Instrumental and intrinsic value
The word "value" is both a verb and a noun, each with multiple meanings. But its root meaning always involves social judgments of qualities such as goodness, worth, truth, justice, beauty. The word names either the rational criterion applied when judging, or results of judging, the presence of such qualities.:1-3:37–44
Humans attribute qualities to objects, beliefs, and behaviors as they identify means that "work" to carry on social life, and ends that are "right" for social life itself. Qualities that "work" are judged by the instrumental criterion, and are said to possess instrumental value. Qualities that are "right" in themselves are judged by the intrinsic criterion, and are said to possess intrinsic value. The value of a smart phone or a scientific theory is instrumental. The value of the Ten Commandments or the US Constitution is intrinsic.
The noun value sometimes names the instrumental or intrinsic criterion being applied. More often, it names things judged to possess instrumental or intrinsic value. Modern scholars have refined these ancient common-sense meanings of value. Sociologist Max Weber applied the labels instrumental and intrinsic value to two patterns of social action. Here are his 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
The assumption that humans apply two distinct criteria of judgment creates problems. People ask, "How can we know which objects have which qualities?" Things that "work" may appear obvious, but can stop working or have bad consequences. Things that are "right" are not-at-all obvious and are often controversial. This article samples usages of instrumental and intrinsic value and some disputes they generate. Evidence is drawn from the work of four scholars.
Philosopher John Dewey and economist John Fagg Foster denied legitimacy to intrinsic value. They treated it as contaminated application of instrumental value, and showed how instrumental value alone can judge ends and means that both work and are right. Philosopher Jacques Ellul argued that instrumental value had itself become contaminated by inhuman industrial power unregulated by intrinsic supernatural value. Philosopher Anjan Chakravartty argued that modern scientific realism confirms the truth of intrinsic value and the fallacy of relativistic instrumental value.
To reduce ambiguity, throughout this article the noun "value" names a criterion of judgment but not an object judged valuable. The noun "valuation" names an object judged valuable. The plural noun "values" identifies collections of valuations, without identifying the criterion applied.
John Dewey judged the human belief in intrinsic value to be a futile and failed search for a community moral compass. He saw no need for intrinsic value because instrumental value enables human groups to coordinate beliefs and behaviors that both work and are right. Every social transaction has good or bad consequences depending on prevailing conditions that are satisfied or not. Continuous reasoning adjusts patterns to keep them working on the right track as conditions change.
Dewey thought that belief in intrinsic value contaminates instrumental value by isolating judgments of what is right from judgments of what works. 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 because it ignores the relationship between context and consequences of beliefs and behaviors. Both men questioned how anything valued intrinsically "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 the common belief--shared by Weber--that supernatural intrinsic value is necessary to show humans what is permanently "right." He argued that both efficient and legitimate qualities are discovered in daily life, where conditions are always changing.
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 of "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 always has antecedents, and is always mutable.
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" apart from human experience, but denied that it is structured as natural kinds possessing intrinsic qualities.:122, 196 Instead, he saw reality as functional continuity--ways of acting--not structural continuity of intrinsic interacting entities. 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 fragmentary perceptions of unceasing processes. 
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 solutions of problems. 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
J. Fagg Foster
John Fagg Foster refined John Dewey's rejection of intrinsic value and description of instrumental value. He clarified differences between Dewey's instrumental criterion and the widely endorsed but faulty utilitarian alternative that turns utility into an intrinsic value.
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 every individual's intrinsic right to satisfy 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 factual ends: "what ought to be."
Consider the problem all infants face learning to walk. They spontaneously recognize that walking is more efficient than crawling--an instrumental valuation of a desirable end. They learn to walk by repeatedly moving and balancing, judging the efficiency with which these means achieve their instrumental goal. When they master this new way of acting, 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 instrumental 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 can contaminate reasoning by turning a dynamic process--"what ought to be"--into a static valuation--"what is." Turning a conditionally-successful tool-use into a static self-justifying pattern of behavior is self-defeating.
To guard against this contamination of instrumental value, Foster revised his definition of its content to embrace both means and ends. INSTRUMENTAL VALUE: The criterion of judgment that seeks instrumentally-efficient means that "work" to achieve developmentally-continuous ends. This definition 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 possibility and necessity of knowing intrinsic value--"what ought to be"--independently of transient conditions that determine actual consequences of every action. Jacques Ellul and Anjan Chakravartty were prominent exponents of popular arguments for the reality of intrinsic value as moral compass and as constraint on relativistic instrumental value.
Jacques Ellul made scholarly contributions to 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 valuations 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 asserting that instrumental efficiency is 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 inhuman 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
Ellul'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 coincided 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 questions that 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
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 empiricist schools including 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 Well-confirmed theories--"what ought to be" as the end of reasoning--are more than tools. They are mappings of intrinsic properties of an unobservable and unconditional territory--"what is" as natural but metaphysical real kinds.:xiii, 33, 149
Chakravartty treated value-in-general as ungrounded opinion,:25 but admitted that realists value how well theories "work"--the instrumental criterion. He qualified that criterion's scope, claiming that every instrumental judgment is inductive, heuristic, accidental. Later experience might confirm a singular judgment only if it proves to have universal validity, meaning it possesses "detection properties" of natural kinds.:231 This inference is his fundamental ground for believing in intrinsic value.
He committed modern realists to three metaphysical valuations or intrinsic kinds of knowledge of truth. 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 construed 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 realist descriptions discredited by advancing instrumental valuations.
Science has destroyed for many people the supernatural intrinsic value embraced by Weber and Ellul. But Chakravartty defended natural intrinsic valuations as necessary elements of all science--belief in unobservable continuities. He advanced the thesis of semirealism, according to which well-tested theories are good maps of natural kinds, as confirmed by their instrumental success. Their predictive 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 with the unaided senses, but also about some of the unobservable things underlying them.:151
Causal properties are the fulcrum of semirealism. Their [intrinsic] 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 intrinsic 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 [intrinsic] packages.:81
In sum, Chakravartty argued that contingent instrumental valuations are warranted only as they approximate unchanging intrinsic valuations. Scholars continue to perfect their explanations 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 in a model or description with some aspect of the world, such as the nature or behavior of a specific object or process. ... 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
Realist intrinsic value, such as proposed by Chakravartty, is widely endorsed in modern scientific circles, while the supernatural intrinsic value endorsed by Weber and Ellul maintains its popularity throughout the world. Doubters about the reality of instrumental and intrinsic value are few.
- Fact-value distinction
- Instrumental and value rationality
- Instrumental and value-rational action
- Natural kind
- Value (ethics)
- Value theory
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