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

James Gray blogs at Ethical Realism. He is passionate about advancing philosophy education and exploring moral realism both in ways accessible to beginners and engaging for advanced philosophy students. The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: Let me start with something you and I disagree on. I do not think that pleasure is intrinsically good or that pain is intrinsically bad but that we should look at them fundamentally in terms of what they contribute to our overall functioning well and thriving in life. Sometimes pain is indispensable to thriving, it’s a warning system for example. Sometimes pleasure is our undoing. Doritos in my case are very pleasurable. Now my body is 42% Dorito. This is unhealthy.

If sometimes pleasures are good for us and sometimes bad, and the same for pains, why talk about them as “intrinsically” good or “intrinsically” bad. What does that mean?

James Gray:  I understand intrinsic values to refer to the noninstrumental values that utilitarians are interested in. Utilitarians say that happiness is intrinsically good and we should try to maximize happiness (and minimize suffering), but they still don’t think you should eat unhealthy food that you find pleasurable because it is likely to make you less happy due to the negative consequences. Utilitarians also think we should be willing to endure the pain of going to the dentist or doing our homework because it is likely to increase our happiness (or decrease or suffering) in the long run.

I don’t know that utilitarianism is correct. First, there might be intrinsically good things other than happiness. Second, there might be morally relevant factors other than the consequences of our actions. But we don’t need to be utilitarians to think that intrinsic values exist and are important to ethics. Many deontologists and virtue ethicists also agree that intrinsic values are relevant to ethics.

If anything has intrinsic value, such as pleasure, that does not guarantee that we should do anything it takes to attain that value. We should consider the pleasure and pain that will likely result in our actions along with whatever else we think is intrinsically good or bad.

Consider the reason we have to think that euthanasia is sometimes justified. Perhaps some people are in so much pain that we should be willing to help put them out of their misery. In that case their pain seems to be important to the decision, but we don’t think killing people is usually a good idea. That seems to imply that we value human life but we also think pain is a relevant factor to the decisions we make.

Daniel Fincke:  But what makes it intrinsically good? Can you explain what “intrinsic” means to you?

James Gray:  The word “intrinsic” means something like “belongs to naturally,” but that is less important than the meaning of the term “intrinsic value,” which has a rich philosophical history perhaps including Aristotle’s “final ends.”

I also don’t know for sure what makes anything intrinsically good. I think that question is like asking what makes psychological phenomena. We don’t need to know what makes psychological phenomena to know that it exists. Of course, the brain seems involved. I think psychological phenomena is probably involved with why intrinsic values exist. I don’t think anything in the world has intrinsic value if minds don’t exist at all.

Consider pain. We experience that it feels bad. We can’t even understand what the word means without realizing that there’s something bad about it. Why is pain bad? It’s part of the existence of pain. If we didn’t experience it as being intrinsically bad, then we might not experience it at all. It might not even exist. Why does pain exist? It probably has something to do with a brain process of some kind.

How do we know anything has intrinsic value? That is a controversial issue and not all philosophers agree. I think it’s likely that we experience certain things as having intrinsic value, like pain.

There is also a great deal of intuitive support for the belief that intrinsic values exist. It seems counterintuitive to say that a person is being rational when she tries to feel as much pain as possible with no benefit whatsoever. It also seems wrong for people to cause other people pain without some sort of overriding consideration. The assumption that intrinsic values exist seems to help us get intuitively correct ethical judgments, and it’s not clear that we could do that without the belief in intrinsic values.

Some people suggest that intrinsic values don’t exist and what many of us call “intrinsic values” actually refers to our desires. Perhaps we desire certain things “for their own sake” but they aren’t really good or bad “for their own sake.” However, I don’t find that solution plausible for a at least two reasons:

First, I think people who don’t care about others should still do the “right thing” and the “right thing” is not merely based on such a person’s current desires. Similarly not everyone cares about nonhuman animals, but I think they should. To care about nonhuman animals can even make our lives more difficult. It might be cheaper and more profitable to use what I would consider to be unethical forms of animal testing and factory farming, but our desire for profit doesn’t make it right to harm nonhuman animals unless there’s an overriding reason to do so.

Second, I think we have a good reason to dislike pain—we experience that it’s bad. I don’t think pain is only bad because we dislike it. I think the fact that it’s bad is a good reason to dislike it.

Daniel Fincke:  You say that it is intuitive that pain is intrinsically bad but I do not have the intuition. I know pain is upsetting but I also know that it is valuable. It is just a part of natural selection that we developed pain as a form of protection and warning device and memory aid. It is naturally fitting, exactly as an intrinsic good should be. It just hurts. But that’s not the same thing as intrinsically bad.

The case of euthanasia we can let someone choose to die not because of the pain but because of the hopelessness about ever recovering the thriving life that humans excel in. But there are many people who endure great pain for greater goods than pleasure—whether those goods are for others or themselves.

James Gray:  I agree that pain is often useful to us (especially when it helps us know when we are unhealthy and need treatment), but that in no way implies that it’s not intuitive that pain is intrinsically bad. Are you going to try to experience as much pain as possible for the slightest benefit? You can probably benefit yourself and others in many ways by experiencing pain or causing others to experience pain. However, we don’t think we should cause others to experience pain for any minor benefit. We think the benefit should be greater than the perceived value of the pain.

What we should do considering euthanasia is more complicated than what I said before, but I don’t think you proved that pain is not a factor at all. Let’s say you can never live a thriving life that humans excel in. Why is that a reason for someone to kill you?

I also don’t know why you said that there are “many people who endure great pain for greater goods than pleasure.” I never said pleasure is the only thing with intrinsic value. In fact, I am inclined to agree that it is not the only thing with intrinsic value. Knowledge, wisdom, virtue, consciousness, and human existence might all have intrinsic value.

I don’t want to claim that your understanding of intrinsic value (and what has intrinsic value) is incoherent, irrational, unjustified, or anything like that. You have your beliefs and I have mine. I don’t understand your view enough to compare them both and say for sure that my view is better than yours. You might want to say a little about how you think our views compare. Do you disagree with how I understand “intrinsic value?” Do you have anything to add to what it means? How exactly does your view differ from mine?

Daniel Fincke: I’ll grant you that in the euthanasia case, the pain is probably a decisive factor. But I’m not sure it is the only one. I think it’s the way that the thriving is diminished, which is inherently connected to the pain that is really the worst thing.

In my view to get around having to say, “these are just my beliefs and those are yours” or having to have numerous intrinsic goods which actually can all conflict and overrule each other, but according to know clear rule, I want to say that objective goodness is just our one naturalistic sense of it—which is relationships of “good for” or “good at being”. These are effectiveness relationships, by which something is effective at creating something or at being something.

I think such effectivenesses can be measured (if not quantitatively always).

I would say then that our mental category just naturally covers more than effectiveness relationships, it covers everything that we judge worth embracing as enhancing our own effectiveness/power/flourishing or of the causes we care about because we have invested ourselves emotionally or practically.

In that context, intrinsic goods for a kind of being are whatever constitutively enhance intrinsic effectiveness of that being as that being.

James Gray::I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you said depending on how the words are interpreted, but I do think your view is more speculative and risky than mine. There might be an ultimate view that unites all intrinsic values and assures us that they never conflict. However, I personally don’t know how to do that or if it’s true. I do think I have a reason to think certain things have intrinsic value (or more likely have it than other things) and prefer to take things one step at a time.

I prefer ethical philosophy to be practical, constantly used in everyday thinking, and (in general) “secular” in the sense few controversial assumptions are used. We want to leave gods out of our ethical theories unless they’re absolutely necessary, and the current state of ethical philosophy seems to indicate that gods are not necessary for ethical philosophy—a rational form of atheistic ethics is possible. So theories without gods seem preferable because we don’t want to risk our moral behavior and beliefs on something we aren’t sure about. Your theory seems to be less secular than I prefer it to be. You are requiring us to speculate about things we aren’t sure about. That might be perfectly fine when we attempt a comprehensive speculative ethical understanding of the universe, but we then need to keep in mind that we aren’t really sure about it and concentrate more on uncontroversial ethical premises when it’s time to make moral decisions.

Although it is true that a theory with only one value can avoid conflicts and avoid many difficult problems, I agree with W. D. Ross that such a theory is either going to be too difficult to apply or we are going to have to ignore the theory when it gives us counterintuitive results. Utilitarianism and every moral theory seems to give us at least some counterintuitive results that could be considered to “falsify” the theories, but Ross tried to avoid this precisely by not giving us clear-cut answers to difficult issues and he claimed that there can be conflicting duties and values.

It might be a good idea to explain how your view of intrinsic vales applies to everyday decision making. How do we decide when an act is morally right or wrong using your view? What does the thought process look like?

Daniel Fincke:  My philosophy is extraordinarily secular. It may have a bit more metaphysical teeth to it than yours but that does not make it any way theistic or otherwise religious. It is ambitious and I grant that there is danger in trying to develop an ethics that is not just a rubber stamp for existing moral intuitions. But Nietzsche has convinced me that if moral philosophy is to be credible as a matter of knowledge it has to be willing to be more than the handmaiden or shield for morality. It has to come up with conclusions that we might not prima facie like but which are true.

I think that almost everything we are worried about protecting in morality can stand up for itself. I think we can investigate the real reasons that in the natural world it really is good.

I would say that intrinsic rightness is whatever is intrinsically fit for to a particular effective kind of being. Whatever is “right” for it.

But moral rightness and wrongness are different. Moralities vary in time and place and sometimes rightly with changing needs and circumstances. I want to take account of how we sometimes let a different people from a different era have a very different set of values and cut them some slack that their conditions were different and it would be unfair to judge them by today’s standards.

I think we should look in all things to whether or not it makes flourish or not.

I think of moral standards as rules we need to adopt that are short term inconveniences and losses of advantages for the sake of overall flourishing of ourselves and our social order to which we are constitutively mutually tied. Moral rules help us stick to what is most conducive on the larger order. We often need to tether ourselves to them as they were absolute duties but their ultimate justification is in their contribution to flourishing. Without that, their apparent intrinsicness just evaporates. People used to look at homosexuality and just “see” the intrinsic wrongness, the intrinsic unfittingness to nature. Now you and I, both moral realists and naturalists, see it as perfectly accommodatable in nature. I fear your account can’t justify why your intuition is any better than the opposing intuitions but I can because I can talk about flourishing in the human powers and how repressing people’s harmless sexualities is on net destructive to numerous of their powers and other people’s powers, etc.

Final point: I disagree with the points you make when appealing to Ross. I don’t think that any new information will undermine my definition of goodness as effectiveness. At least no new scientific discoveries. The issue is philosophical. I think that’s what the word just means in the most naturalistic terms that ground it as a truth-conducive term. I cannot conceive the science experiment that might change it. And even if we ignore counter-intuitive results of our ethics, that does not make us right. We could just not be up for what goodness really would require. Or we might reinvestigate our framework and understand if there was an error in it somewhere.

We’re running out of time, so take the last word.

James Gray: First, I agree that your theory is not religious, but it doesn’t seem to be 100% secular in the sense I was talking about because of the “metaphysical teeth.” I also don’t think all theists are religious.

Second, I pretty much agree with your assessment concerning homosexuality. There is no harm in it, so it’s not wrong. Homosexual relationships offer pleasure and potentially other benefits. Moreover, telling people not to be homosexual has been harmful to people throughout history.

Third, I agree that flourishing is important. I do not deny that flourishing, skills, or abilities are very important to ethics.

Fourth, I do not use the term “intuition” to refer to some mysterious form of justification. I am referring to a form of justification involving what we think we already know for one reason or another. Philosophy requires that we use premises that other people will likely agree with (hopefully because they already know the premises are true). We can’t prove every premise is true using arguments or we would face an infinite regress. We would need Argument B to prove a premise is true, then at least one premise of Argument B would need to be proven to be true via Argument C, and so on.

Yes, “existing moral intuitions” are highly flawed and can be developed. I think we can find out that some intuitions are more important than others and discard the less important ones.

I’m not sure how you can explain why your intuitions are right and mine are wrong without appealing to observations, experiences, or more important intuitions. That’s exactly how I would do it.

My main point concerning Ross was not that scientific discoveries will prove ethical systems false. Ross’s point is also practical. We can be idiots who say our theories are right and that counterintuitive results are right. That’s not a good idea. We need to examine counterintuitive results closely precisely because intuition does count for something and we think we already know something about ethics prior to doing ethical philosophy. If we didn’t know anything about ethics at all prior to debate, then we would have no idea what the word “right,” “wrong,” or “good” refer to at all. We know these words (in part) by using uncontroversial examples of them.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss intrinsic values and ethics with you in addition to sharing the conversation with others. I hope we continue the conversation sometime in the future.

Daniel Fincke:  Thank you too, James. You’re welcome any time here. Our discussions have frequently been immensely clarifying for me.

Your Thoughts?

The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

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.

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

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment