Intrinsic vs. Instrumental Value

A Basic Distinction in Moral Philosophy

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The distinction between intrinsic and instrumental value is one of the most fundamental and important in moral theory. Fortunately, it is not difficult to grasp. You value many things, such as beauty, sunshine, music, money, truth, and justice. To value something is to have a positive attitude toward it and to prefer its existence or occurrence over its nonexistence or nonoccurence. You can value it as an end, as a means to some end, or both.

Instrumental Value

You value most things instrumentally, that is, as a means to some end. Usually, this is obvious. For instance, you value a washing machine that works—purely for its useful function, or instrumental value. If there were a very cheap cleaning service next door that picked up and dropped off your laundry, you might use it and sell your washing machine because it no longer has any instrumental value to you.

One thing nearly everyone values to some extent is money. But it is usually valued purely as a means to an end. It has instrumental value: It provides security, and you can use it to purchase things you want. Detached from its purchasing power, money is just a pile of printed paper or scrap metal.

Intrinsic Value

There are two notions of intrinsic value. It can be:

  • Valuable in itself 
  • Valued by someone for its own sake

If something has intrinsic value in the first sense, this means that the universe is somehow a better place for that thing existing or occurring. Utilitarian philosophers like John Stuart Mill claim that pleasure and happiness are valuable in and of themselves. A universe in which a single sentient being is experiencing pleasure is better than one in which there are no sentient beings. It is a more valuable place.

Immanuel Kant holds that genuinely moral actions are intrinsically valuable. He would say that a universe in which rational beings perform good actions from a sense of duty is an inherently better place than a universe in which this doesn’t happen. The Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore says that a world containing natural beauty is more valuable than a world without beauty, even if there is no one there to experience it. To these philosophers, these things are all valuable in and of themselves.

This first notion of intrinsic value is controversial. Many philosophers would say that it makes no sense to talk about things being valuable in themselves unless they are actually valued by someone. Even pleasure or happiness are only intrinsically valuable because they are experienced by someone.

Value for Its Own Sake

Focusing on the second sense of intrinsic value, the question arises: What do people value for its own sake? The most obvious candidates are pleasure and happiness. People value many things—wealth, health, beauty, friends, education, employment, houses, cars, and washing machines—because they think those things will give them pleasure or make them happy. It may seemingly make sense to ask why people want them. But both Aristotle and Mill pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to ask why a person wants to be happy.

Most people value not only their own happiness, they also value the happiness of other people. They are sometimes willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of someone else’s. People also sacrifice themselves or their happiness for other things, such as religion, their country, justice, knowledge, truth, or art. Those are all things that convey the second characteristic of intrinsic value: They are valued by someone for their own sake.