Are relationships intrinsically valuable?

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.

33 Replies to “Are relationships intrinsically valuable?

  1. Hi Simon, interesting post! Some questions:
    (1) What do you make of the idea that nurturing a relationship might be a kind of life project (like philosophy!), and that achieving X, where X is a life project, is intrinsically valuable?
    (I’m not entirely sure how to apply talk of ‘intrinsic value’ within subjectivism. For example, should we instead say that it’s “achieving one’s projects” (de dicto) that’s of final value, and doing philosophy or having relationships is just a means to ‘achievement’ as such? That sounds odd to me, though.)
    Note that this could also explain the contingency of the value.
    Another way to ground the value of relationships (non-instrumentally) in human welfare would be to claim that such close personal connections contribute to the good life. This seems plausible to me: even if you wouldn’t say “at least it’s a marriage”, perhaps some would say, “at least we had a connection; at least we really got to know each other.” If another society totally lacks such connections, I’m inclined to think we should indeed wish to change this, even if it changes nothing else. (If they’re only lacking one kind of special relationship, that seems less important.)
    (2) Can instrumental value be non-fungible? It doesn’t seem like many of us would be willing to substitute our relationships for some equivalent source of instrumental value.
    Relatedly, it seems that the desires we have towards our relationships are non-instrumental desires. Are we making some mistake — would thinking more clearly force us to revise them into merely instrumental desires? (Does final desirability imply final value?)

  2. Thank you Richard – good points, and I’ll just have to do my best.
    1. The connection with life projects is well-taken, but I don’t think it can explain what is special about special relationships.
    A) Even if it’s true that something can acquire intrinsic value through being the focus of a life project, this doesn’t distinguish special relationships from anything else.
    B) Not all valuable special relationships are the objects of life projects. A relationship with your in-laws might be an example: I love my in-laws and value my relationships with them, but it would be overblown to say that they are objects of a life project of mine.
    2. On fungibility (if I’m spelling that right…). I think it’s plausible to think that there is non-fungible value in the vicinity, but I don’t think it’s relationships that have it. There is something for which I’d sacrifice my marriage: my wife. All things being equal (if you’re reading honey, this is unlikely), if I knew she would be better off and a better person outside the marriage, then I’d be prepared to end the marriage for her sake.
    I’m not so sure that we have noninstrumental desires towards our relationships, if by that it’s meant that we’re committed to thinking of our relationships as non-instrumentally valuable. I don’t have the desire that my relationships continue regardless of their effects upon me and those I love.
    In another sense, we may have such noninstrumental desires. But I think this is the same sense in which I desire noninstrumentally that Australia beats South Africa in the cricket – and I don’t think any substantive conclusions about value should be read off that desire.
    Anyway, that’s a first try!

  3. Hi Simon,
    Thanks for the interesting post.
    What about the possibility that the intrinsic value of a relationship is a kind of organic unity? So just as Moore held that the intrinsic value in X’s taking pleasure in Y’s pleasure is greater than the sum of the intrinsic value of X’s pleasure plus the intrinsic value of Y’s pleasure, we might hold that the intrinsic value of the state of affairs in which two people receive certain intrinsic goods as a result of a non-relationship is not as great as the intrinsic value of the state of affairs in which two people receive those same intrinsic goods as a result of a certain kind of relationship.
    I take it that your second argument is meant to address this possibility, but I don’t find your second argument persuasive. I’m inclined to think that there is some reason to introduce, say, the relationship of friendship if the society you speak of has no friendships, and I’m so inclined even if this will not increase other intrinsic goods such as pleasure.
    I tend to think that what persuasive force that your second argument might have is due to the fact that the examples that you mention (“the institution of marriage, or special bonds between parents and biological children”) are not relationships in the special sense that friendship is a relationship. The institution of marriage is just an institution. And the special bond between parents and their biological children is just an innate disposition on the order of the innate attraction some of us have toward the opposite sex. Two people can be married without their having anything like a friendship. And their can be an innate bond between a parent and his or her biological child without their having anything like a friendship. And I tend to think that the relationships that matter all involve a history of mutual love, respect, and/or nurturing. One can be married without having this history. And, I take it, that the special bond between parent and biological child also doesn’t require this history. So I don’t think that they’re the types of relationships that those who talk about “special” relationship have in mind.

  4. I guess that I would as a devoted buck-passer approach this question by asking do relationships have such qualities themselves that give us reasons to be in these relationships or are all the reasons to be in relationships given by facts that are external to the relationships.
    My own inclination would be to go with Scanlon (who has a great discussion of this) and accept the first choice. First, it seems like recognising this sort of reasons that are internal to the relationship seem constitutive of being in the relationship in the first place. I couldn’t be a friend to someone unless I thought that our friendship gave me reasons to do things. And I wouldn’t be a friend with you if you were only in it for your happiness or even for mine for that matter.
    Of course that we must recognise these reasons doesn’t entail that they exist. But I think marriages (not sure about that one) friendships and the like can be described in a way that makes it appealing to think that they have intrinsic features that give us reasons. Of course bad marriages don’t give such reasons (even if they would not be as bad if the partners recognised the right reasons) but that’s just to say that bad marriages are not valuable. This doesn’t entail that good ones don’t have intrinsic value – they after all have the right good-making features.
    In any case, I do think there are relationship based reasons and I don’t think more than that is required for the value of relationships. Of course there are also other reasons for being in relationships and thus they also have instrumental value.
    I also think that relationships of certain sorts are constituents of good life.

  5. Hi Simon –
    Terrific post. In fact, I think I’m inclined to agree with you, but I wonder if there are ways that the fan of relationships-as-intrinsically-valuable might respond here.
    Let’s take your first argument, which I like a lot. Couldn’t your opponent argue as follows? Sure, many relationships are not intrinsically valuable. For instance, my relationship with my postman is not intrinsically valuable. My relationship with the dude who exchanged my money in the Lima, Peru airport is not intrinsically valuable. Bertie Wooster’s relationship with Roderick Spode is not intrinsically valuable. But then there has to be something which marks out which relationships are intrinsically valuable. (Surely any view must offer a proposal along this score.) Can’t we say, then, that the relationships that are intrinsically valuable are the ones that contribute to human flourishing, in some way or other, and if they do, they are choiceworthy for their own sake, or intrinsically valuable?
    You might argue that the relationship per se adds nothing to the value of the world. This brings us to your second argument. What if all the human flourishing is provided for in other ways? Do we still have a reason to choose the relationships? Frankly, I don’t think the intuition that we ought to choose a world in which people obtain human flourishing via close personal relationships over a world in which people obtain human flourishing without relationships of this kind is particularly crazy or misguided. I could perfectly well see my way to suggesting that we have a reason to choose the first world rather than the second world, and that the explanation is the intrinsic value of the proper sorts of relationships. One might compare this to Feinberg’s argument in “The Nature and Value of Rights”. This might just be intuition head-butting, but I guess I’m not immediately sure that my intuition lies in your direction. In essence, then, I think your second argument needs to be supported by some further rationale given that I’m not sure your opponents will share the intuition.
    I think also that this proposal can deal with your third example: the reason that we make explicit reference to happiness, flourishing, etc., is because that is a necessary condition for the intrinsic value of a particular relationship or friendship. Without this, the relationship contributes nothing to the value of the world.

  6. Jussi’s question,
    do relationships have such qualities themselves that give us reasons to be in these relationships or are all the reasons to be in relationships given by facts that are external to the relationships.
    makes me worried about the contrast between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ in Simon’s discussion. There are at least two distinctions in this neighborhood. Some things are good solely in virtue of their intrinsic properties while others are good partly (at least) in virtue of their extrinsic properties. This seems to be the distinction Jussi is paraphrasing in buck-passer terms (and indeed it comes out clearer that way than the way I’ve just put it). But this is not the distinction between instrumental and non-instrumental value. I mean, maybe they turn out to be coextensive, but they aren’t the same distinction conceptually.
    Suppose I value my wedding band, beyond its market value (which I assure you is small). I value it non-instrumentally. But I value it for an extrinsic property: my wife gave it to me.
    The difference I’m getting at is (I think!) the one Chris Korsgaard discusses in “Two Distinctions in Goodness”. Also Rae Langton in “Objective and Unconditioned Value”.

  7. Thank you everyone. I’ve just woken up down here in Oz. It will take me some time to post responses to all the comments, and I’ll proceed in what seems to me like a logical order.
    Jamie – Yes, there are several distinctions one could be getting at here. I don’t mean to be saying that relationships have value in virtue of extrinsic rather than intrinsic properties. (Indeed, I’m not clear on what properties are intrinsic to a relationships and which extrinsic.)
    In saying that relationships have only instrumental value, I’m saying that they are valuable only “as instruments” – instruments for the realization or expression of other, more fundamental, conceptually independent values. Their value can be completely explained, in principle, in terms of such more fundamental values; and to the extent that they provide reasons, those reasons are derived from more fundamental, conceptually independent considerations.

  8. Jamie,
    I think that’s right. There are things that have extrinsic, non-derivative, that is final value. But I would think that showing that relationships have intrinsic value would be enough to show that Simon is not right in saying that they have only instrumental value. Showing that they have extrinsic final value would do the same.
    It’s tough to say what are the intrinsic properties of relationships that could be the good-makers for intrinsic value. Maybe final value is better in any case. You could say in the same way that rare stamps have final value that rare relationships have similar value – that I’m related to some people in a way that I’m not to others.

  9. Simon – “There is something for which I’d sacrifice my marriage: my wife.
    Right, you value your wife more than your relationship. But that doesn’t show that your relation is non-fungible. The test is not whether you would trade it for something of far higher value (of course you would!). The test is whether you would be indifferent towards trades of equivalent (instrumental) value. Would you willingly trade spouses with a stranger if you knew that by doing so each individual would end up being just as happy, etc., as they otherwise would have? I assume most people would turn down such an offer.
    Here’s another point: if relationships have merely instrumental value, then it shouldn’t matter if we are massively deceived about their existence (so long as all else is equal). Suppose that one’s spouse was long ago kidnapped and secretly replaced by a cleverly disguised, ah, robot. (The real person is then set up in a duplicate world with a cleverly disguised robotic copy of you, etc.) This is clearly a terrible outcome. But all the instrumental benefits remain as before: each robospouse provides their human partner with happiness, and promotes their moral flourishing, etc. What’s missing, of course, is the genuine personal connection. Since the loss of it makes no instrumental difference, the value here must be intrinsic.

  10. Jussi – Thanks, and that’s a good way of approaching it, and one on which I think it’s harder for me to make my claim look plausible. But…
    I agree that being in a friendship (for example) means seeing yourself to have special reasons. But what I’m trying to argue is that the friendship itself is not a such a reason, at the most fundamental level. The (fundamental) reasons are instead considerations of such things as your friend’s interests and your friend’s flourishing.
    I don’t know the Scanlon discussion, but Scheffler, for one, seems to me to make a mistake which might be relevant here. He moves directly from “being a friend is conceptually tied to taking yourself to have certain reasons,” to, “being a friend is conceptually tied to taking your friendship itself as a reason.” But there’s a distance between these two claims, which I don’t want to cross.
    This isn’t an argument – just trying to show that I can accept the plausible things about reasons and their conceptual connections with friendship, while still sticking to my main point.

  11. Simon,
    I think this is enough for me and something you cannot have:
    “The (fundamental) reasons are instead considerations of such things as your friend’s interests and your friend’s flourishing.”
    Your picking up the reason-providers by using the relationship. If you don’t think that the relationship grounds reasons, then your friends interests or her flourishing should not be any more reason for you than anyone else’s interests or flourishing. Maybe you think that but it’s not an appealing view. If you don’t think that, then you will think that the friend’s interests matter more because she is in a certain relationship to you. That seems to assume that the relationship is valuable – other things begin to matter more because you bear the relationship to someone.

  12. Jussi,
    No, wait. It could be that the relationship does ground Simon’s reason (that is: that Schuster is Simon’s friend grounds his reason to help Schuster), without its entering into the reason. So there need be no non-instrumental reason to foster the relationship. The non-instrumental reason might just be that by so acting Simon will help Schuster. What makes that a reason, perhaps, is that Schuster is Simon’s friend. Since the other 6 billion humans aren’t his friends, their needing help doesn’t provide Simon with the same sort of reason.
    Is that hopelessly confusing?

  13. Jamie that sounds right and not confusing. But I think the result will be a bit awkward. I think I can ask what is it about this relationship that enables it to ground reasons given by the interests of the other person whilst other relations (like being a stranger) don’t have this ability. This question will be difficult to answer unless you can say something about the value of the relationship or the fact that the relationship itself also has reason-providing qualities.
    Come to think of it, I think Scanlon says that the value of relationship just consists of the personal reasons in the relationship being good reasons. This would fit the idea that the reasons in the relationship are given by the other facts whilst relationship only plays a role in enabling these reasons to be reasons.

  14. Sorry to have dropped out of the saddle. I’ve spent the day dealing with a fridge-related emergency. Not joking.
    Jussi – I believe there are many ways to block the move from “As a friend I respond directly to your interests and flourishing” to “Everyone else’s interests and flourishing have the same value, relative to me, as yours.”
    But the best way to make the point, perhaps, is to notice that the person who says that relationships are intrinsically valuable (or stand as fundamental reasons) faces an exactly analogous problem. Namely: all friendships are intrinsically valuable, so why should I place any greater value on my friendships than on those between others? Or: all friendships are fundamental sources of reasons, so why do my friendships provide me with reasons, even though other friendships do not?
    Any answer to this question on behalf of the intrinsic-value theorist can (I submit) be equally well applied to my view. Eg. “If it’s *your* relationship then it provides special reasons for *you*!” becomes “If she’s *your* friend then her interests have special value for *you*!”

  15. Doug –
    Nice point, and I’m afraid that all I’ll offer is a refusal to match your intuition, plus some abusive language…
    Let me have another go at putting my second argument.
    Suppose we discover two hermits living near each other in a foreign land. Investigations confirm that they each enjoy all the valuable instrumental goods that we associate with friendship. Neither feels lonely, they each feel connected with their society (through the internet), they each enjoy reading and hiking and cooking, and they each have their basic needs and interests guaranteed by the very progressive welfare state in which they live. They are two of those very unusual humans who really seem to miss out on nothing (instrumental) through lacking friends.
    Suppose in addition that they could become genuine friends with each other. But that would not make either of them happier, or in any other (instrumental) way make them better off or better people. Their friendship would add to their lives nothing (beyond itself) that they don’t already have.
    It just seems wrong to me – it seems sanctimonious, smug, kind of misanthropic – to imagine that the two hermits ought to become friends, just for the sake of it, or that we have reason to persuade them to become friends, or that they or the world would be better if they became friends. It seems to miss the whole point of friendship, which is that it’s something that serves human needs and interests. So there.

  16. Dale –
    Many thanks, and I think that your proposal has to be the one that the “intrinsic value” theorist accepts, in order to avoid saying that certain clearly non-valuable relationships turn out to have intrinsic value.
    But the suggestion “the intrinsically valuable relationships are exactly those that contribute to human flourishing” looks too neat to me. (I can’t see why if that’s what you think, you wouldn’t just say that the value of relationships is not intrinsic, but rather derived from the value of human flourishing.)
    Suppose I say that medicines are intrinsically valuable. You respond that some medicines are not valuable at all, and that the reason is that those medicines have no instrumental connection with health (they don’t make you better). I agree that THOSE medicines are not valuable, because I think that the only intrinsically valuable medicines are those that have an instrumental connection with health.
    If that’s what I say, I think I could fairly be accused of simply refusing to recognize a good argument that the value of medicine is not intrinsic at all, but instead derived from the value of health. And I think that the “relationships are intrinsically valuable” theorist under discussion is in an analogous position. The view just looks unstable.

  17. Simon,
    I don’t think you can use the same reply. I can say that different values are appropriately valued in different ways. The value of friendship is one that is not to be promoted (that’s why I don’t have similar reasons to value the friendship of others) but rather to be protected and nurtured by acting in the proper ways in one’s own relationships. One proper reaction to the value of friendship is that the interests of your friends provide you with reasons.
    This explanation is based on the idea that friendships are valuable – if they weren’t, then you wouldn’t have reasons to react to your friends interests any more than to that of others. So this explanation is not available for someone who doesn’t think that these are good relationships. She (or you) must have some other story to tell why we should care about the interests of our friends more than that of others.

  18. Jussi –
    Thanks. A quick preliminary: I’m not denying that friendships are valuable or good, just that they are intrinsically valuable or good.
    How is this any worse as an explanation? Humans are valuable. The value of different humans should be responded to in different ways by different other humans. One good way to respond to the value of those humans with whom you are friends is to protect and nurture them, in a way that you don’t protect and nurture humans who are not your friends.
    I don’t think this is much of an explanation, but I think it’s as good as the one you suggest. (Sorry – didn’t mean that to sound bitchy.)

  19. No that’s fine. Well – I don’t think that is as good of an explanation. For different humans to have different sorts of value, they will have to have different properties if we assume supervenience. I don’t think that the non-relational properties of humans are that different. I’m sure there are many people like my friends and others who have even more of my friends’ non-relational good-making properties. So, this sort of properties cannot explain why my friends merit a response others don’t.
    Thus, you are forced to say that the properties that make my friend good relative to me in a way that merits a distinct response is some relational property she bears to me. And, this seems to lead back to the idea that the relation needs to be reason-providing or at least reason-grounding.

  20. I’m not going to try to nicely insert myself into the ongoing conversation, but I would like to make a few comments.
    1) I think Doug is correct that using our names for certain insitutions and relationships is misleading. If the imaginary people Simon descirbes do not have ‘marriages’ or biological parent-child relationships, what exactly are the ‘alternative arrangements’ that sustitute for those relationships [what we mean to signfiy by those descriptors]? That the people are ‘happy, protected, respected,’ etc. seems to be a bit glib. For, if one does think certain kinds of relationships are more than instrumentally valuable, then it is the absence of those kinds of relations in human lives which is missing. Do these imaginary people love as we hope married people do? Do they love as we hope parents and children [biological or not] do? Do they love as we hope friends do? If not, them something IS missing, however otherwise happy they may be.
    2) That some relationships do not make those involved happy is itself an instrumentalist argument. I don’t think it utterly undercuts the claim that intimate interpersonal relationships are not of value in themselves.
    3) Perhaps we could specifiy that only ‘healthy’ relationships of the relevant types are of more than non-instrumental value. We could say that the healthiness itself is more than instrumental. However, it seems to me – appealing as that move is – it is not entirely necessary.
    Consider this eample: when a partnership (marriage or not)fails, everyone involved thinks something has been lost. If all that mattered were the happiness-making qualities of the relationship, no one should have that sense of loss. Or, take a friendship that has failed or is failing: nonetheless, to say, “But,we have been friends for so long,” or, “I hate to see this friendship fail,” makes sense to many of us. Are we simply deluding ourselves if we have these thoughts? Is it silly (in the silly-question sense) to think it is sad that parents and children are alienated, even if everyone seems ‘happy’?
    4) It may be that the theorists Simon references as defenders of the intrinsic value of ‘relationships’ are not being sufficiently precise in explaining what they have in mind. It is probably the case that none of us is all that clear on some of these distinctions between ‘intrinsic/extrinsic’ and ‘insturmental/noninsturmental.’ Still, as intriguing as I find Simon’s post and subsequent comments, I am not convinced that all relationships can be replaced, for their value, by instrumental or consequential goods.

  21. OOPS:
    “I don’t think it utterly undercuts the claim that intimate interpersonal relationships are not of value in themselves” should read “I don’t think it utterly undermines the claim that intimate interpersonal relationships ARE of value in themselves.”

  22. Richard –
    Excellent cases, and I’m feeling appropriately flustered. Yes, I’m committed to saying that special relationships are in principle substitutable by other things that have the same instrumental value. (Though note that “same” is more demanding than “equal.”) I think from here I can just try to fight off individual problem cases like those you suggest. To which end…
    1. On the partner-swapping case. Of course most of us would not be prepared to go through with the swap, because we each love our own spouses and want to be with them. But does this reveal something about the value of relationships, rather than something simply about the psychology of love? Here’s a reason to think not.
    Imagine four people who ARE keen on making such a swap. Husband 1 wants to give up Wife 1 for Wife 2, Wife 2 wants to give up Husband 2 for Husband 1, and so on. Imagine, as per your example, that the swap will lead to no change in the values instrumentally served by the original marriages. I think that these four spouses would be very strange. But given their shared desires and the circumstances, I do not think I can accuse them of making a mistake, or that there would be reason to try to talk them out of the scheme. If that’s what they really want to do, and the circumstances really are as a described, then good on them.
    This suggests that the reasons not to engage in value-preserving-spouse-swapping rest upon the desires, cares etc that (most) humans actually have, and that those those desires and cares themselves should not (and do not need to be) construed as responses to the intrinsic value of relationships.
    2. I think that true beliefs contribute to welfare, and the goodness of the world generally, and that one of the values usually realized in special relationships is that of seeing another person as she really is. So I don’t think that your robo-relationships case would in fact replicate all the instrumental value of real relationships.
    Hope that buys me some time, anyway!

  23. Jussi –
    OK! Let me try to be systematic about the options here, and let me drop some names.
    One view is that special obligations arise from the intrinsic value of relationships. (Or, that relationships themselves stand as fundamental reasons.) Two options within this view:
    a) Try to *explain* how relationships come to have such value and to ground special obligations. For example, MacIntyre offers a lengthy such explanation, going by way of the essentially social nature of morality, the structure of moral motivation, and so on.
    b) Be a primitivist about the relevant reasons, values, obligations and connections between them, saying (for example) that relationships just are valuable, and and just it’s just true that you should respond in special ways to the value of relationships in which you participate. This is the view I see in Scheffler and Kolodny and other “new intuitionists.”
    Another view is that special obligations within relationships arise from the value of the particular individuals who participate in the relationships. Within this view, two options:
    a) Try to *explain* how particular people come to have special value relative to you, and how you come to have special obligations to those people. This might (as you suggest) involve trying to identify salient distinguishing properties of the relevant individuals (though note that those properties could in principle be relational). But there are other options; for example, Velleman argues that once you’re vulnerable to the value of (say) a friend, it’s just wrong to think that you can then compare or replace that value with the value of someone else – persons have a dignity not a price.
    b) Be a primitivist about the importance of particular people and their value relative to you, saying something like, “It’s just true that the value of your friend has a special significance for you, and generates obligations for you, in a way that the value of others does not.” This is I think the view of Murdoch and Blum, each of whom argues that we respond to our loved ones and their interests directly (“really looking”), not mediated by attention to a relationship or anything else, but each of whom refuses to infer that we should hence respond in just the same way to everyone else too.
    You see the point – I think that the two “b” options are equally available; if the primitivist “relationships” option is acceptable then the primitivist “individuals” option is too.
    A final note on reasons and the grounds of reasons. (And thanks to you and to Jamie, if you’re still reading, for your helpful comments on this.) I think it’s quite possible to accept that relationships make an ethical difference while maintaining that they are not intrinsically valuable. That someone is your friend may make a big difference to your reasons, without that friendship being valuable in its own right or itself standing as a reason for you.
    Consider an analogy: I might say that your having huge quantities of inherited money gives you an obligation to devote a large part of your life to improving the lot of those worse off than you. That is, your having lots of money makes a big difference to your obligations. But that doesn’t commit me to saying that your having lots of money is the consideration you should respond to in helping others, or that your having lots of money is intrinsically valuable.

  24. C. Sistare –
    Thank you for all those interesting comments. Let me just pick up on a few things:
    Another shot at trying to describe my imaginary societies.
    First society: In this society, parents are not taken to have special obligations to, and do not form special loving relationships with, their biological children. Instead, children are raised communally. This arrangement works perfectly well in all instrumental respects (the children are not neglected, are psychologically healthy, etc, etc).
    Second society: Many people in our society live perfectly wonderful lives without ever getting married or forming romantic relationships. In this second hypothetical society, that’s how everyone lives.
    My point: I do not think it’s fair to say, “The bare fact that you don’t have loving relationships between parents and biological children makes your society worse than ours,” or, “The bare fact that you guys don’t form romantic relationships and get married makes your society less valuable than ours.”
    On other points you raise…
    To say that relationships have only instrumental value is not to say that they have value only as happiness-makers.
    I think your description of how people respond to the loss or absence of relationships is inaccurate. If you say, “It’s so sad to see this friendship disappear” then I’m entitled to ask, “Why exactly? What was so special about this friendship?” Presumably, you’ll have something to say about the goods that this friendship did or could have produced or expressed. If, instead, you say, “Nothing. Or nothing beyond the fact that it’s a friendship”, then the friendship’s loss suddenly doesn’t seem sad at all.
    So, when we think of what’s sad about parents and children who are alienated from each other, we think of the wonderful special things that a good relationship with parents or children can bring, and on which these people are presumably missing out.
    Finally: yes, someone who is convinced that relationships have intrinsic value can of course deny the force of my original four arguments, by rejecting the intuitions I try to elicit. But I suppose that I think that as well as bringing out some intuitive responses that tell against relationships’ being intrinsically valuable, the arguments (plus the debunking explanation) take away the motivations for thinking relationships were intrinsically valuable in the first place.

  25. Hi Simon –
    It’s hard for me to really marshall a comeback insofar as what you say seems eminently sensible, but here I go, anyway.
    One might compare the relationship between an intrinsically valuable friendship and human flourishing with the relationship between pleasure and virtue that Aristotle notes in Book X. (Seriously, do not hold me to this reading!) Anyway, on my dumbed-down reading he says that pleasure “completes” the active life of virtue; which, in essence, means something like “if you aren’t taking pleasure in it, you’re not doing it right” or something of that nature. This doesn’t entail that virtue is only a means to pleasure, but rather that pleasure is a mark of proper virtue, and proper virtue is what we hold to be intrinsically valuable.
    But couldn’t we say the same thing about relationships? The relationships that are intrinsically valuable are the “completed” relationships–indeed, completed by human flourishing. This doesn’t make them instruments to human flourishing, but rather it identifies those relationships we take to be intrinsically valuable–those relationships where the parties involved are “doing it right”–by which relationships contribute to flourishing.
    I don’t necessarily see that position unstable. But where the rubber meets the road, then, is going to be in your second argument, which I suggested above could be sensibly denied.

  26. Simon,
    sorry to push this but I’m not sure I see the point. I think there’s a difference between the two b’s. When it comes to the relationships, we can talk about the different qualities of different relationships on a more basic level and have intuitions about which ones of these relationships are thereby reason-providing and which ones are not. In this sense, we are not just primitivists – we have a story to tell.
    But I’m not yet sure what the similar story could be on the ‘person-primitivist’s’ view. My friends are as persons not that different from other people (hope they are not reading…) and still they give different reasons for me. How can a relationship that I have to them which would lack any value make it the case that these people’s interests give me such strong personal reasons? Some story seems to be needed here.
    And what more is required for the relationship being intrinsically good than that the basic personal reasons one has in such relationships are good reasons? If that is all that is required for the value of these relationships, would you still have a problem with the relationships having value?

  27. Dale –
    Such a delightful way to be criticized! Yes, I can see the thought here, and I don’t think that I have a good objection that claim, if – as you suggest – my second argument is not accepted.
    I still don’t like the view that relationships have intrinsic value just when completed by a contribution to human flourishing, though. I’ll say why, but I can see that all I’m doing is expressing a philosophical temperament that not everyone (sadly) seems to share.
    First, I don’t think the view achieves anything, in a certain sense. It agrees with the “instrumental” view about which relationships are valuable and why. It’s only divergence is in saying that where we can get valuable things either from a relationship or somewhere else, we should get then from the relationship. But by stipulation, choosing the relationship over the “somewhere else” will make nobody happier, make nobody better, add to nobody’s flourishing – in general it will make no difference to anything valuable, apart from its own bare existence. So, you know, who cares?
    Second, the view seems to open up a strategy by which anyone could say that virtually anything is intrinsically valuable, with no real consequences and no possibility for principled argument. I could say that cricket is intrinsically valuable, though of course only in those cases in which it advances human flourish – so therefore if all things are equal, you should flourish via playing and watching cricket, rather than baseball – and get away with it. I know that philosophy usually leads eventually to simple clashes of intuition, but this way of thinking about value seems to me to let those clashes arise much too soon.
    I suppose that when nothing much hangs on it, I prefer to posit fewer intrinsic values rather than more, and to have more arguments and fewer appeals to simple intuitions about value. But I know that many people have the opposite inclination.

  28. Jussi –
    OK, but don’t you think that in saying what qualities of my relationships make them reason-giving for me (where the qualities are not of the form “It’s mine!”), you’ll leave open the possibility that some other relationship will have just those qualities too, perhaps to an even greater degree? If so, won’t that mean that I should sometimes prioritize the relationships of strangers over relationships of mine? That seems to be exactly the problem you were trying to avoid.
    And I can’t say this enough: I’m not saying that relationships lack value, just that their value is derived from other more fundamental values.
    “The basic personal reasons I have in a relationship are good reasons.” A few thoughts…
    I have some trouble with the jargon. I’m not clear on what “a reason in a relationship” is, as opposed to one that’s not in a relationship. I’m also not sure what makes a reason a “personal” as opposed to “non-personal” reason. Do you mean, “a reason I have but others don’t?” Or “a reason that I myself endorse/create/posit”? And by “basic” do you mean “not derived from other reasons?”
    Those concerns aside…I think that I have a good reason to do what’s good for my mother. I think it’s a reason I have to a greater degree than most others (everyone has some reason to do what’s good for my mother, but I have a special or especially strong such reason), so I guess it’s a personal reason in that sense. Is that all I need to agree with the claim?
    If so, then I agree with it, but I don’t think it determines anything about the value of relationships. Surely I can say all this while maintaining that the value of my relationship with my mother is entirely derived from other values, like the value of our respective interests, and so on.
    Also, how’s this as a counter-example? I have a good personal reason to read magazine stories about Jennifer Aniston (let’s just imagine!). I find her fascinating, and I am interested, just for its own sake, in what happens to her. So I have good basic personal reasons stemming from my relationship with Jennifer Aniston. But that doesn’t mean that my relationship with Jennifer Aniston is valuable, much less intrinsically valuable.

  29. Hi, Simon.
    You wrote:

    “First society: In this society, parents are not taken to have special obligations to, and do not form special loving relationships with, their biological children. Instead, children are raised communally. This arrangement works perfectly well in all instrumental respects (the children are not neglected, are psychologically healthy, etc, etc).
    Second society: Many people in our society live perfectly wonderful lives without ever getting married or forming romantic relationships. In this second hypothetical society, that’s how everyone lives.
    My point: I do not think it’s fair to say, “The bare fact that you don’t have loving relationships between parents and biological children makes your society worse than ours,” or, “The bare fact that you guys don’t form romantic relationships and get married makes your society less valuable than ours.””
    I don’t think we could/should say ‘our society is better than yours’ for any number of reasons. But, we are talking about moral value, not the comparative merits of social orders and institutions, yes? Nor, I think, is the biological parent-child relationship the same as the parent-child relationship which might be intrinsically valuable.
    But, putting those quibbles aside, let’s look at your other responses to my points:

    “To say that relationships have only instrumental value is not to say that they have value only as happiness-makers.”
    Fair enough; I was short-handing.
    “I think your description of how people respond to the loss or absence of relationships is inaccurate. If you say, “It’s so sad to see this friendship disappear” then I’m entitled to ask, “Why exactly? What was so special about this friendship?” Presumably, you’ll have something to say about the goods that this friendship did or could have produced or expressed. If, instead, you say, “Nothing. Or nothing beyond the fact that it’s a friendship”, then the friendship’s loss suddenly doesn’t seem sad at all.
    So, when we think of what’s sad about parents and children who are alienated from each other, we think of the wonderful special things that a good relationship with parents or children can bring, and on which these people are presumably missing out.”
    I don’t think the description is inaccurate, as people do respond to those situations in such ways. And, sure, you are entitled to ask for further reasons, but I think a great many people would not turn solely to instrumental reasoning. They might say, “Because it was a friendship .. you know? Friendship is good.” And, I don’t think that what all of us might see as the loss of family relationships is reducible to an accounting of instrumental goods. Suppose someone said, “So, what, so she has no relationship with her family? She’s got all the other goods in the world. She might not even have all those other goods if she had to deal with a family.” Still, I think many of us would respond, “But, she does not have a family. That, in itself, is a real loss. She is missing out on a good that she could have if she were not alienated from them.”
    “Finally: yes, someone who is convinced that relationships have intrinsic value can of course deny the force of my original four arguments, by rejecting the intuitions I try to elicit. But I suppose that I think that as well as bringing out some intuitive responses that tell against relationships’ being intrinsically valuable, the arguments (plus the debunking explanation) take away the motivations for thinking relationships were intrinsically valuable in the first place.”
    I think the ultimate point, here, is that we are having very different ‘intuitions.’ Neither my counter-examples nor yours [to me] are fully convincing.
    One possibility is that certain kinds of relationships – we could call them all ‘modes of loving someone else’ – are central to a good life. Not in the instrumental sense of adding to a discrete consequence – a good life – but in the true teleological sense of being constitutive of that life. For me, this is a marker of intrinsic value. There are so many goods that contribute to having a good life, but not all are constitutive.
    To put it another way, I can imagine someone who suffered illness throughout his/her life and, yet, of whom I would say, “S/he truly had a good life.” I cannot imagine saying the same of someone who never had anything like parent-child or family relationships, never had friends, never loved another person. Any assessment I could make of such a life would always include a caveat about the missing element of intimate relationships.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  30. Chris,
    Yes, that way of putting it – the point about the good life at the end of your post – does seem to get to the heart of the issue. And I do have a different response from yours there.
    There are some people who believe that the best life (or one perfectly good life) is a life completely free of attachments, or a life of complete solitude and self-sufficiency, or a life of Buddhist-style complete transcendence.
    I disagree with those people – I don’t think that this would be the best life for me, or for many humans as they actually are. But I don’t think that I can rule out the suggestion a priori. It MIGHT be true – we might be wrong about the need for intimate relationships in the good life. It’s something to be decided by learning more about the kinds of life one can live without intimate relationships, and what goods those kinds of life can and cannot involve. Given that that’s what I think, I don’t think that relationships make an *intrinsic* contribution to the good life. I think that they’re necessary, but necessary only because they are needed to manifest more fundamental values.
    (But I’d want to resist the claim that all we have here is a clash of intuitions. I think the other considerations I’ve mentioned – the treatment of bad relationships, etc – show that the value of relationships behaves as though it’s instrumental, not as though it’s intrinsic.)

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