What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods? January 30, 2011

In reply to my post, Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods, James objects:

You are defining pleasure as intrinsic instrumental good. This is obviously not intrinsic goodness as I define it at all. Instrumental goodness is not intrinsic goodness.

A successful pleasure instance is an intrinsically good instance of pleasure in-itself and for-itself, just for being a good instance of pleasure.  Just the way I think a river is a good river in-itself, by-itself, and for-itself whether or not any other being ever finds it important for its own purposes that that river be a good river or that there be good rivers at all, so also pleasure’s intrinsic good in-itself, for-itself, by-itself, is just a fact of its sheer effective existence as a pleasure.  For a pleasure to be a good instance of what it is, i.e., successful at being pleasant, it does conceptually require that it actually causes a being to have an experience the being likes.  Pleasure only effectively exists insofar as it does this, so in doing this it realizes its intrinsic good for-itself.

But this is irrelevant to whether or not the pleasure happens to be overall a good thing either intrinsically or instrumentally for the being for whom it causes pleasure.  When I have been analyzing whether pleasure is an intrinsic or instrumental good (or, as I have actually decided pleasure is, an “intrinsic instrumental” good), I have been writing in shorthand.  What I have meant is how or in what ways is pleasure intrinsically and instrumentally good for us humans. The intrinsic or instrumental contribution of pleasure to the human being is a separable issue from whether the instance of pleasure is a successful/good/effective instance of pleasure.

Now, there are complicated ways that pleasure can be intrinsically, instrumentally, or intrinsically instrumentally good for us.  So, let me make these distinctions clearer:

Pleasure is instrumentally good for us insofar as it is an internal tool for attracting us towards other things which contribute to our functioning.  From a purely third-person, empirical perspective we can see that pleasure evolves because of its efficiency in helping us to function in the ways necessary for us to exist and thrive in the very functions in which our being consists.  Our only completely intrinsic good is our own characteristic functioning, through which we ourselves are instantiated as beings at all.  In other words, only through functioning through characteristically human activities (from the cellular to the complex power levels) can this organism we are be at all and thrive in its kind of being at all.  These functionalities are what we are and so they are the only completely intrinsic values we have which do not derive their value from consideration of any further more basic goods.

Beings emerges as a function of effective relationships between entities which serve as their subcomponents.  A being’s intrinsic goodness is just this effectiveness of its characteristic functioning.  Without this functioning, the being does not exist, it is inherently of ultimate and indispensable value to the being that it function in the ways that make it emerge in being at all.

Now, pleasure does not itself constitute any of our essential functions themselves.  Rather it is a component of numerous of our functions.  It is a piece, a component, of numerous intrinsic functions and of our total functional power.  It plays only an instrumental role in the working of those most essential, most intrinsic functions working.  In this way it is an instrumental good.  But, since it plays an indispensable instrumental role, it is in this mediated way integral enough to our being that it is intrinsic to us in the sense of being essential and not merely accidental or dispensable.

So pleasure, while on one level instrumental and not itself an intrinsic functioning of our being, is not instrumental in the way that, say, a ladder or a particular kind of food is.  Such instrumental goods are ones humans could live and thrive without.  Pleasure is a good which is absolutely vital to integral functions and for its role as not only instrumental but also indispensably and naturally instrumental, I think it is intrinsic.  It is not intrinsic in the sense that our functions themselves are—which is as the very conditions and expressions of our being itself.  If we had only pleasure but no characteristic human functions (say, we were kept in a permanent state of morphine induced pleasant delirium), we would not live intrinsically good lives.

James writes:

Yes, pain is instrumentally good. Does that mean I should torture people? Does it mean I shouldn’t give a stranger an aspirin who has a headache? No! Pain is bad in some sense. What sense is it bad? I say it’s bad in the intrinsic sense.

You might want to read this for more information:

You are lacking in examples. I have my explanations for why killing and torturing is right. I have my explanations for why giving an aspirin to the stranger is right. I think my explanation is extremely simple and matches ordinary everyday ways of thinking. How do you explain these things?

No, I am not lacking in examples, I explained already how pain plays an indispensable role in (a) regulating our awareness of harm, (b) preconditioning various virtues which involve endurance with respect to pain, and (c) preconditioning and intensifying various pleasures, including both the most delightful and the most objectively valuable ones.  These are all vital contributions it makes to being human and thriving as a human.  It is intrinsically and not merely incidentally good for these roles.  We would not have recognizably human lives and human virtues of the kinds we have without pain.  We could of course in that case still be some other sort of being which just has different functional excellences. But human goodness involves functions which essentially employ pain both as a warning sign and as a dialectical contributor to their strongest realization.

Just because pain is instrumentally good for the ways it contributes to our necessary functions and just because it is an intrinsic instrumental good since its contributions are necessary and not merely accidental and avoidable, it does not follow at all that therefore torture is okay.  I have already explained this too. If torture damages intrinsic functions more than it helps them (as it manifestly does), it does more harm than good.  Neither pain nor pleasure are good if they are not calibrated to contribute to our maximal effectiveness and both are bad when they outright harm it.

The mere fact that not all pains serve as instrumentally valuable does not make pain itself intrinsically something to avoid.  Excesses of food, excesses of pleasure, excesses of any instrumentally and intrinsically good thing can be harmful.  Good things at the wrong times and in the wrong ways can all kill us.  Pain is no different.  The only difference with pain is that its intrinsic way of contributing to our healthy functioning is (rightly) psychologically experienced in such a way that motivates us to remove it.  This is fine.  There can be a good thing that’s goodness is precisely in the ways it pushes us and upsets us. As long as pain’s ultimate results are to increase ultimate functioning, it is estimable.  If it is put to the purpose of harming us then it is turned against its valuable evolved function of insistently warning us against harms and becomes a harm itself.  And the same can be done with pleasure, of course.

The fact that both pleasure and pain can be used in instrumentally tortuous and effectively harmful ways makes both of them context-dependent for when and in what ways they serve as good for us (where good means effective for contributing to our flourishing in our characteristic functions), it does not mean that either one or the other is not intrinsically valuable.  It only means that the intrinsic value of each is instrumental and dependent on contexts in which it fulfills its proper instrumental role.  Neither’s intrinsically good character entails that it is always unqualifiedly good in all possible respects and contexts.  The kind of intrinsic value they have is just that they are eventually crucially necessary in certain inevitable and vital contexts for our flourishing.

James quotes me again before replying:

My position is that pleasure is in one sense truly “intrinsically good”, in that its goodness is not merely accidental to human beings but it plays an integral and indispensable role in our excellent functioning.

Again, intrinsic goodness is what is good just for existing — an end in itself. It’s not good because it’s functional or helpful or instrumental.

No it’s both.  Pleasure is so indispensably instrumental that in certain necessary roles that it is intrinsically good.  But pleasure is not intrinsically good just because we like it and are inclined to embrace it.  It is instrumentally good because we like it in that this leads it to have its indispensable (intrinsically necessary) contributions to our characteristic functions through which alone we exist and thrive.

Nonetheless, however much we like it and desire it, in objective terms we can understand that its value is distinguishable from these enticing feelings by which it functions. Its objective value is in its instrumental role in guiding us towards functioning both minimally and maximally well.

Yes, that’s right — except you are saying The value of pleasure is only found in its instrumental value when it also has intrinsic value.

I am saying its intrinsic value is that it is indispensably instrumental, not that it would have intrinsic value if it were not also instrumental.  In such a case, we would subjectively value it (and there might be nothing wrong with that if it were not counterproductive), but it would have no objective worth, since it would be irrelevant to our powerful functioning through which our being itself is constituted.

The problem with defining the “good” of pleasure as “the ‘how it feels’ of pleasure” is that pleasure only is the “how it feels” of pleasure. Pleasure just is feeling pleasure.

I think the feeling of pleasure is connected to our sense of what it means for something to be an end in itself/an intrinsic value. I think Aristotle understood this and that Aristotle found that happiness was something everyone agrees is worthy of desire precisely because of how we experience happiness.

Consider how Aristotle discussed pleasure. The point wasn’t that pleasure isn’t an end in itself — the point is that pleasure isn’t the ultimate “most final” end.

I think Aristotle is wrong on this.  I know I am radical on this point, but I am just trying to carry out the logic of the situation. The only basis for truth about morality is going to have to be in facts.  The goodness of effectiveness is factual.  To understand the objective, truthful, factual value of usefulness, of pleasure, of preference attitudes, of morality, and all the other things called good, we must analyze them in terms of fact relationships of effectiveness and the intrinsic goods of beings themselves which are bound up in their functional effectivenesses as the beings they are.

Pleasure is not an end-in-itself for us (though of course it is an end-in-itself for itself).  We just quite necessarily love it and have evolved to think of it that way because that usually helps it fulfill its indispensably instrumental role in helping us thrive in our characteristic functions.   We had might as well have as much of what we love that we can, consistent with our maximal intrinsic functioning in our characteristic powers.  But the only things that are non-instrumentally, intrinsically good for us are our intrinsic powers themselves.

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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