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

In this post I want to say something which many would find radical and would assume is impossible and clearly false: I want to say that it can be a fact whether something is intrinsically good in some particular respect, for some particular being. A major part of this requires that I distinguish another two other kinds of facts, those of instrumental and intrinsic goodness, respectively, and explore how these two kinds of goodness relate to each other. In particular, in presenting examples, I will focus on intrinsic goodness and instrumental goodness for human beings but there are innumerable factual instances of intrinsic goodness and instrumental goodness that have nothing necessarily to do with human beings’ interests.

Then I want to explain something which may sound even more radical. I want to show that varying and historically contingent cultural constructs, like institutions such as marriage, can create objectively, factually intrinsic goods for humans.

This is a relatively long post because it is very important to understanding my core philosophical views on the nature of value and what makes for good human lives. I also think it is correct on these topics. So I hope you will find it  fruitful and illuminating and worth your patience, concentration, and, in the comments section, Your Thoughts—so I can explain or improve my own thinking through your help. There are several subheadings so you can read each subsection separately as a distinct post if you would find the post more digestible by reading it broken down into different posts. If you’re very familiar with my system already you can skip to the final section for the newest addition to the public presentation of my ideas. If you’re new to my philosophy, this is an exceptional place to get an overall picture of how I think about objective goodness and easier than reading multiple posts to do so.

Goodness is Effectiveness

Before talking about the facts of intrinsic goodness and of instrumental goodness, first let me recap my views of what it means for goodness to be a fact at all (if you feel comfortable you already get what I mean by this based on previous posts, feel free to skip to the next section).

When we say something is good we are referring, usually in a shorthand way, to some kind of fact about an effectiveness it exhibits. If the tree provides good shade, you are saying it effectively, as a fact, blocks more sunlight and makes the area under it cooler than nearby areas do. If you say that a wing is good, you mean that it effectively (or potentially effectively) contributes to a bird or a vehicle flying effectively. A better wing is one that makes flying more effective in one of several ways. Maybe it effectively makes the bird or the vehicle capable of flying faster and/or longer and/or with greater precision, etc.

Were we to refer to a good instance of water, we would be referring to some combination of two hydrogen molecules which had successfully bonded to just one oxygen molecule to effectively make for water. The hydrogen molecules in that case and the oxygen molecules in that case have an effective thing they are doing together, they are making water through their interaction together and that is what it means for there to be a good instance of water. Every being is a good being insofar as it is the effective result of its component parts interacting together to effectively make it that being and that kind of being. Those component parts making it effectively the kind of thing it is, makes them successful and make it a good, by virtue of that fact.

Human beings are essentially constituted by a number of physical processes. Innumerable physical interactions factually bring us effectively into being. Without them we could not be (or, at least, we could not be in the fullest sense). As constitutive of our being on some basic level, these physical interactions themselves which effectively make us are indispensably good for us.

Our being, factually speaking, is a function of their being and of their interacting in particular ways. So when they effectively realize the goods of their kinds of being and functionally combine together to create a higher order of complexity, we are created and sustained in existence by these processes. So, factually speaking, these processes are instrumentally good for us. They are factually instrumentally good for us in that we effectively could not be at all if it were not for them.

Instrumental Goods as Factual Goods

Facts of instrumental goods are the most easily objective facts we have. They look like this: “x is instrumental in creating y” means “x is effective in making y come about” or “without x, y may not exist”. The effectiveness of x in creating y is the meaning of our innumerable statements that “x is good insofar as it produces y” or “x is good for making y”. These are statements of instrumental effectiveness and they can be cashed out in entirely factual terms.

And, of course, they require no reference to our interests. Humans have (or should have) no interest whatsoever in the annihilation of the entire human race. Yet, we understand that nuclear weapons are objectively and factually good for wiping out the whole human race. If given the chance to wipe us out, nuclear weapons would be exceptionally good at this, by which I mean they would maximally effectively accomplish that result and do so with maximal efficiency.

This would be terrible for us–extremely factually bad for us—since it would cease all our functioning through which we effectively have our being and our goodness. So things which are maximally bad for us, as a factual matter, can at the same time be good in themselves, for their own intrinsic effectiveness. Goodness by no means equates to being only “what humans desire or find pleasant or useful”.

So going back to what is factually good for us. The functioning of our sub-components which brings us into reality is instrumentally good at bringing us into being and so we have to say such things are factually good for us. They make us effectively be and that is our most basic good. As the preconditions of our being and all our goodness, they themselves are good for us.

How Some Instrumental Goods Can Also Be Intrinsic Goods

And not only are they instrumental to our achieving specific things we want, since they are intrinsic to our even being at all, they are also intrinsically good for us. By being sub-functions through which we can be humans at all, they are not merely good for serving some particular purposes we are interested in, but, much more than that, they are constitutive of our very being. This makes them intrinsically good for us since they are good for us being at all and not just for serving an interest we may or may not have. They are both instrumentally good insofar as they serve a function for us and intrinsically good insofar as they constitute our being at all.

Intrinsic Goods, Illustrated With Our Own Human Case

Now, our intrinsic human functioning is fully realized through much more than just the physical processes that effectively make us minimally human.  Through the necessary functional interactions on the molecular and then chemical and then biological and then physiological levels, various physical and mental powers emerge which are the most characteristic human capacities for functioning.

These physical and mental powers are our potentials for effectively doing human things and, through doing human things, effectively being human beings. So we can be good at being human beings insofar as various functioning powers make us into them. These functioning powers, for their effectiveness at making us human are instrumentally good at creating our humanity and intrinsically good for making our humanity.

This “effective functioning” as human is not judged by some pre-designed model in the mind of some intelligent designer. It is just an emergent kind of reality observable throughout the world. There are certain combinations of functioning which are nearly universal in our species of being. Not all humans will have every kind of functioning possible and normal for the species. And each of us will function differently than each other in numerous ways. There is not a fixed human nature in those ways.

Nonetheless, we can still say of each basic human functional power that it can function more effectively according to its kind or less. Eyes usually have a capacity for sight. When the eye’s subcomponents function well at this, they make for an objectively, factually, powerful eye and that is equivalent to say that factually they constitute a good eye. And insofar as the eye contributes to indispensably to larger functional powers which also draw on other functions, the eye is both instrumentally and intrinsically good for those functions.

Insofar as those functions the eye contributes to are constitutive of the fullest, most powerful human possibility for living and for effectively realizing humanity, the eye is not just instrumentally good for humans but intrinsically good for us. One can certainly live a good, or even a great, human life without eyes, but eyes are still intrinsic goods in that they would usually be expected to more maximally help us realize and strengthen our effective functioning in our characteristic powers through which we have our being.

So, something can be intrinsically good for us if it is one of the powers which constitutes our fullest, most effective realization of our humanity itself or if it (or something like it) indispensably contributes to the functioning of our basic physical and mental powers.

And the more we effectively function in each of our powers the more we realize our potential, realize our humanity, are more effectively human, and, so, more effectively and factually realize our intrinsic goodness—our intrinsic effectiveness—as the kind of being we are.

The Value of Increasing Total Power, Illustrated With the Case of Humans

Usually when our functional powers combine to create greater, more or orderly and complex functional powers we increase in our effective goodness. This is becoming more powerful, which is our highest good. Combinations of functional powers usually add to a net sum of our total power as the combined powers enhance each other and produce a power that is more than the sum of its parts.

When instances of our good functional effectiveness (i.e., of our powers) damage our overall ability to function effectively that relative goodness (i.e., that relative strength of effective functioning, that relatively good power) winds up doing damage to our overall functional effectiveness (i.e., our overall power) and so harms us.

This can happen when (or more) of our powers hurts our other stronger or more central powers, thwarts our abilities to combine our powers into more powerful complexes, hinders the positive functional results of our powers in the world, or leads to net-negative effects in the world, wherein the result of our actions is that we are functioning to create more bad than good or less good than we could have created. This is what it means for us to use our factually intrinsically good ( i.e., functionally effective) powers, for evil and to be a “bad” person to some factually specifiable extent.

Culturally Created Intrinsic Goods (Such as Olympic Swimming and Marriage)

Now, earlier this week I specified that marriage could be an “intrinsic good”. What did I mean by that? How does it fit this account of intrinsic goods? First, I do not mean that one must be married to live a good human life. What I meant was, in the first place, that marriage was something people could aim at directly without thinking of some further good they want from it which alone justifies their seeking it.

I did not mean to imply (as I unfortunately did in that post) that marriage could only be desired in one specific way, for one set of specific goods. I also did not mean to imply that by being an intrinsic good that it was somehow bequeathed to us by nature. Nor did I mean to imply that we receive marriage from nature in the form of a fixed and inflexible institution. Marriage is, clearly a social invention with a long history of variations, not only from era to era and from culture to culture but from particular marriage to particular marriage.

So, in what sense could it be an “intrinsic good” beyond the sense of intrinsic good that means “desired for its own sake and not only for some other essential good”. How could it be, as I may have implied in that previous post, an intrinsic good in the objective, factual sense which is indifferent to people’s desires?

Our most essential intrinsic goods are our most potentially powerful functional possibilities. Rationality itself, sociability itself, emotional sensibility itself, creativity itself, artistic powers themselves, perceptive powers of sense and mind themselves, physical power and agility themselves, etc. are the kinds of powers that function together in increasingly complex and powerful ways to make for increasingly powerful humans.

They are our most important intrinsic goods for being human as maximally well as we can. There are more rudimentary, more necessary preconditions to some or all of these powers, which are more basic as more necessary as preconditions of being human. So, the power to breathe is a precondition of all the other powers. But it is not more important to being fully human than the power to think, it is just an intrinsically biologically necessary precondition of that other, fuller realization of humanity. The higher, more complex, more functionally effective powers are what raise us fully to the level of human power and, therein, human being.

But these powers can never just occur without context. To exercise powers of rationality, of sociability, of emotional sensibility, etc. we must have particular aims, in the attainment of which these powers do their excellent functioning. These are inevitably going to be culturally shaped projects. They will be instances of us participating in available activities within a broadly human world of tasks.

Some of these functions will be relatively “brutely” natural. Swimming will be a physical exercise of powers that is partly just a matter of biological human in naturally occurring water. But even swimming can develop all sorts of cultural accretions. Becoming a superb, world champion swimmer will involve channeling and developing one’s powers of swimming through cultural forms which help one maximize one’s swimming potential. These cultural forms (like the Olympics) will be at least instrumentally good, as a matter of defendable objective fact, for realizing the intrinsic powers of the arms and legs through the activity of swimming. Swimming itself, by providing a particular naturally and culturally constructed form for realizing physical power is also at least instrumentally good for us.

But are swimming and swimming in the Olympics intrinsically good? Or are they only instrumentally good whereas the physical (and mental) powers they give occasion to exercise are the only intrinsic goods involved, since only the physical and mental powers are basic to human nature, whereas swimming and being an Olympic swimmer are culturally constructed things?

I want to argue swimming and Olympic swimming are intrinsically good because they do not just express and do not just exercise pre-existing physical and mental powers but, through their cultural forms, create new and greater physical and mental powers. Swimming is not just power arm motion plus powerful leg motion, it is a more complex power of swimming itself. And as a greater power than the sum of its parts it has intrinsic goodness as “the power of swimming itself”.

We can say a good swim is an effective realization of the being of swimming itself and is a distinct and greater intrinsic power from the sub-powers of arm strength, leg strength, and mental fortitude, of which it is composed. Those sub-powers are more basic and more ultimately important since they also contribute to more human powers besides just swimming. But by themselves they are less powerful and less a realization of the human ability for integrated, amplified total power effects than swimming is.

So, swimming as a complex human activity through which our powers are not only realized but amplified is an intrinsically good activity in itself, distinct from the sub-activities (sub-powers, sub-functions) of which it is composed, and greater than them.

And since the best realization of humanity is one that maximally integrates its powers into ever higher and more complex and more amplified total power capabilities and effects in the world, every such complex combined activity—no matter how culturally created and contingent it might be—is intrinsically good for us.

So any cultural institution of education or athletics or law or relationship, etc. that creates forms through which people can realize new, greater, more complex, integrated, and amplified powers creates intrinsic goods for humans to attain. These goods vary. In North America the intrinsic good powers that baseball creates in athletes will be very different than the intrinsic goods created by the Samurai ideal of feudal Japan. But it is still intrinsically excellent to be a baseball player and to be a samurai. Intrinsic does not mean universal or “not culturally created”.

To the extent that any given marriage creates any given increase of overall power to the partners which compose it, that marriage is intrinsically good for those people. To the extent that it can create more overall power it could be better, to the extent that it harms overall power it is bad and could be better.

It matters little that the intrinsic goods one couple or culture or era gets from marriage differs from another one. It matters little that some people never have the intrinsic goods uniquely offered by any kind of marriage. It matters little that for some people no marital arrangement would actually lead to more overall power than not being married would. Marriage of one kind or of all kinds might be bad for some people and yet still be an intrinsically good possibility to whatever precise extent it increases (or would increase) another’s overall net power.

Through spousal love one does not only realize one’s powers to love (which are more basic powers of humanity), but one realizes them in some unique arrangement and in combination with other powers to create a unique complex, amplified new power, distinct from parental love which itself involves love combined with different powers, distinct from friendship love, etc. Spousal love is a unique, intrinsically excellent and desirable power complex, even as there are overlaps between it and the other innumerable possible variations on love, and even as “spousal love” for each set of spouses may both build off of and create some different powers than other or all sets of spouses would).

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

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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.