This is my first attempt at a PEA Soup post…thanks for reading this far!
It is very common to see philosophers say that special relationships – friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships and so on – can be intrinsically valuable. Raz and Scheffler each use this claim in their accounts of the source of special obligations. Jeske’s new book makes a similar suggestion. Kolodny says that loving a person necessarily involves taking your relationship with her to have intrinsic value. Consequentialists like Pettit and Railton say (or at least entertain the possibility) that special relationships in themselves add value to states of affairs.
I think that relationships can only have instrumental value. I have a preliminary point, four arguments and a debunking explanation.
Preliminary point. Whether they have intrinsic value or not, special relationships certainly have great instrumental value, when they go well. Special relationships are sources of happiness and moral flourishing, they express mutual concern and respect, and their existence advances all sorts of important social goals.
First argument. Consider a relationship that does not have any instrumental value, of the standard kinds. Imagine a marriage that does not add to the happiness of either participant, does not advance the interests of any children, does not advance any social goals, and so on. If the relationship could have intrinsic value, then it would be coherent to say, “Well, at least it’s a marriage (or at least it’s this marriage), so at least there is something valuable about it.” But it isn’t – a marriage like this has no value at all.
Second argument. Suppose we discover a society that lacks a special relationship of some kind. Suppose it does not have the institution of marriage, or special bonds between parents and biological children. Suppose that it nevertheless has alternative arrangements that secure all the instrumental values that we normally associate with the relationship in question. (Everyone in this society is just as happy, protected, respected and so on as we are in ours.) Suppose we could introduce the pertinent relationship without setting back those instrumental values, but without advancing them either. If the relationship were intrinsically valuable, then we would have some reason for doing so – for persuading people in the discovered society to form marriage relationships, for example. But we don’t have such a reason.
Third argument. There are good relationships and bad relationships – good and bad marriages, good and bad friendships, and so on. When we recognize a bad friendship, for example, we do not do so by having an intuition of the form, “This is one relationship that just doesn’t seem to add value to the world in its own right.” Instead, we offer (what look like) reductive explanations – “this friendship is making you both unhappy,” “your friend is manipulating you,” “this friendship is leading you off the rails.” That suggests that the value of special relationships is derived from more fundamental values.
Fourth argument. (Slightly parenthetical.) Sometimes, the special reasons that arise from special relationships are reasons to destroy the relationship. For example, if you really love your husband, and you recognize that by being married you are just making each other miserable and there is nothing either of you can do about it, then you should end the marriage. This suggests that the obligations within the relationship are responsive to deeper values than the value of the relationship itself.
Debunking explanation. Usually – always, as far as I know – arguments that relationships are intrinsically valuable are actually arguments for something else. The philosophers mentioned above all seem to assume, falsely, that if a relationship has only instrumental value then it must be only a little bit valuable, or have only agent-neutral value, or have only selfish value from the perspective of each participant, or have value that is easily reducible to some monistic independent value. (All the arguments I have seen are directed at one or more of these alternative claims.) But something can have only instrumental value, while yet being very, very valuable, and while having value that is agent-relative and non-selfish and cannot be straightforwardly reduced to any monistic value.
(Consider the value of my son’s crèche. I am certain that his crèche is not intrinsically valuable. But I think that it is very valuable, that it has greater value relative to me than to you, that its value is not just about its contribution to my welfare, and that a full explanation of its value would be complicated, appealing to several different deeper values.)
So I think that relationships have only instrumental value, and that arguments to the contrary turn out to be misconceived.