Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

In a recent post I distinguished numerous times between moral and non-moral values and between different sorts of intrinsic and instrumental goods.  James Gray asks for clarifications about how I use these terms:

First, I don’t know that it matters to call something a “moral value.” Of course, there are instrumental values concerning morally neutral goals. Are you saying that intrinsic values are moral but instrumental ones aren’t?

My point is whether we can understand intrinsic value in non-”intrinsic value” terms.

Second, you said “Such analyses are not reductionistic and they do not try to assess the good in “non-good” terms. They do purport to assess moral values in non-moral terms.” I don’t know what any of this means, perhaps because it’s not clear to me how moral values differ from nonmoral values. Some examples might help.

What I am saying is that both intrinsic and instrumental values exist all throughout nature without making any reference to human moral interests to derive either their intrinsic or their instrumental value.  Intrinsic value simply means intrinsic effectiveness.  This means whatever is a thing’s characteristic effective activity that either makes it, or contributes to it being, the kind of thing it is.

On the level of humans we have both moral and non-moral intrinsic values and both moral and non-moral instrumental values.  Non-moral intrinsic goods for humans include aesthetic goods, goods of physical power, goods of artistic and technological creative powers, goods of sexual power, goods of intellectual power, etc.  All our functional powerful excellences which are intrinsically good to being human but which can be at times be exercised independently of advancing narrowly moral concerns, is a “non-moral” intrinsic value.

Largely influenced by Jonathan Haidt but with my own additions, I take distinctively morally intrinsic values to be our interests in fairness and equality, our interests in harm avoidance and mutual care for each other, our interests in purity and sanctity, our interests in in-group loyalty, our interest in respect for hierarchicalism, our interests in actions which are highly formally consistent/universalizable, our interests in deferring dutifully to order and principle even at the cost to our own immediate personal well-being or interests when required.

These sorts of interests are subjectively experienced as highly valuable to us to some degree or another.  And to one degree or another each of these value priorities is objectively defensible in at least some contexts and in at least some concrete forms.  These are what I mean by characteristically “moral” values, which are contrastable with all other interest priorities.

Intimately connected to these moral priorities are a slew of distinctively moral virtues, which I identify as such by their general or (expectedly general) contribution to the realization of these moral priorities. Insofar as overall human flourishing is maximized when we thrive functioning in all our potential excellences, fulfilling these moral potentials contributes to our intrinsic flourishing as excellent humans.

This flourishing is not only intrinsically good as exercise of characteristic human excellences, but it is also instrumentally good insofar as it serves moral value priorities which genuinely advance the material, social, economic, political, spiritual, intellectual, and other cultural conditions of our well-being and thriving.

Ultimately, specific instances of morally driven priorities are either justified or proven mistakenly applied or overemphasized by consideration of whether or to what extent they lead to our overall flourishing. This overall flourishing is the ultimate ethical priority, which I distinguish from narrower, more characteristically “moral” priorities.

In this way moral goals are ultimately instrumental goods which must be defined and justified by their overall contribution to overall flourishing, more well-rounded, ethical human lives.   But insofar as pursuing a moral goal itself gives opportunity to fulfill a fundamental human excellence and contribute to our overall maximization of our powerful functioning, it is an occasion for us to be intrinsically good (i.e.,characteristically effective) humans through such exercise of our powers. In this way our morality helps us realize our humanity.

Now, with all of this context, when I say that we should assess moral values by non-moral values, I mean we should assess whether or to what extent moral priorities (or particular interpretations of them) and cultivation of specifically moral excellences ultimately contributes to or hinders in specific cases the development of general human flourishing in intellect, aesthetics, artistic creation, technological creation, social order, knowledge, cultural vibrancy, sexual fulfillment, etc., etc.  These goods are not necessary identical with moral priorities and I think their maximization trumps the pursuit of morality taken as an end in itself.

Ultimately, though our minds tempt us quite naturally and understandably to take the moral priorities as ends in themselves, and even though it is usually better to treat them as such for maximum effectiveness, nonetheless our ultimate good is not morality itself but overall human flourishing.  And so in cases where moralities (or particular concrete interpretations of it) conflict with that goal on net, it is just so much the worse for moral priorities.

This also goes for cases where we can have net growth in overall flourishing by growing more in non-moral excellences but only at the trade off of some specifically moral interest priorities or specifically moral excellences.  Ultimately overall human flourishing has greater intrinsic value than either morality or specifically moral virtues for their own sakes.

Finally, as to your question of whether we can understand intrinsic value in “non-intrinsic” value terms, I would say that ultimately the most basic value, effectiveness, is a form of intrinsic value and larger intrinsic values are of this basic sort, so there is not an intrinsic value coming from what is merely of instrumental value.

The posts where I previously worked the moral vs. non-moral values questions out most extensively were Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation and Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • James Gray

    This means whatever is a thing’s characteristic effective activity that either makes it, or contributes to it being, the kind of thing it is.

    We might need to do something about the fact that we are using the same word with vastly different definitions. If you have no way of saying that pain is intrinsically bad, then it is clear that we aren’t referring to the same thing. This is not just a matter of revisionism or different definitions of the same concept.

    Let’s say that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. That means some behavior leads to better consequences. Pleasure counts for a behavior but pain counts against it. This is the standard meaning of intrinsic value as can be seen on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy based on utilitarianism and so on. If something is intrinsically good, then it’s good “just for existing.”

    One purpose of intrinsic value is to help explain why human behavior is rational and justified as found in Aristotle’s final ends. If there is no intrinsic value (final end), then the goals we have are fruitless and/or circular. You can get food to live and live to get food.

    If life has intrinsic value, then getting food to live is enough justification to be a rational goal because the goal is for something truly good.

    It’s rational to give someone with a headache an aspirin because avoiding pain is a final end, and it’s rational to eat candy because the pleasure it brings is a final end. These are things we understand as being “worthy” goals.

    I personally think your use of the word is unconventional and should be changed, but I can call my “intrinsic values” “intrinsically valuable final ends” if that helps.

    Largely influenced by Jonathan Haidt but with my own additions, I take distinctively morally intrinsic values to be our interests in fairness and equality, our interests in harm avoidance and mutual care for each other, our interests in purity and sanctity, our interests in in-group loyalty, our interest in respect for hierarchicalism, our interests in actions which are highly formally consistent/universalizable, our interests in deferring dutifully to order and principle even at the cost to our own immediate personal well-being or interests when required.

    This sounds arbitrary to me. Morality is about what we ought to do, and we ought to do whatever promotes intrinsic value appropriately — even if that intrinsic value is what you call “nonmoral.”

    You say that pleasure is intrinsically good insofar as it is what it is, and we are intrinsically good insofar as we are what we are. But none of that matters at all unless it’s good that we exist — unless human life is a final end. Pain itself is not a final end, but avoiding pain is.

    One of the most important questions in morality is, “Why should I care?” or “Why does it matter?” I need to know why I should care about being an “excellent human being.” Does human life matter?

    You are still lacking examples. I don’t see how what you are talking about relates to morality and everyday life.

  • Arianna

    Hindsight is 20/20