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.


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