Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The other day, I wrote a post exploring a major reason that getting away without penalties would not be enough to make at least some kinds of wrongdoing in our best interests. I was taking one of a few possible tacks at answering Glaucon’s question in Plato’s Republic as to how being a just person might be intrinsically good to us even if it brought us nothing but misery and even if injustice, in our peculiar circumstance, would alternatively lead to all manner of riches, power, honor, fame, love, and pleasure. I think I can defend the intrinsic goodness of justice in a second, more robust way than I did in that first post, but before I get to that, I want to quickly make a couple observations about the concept of intrinsic goodness.

Glaucon assumes that if all the normal incentives of justice were denied to the just and were given instead as rewards for injustice, and if the unjust were spared all the disincentives of injustice and instead the just were punished with them, there would be nothing that would make justice in our interest and so justice is not intrinsically good. He claims therefore that justice is merely an instrumental good, i.e., only good insofar as it brings about other things actually desired in themselves (like admiration, wealth, and all other forms of success and delight.) But I want to argue that that justice could still be an intrinsic good even if Glaucon were proven right that it would not be worth it to be just in the extreme scenario he describes, wherein justice leads totally to misery and injustice leads totally to desired goods.

Think about a marriage. Most people would say (I think truthfully) that they do not get married just to have sex. In other words, I think most people would say that a good marriage is more important than simply having sex and that marriage is not merely an instrumental good for procuring regular sex. They would say, assuming they believe in the institution at all, that marriage is intrinsically valuable in the sense that it is something they would do for the intrinsically good things which are inherent in that kind of relationship and commitment with the right person. One of the delightful aspects of such a relationship would be intimate, pleasurable sex with someone they love. but that is far from the only good that makes marriage good.

Now imagine that for some combination of physical and emotional reasons, one of the partners in the marriage loses all interest in sex and after several years the other, frustrated, partner decides to file for divorce. Would we say that for the partner who is leaving marriage was all along only about getting sex? Would we say that marriage was only an instrumental good to him or her (a means to sex) and not something he or she desired for itself? I hardly think that’s true.

Part of intrinsically loving and delighting in marriage involves enjoying the fullness of what marriage offers. If you subtract from the value of marriage all (or the right combination of) the good things which constitute its pleasantness and all (or the right combination of) the ways that people virtuously flourish by being married (including through sexual intimacy) and ask for the “intrinsic value” of marriage all by itself you are asking for something that is impossible to produce. The intrinsic value of marriage is not any one isolatable thing that can be found distinct from all the pleasures and delightful ways of flourishing as a person that make marriage intrinsically desirable. The intrinsic value of marriage is a function of the interaction of numerous things which are excellent for us. A good marriage is not merely a means to those good things, it is a function of them, a realization of them that, through their combination creates an especially good thing that is impossible with each of them separately.

In marriage the goods of emotional intimacy, of sex, of trust, of support, of partnership, of family identity, of raising children, of daily lifelong friendship, etc. all are amplified by their special combination together. Marriage is more than the sum of all these parts and not merely a means to them. It is an intrinsic good, a good thing people aim directly at, rather than something they aim at only for something else they want. Marriage, even though intrinsically desired by people and intrinsically good for them, should also contribute to overall flourishing human lives. Insofar as in a given case it fails to contribute positively to better lives or insofar as it actually encumbers the ability to live overall flourishing lives, it may be worth abandoning, not because it is not an intrinsically good thing, but because it is not the highest good.

If someone were to abandon a marriage because it was sexless this would not reveal that the marriage was only a means to sex for that person. But it would mean that the loss of sex and concomitant emotional and physical suffering that came with it would damage the overall flourishing of the person leaving the relationship and so make the marriage, though potentially intrinsically good, in fact, in this case a net overall harm to him or her.

I think something similar might be said of justice. It is intrinsically good because it not only instrumentally serves other goods but it represents the combination and amplification of sub-goods in themselves. But there could be cases where being just was too damaging to overall flourishing that might prove too counterproductive to our interests to be justifiable. If that is true, and I am not sure it is, then justice might in some cases be rightfully abandoned for its overwhelmingly deleterious counterproductive effects, but that would not make it any less intrinsically good.

There is more  I want to say about what constitutes the intrinsic goodness of justice and why it normally would be worth suffering ills or losing benefits in order to be just. I will even mount a defense of its goodness even in cases where it leads to extreme misfortune and injustice’s value even in cases where it leads to extreme fortune. But for now, I just want to make clear that even if it is a good that might be overridden by other considerations in some cases, it can still be considered intrinsically good and not merely instrumental.

Your Thoughts?

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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.

  • George W.

    I’m wondering if you are not building a bad analogy.
    If you are going to analogize justice to something, it ought to be love; and if it is marriage, it is best to use the social contract.
    Justice is a noble virtue, one that I think- like you- is an intrinsic good. This would be true regardless of whether the net result was negative- if only because as a social species equity is in all our best interests. So too is love. Their are most certainly benefits and costs involving love- but it is still an intrinsic good. I think that analogy fits better.

    Where I think I have a difference of opinion is when you compare marriage and justice as though marriage was some standardized quantifiable entity. Someone might be married, for example, and live in a healthy but loveless relationship with their spouse. Another man might be married- but live in a volatile and violent relationship. These are both marriages, for better or for worse. It seems like you are idealizing a concept of marriage that is maximally beneficial in those areas that you think ought to be benefited by a marriage.
    A marriage is a contract in the same way as a social contract. They are not intrinsically good- though both offer structure for a potential maximization of intrinsic goods.
    You can have a deficient marriage that is not intrinsically good though is still a marriage. You might have (and arguably usually have) a social contract that is deficient and not intrinsically good though it is still a social contract.
    Marriages and social contracts are normative arrangements that are only quantifiable in their ability to maximize good for all parties involved.

    Perhaps what you mean by marriage is a relationship of equals that is founded on a deep love and respect. I guess I doubt that this is the necessary definition of marriage.

    You can strip a marriage down to a shadow of what you intended in this post and it is still a marriage- I’m not sure you could do the same with justice.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks for the thought-provoking reply, George. Forgive a quick incomplete reply as I am on a train.

      Love and marriage are distinct things. Yes, marriage legally just means just a certain kind of contract. But it also can refer to one of a number of identifiable relationships. Different kinds of marriages might aim at and/or achieve different kinds of excellences. So, yes, someone could aim for (or, as a matter of fact, just flourish through different kinds of marriage than the kind I sketched. Nonetheless, as long as we specify how the marital relationship at hand realizes or fails to realize the partners’ goods, we can specify in what ways it has intrinsic goodness for them. Insofar as we could specify potential ways to realize their flourishing, we can assess to what degree it is realizing its potential for them. And to the extent that it contributes to, stagnates, or hinders overall functioning of the partners and others they eFfect, we can assess its ultimate worth.

  • khms

    I must say this argument for intrinsic goodness actually convinced me that at least in the cases you talk about, there is no intrinsic goodness to be seen.

    Going back to Glaucon’s question, it seems to me that his scenario either presumes a universe that reacts to some variant of morals, or else a perfectly just arbiter who decides who gets what – which at least seems to contradict the whole scenario. So my reaction at the moment is that his scenario is hypothetical in the same sense as “assume triangles had four corners” … otherwise called impossible.

    Always assuming I understood all your terms correctly, I think my position is that there cannot be any such thing as a “intrinsic goodness”, for the same reason there cannot be absolute morality – all value decisions are made by individuals, the universe doesn’t make any. Any number of individuals might agree on some things as good or bad, but that doesn’t mean that any other individuals will agree, or are obligated to.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Goodness is not something that comes into being as the subjective posit of an arbiter. That would be a form of subjectivism in ethics (either realist, like some kinds of deontologists, or anti-realist, like relativists of various stripes).

      Rather I think goodness is a natural property and so a matter of objective facts. I begin to lay out the case for this position in this post: and in the posts linked to at its end. Feel free to chime in on the points I make in that or any of its follow up posts!

  • Francisco Bacopa

    Have you ever read The End of Life by James Rachels. There’s a very good discussion of the differences between intrinsic and instrumental value in that book. It builds on his classic “Active and Passive Euthanasia” paper. It argues that our biological lives are not intrinsically valuable. Biological life has instrumental value only. Tremendous instrumental value, of course, because biological life is an irreplaceable necessary condition for what Rachel’s calls the “biographical life”, the inner world of pleasure and suffering, of successful undertakings and thwarted projects, the world of achievement and defeat. The most famous conclusion Rachels draws from this biological/biographical life distinction is that is that once a person is in such a condition that their biological life is reduced in quality such that they no longer have much of that instrumental value left, Euthanasia is an appropriate option for that person.

    But there’s more to The End of Life than euthanasia. It really gets you thinking about what really is intrinsically valuable, and makes it quite subjective. And that’s OK, people should be free to pursue whatever projects they want and assign value how they like as long as they don’t stomp on too many other people’s projects. I read Rachels as being some kind of mass-project-optimizing utilitarian, with a few things like pleasure and suffering falling into a realm of intrinsic values.

    Under this view it is difficult to see how marriage has intrinsic value though I do agree that we can’t say that marriage has instrumental value just for sex. I can also see how marriage can be quite useful under a wide range of conditions. Heck, that’s why a lot of gay people want it, and I think that’s great. But I don’t see how deep down marriage has intrinsic value.

    But all this was a metaphor for justice. I think in an End of Life point of view, justice would simply be stepping outside of oneself and taking a larger view that tries to reduce suffering and project-stomping and attempts to make a society that fosters project fulfillment. Is justice innately valuable? I don’t know, maybe it’s just a shorthand for reducing pain and project-thwarting, and increasing project fulfillment.

    You just heard from “Good Francisco”, now a message from “Bad Francisco”. I am almost completely persuaded by the “Gyges Ring” argument. I almost believe that for each of us, there is some level of advantage over others that would make us go totally haywire and screw the system. It would take more than Gyges’ ring to make me go over the edge. But what if I woke up tomorrow with the abilities of Superman? Who could stop me. It would be nothing but Truth (yeah, I know more of the truth than you do), Justice (I know better than others, if you disagree, too bad), and the Francisco Bacopa Way.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Francisco, I did not know of the Rachels piece but it sounds like he would defend euthanasia similarly to how I would. I would similarly argue that our most powerful functioning might involve our deaths under certain circumstances and I also conceive of our legacies and our influences on the world as continued power after we die, and that these can be more important than our biological lives.

      But I wouldn’t argue that biological life is merely instrumental just because its goodness can be overridden under circumstances. I think intrinsic does not mean subject to be chosen against when a greater and more intrinsic good is at stake.

      As to your points about being tyrannical if only given the power, my other major tack for addressing Glaucon will address that and so I will save off on that for now. But the clues to how I will go about it can be found in my post: if you are interested in offering Your Thoughts there in the meantime.

    • Francisco Bacopa

      Yes, Rachels agrees with you that there is a biographical-life point of view from which something can be said to be good from the point of view of a deceased person.

      But I think Rachels has a point about biological life having only instrumental value. Consider this dialog I have had many times:

      Do you want to die?

      Well the Lord has plans for me I cannot understand for me. If it is his will I must accept it.

      You misunderstand me. I’m not asking if on some level you are OK with death, I’m asking if you want to die?

      I’m not sure what you are getting at. Like I said, it’s out of my hands.

      Oh is it? I know you used to smoke. You quit. You fasten your seatbelt in the car. Seems like you think it is in your control and you don’t want to die

      Oh I see, I guess I don’t want to die, at least not from anything stupid like lung cancer or a car crash.

      So, why not?

      Well, my kids need me. I want to see them grow up. And there’s still things I hope to do in my life, things I want to see. Sometimes I’m just curious about how things are going to turn out. Plus a lot of ways of dying are unpleasant and I’d rather not experience that anytime soon.

      See what’s going on? It no time did the victim of my interrogation ever refer to the intrinsic value of their life. They never say, “It’s a good thing that I am alive.” They almost always refer to commitments, undertakings, desires, and the fear of pain. When questioned, everyone recognizes their life is an instrument, a precious instrument, and they do not make claims of intrinsic value.

      I would also highly recommend Rachels’ Elements of Moral Philosophy as a textbook if you ever teach an intro to ethics class. He was a pretty cool dude. Managed to hold most of the same batch of controversial positions that Peter Singer has, but lived out most of his career as the fairly non-controversial head of Alabama-Birmingham’s bioethics department

      If you can’t tell, I think you’re being horribly unfair to Glaucon by not getting straight to Gyges. In my old Greek workbook Glaucon talks for less than two pages before getting to Gyges. And this is with wide margins and space to write your translation underneath. Don’t worry, If I awaken tomorrow as superhero/supervillain Bad Francisco, I will not make you suffer for this. In fact, you might mostly like the world I would create. I support freedom and self-creation, but some people have such degenerate notions of human thriving they would have to have their projects stomped as hard as I can stomp on them. Can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

      Give Glaucon a chance and get to the Gyges argument. It’s the second most badass part of all of Plato’s work.

  • usagichan

    I am inclined to the opinion expressed by some of the other commenters here questioning the “intrinsic” good in marrriage – for me there are two big assumptions in the argument. First is a particular definition of the institution of marriage. The argument you have put certainly does not work if one defines marriage as a transfer of property between families (historically a far more common definition although it is still defined so today in certain cultures).

    Second is that the set of goods which give value to the participants in a marriage are available only through marriage. All of the points that you have raised as giving value to a marriage it seems to me, could also be a part of a non-formally recognised relationship (which might be equally as resiliant or fragile depending on the participants character and states). Therefore the question must be, what is it about marriage, as distinct from a similar but non formalised relationship, that can be an exemplar of “good”?

    • Camels With Hammers

      It is not an “exemplar” case of good in any special sense. It was just I had the epiphany when I thought of the sexless marriage. It was actually a student who planted the seed by asking whether the extreme scenario Glaucon presents should be read as wiping out all the intrinsic goodness of justice. The first example that popped to mind was the sexless marriage and I built the idea from there.

      As I tried to indicate earlier in my reply to George, there is a difference between the marriage contract and the marriage relationships. The contract specifies certain rights and obligations. The relationships that married parties can engage in vary of course culture to culture and throughout history. I am by no means naively saying it only has been or can be the kind of relationship aimed at (or justified by) the specific kinds of flourishing goods I have characterized it as having. I was implicitly appealing to a normative conception for marriage relationships to maximally realize various excellent possibilities in combination with each other. Defined as that relationship ideal it can be an example of an intrinsic, and not merely instrumental good for the way it realizes, expresses, and amplifies our fundamental powers in a way that can constitute a major part of our overall flourishing.

      Does it HAVE to be that? No. Do all cultures idealize this self-realization possibility through marriage? Not to the same degress, so no, of course not.

      But if the relationship exists at all or is desired, then its very existence or its very being aimed at make it an intrinsic good as far as I’m concerned. It does not have to be universally realized or even sought to be intrinsically good when sought or when realized.

    • usagichan


      Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

      and yet

      It is not an “exemplar” case of good in any special sense

      -am I missing something there? Or is it that a more precise title (“Illustrating certain aspects of a practical definition of good by means of certain aspects of an idealised view of modern Western marriage” perhaps?) is just not as snappy? I don’t know, you philosophers – anything for a catchy headline eh?

      Anyway, I will be very interested when you get around to

      I think I can defend the intrinsic goodness of justice in a second, more robust way than I did in that first post

      Firstly in a definition of justice, and secondly how it can be intrinsically good (and by that I assume you are talking about the very factual good you have much discussed elsewhere).

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, my account of justice and its value will be systematically consistent with my “goodness as effectiveness” metaethics.

      And, yes, shortly after I posted this piece and before anyone started challenging it, I regretted promising in the title that I would “define” intrinsic goodness since I wound up not doing that in the actual piece.

      As for not qualifying that I was referring to some versions of Western marriage—yes, as a philosopher I should be (and usually am) far more qualified than that. I hadn’t realized that the word “intrinsic” would give people the implication that I was denying cultural and historical variability of real world institutions. I now see why that is a natural inference, given the way others might use the word “intrinsic”. Sometimes the challenge is to remember not everyone uses certain words in the technical senses you have become accustomed to yourself.

  • George W.

    Not to beat on a dead horse here Dan, but I want to try and explain this in a different way.

    If I use some method X to interact with my fellow man- can we not quantify whether it is “just” or to what degree it forwards the cause of “justice”?

    If I use some method X to interact with my spouse (or friend)- can we not quantify whether it is “loving” or to what degree it is an expression of “love”?

    What I question is whether we can take any given method and quantify whether it is “spousal” or to what degree it is an expression of being “married”.

    Certainly we have to assume an awful lot about marriage that is contradicted by thousands of married couples every day to properly insert your analogy.
    What I am trying to say is that there are certain attributes that make something “just” or “unjust”- that we can make a value statement. Even if we struggle at times as a society to agree on what is “just”- certainly we can all agree that certain things are definitely “not just”. Yet when we speak of marriage- I feel that there are many mutual relationships that are “not marriage” that exemplify your analogy, and many mutual relationships that are “marriage” that seem to defy it.

    I feel like I’m being a “semantics nazi”, but I still think it is a point worth repeating- even if I understand what you are trying to express with your analogy.

  • Joe

    Can something be intrinsic and not innate? To have knowledge of one is not the other required?