Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values January 28, 2011

In a recent post I distinguished numerous times between moral and non-moral values and between different sorts of intrinsic and instrumental goods.  James Gray asks for clarifications about how I use these terms:

First, I don’t know that it matters to call something a “moral value.” Of course, there are instrumental values concerning morally neutral goals. Are you saying that intrinsic values are moral but instrumental ones aren’t?

My point is whether we can understand intrinsic value in non-”intrinsic value” terms.

Second, you said “Such analyses are not reductionistic and they do not try to assess the good in “non-good” terms. They do purport to assess moral values in non-moral terms.” I don’t know what any of this means, perhaps because it’s not clear to me how moral values differ from nonmoral values. Some examples might help.

What I am saying is that both intrinsic and instrumental values exist all throughout nature without making any reference to human moral interests to derive either their intrinsic or their instrumental value.  Intrinsic value simply means intrinsic effectiveness.  This means whatever is a thing’s characteristic effective activity that either makes it, or contributes to it being, the kind of thing it is.

On the level of humans we have both moral and non-moral intrinsic values and both moral and non-moral instrumental values.  Non-moral intrinsic goods for humans include aesthetic goods, goods of physical power, goods of artistic and technological creative powers, goods of sexual power, goods of intellectual power, etc.  All our functional powerful excellences which are intrinsically good to being human but which can be at times be exercised independently of advancing narrowly moral concerns, is a “non-moral” intrinsic value.

Largely influenced by Jonathan Haidt but with my own additions, I take distinctively morally intrinsic values to be our interests in fairness and equality, our interests in harm avoidance and mutual care for each other, our interests in purity and sanctity, our interests in in-group loyalty, our interest in respect for hierarchicalism, our interests in actions which are highly formally consistent/universalizable, our interests in deferring dutifully to order and principle even at the cost to our own immediate personal well-being or interests when required.

These sorts of interests are subjectively experienced as highly valuable to us to some degree or another.  And to one degree or another each of these value priorities is objectively defensible in at least some contexts and in at least some concrete forms.  These are what I mean by characteristically “moral” values, which are contrastable with all other interest priorities.

Intimately connected to these moral priorities are a slew of distinctively moral virtues, which I identify as such by their general or (expectedly general) contribution to the realization of these moral priorities. Insofar as overall human flourishing is maximized when we thrive functioning in all our potential excellences, fulfilling these moral potentials contributes to our intrinsic flourishing as excellent humans.

This flourishing is not only intrinsically good as exercise of characteristic human excellences, but it is also instrumentally good insofar as it serves moral value priorities which genuinely advance the material, social, economic, political, spiritual, intellectual, and other cultural conditions of our well-being and thriving.

Ultimately, specific instances of morally driven priorities are either justified or proven mistakenly applied or overemphasized by consideration of whether or to what extent they lead to our overall flourishing. This overall flourishing is the ultimate ethical priority, which I distinguish from narrower, more characteristically “moral” priorities.

In this way moral goals are ultimately instrumental goods which must be defined and justified by their overall contribution to overall flourishing, more well-rounded, ethical human lives.   But insofar as pursuing a moral goal itself gives opportunity to fulfill a fundamental human excellence and contribute to our overall maximization of our powerful functioning, it is an occasion for us to be intrinsically good (i.e.,characteristically effective) humans through such exercise of our powers. In this way our morality helps us realize our humanity.

Now, with all of this context, when I say that we should assess moral values by non-moral values, I mean we should assess whether or to what extent moral priorities (or particular interpretations of them) and cultivation of specifically moral excellences ultimately contributes to or hinders in specific cases the development of general human flourishing in intellect, aesthetics, artistic creation, technological creation, social order, knowledge, cultural vibrancy, sexual fulfillment, etc., etc.  These goods are not necessary identical with moral priorities and I think their maximization trumps the pursuit of morality taken as an end in itself.

Ultimately, though our minds tempt us quite naturally and understandably to take the moral priorities as ends in themselves, and even though it is usually better to treat them as such for maximum effectiveness, nonetheless our ultimate good is not morality itself but overall human flourishing.  And so in cases where moralities (or particular concrete interpretations of it) conflict with that goal on net, it is just so much the worse for moral priorities.

This also goes for cases where we can have net growth in overall flourishing by growing more in non-moral excellences but only at the trade off of some specifically moral interest priorities or specifically moral excellences.  Ultimately overall human flourishing has greater intrinsic value than either morality or specifically moral virtues for their own sakes.

Finally, as to your question of whether we can understand intrinsic value in “non-intrinsic” value terms, I would say that ultimately the most basic value, effectiveness, is a form of intrinsic value and larger intrinsic values are of this basic sort, so there is not an intrinsic value coming from what is merely of instrumental value.

The posts where I previously worked the moral vs. non-moral values questions out most extensively were Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation and Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation.

Your Thoughts?

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