Some Variant Meanings of “Intrinsic Value”

The term “intrinsic value” is ambiguous. I leaned on it heavily in yesterday’s Nietzsche Saturday post and a reader raised a worthwhile challenge to the rightness of the word and I replied. I think it’s worthwhile to disambiguate the word a bit by going over its multiple connotations and explaining which ones I intend and when in my philosophy and which ones I see at work in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

The first broad distinction to make clear is between two senses of the word “value” itself. Sometimes by “value” people mean something along “objective” lines. They intend to refer to something of true value, rationally discoverable value, objective value relationships, objective, and/or real value properties of some sort. Sometimes by “value” people mean something along “subjective” lines. They mean what people prefer, prioritize, desire, care for, like, live by, idealize, celebrate, etc.

Of things that are explicitly or implicitly treated as objective values, some can be seen as objectively intrinsically valuable (i.e., of inherent importance in one way or another) and some can be seen as objectively extrinsically valuable (i.e. contributing something of importance for something of more primary importance in one way or another).

Of things that are explicitly or implicitly treated as subjective values, some are valued intrinsically (i.e., for their own sake, in some decisive sense) and some extrinsically (for something else’s sake, in some decisive sense).

So then what kinds of objective intrinsic value do people intend or implicitly think in terms of?

On one view “objective intrinsic value” indicates a simple, real, independently existing property of value. This sort of property would somehow inhere in things or emerge as part of conjunctions of things, independent of all subjective feelings towards them. Such a value might need to be directly “perceived” or “intuited”, rather than inferred as present. Such simple properties of value would not in any way be “made up” by, or further explainable in terms of, naturalistically and scientifically observable and describable properties. Such simple intrinsic value properties would not admit of an account outside of the categories of values themselves in order to explain them. They would be directly perceivable or inferable by beings capable of perceiving value, where by “directly” I mean perceived in value terms as foundational, rather than derived or justified through any other non-value categories. Often this kind of value property is called a “non-naturalist” one. This is not a claim that values are supernatural or in any way in conflict with the natural. It is just that they cannot be described by reference to nature as empirically observed. They have to be grasped through some sort of intuitional capacity.

I don’t think we should think of objective intrinsic value as being of that sort.

The sorts of objective values that I am comfortable saying are true ones, are those reducible to natural effectiveness relationships. When I say that x is valuable for making y occur, what I mean is the very ordinary, factual statement that can be objectively demonstrated or refuted such that x‘s are effective for bringing about y‘s. The degree of x‘s value for making y‘s is quantifiable in terms of how reliably x‘s produce y‘s.

There are other effectiveness relationships besides this that are also distinguishable. x and y combined in the right ways effectively create a z. Or, x and y combined in the right ways effectively are a z. Or x will only happen if y happens. Or z can only exist either when x and y are combined. Or z can only exist as an x and y combined.

We can also observe that some z‘s are more effective at doing what z‘s characteristically do. If a z, as a kind of being, is conceptually defined as a certain kind of functional effectiveness in the world, then those z‘s that fulfill that functional effectiveness to a greater extent are better at being z‘s. This is why we call them “better z‘s”. Theoretically for any z there would be a maximization that would represent the most powerfully functional z of all z‘s. We call z‘s better or worse (as z‘s) by reference to this ideal limit point. Note, any given z might be effective at a wide range of things, including things not essential to being a z. And a characteristic z might be characterized as a z definitionally by its effectiveness at either one or some combinations of a wide range of possible activities.

All of these are objective value relationships as either objective relationships of effectiveness between distinguishable beings (e.g., x‘s producing y‘s), or as objective relationships of effectiveness between beings and their necessary constitutive parts (e.g., x‘s and y‘s combining to make z’s as necessary and sufficient conditions), or as objective relationships between beings and the conceptualizable maximal functioning as the kind of being they are (e.g., z‘s relative effectiveness at characteristic z things compared to the most maximally effective z conceivable), or any given z’s relative effectiveness at characteristic z functions compared to other z‘s (e.g., each z’s relative superiority or inferiority compared to the average z).

In this context, where is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value relationships? It would have to be between different kinds of effectiveness relationships because that’s what value relationships reduce to when we are talking naturalistically, factually, descriptively. So we need to make a distinction between intrinsic effectiveness relationships and extrinsic ones. Intrinsic ones seem relative to a being. For a given being, those goods are intrinsic to it that are vitally constitutive of it. So, for example, if a z can only exist as a z by the interaction of an x and a y, then x‘s and y‘s are of intrinsic importance to a z. They are intrinsic as preconditions of the z either minimally existing or maximally effectively thriving according to its characteristic being as a . The presence or effective functioning of x and y are constitutive of, and therefore intrinsic to, the effective being of z.

So while some constitutive parts are intrinsic as being necessary to the whole’s being at all, others are intrinsic as being integral to the whole’s maximal fulfillment of its characteristic being. For example, in the case of humans we might say that our brains are (at least as we are presently structured) intrinsically valuable as a precondition of our effectively being characteristically human beings at all. On the other hand other attributes we have, say our powers of rationality, emotion, sociability, artistry, athleticism, technical invention/manipulation, etc. are intrinsic not as indispensable preconditions (we can be humans while for one reason or another completely lacking one of these powers) but as contributory to the maximal realization of the characteristic functions of humans in general. (For more on this, see the “Human Good” section of my post summarizing my “Empowerment Ethics”.)

Other kinds of objective intrinsic goods would be those that involve one kind of being, or combination/interaction of beings, necessarily leading to a resultant being coming about at all. In other words, if x‘s make y‘s come about (but without being constitutive components of y‘s), then this causal dependency y‘s have on x‘s make x‘s intrinsically good to y‘s as another kind of precondition relation. If a y‘s being is causally dependent in a necessary way by the existence of an occurrence of an x, then the x is intrinsically good to a y.

And z‘s, being z‘s, have an intrinsic good, i.e., an intrinsic effectiveness relationship, in attaining more to the maximum possible functioning because precisely to the extent it does that it becomes to a greater extent.

So, what are things of objectively extrinsic value? Those would be things that are helpful but interchangeable means to intrinsic goods. In other words, while some goods are intrinsically important to a given being, there are many means to creating those goods. None of these individually need be itself an intrinsic good. You could do without any of the particular means, so long as some such means comes about to provide that intrinsic good. These are things that gain their objective worth to a given being by their contribution to something that is actually intrinsically valuable to that being.

What are subjectively intrinsic values? Subjectively intrinsically valued things are those that a being prefers, prioritizes, desires, cares for, likes, lives by, idealizes, celebrates, or does some similar activity, for their own sake psychologically rather than as a means to some further thing(s). If we look at them in terms of their effects on subjects (rather than in terms of subjects’ aims with respect to other things) then subjectively intrinsic values would mean those things that have the power themselves to satisfy or satiate or relieve or please subjective beings.

And, roughly, subjectively extrinsic values would be things that beings prefer, prioritize, desire, care for, like, live by, idealize, celebrate, etc. as means to things they want for their own sake.

Often objective value relationships become interesting to people only as extrinsically useful to people’s intrinsic subjective values. Overextending from this observation, those who deny all objective value mistakenly try to reduce all values to subjective satisfactions and the means to them. In doing this they wrongly ignore the ways that objective value relationships must exist independently in the first place if they are at all to be so appropriated for our subjectively arising purposes.

Finally, one other sense of intrinsic value is worth considering, and it is the sense of intrinsic value that I meant when I interpreted the meaning of Nietzsche’s remarks about the “intrinsic value” of “good” and “evil” in On Genealogy of Morals, preface, section 3 yesterday. In that context, the meaning of “intrinsic value” Nietzsche uses can alternately (and less interpretively) be translated as “values they possess themselves”. In this case, what Nietzsche is talking about is the value that “good” and “evil” as concepts have independent of two things. The first is the value that “good” and “evil” have independent of the standards of “good” and “evil” themselves–either in general or in a specific culture’s standards of good and evil. In other words, Nietzsche wants to analyze the value of good/evil standards themselves. That standard, the standard of conduciveness or detriment to human thriving, was what I talked about as being more fundamentally intrinsic to “good/evil” judgments and as being that according to which “good/evil” judgments possess their real value (or their “intrinsic” value, in the senses I will explicate below).

The other thing I think is implicit in this is that Nietzsche wants to assess these standards of good and evil for their actual worth to the people who create and/or adhere faithfully to them. So while from a subjective standpoint, those people may even intrinsically (and not just extrinsically) care about, attend to, like, prefer, prioritize, sacrifice for, idealize, celebrate, and/or desire what they call good and reject what they call evil, Nietzsche wants to move beyond their psychological subjective intrinsic valuing of good and evil to look at the value they possess apart from this. So this sense of “intrinsic value” or “value they possess themselves” is their value as objectively conceivable rather than merely subjectively. He wants to see what they objectively do for people, rather than what they are subjectively thought to be of value for. This is a legitimate sense of “intrinsic” in the sense of “with respect to reality itself as opposed to merely with respect to subjective feelings and preferences and potentially erroneous perceptions”.

The “intrinsic” value of “good” and “evil” judgments will be assessed, as I argued in the previous post, by a further standard–what is intrinsically valuable to humans. So, the standards of intrinsic value for humans that I argue in that post guide his assessments of the worth of good and evil judgments are those things that he takes to constitute or lead to the health and maximal thriving for humanity. There it is specified that the objective value or disvalue that good and evil judgments have is to be determined relative to their contribution to humanity’s health and thriving or sickness and decline.

One last nuanced variation of “objective intrinsic value” is worth making clear. “Good” and “evil” judgments’ may regularly be effective or counterproductive in certain ways. Therefore they may so usually have a particular value as to be thought of as inherently or intrinsically of that value (whether positive or negative or some mixture) to humans. To use an analogy, the “intrinsic” general worth of medicine is as an aid to health. Inherent to all things classed as medicine, that defines them as medicines, is their worth to healing or preventing illness. Inherent to weapons is the “intrinsic” value (i.e., effectiveness) at wounding or killing (or restraining through threat of wounding or killing). As characteristic functions of these kinds of tools of humanity, these are their “intrinsic”, “inherent”, objective effects/value in human societies. Nietzsche seems to be interested in what such general value contributions judgments of evil and good (or, more precisely, of that kind of good that is conceived of as a contrast specifically with evil) make. What does the practice itself of making opposing judgments of good vs. evil intrinsically contribute to humanity? What is the inherent effectiveness in the practice? That’s the question that concerns Nietzsche so much, especially in the Genealogy. Then there’s the other question, in what ways is morality effective or counterproductive for humanity overall, in the sense of usually contributory to our health and thriving or to our sickness and decline.

Key related posts:

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism are Equally Childish

Natural Functions

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

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

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


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