Proponents of intrinsic value have sometimes attempted to argue for its existence via the following sort of regress argument:
Something is valuable; but if it is valuable, it must be valuable either as a means to something else that is valuable, or else valuable in itself. If all valuable things were good merely as a means, there must be an infinite chain of instrumental goods extending into the future, without ever leading to any intrinsic good. Such a chain is impossible. Therefore, something is intrinsically good.
Both friends and foes of intrinsic value have found this line of argument problematic. It is possible, they say, for there to be an infinite chain of merely instrumental goods extending into the future. This objection gains strength from the obvious parallels between the regress argument and first-cause arguments for the existence of God. Many philosophers have found it reasonable to reject first-cause arguments for God in light of the possibility of an infinite chain of cause and effect stretching into the past; why, then, should we not reject the regress argument for intrinsic value as well?
I think a little tinkering can make the regress argument fairly plausible. I wonder if anyone will agree, and if anyone will think the argument is interesting at all.
First, since the argument will be based on a notion of instrumental value, we must be clear about just what sort of instrumental value we have in mind. There are many ways something might be instrumentally valuable. This argument employs a notion of instrumental value according to which something is instrumentally good just in case it leads to something good. In what way must something’s effect be valuable in order for it to have productive instrumental value? We have to be careful not to beg questions by insisting that the effect be intrinsically good. Let us leave unspecified the way in which the effect must be valuable. As long as it is valuable in some way, the cause has productive instrumental value. Thus I propose the following definition:
D1. X has instrumental value =df x causes something valuable.
Henceforth when I talk about instrumental value I will have in mind the sort defined in D1.
Second, we need to be clear about exactly what it would take for a regress argument to succeed. The argument is supposed to show that there is such a thing as intrinsic value. But this could mean different things. It could mean that there is a property of intrinsic value (whether or not that property is actually instantiated), or it could mean that something is actually intrinsically valuable. I take it that foes of intrinsic value would not be satisfied to say that it is just a contingent fact about our universe that it does not contain intrinsic value, and that if things had gone a bit differently, there might have been some around; rather, they seem to want to say that there is something fishy about the very idea of intrinsic value, and that, in a very strong sense of ‘could,’ nothing could be intrinsically valuable. So I would regard it as worthwhile merely to establish that it is possible that something is intrinsically valuable. Nevertheless, I will also attempt to establish that something actually has intrinsic value.
On to the argument. First, I will argue for the conclusion that there is a property of intrinsic value that is instantiated at some world. I begin with a premise that follows trivially from D1.
P1. At every world where there is something with instrumental value, that thing causes another valuable thing at that world.
Now we need a premise that lays out some possibilities. Recall that the problem with the original regress argument was supposed to be the possibility of a chain of instrumentally valuable things stretching indefinitely into the future. Call that the infinite future possibility. I am skeptical, but instead of being high-handed, I will grant that possibility. In fact, I can think of some other possibilities as well. There seems to be nothing contradictory in the idea of an instrumentally valuable thing X causing another instrumentally valuable thing Y an hour later, and Y causing instrumentally valuable thing Z a half hour later, Z causing instrumentally valuable thing W fifteen minutes later, and so on. If so, there could be instrumental value without intrinsic value and without a causal chain stretching infinitely into the future. Call this the Zeno possibility. Here’s another possibility: suppose time is circular. Then X could be instrumentally valuable in virtue of causing Y, which is valuable because it causes Z, which is valuable because it causes X; we would seem to have instrumental value without intrinsic value. Call this the circular time possibility.
Call the infinite future, Zeno, and circular time possibilities exotic possibilities, and say that such possibilities obtain at exotic worlds. There seem to be two ways a world could be when it contains something instrumentally valuable:
P2. If P1, then at every world where there is something instrumentally valuable, either (a) something has intrinsic value or (b) the world is exotic.
Now we need a premise that says that something, at some non-exotic world, is instrumentally valuable. And what reason could there be for denying this? It is one thing to admit that there are these exotic possibilities; but who would think that exotic possibilities are required for the existence of instrumental value?
P3. There is at least one non-exotic world where there is something instrumentally valuable.
These three premises establish
C1. Therefore, there is at least one world where something has intrinsic value.
And C1 entails
C2. Therefore, there is a property of intrinsic value.
Which is what I was trying to establish.
The argument for actual intrinsic value is pretty similar:
P4. Some things are instrumentally valuable in the actual world.
P5. If P4, then either something actually has intrinsic value, or the actual world is exotic.
P6. The actual world is not exotic.
C3. Therefore, something actually has intrinsic value.
This argument is a little bit less of a slam-dunk. Why think the actual world is not exotic? Take the possibility that there is a chain of instrumental goods extending infinitely into the future. If that possibility were actual, and if there were no actual intrinsic value, then certain counterfactuals would be true, such as: If the world were to end in a trillion years, then there never would have been any value in the universe. Such counterfactuals are not true. Similar problems involving truth-values of counterfactuals would arise if we supposed that the actual world were exotic in one of the other ways described. Actual instrumental value just does not depend on exotic possibilities being actual.
P1 is true by definition, so it is not a plausible candidate to reject. What about P2? The obvious way to object to P2 is to say that I have left out some options; there might be ways for something to cause something valuable without either there being something intrinsically valuable or the world being exotic.
The most promising way to object to P2 is to say that there are kinds of value other than instrumental and intrinsic value (Korsgaard, Tara Smith, etc.) Perhaps something could be instrumentally valuable in virtue of leading to something with some sort of value other than intrinsic value; and perhaps something could have that other sort of value without there being any intrinsic value. This is a possibility to be taken seriously, but it is insufficient merely to object that there might be such a sort of value. We must look at some alleged sorts of non-intrinsic, non-instrumental value, and see whether those sorts of value require the existence of intrinsic value or not.
Some (Ross, C.I. Lewis, Gibbard, Korsgaard) have argued that there is a sort of value called contributive or contributory value. Contributory value can be easily illustrated with aesthetic examples. A beautiful painting might be divided into parts such that each part is ugly on its own. But when the parts are put together, the result is beautiful. The parts may be said to have contributory value in virtue of making a larger whole more valuable. Roughly speaking, something is said to have contributory value if it contributes to the value of a larger whole of which it is a part. The existence of contributory value is controversial in ethics; it seems to depend on the existence of “organic unities.”
Suppose something has instrumental value in virtue of causing something with contributory value. When something has value in virtue of contributing to a larger whole, we can ask of this larger whole: what sort of value does it have? It must be either intrinsic, instrumental or contributory. If there’s no intrinsic value, then the larger whole must have instrumental or contributory value. Suppose it has instrumental value. Then we evidently face the instrumental value regress problem again. Suppose the larger whole has contributory value. Then it must be part of a still larger valuable whole. And now we face another sort of regress: not a causal regress, but a part-whole regress. Each thing with contributory value contributes to a larger thing with contributory value. And the same considerations apply to this sort of regress: surely it is not necessary, in order for anything to have value, that the universe be large enough to fit an infinite series of larger and larger goods.
Another purported type of non-intrinsic, non-instrumental value is signatory value. Sometimes we say that something is a “good sign,” and one thing we sometimes mean by this is that the thing is a sign or indicator of something good. For example, when looking at an x-ray that shows no sign of broken bones, we might say “that’s a good sign” – meaning that it’s good that the x-ray is the way it is, because it indicates good health.
But signatory value doesn’t seem to help solve the regress problem. Again, we must ask about the valuable thing signified by the good sign, in what way is that signified thing valuable? If it is also good as a sign, we run into a signatory value regress. (Unless things can be signs of each other – but surely that’s not required for the existence of instrumental value.) If it is good in some other way, we run into one of the other regresses already discussed, unless there is some intrinsic value somewhere.
Now we begin to see a pattern. Whatever sort of valuable thing an instrumentally good thing leads to, we can ask of that thing: in virtue of what is it valuable? Unless it is valuable in virtue of some relation to something intrinsically good, we get a regress. Foes of intrinsic value must come up with some sort of non-intrinsic value that can stop this regress, or the argument goes through.