and understanding of pleasure and pain.

We experience that pleasure is good and pain is bad. It certainly seems rational to want to attain pleasure and avoid pain. This doesn’t seem to require any beliefs concerning intrinsic value, but I think pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. One reason I think that is because our knowledge of other people’s pleasure and pain is important to us. We think their pleasure is good and their pain is bad, just like our own. It not only seems rational for me to seek pleasure, but also to give pleasure to other people. It not only seems rational for me to avoid pain, but to help other people avoid pain.

We often take pleasure in the thought of other people taking pleasure. We think their pleasure is good, and that thought is a source for joy. We might like to show them our favorite movies and make them laugh. We often feel pain in the thought of other people’s pain. We think their pain is bad and that is a source of our own misery. We might want to give a stranger an aspirin in the hope that it helps that person avoid pain.

Empathy for all people and animals (that have minds) itself seems to be rational only given the existence of intrinsic values. If other people’s pain is really bad, then it’s appropriate that we are distressed by their pain. We probably evolved empathy for genetic reasons involving pro-social behavior within one’s family or tribe. Empathy probably did not evolve to be applied to strangers, competing tribes, enemies, or other animals; yet we think we should feel empathy for all people and animals. This thought makes perfect sense if we find out that we can have empathy for any being that has intrinsic value rather than merely towards those involving expected reciprocity. If I only want empathy for my own benefit, then there seems to be no reason to extend empathy to all people or animals, but it seems appropriate to “care” for any being that has intrinsic value even when no reciprocal benefit is possible. If others have intrinsic value, then the good we do for others counts because the other is an important part of the universe.

If intrinsic values don’t exist, then it’s not clear that we can rationally care about the pain or pleasure of strangers because such care seems to imply that we find them (and their experiences) to have value beyond our self-interest. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then it’s not clear that empathy for all people and animals is rational. I not only find it implausible that it’s instinctual to care about all people and animals, but I think we can indirectly control our empathy. We can nurture our empathetic nature and learn to empathize more, with greater intensity, and with a wider circle of beings; or we can neglect our empathetic nature to empathize less, with less intensity, and with a smaller circle of beings. We can attain more empathy by having close friends and fulfilling relationships with others if we realize that strangers are quite like ourselves. Those who were once strangers eventually became friends who have thoughts and feelings similar to our own. The loss of empathy is common when we demonize “the enemy,” when we dehumanize others different from ourselves, when we keep ourselves isolated from the outside world, and so on.

3. Intrinsic values tell us why morality is overriding.

We think morality is overriding—moral goals take priority over nonmoral goals. Morality is more important than everything else and we shouldn’t accomplish any goal if it conflicts with morality. Intrinsic values can tell us why morality is overriding. If intrinsic value exists, then intrinsic value is the most important thing in the universe. In fact, it’s the only thing that “really matters.” If one thing is “good in itself,” like human life, and another thing isn’t, like money—then helping people survive is more important than attaining money. If I have a goal to attain money at the cost of human lives, then it’s not worth it because our survival is more important than money. Of course, these aren’t always mutually exclusive goals. Money often helps us survive. Our goals involving money are perfectly moral as long as they don’t conflict with moral requirements.

Our personal interests often conflict with moral requirements. The motivation to do the wrong thing tends to be based on expected personal gain. A CEO might want their company to make millions of dollars of profits by dumping toxic waste in a third world country. This might be a good way to get a lot of money in bonuses and keep one’s job. Of course, one’s personal interest is only one small factor when making a moral decision. Everyone’s interest counts. If people have intrinsic value, then it makes sense that morality could conflict with one’s rational self-interest because (a) one is not the only person that matters and (b) it’s theoretically possible to help oneself at the expense of others (and it’s theoretically possible to make personal sacrifices to benefit others).3

Additionally, being morally praiseworthy often comes at a tremendous personal cost. Consider advocates like Martin Luthor King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi who spoke out against injustice despite the fact that it put their lives at risk. These people seem perfectly rational despite getting themselves killed.

If intrinsic values don’t exist, then its not clear why morality is overriding. Morality wouldn’t have greater importance in any ultimate sense than anything else. In that case something like “rational self-interest” should probably replace morality. Although it’s theoretically possible that one’s own self-interest is always compatible with morality, that is highly implausible and self-interest is the motivation of a great deal of immoral behavior.

4. Intrinsic values tell us why it’s rational to be moral.

If intrinsic values exist, then there is something “truly important” we can try to promote. It seems rational to want to do something that “really matters” and “make the world a better place”—and we can do exactly that if intrinsic values exist. Saving lives, helping people find happiness, and helping people attain knowledge all seem like they are important and “worthy goals” beyond one’s personal desires or self-interest. These are the kinds of goals that are “worthy of desire” and that we ought to learn to desire (perhaps through nurturing empathy).

On the other hand if intrinsic values don’t exist and nothing is truly important, then it doesn’t seem rational to make personal sacrifices for the good of others (and it doesn’t seem rational to refuse to harm others to benefit oneself). We have no choice but to care about our own pain because of how it feels, but we certainly don’t have to care about everyone else. If everyone has intrinsic value, then it seems to make sense to care about them. If they don’t, then it’s unclear why we should care about everyone. In fact, empathy motivates us to make sacrifices and it can be a cause of emotional distress, so the nonexistence of intrinsic value would seem to make it rational to want to minimize our empathy rather than expand it.4

The fact that it only seems rational to be committed to morality if moral realism is true was discussed by Marcel S. Lieberman in his book Commitment, Value, and Moral Realism. Lieberman also stresses the personal sacrifices required by morality and argues that commitments would be irrational if moral realism is false to the point that anti-realist moral commitments would be incoherent—a person has to assume desire-independent values to exist to have moral commitments.

5. Intrinsic values tell us why “morality isn’t up to us.”

We believe that certain actions are right and others are wrong, and intrinsic values are one way to justify such beliefs. We don’t think all of these moral beliefs are merely a matter of opinion or a matter of taste. We think “killing people willie nilly” is always wrong, and it’s not in any way “up to you” to make it true. If morality isn’t completely up to us, that implies that there can be something like a “moral reality” or “moral element of reality.” I suggest that this element is intrinsic value. We know that “killing people willy nilly” is wrong because human life (or the experiences of people) can have intrinsic value—it’s good for a person to exist (and/or for their positive experiences to exist). It’s better for a person to exist than not. When a person dies, something of value is lost. Assuming that human life is intrinsically good, the death of a person is always a loss of value.

Additionally, we believe that moral progress is possible precisely because morality isn’t up to us. For example, slavery was wrong and we improved our culture when we outlawed it. Slavery did not properly respect the importance all people have. People who thought that slavery was compatible with morality had false moral beliefs.

If intrinsic values exist, then they are a moral element of reality that isn’t up to us. However, if they don’t exist, then morality is up to us after all. In that case morality is based on our personal and collective preferences, or a social contract. A social contract could explain why some moral beliefs are “false” (within a cultural context), but it’s not clear that moral progress would be possible. We can’t say that one social contract is better than another if social contracts are the source of morality in the first place.

6. Intrinsic values make sense of right and wrong.

I suggest, roughly, that an action is “right” when an action produces the minimum good that we can expect of a person who has limited knowledge and ability, and an action is “wrong” when an action produces less good than the minimum we can expect of a person who has limited knowledge and ability. Our expectations should be based on the fact that we can only demand people to behave in ways that aren’t too difficult for them. A person who can easily cure cancer has a moral obligation to do so, but most of us can’t easily cure cancer. However, most of us can easily choose not to kill others throughout most of the day, so it is wrong for us to do so.

Intrinsic values help stress the importance of the words “right” and “wrong.” It’s horrific for people to be tortured and killed, and that’s why it’s usually wrong to do these things. We don’t usually use these words unless a significant amount of intrinsic value is at risk. We don’t say it’s “wrong” to pinch people because the pain is minimal, but we say it’s wrong to drink and drive because people’s lives are at stake.

Of course, intrinsic values alone don’t tell us right from wrong by themselves. First, we need to realize that morality is overriding precisely because intrinsic values are involved. Second, we need to have rational goals of promoting things that are intrinsically good. These goals should be something we could commit ourselves to. Third, we need to understand how to best promote intrinsic values. I already discussed why intrinsic values can explain why morality is overriding and why it’s rational to be moral.

How should we promote intrinsic values? That is a contentious issue in philosophy. If something is intrinsically good just for existing, then (all things equal) it’s right to bring it into existence and (all things equal) it’s wrong to destroy it. For example, it’s right to help give people pleasure through entertaining storytelling when we have no overriding reason not to, and it’s wrong to kill a person when we have no overriding reason to do so. The problem is that intrinsic values often conflict and it’s not entirely clear how we should decide right from wrong in such a case. For example, we might have to decide whether we should kill someone to save two or more other lives.

We have little choice but to do philosophy to try to answer controversial moral questions and determine right from wrong in difficult situations. I discuss philosophical approaches in more detail in “Moral Theories” and “Moral Reasoning Without Moral Theories.”

If intrinsic values don’t exist, we can still define “right” and “wrong” though arbitrary uses of language or a social contract, but the words will lose the importance attached to them and there will no longer be moral elements of reality beyond ourselves that determine right and wrong. Instead, morality will be “up to us.”


Intrinsic values are common sense because certain uncontroversial and highly plausible beliefs are compatible with intrinsic values and might not be compatible with the absence of intrinsic values. If intrinsic values exist, then we can understand why certain emotions are appropriate, other people’s pain is relevant to morality, morality is overriding, morality is rational, morality isn’t up to us, and certain actions are right or wrong. Without intrinsic values it isn’t clear that any of these uncontroversial and plausible beliefs are true. I have argued above that intrinsic values are intuitive, but I have not argued above that intrinsic values actually exist. I provided an argument that intrinsic values exist in “An Argument for Moral Realism.”

I have not here proven that intrinsic values are the only common sense explanation for our moral experiences and uncontroversial moral beliefs possible. My point here is that intrinsic values are common sense insofar as they seem like a good explanation for such things, but it is possible for competing theories to offer equally good explanations. I have explained why it’s not clear to me that there are any other hypotheses that could explain our moral experiences and uncontroversial beliefs, but that doesn’t prove that no such explanations are possible. My statement that “intrinsic values are necessary to make sense out of our uncontroversial and highly plausible moral beliefs” is my personal belief based on the information I have, but I might have missed something.

Update (2/26/11): First, I explained my use of the term “common sense” with a footnote to clarify the fact that I don’t use the term to mean “common belief.” I think this fact should have already been fairly clear because I already said quite a bit in the introduction about the purpose of this essay, but the term can throw a person off because it’s a bit ambiguous. Second, I added a clarification in the introduction and conclusion that alternative hypotheses might be able to explain our moral experiences and uncontroversial moral beliefs just as well as intrinsic values.


1 The word “common sense” is being used in a fairly technical way here. It doesn’t mean “common belief.” It means something more like “intuitive” and “plausible given our current understanding of reality”—but not conclusively proven. I discuss this use of common sense in more detail in “Common Sense Assumptions vs Self-Evidence.” It is possible for two perspectives, theories, or hypotheses to be equally “common sense” insofar as they are both intuitive and plausible. Intrinsic values are a hypothesis to explain our moral experiences and beliefs. It is common sense insofar as it helps explain other intuitive, plausible, and uncontroversial beliefs.

2 Much of what I say here was already discussed in “Denying the Meaning of Life” where I explain why meta-ethics (and the possible existence of intrinsic values in particular) are important questions that we need to explore.

3 It is true that the threat of punishment (and expectation for reciprocity) might usually make it rational to behave morally, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s always within one’s self-interest to be moral. In fact, whistle blowers, freedom fighters, and peace advocates are often more likely to be harmed than benefited from their behavior despite the fact that they are trying to help others.

4 Empathy can make you feel distress at another person’s distress. I would rather not feel bad just because someone else does.

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