"no harm, no foul"
Sunday, August 03, 2003
THE SOURCES OF VALUE: How could it be that in addition to things being of instrumental value, there might also be things of intrinsic value in the world? Intrinsic value doesn’t seem the sort of thing we could bestow on an object, just by calling it “intrinsic.” People, we don’t think, have intrinsic value (if they have intrinsic value) just because we think they do; they have it no matter what we think about them. But then where, barring a theological source, do persons get their intrinsic value?

What does it mean to have intrinsic value? This is actually a hard question, because it’s not at all clear what it means. Similar questions could be asked of other labels, like “dignity” or “sacredness.” What does it mean to have these properties? (Or: what does it mean to have these properties, absent a theological context?)

The best way to proceed is probably by negation. To have intrinsic value (or to have dignity) is not to be liable to be used in certain ways, to be treated as an ends and not merely as a means to the satisfactions of others. The “liable to” is important here. It’s not that to have an intrinsic worth (or dignity, etc.) is that you will never be used for the satisfaction of others; it’s that if you are so used, something bad had happened, you have been wronged by being treated inappropriately given your status as a person.

So having intrinsic value is in a way reducible to being treated in certain ways by other people. But it is not reducible to how people actually treat you, because they could treat you in all sorts of ways unbefitting your status as a person. What having intrinsic value means is that people ought to treat you in a certain way, a way that, roughly, corresponds with your status as an end (what this will mean in particular circumstances will have to be spelled out, but I take it that we can at least roughly grasp a distinction between being used merely as a means and being treated as an end).

The condition of there being intrinsic value in the world, say the intrinsic value of persons is that there be a moral system in place that says people ought not to be treated in certain ways. This sounds like it gets things backwards. Shouldn’t it be a condition of there being intrinsic value in the world that there are actually things that are intrinsically valuable?

The way I’m putting things makes it seem like that by our choice of a moral system we can bring certain sorts of beings into the world – and thereby make the world an intrinsically better place! (This is how F.M. Kamm draws out the point.) If we can get over the idea of choosing one moral system over another, then the idea that one moral system could make the world more intrinsically valuable might give us a reason to favor that moral system.

Again, this tends to sound like wishful thinking. But if we define being intrinsically valuable as “ought to be treated in certain sorts of ways” then there’s no paradox in saying that a given moral system might create beings with a special status, given what it says about how we ought to treat them. In fact, this way of looking at “intrinsic” has its advantaged. It seems to leave out any spooky metaphysics, by cashing out the existence of intrinsically valuable objects by relating them to a certain form of treatment. But it still preserves the normative force of “intrinsic” by not reducing it to how people (for example) actually are treated. I like that.

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