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  • Writer's pictureRicky

We’ve confused Intrinsic & Ultimate value and it’s been a Disaster

If you’ve happened to take a course in intro ethics, you might have heard of a classic distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value.


(This one’s a bit more jargony but I’m trying to figure out how to explain something in my dissertation more clearly and accessibly. So here’s round one.)


When we’re talking about instrumental value, we’re talking about how useful something is.


For example, money is useful for what it can get you. We might say that the value of money points ‘beyond’ itself.


So what is money useful for? Maybe a car.

What’s that useful for? Going to work. What’s that useful for? Making more money. Wait, what?!

I feel like I'm in a 90s movie.

What’s the point of all this usefulness? Eventually, we have to reach something that isn’t just useful for getting something else… This is where we usually introduce intrinsic value, which is a matter of how valuable something would be on its own. A lot of people seem to think that happiness would be valuable on its own, and I think I’m just depressed so my opinion doesn’t count. (But really, you think happiness on its own would just be straight-up good? It definitely matters how it’s produced or what its consequences are, right? Maybe you think that those factors just affect its value separately: So, happiness is intrinsically good, but in weird cases, that’s just getting offset. But why not pick something else like beauty? Or why not unhappiness!)


Okay, I’m definitely just depressed.

But this way of teaching intro ethics (that happens 99% of the time) is just a mess. We teach intro ethics wrong. Christine Korsgaard has a classic paper called “Two Distinctions in Goodness” that dismantles this philosophical orthodoxy within the first two pages. We’ve never tried this on this blog, but let’s do just a bit of close reading. I’ll make some notes to help you through. Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value:

The natural contrast to intrinsic goodness—the value a thing has “in itself”—is extrinsic goodness—the value a thing gets from some other source.

intrinsic value

extrinsic value

the value something would have on its own

the value something gets from elsewhere


For example, money’s no good on its own. Money’s just paper, or more likely 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive somewhere. So money has no intrinsic value.

Ok maybe you think at least some money is beautiful and therefore aesthetically valuable or whatever but stop complicating this Ricky.

But money definitely has extrinsic value! Money gets its value from elsewhere. It’s worth what it can get you, and that depends on lots of things, including the government’s standing threat of violence to deter counterfeiting.

intrinsic value

extrinsic value

the value something would have on its own

the value something gets from elsewhere

Happiness 😃

Money 💵


But that’s not quite the same thing as Distinction #2.


Instrumental vs. Ultimate Value:

The natural contrast to a thing that is valued instrumentally or as a means is a thing that is valued for its own sake or as an end.

instrumental value

ultimate value

how useful something is for getting something else

how worthy something is of being valued for its own sake


Money is instrumentally valuable. It’s very useful for getting other things. But it doesn’t really make sense to value getting lots of money for its own sake. If any life could be meaningless, it might be a life built around doing that. Sorry Sisyphus, you’ve been replaced.


Guess I don’t have to roll this rock up a mountain forever anymore.

And what’s something ultimately valuable? Again, people like to talk about happiness and here let’s just give it to them.

instrumental value

ultimate value

how useful something is for getting something else

how worthy something is of being valued for its own sake

Money 💵

Happiness 😃

Side-by-side, those two distinctions look pretty damn close, but they are, indeed, two different distinctions in goodness. Feast your eyes (or keep scrolling, it’s seriously OK):

extrinsic value

intrinsic value

the value something gets from elsewhere

the value something would have on its own

instrumental value

ultimate value

how useful something is for getting something else

how worthy something is of being valued for its own sake

Money 💵

Happiness 😃

Great, so who cares?


I think this tiny-seeming difference has enormous consequences for how we should think about well-being. It’s basically the difference between self-interest and well-being that I spend most of my dissertation trying to illuminate.


It’s also why I start talking about assholes almost immediately.


Okay, so your well-being describes what’s ultimately good or bad for you. So yeah, yeah, don’t tell me that money’s useful for me or whatever. If in our society today I need money to be well, what’s the money for? Tell me what’s ultimately good for me, not just what’s useful for me!


But intrinsic properties ask us to think about things in isolation.


And that’s a terrible way to think about your well-being!


Your well-being depends centrally on a number of relational goods like relationships and achievements that depend on both what you’re like and what they’re like. These goods are extrinsically valuable, and that’s totally fine! They’re absolutely essential to your well-being, and they start to undermine any simple picture of your self-interest as thoroughly siloed off and isolated from mine. (Can’t we share relationships and achievements?)


But time and time again, philosophers just grant to the moral skeptic that your well-being = your self-interest, which you can figure out by just thinking about your own good in isolation, treating everything and everyone else around you as just useful for managing that. What a disaster! If that’s how you understand what’s good for you, you’re going to go through life as a huge asshole.


And that’s really bad for you!


You’re going to miss out on all the relational goods on offer, or at least not appreciate their full value. And that includes love itself. You can’t love someone if you don’t value them for their own sake. It’s not enough to value them for how they benefit your own self-interest!


To be clear: I agree that happiness is really ultimately valuable for us. But I don’t think happiness is the only thing! We care about other stuff like love and relationships and achievements that we think are ultimately very good for us, too. If I can somehow articulate this to my therapist I think they’ll be way less concerned.


If only one thing mattered—say, your self-interest—why not maximize it? More good is better than less good, after all! But as soon as I realize that I have other values besides how my life goes for me—say, how your life goes for you independently, we go, uh oh. You have a well-being and so do I. Both matter, and they can come into conflict.


Now what? It’s not just an optimization puzzle—it's a moral/political dilemma. (Sorry, utilitarians.) We need to navigate such problems together.


And that means we have to figure out how we’d like to live going forward, what forms of life we can assent to and even admire. Suddenly we’re doing virtue theory. And now even simple, everyday moments (”Do you like it?”) becomes opportunities to decide what sorts of people we want to be, what sorts of lives we want to lead. Do we tell the brutal truth, choosing to be brave and honest? Or do we tell the white lie, prioritizing being considerate and careful? Either could be part of a very reasonable form of life that was not only decent but deeply ethical.


So much of the appeal of role-playing games (RPGs) is that they allow us to experiment with trying on different characters—not just different dramatic characters (being Luke Skywalker or C-3P0) but different moral characters (being brave & honest or considerate & careful). C-3P0 would totally tell the white lie. But the good part of Return of the Jedi is watching a mature Luke tell his father the brutal truth. (Sorry Ewok fans, the Vietnam analogy is boring.)


In role-playing games, you can experience ‘living’ both ways and assess them ‘from the inside’. I gotta write more about them. And maybe more about Star Wars.

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