Instrumental and intrinsic value
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Instrumental and intrinsic value are technical labels for the two poles of an ancient dichotomy. People seem to reason differently about what they ought to do (good ends) and what they are able to do (good means). When people reason about ends, they apply the criterion intrinsic value. When they reason about means they apply the criterion instrumental value. Few question the existence of these two criteria, but their relative authority is in constant dispute.
This article explains the meaning of and disputes about these two criteria for judging means and ends. Evidence is drawn from the work of four scholars. John Dewey and John Fagg Foster provided arguments against the dichotomy, while Jacques Ellul and Anjan Chakravartty provided arguments in its favor.
The word "value" is both a verb and a noun, each having multiple meanings. But its root meaning always involves normative qualities such as goodness, worth, truth. The word reports either the rational act of judging or individual results of judging the presence of such qualities.;:3:37–44
Judgments of normative qualities are commonly believed to be rationally authorized by two distinct criteria applied to two distinct realities, one static, the other dynamic. People reason about 1) what they ought to do—intrinsically legitimate ends—and 2) how they ought to do—conditionally efficient means. Ends are stereotypical rules for action, judged unconditionally legitimate in themselves; for example the Ten Commandments and the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Means are constantly evolving tools, designed to work efficiently in various conditions; for example, scientific and technological theories. The existence of these two criteria is rarely questioned, but their relative authority is in constant dispute.
Following the usage of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), these two criteria authorizing normative judgments are commonly labeled "instrumental value"(dynamically efficient means) and "intrinsic value" (statically legitimate ends). Here are Weber's original definitions, followed by current labels for the two criteria from the Oxford Handbook of Value Theory.
Social action, like all action, may be [judged] ...:
1) instrumentally rational (zweckrational), that is, determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment of other human beings; these expectations are used as "conditions" or "means" for the attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued and calculated ends'
2) value-rational (wertrational), that is, determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success;...,:24–5
... the distinction between what is good "in itself" and what is good "as a means."
The concept of intrinsic value has been glossed variously as what is valuable for its own sake, in itself, on its own, in its own right, as an end, or as such. By contrast, extrinsic value has been characterized mainly as what is valuable as a means, or for something else's sake.
Among nonfinal values, instrumental value--intuitively, the value attaching a means to what is finally valuable--stands out as a bona fide example of what is not valuable for its own sake.:14, 29, 34
This article describes how four scholars treated the dual "realities" of instrumentally valuable tools and intrinsically valuable rules. John Dewey and John Fagg Foster rejected the dichotomy. They denied the reality and authority of intrinsic valuations, and argued that competent application of instrumental value authorizes both efficient and legitimate valuations. Jacques Ellul and Anjan Chakravartty embraced the dichotomy, and expressed popular arguments for the reality and authority of unconditional qualities such as the meaning of life and knowledge in itself.
Throughout this article, the noun "value" shall name a criterion applied in the act of judging qualities, and the noun "valuation" shall name a result of the act of judging. The plural noun "values" shall identify collections of valuations—things judged either instrumentally or intrinsically valuable.
Philosopher John Dewey spent much of his career challenging dichotomies popular with philosophers, including dual criteria for judging normative qualities. He blamed belief in intrinsic value for contaminating reasoning and generating endless social conflict. For him, "restoring integration and cooperation between man's beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values [valuations] and purposes that should direct his conduct is the deepest problem of modern life.":255 "A culture which permits science to destroy traditional values [valuations] but which distrusts its power to create new ones is a culture which is destroying itself."
Dewey agreed with Max Weber that people talk as if they apply instrumental and intrinsic criteria. And he agreed with Weber's observation that intrinsic value is problematic. Weber labeled action motivated by intrinsic value "value-rational," and Dewey labeled intrinsic rules "immediate knowledge." Both questioned how a rule valued "for its own sake" can have operationally efficient consequences.
... the more the value to which action is oriented is elevated to the status of an absolute [intrinsic] value, the more "irrational" in this [instrumental] sense the corresponding action is. For the more unconditionally the actor devotes himself to this value for its own sake, ... the less he is influenced by considerations of the consequences of his action.:26, 399–400
But Dewey rejected Weber's belief in two criteria authorizing rational valuations. In The Quest for Certainty, published in 1929, he explained the origin of this false dichotomy.
Man who lives in a world of hazards ... has sought to attain [security] in two ways. One of them began with an attempt to propitiate the [intrinsic] powers which environ him and determine his destiny. It expressed itself in supplication, sacrifice, ceremonial rite and magical cult .... The other course is to invent [instrumental] arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account;...:3
... for over two thousand years, the ... most influential and authoritatively orthodox tradition ... has been devoted to the problem of a purely cognitive certification (perhaps by revelation, perhaps by intuition, perhaps by reason) of the antecedent immutable reality of truth, beauty, and goodness. .... The crisis in contemporary culture, the confusions and conflicts in it, arise from a division of authority. Scientific [instrumental] inquiry seems to tell one thing, and traditional beliefs [intrinsic valuations] about ends and ideals that have authority over conduct tell us something quite different. .... As long as the notion persists that knowledge is a disclosure of [intrinsic] reality ... prior to and independent of knowing, and that knowing is independent of a purpose to control the quality of experienced objects, the failure of natural science to disclose significant values [valuations] in its objects will come as a shock.:43–4
Finding no evidence for beliefs in "antecedent immutable reality of truth, beauty, and goodness...," Dewey argued that both efficient and legitimate qualities are discovered in the continuity of human experience, which is never static or unconditional.
Dewey's ethics replaces the goal of identifying an ultimate end or supreme principle that can serve as a criterion of ethical evaluation with the goal of identifying a method for improving our value judgments. Dewey argued that ethical inquiry is of a piece with empirical inquiry more generally. .... This pragmatic approach requires that we locate the conditions of warrant for our value judgments in human conduct itself, not in any a priori fixed reference point outside of conduct, such as in God's commands, Platonic Forms, pure reason, or "nature," considered as giving humans a fixed telos [intrinsic end].;:114, 172–3; 197
Philosophers label a "fixed reference point outside of conduct' a natural kind, and presume it to have eternal existence knowable in itself without being experienced. Natural kinds are "mind-independent" and "theory-independent" valuations.
Dewey granted the existence of "reality" outside of experience, but denied the possibility of knowing it or its qualities apart from human ends and actions.:122, 196 Reality does not consist of static natural kinds with intrinsic qualities, but rather of ceaseless activity. Humans may intuit static kinds and qualities, but such private experience cannot warrant inferences or valuations about mind-independent reality. Reports or maps of any sort are never equivalent to that which is mapped. They are perceptions of fragments of unceasing processes. 
Belief in static reports of private intuitions that ignore existing conditions was labeled by Dewey "immediate knowledge,;:109 and by Weber as grounds for "value-rational" action. Other scholars used other labels. Ivan Pavlov labeled equating static symbols with physical things "conditioned reflexes." Alfred Korzybski labeled equating static maps with mapped territories "semantic reactions." Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman labels unreliable immediate valuations "thinking fast" or "intuitive thinking."
Having shown that intrinsic criteria are imaginary, Dewey showed that their inferred function as moral compass can be fulfilled by competent application of instrumental value: means joined to ends in sequences of rational judgments that solve problems. People reason daily about what they ought to do and how they ought to do it. They discover sequences of efficient means that achieve consequences successfully. Once an end is reached---a problem solved--reasoning turns to what comes next in new conditions of means-end relations. Valuations and actions which ignore conditions that determine consequences cannot coordinate behavior to solve real problems. They are irrational.
Value judgments have the form: if one acted in a particular way (or valued this object), then certain consequences would ensue, which would be valued. The difference between an apparent and a real good [means or end], between an unreflectively and a reflectively valued good, is captured by its value [valuation of goodness] not just as immediately experienced in isolation, but in view of its wider consequences and how they are valued. .... So viewed, value judgments are tools for discovering how to live a better life, just as scientific hypotheses are tools for uncovering new information about the world.
In brief, Dewey rejected the traditional belief that judging things good-in-themselves, apart from existing means-end relations, can be rational. The sole rational criterion is instrumental value. Each successful valuation is conditional but, cumulatively, all are developmental as problems are solved. Cumulative instrumental success provides a legitimate moral compass. Competent instrumental valuations treat the "function of consequences as necessary tests of the validity of propositions, provided these consequences are operationally instituted and are such as to resolve the specific problems evoking the operations...";:29–31
John Fagg Foster
Economist John Fagg Foster refined John Dewey's analysis of the irrationality of intrinsic value and the potential of instrumental value. He clarified differences between Dewey's instrumental criterion and the most widely endorsed instrumental alternative, the utility or usefulness criterion.
At least since Aristotle, scholars have reasoned that individual wants are intrinsic traits of human nature, the satisfaction of which is a legitimate end. This belief is embodied in the criterion of utility, which holds that individuals--and groups of individuals in societies--legitimately try to maximize the sum of their want satisfactions.;:40–48
Utilitarians hold that individual wants cannot be rationally justified. They are intrinsically worthy mental valuations and cannot be judged instrumentally. This belief supports philosophers who hold that facts--"what is"--can serve as instrumental means for achieving wants, but cannot authorize ends--"what ought to be." This Fact-value distinction creates what philosophers label the Is-ought problem: wants are intrinsically fact-free, good in themselves, while efficient tools are valuation-free, usable for good or bad ends.:60 In modern North American culture, this utilitarian belief supports the Libertarian assertion that the intrinsic right to satisfy individual wants makes it illegitimate for anyone--but especially governments--to tell people what they ought to do.
Foster found this "is-ought" problem a useful place to attack the irrational separation of means from ends. He started his analysis by arguing that want-satisfaction--"what ought to be"--cannot serve as an intrinsic moral compass because wants are themselves consequences of transient conditions.
[T]he things people want are a function of their social experience, and that is carried on through structural institutions that specify their activities and attitudes. Thus the pattern of people's wants takes visible form partly as a result of the pattern of the institutional structure through which they participate in the economic process. As we have seen, to say that an economic problem exists is to say that part of the particular patterns of human relationships has ceased or failed to provide the effective participation of its members. In so saying, we are necessarily in the position of asserting that the instrumental efficiency of the economic process is the criterion of judgment in terms of which, and only in terms of which, we may resolve economic problems.
Since wants are shaped by social conditions, they must be judged instrumentally. Wants arise in problematic situations when habitual patterns of behavior fail to maintain instrumental correlations.:27 Foster supported with homely examples his thesis that problematic situations--"what is"--contain the means for judging rationally "what ought to be."
Consider infants who have mastered the skill of crawling--"what is." They observe people walking, and spontaneously recognize that walking is more efficient than crawling--an instrumental valuation of a desirable end. They engage in learning to walk by repeatedly moving and balancing and judging the efficiency with which these means advance toward their instrumental goal. When they master the new skill, they experience great satisfaction, but satisfaction is never their end-in-view.
Consider the global problem of unemployment. Since the industrial revolution began, large groups of people have been deprived of traditional means of participation in two social functions--productive activity and income security--and of the dignity maintained by that participation. Conditions that exclude participation--"what is"--must be replaced by new patterns of inclusion--"what ought to be."
At the end of World War II, the United States faced the threat of massive unemployment caused by demobilization. Labor markets--the traditional utilitarian solution to unemployment--appeared unlikely to avoid that threat. The solution was to prescribe a new pattern of correlated behavior to maintain participation: the G.I. Bill, which generously subsidized education and livelihood for veterans and fostered a massive burst of innovation and economic expansion. The instrumental moral compass of participation worked.; Intrinsic value as either rule or reality was ignored.
Foster labeled successful applications of instrumental value "instrumental efficiency." But he realized that efficiency by itself contaminates reasoning by turning a dynamic process--"what ought to be"--into a static valuation--"what is." Turning a conditionally-successful tool into a static end-in-itself is self-defeating.
To guard against this contamination of instrumental value, Foster revised his label for that criterion to the ungainly expression "developmental continuity." This label stresses the condition that a successful operation must not lead down a dead-end street. The same point is made by the currently popular concern for sustainability--a synonym for instrumental value.
Dewey's and Foster's arguments that instrumental value is the proper criterion for judging both means and ends continue to be ignored rather than refuted. Scholars continue to accept the necessity of knowing intrinsic value--"what ought to be"--independently of transient conditions--"what is"--appropriate for instrumental value. Jacques Ellul and Anjan Chakravartty were prominent exponents of popular arguments for the reality of intrinsic value as moral compass and reality check.
Jacques Ellul was a respected French philosopher, sociologist, and law professor. His scholarship covered many fields, but his American reputation grew out of his criticism of the autonomous authority of instrumental value, the criterion that Dewey and Foster found to be the core of human rationality. And he specifically criticized the instrumental valuations most central to Dewey's and Foster's thesis: evolving instrumental technology.
His principal work, published in 1954, bore the French title La technique. It addressed the problem Dewey addressed in 1929: a culture in which the authority of evolving technology destroys traditional valuations without creating legitimate new ones. Both men agreed that conditionally efficient valuations--"what is"--become irrational when viewed as unconditionally efficient in themselves--"what ought to be." But while Dewey argued that contaminated instrumental valuations can be self-correcting, Ellul concluded that technology had become intrinsically destructive. The only escape from this evil is to restore authority to unconditional sacred valuations:
Nothing belongs any longer to the realm of the gods or the supernatural. The individual who lives in the technical milieu knows very well that there is nothing spiritual anywhere. But man cannot live without the [intrinsic] sacred. He therefore transfers his sense of the sacred to the very thing which has destroyed its former object: to technique itself.:143
La technique was published in English in 1964 with the title The Technological Society, and quickly entered ongoing disputes in the United States over the responsibility of instrumental value for destructive social consequences. The translator of Technological Society summarized Ellul's thesis:
Technological Society is a description of the way in which an autonomous [instrumental] technology is in process of taking over the traditional values [intrinsic valuations] of every society without exception, subverting and suppressing those values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all non technological difference and variety is mere appearance.:v-vi, x
Ellul opened The Technological Society by defining instrumental efficiency as no longer a conditional criterion. It has become autonomous and absolute.
The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.:xxxvi
He accused instrumental judgment of destroying intrinsic meanings of human life. "Think of our dehumanized factories, our unsatisfied senses, our working women, our estrangement from nature. Life in such an environment has no meaning.:4–5 Weber had labeled the discrediting of intrinsic valuations "disenchantment;" Ellul came to label it "terrorism.":384, 19 He dated its domination to the 1800s, when centuries-old handicraft techniques were massively eliminated by inhume industry.
When, in the 19th century, society began to elaborate an exclusively rational technique which acknowledged only considerations of efficiency, it was felt that not only the traditions but the deepest instincts of humankind had been violated.:73
Culture is necessarily humanistic or it does not exist at all. .... [I]t answers questions about the meaning of life, the possibility of reunion with ultimate being, the attempt to overcome human finitude, and all other questions that they have to ask and handle. But technique cannot deal with such things. .... Culture exists only if it raises the question of meaning and values [valuations]. .... Technique is not at all concerned about the meaning of life, and it rejects any relation to values [intrinsic valuations].:147–8
Ella's core accusation was that instrumental efficiency had become absolute--a good-in-itself.:83 It wraps societies in a new technological milieu with six intrinsically inhuman characteristics:
a) It is artificial; b) it is autonomous with respect to values [valuations], ideas, and the state; c) It is ... self-determinative independently of all human intervention; d) It grows according to a process which is causal but not directed to ends; e) It is formed by an accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends; f) All its parts are mutually implicated to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them or to settle any technical problems in isolation.:22
Tiles and Oberdiek found Ellul's characterization of instrumental efficiency inaccurate.:22–31 They criticized him for anthropomorphizing and demonizing instrumental value. They countered by examining the moral reasoning of scientists whose work led to nuclear weapons. Those scientists demonstrated the capacity of instrumental judgments to provide them with a moral compass to judge nuclear technology with conscience and responsibility, with no need for intrinsic rules. Tiles's and Oberdiek's conclusion coincides with that of Dewey and Foster: instrumental value, when competently applied, is self-correcting and provides humans with a developmental moral compass.
For although we have defended general principles of the moral responsibilities of professional people, it would be foolish and wrongheaded to suggest codified [intrinsic] rules. It would be foolish because concrete cases are more complex and nuanced than any code could capture; it would be wrongheaded because it would suggest that our sense of moral responsibility can be fully captured by a code.:193
In fact, as we have seen in many instances, technology simply allows us to go on doing stupid things in clever ways. The question the technology cannot solve, although it will always frame and condition the answers, are "What should we be trying to do? What kind of lives should we, as human beings, be seeking to live? And can this kind of life be pursued without exploiting others? But until we can at least propose [instrumental] answers to those questions we cannot really begin to do sensible things in the clever ways that technology might permit.:197
Philosopher Anjan Chakravartty came indirectly to question the autonomous authority of instrumental value. He viewed it as a foil for the currently dominant philosophical school labeled "scientific realism," with which he identifies. In 2007, he published a work defending the ultimate authority of intrinsic valuations to which realists are committed. He linked the pragmatic instrumental criterion to discredited anti-realist schools known as logical positivism and instrumentalism
Chakravartty began his study with rough characterizations of realist and anti-realist valuations of theories. Anti-realists believe "that theories are merely instruments for predicting observable phenomena or systematizing observation reports." They assert that theories can never report or prescribe truth or reality "in itself." By contrast, scientific realists believe that theories can "correctly describe both observable and unobservable parts of the world.":xi, 10 Correct theories--"what ought to be" as the end of reasoning--are more than tools. They are mappings of properties of an unobservable and unconditional territory--"what is" as reality in itself.:xiii, 33, 149
Chakravartty committed fellow realists to three metaphysical valuations or intrinsic kinds of immediate knowledge. Competent realists affirm that natural kinds 1) exist in a mind-independent territory possessing 2) meaningful and 3) mappable intrinsic properties.
Ontologically, scientific realism is committed to the existence of a mind-independent world or reality. A realist semantics implies that the theoretical claims [valuations] about this reality have truth values, and should be consrued literally ... Finally, the epistemological commitment is to the idea that these theoretical claims give us knowledge of the world. That is, predictively successful (mature, non-ad hoc) theories, taken literally as describing the nature of a mind-independent reality are (approximately) true.:9
He labeled these intrinsic valuations semirealist, meaning they are currently the most accurate theoretical descriptions of mind-independent natural kinds. He found these carefully qualified statements necessary to replace earlier descriptions discredited by advancing instrumental valuations.
Weber had labeled progressive discrediting of intrinsic valuations "disenchantment"; Ellul had labeled the destruction of intrinsic valuations "terrorism." Chakravartty redefined traditional natural kinds to maintain their status as evidence for believing in unobservable realities. He put forward the thesis of semirealism, according to which we must treat well-tested theories as good maps of natural kinds because their success means they conform to mind-independent, unconditional reality.
Scientific theories describe causal properties, concrete structures, and particulars such as objects, events, and processes. Semirealism maintains that under certain conditions it is reasonable for realists to believe that the best of these descriptions tell us not merely about things that can be experienced [judged by instrumental value] with the unaided senses, but also about some of the unobservable things underlying them.:151
Causal properties are the fulcrum of semirealism. Their [mind-independent] relations compose the concrete structures that are the primary subject matters of a tenable scientific realism. They regularly cohere to form interesting units, and these groupings make up the particulars investigated by the sciences and described by scientific theories.:119
Chakravartty argued that these semirealist valuations authorize scientific theorizing about pragmatic kinds as scientists search for natural kinds. The fact that theoretical kinds are frequently replaced does not mean that mind-independent reality is changing, but simply that theoretical maps are approximating unconditional reality.
The primary motivation for thinking that there are such things as natural kinds is the idea that carving nature according to its own divisions yields groups of objects that are capable of supporting successful inductive generalizations and prediction. So the story goes, one's recognition of natural categories facilitates these practices, and thus furnishes an excellent explanation for their success.:151
The moral here is that however realists choose to construct particulars out of instances of properties, they do so on the basis of a belief in the [mind-independent] existence of those properties. That is the bedrock of realism. Property instances lend themselves to different forms of packaging [instrumental valuations], but as a feature of scientific description, this does not compromise realism with respect to the relevant [conditional] packages.:81
In sum, Chakravartty argued that changing instrumental valuations are authorized as they approximate unchanging intrinsic valuations. Scholars continue to perfect their understanding of applications of intrinsic value, as they deny the developmental continuity of applications of instrumental value.
Abstraction is a process in which only some of the potentially many relevant factors present in [unobservable] reality are represented [mapped] in a model or description with some aspect of the world, such as the nature or behavior of a specific object or press. ... Pragmatic constraints such as these play a role in shaping how scientific investigations are conducted, and together which and how many potentially relevant factors [intrinsic kinds] are incorporated into models and descriptions during the process of abstraction. The role of pragmatic constraints, however, does not undermine the idea that putative representations of factors composing abstract models can be thought to have counterparts in the [mind-independent] world.:191
As Chakravartty's arguments demonstrate, the ancient dichotomy between reasoning about efficient means and legitimate ends shows no sign of being eliminated.
- Instrumental and value rationality
- Instrumental and value-rational action
- Value (ethics)
- Value theory
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