UPDATE!! SCIENTIFIC PROOF THAT A SUBSTANTIVE PROPERTY OF FINAL VALUE IS A PHILOSOPHER'S FANTASY (AND THAT EVEN PHILOSOPHERS DON'T TRULY BELIEVE IT).
(Sorry for the sensationalism, but suddenly one needs to compete for an audience around here! And I think I "buried the lead" in my original post.)…
I thought I’d take this opportunity to present one of the crazier ideas I’ve been working on. In the spirit of Philippa Foot’s “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” (1972) and like-minded philosophers, I’ve argued (e.g. in my forthcoming book, Confusion of Tongues) that thin normative words like ‘good’ and ‘ought’ are essentially relativized to ends or goals (what I call an “end-relational” theory). So any logically complete sentence of the form ‘p is good’ is implicitly relativized to some relevant end: ‘p is good [for e]’, which I’ve interpreted as meaning roughly that p promotes/ raises the probability of e, or: e is more likely given p than given not-p.
This view encounters an obvious objection from final value: judgments about what is good “for its own sake”. What should an end-relational theory say about ‘good for its own sake’?
Whereas this locution is often taken as expressing a kind of goodness that is nonrelational, a compositional treatment of the expression itself suggests something different: a kind of goodness that is relativized reflexively. ‘For its own sake’ in general seems to mean for itself. For example, ‘He did it for his own sake’ means that he did it for himself, not that he didn’t do it for anybody. So might we suppose that to be good for its own sake is to be good for itself; i.e. p is good for its own sake iff p is good for p, or: p raises the probability that p?
This sounds crazy, of course: it’s true of any proposition p whatsoever that p is more likely if p than otherwise, but surely not everything is good for its own sake. But I suggest it becomes plausible with one further tweak. We don’t call something (instrumentally) “good”, simpliciter/sans phrase, just because it is good for something or other, but only if it is good for something that is relevantly desired or valued. I’ll capitalize (e.g. ‘p is Good’) to indicate this kind of use. Plausibly, something is said to be “good for its own sake” in case it is judged to be Good, and there is a question about the basis for its Goodness. Of things that are judged Good, some are Good because they promote something else that is relevantly desired, but others are Good because the relevantly desired thing they promote is themselves. So to be Good, for its own sake, is to be the object (or perhaps, constitutive of the object) of relevant intrinsic desire. Note that this fits with what Plato and Aristotle say: intrinsically valuable Goods are those which are desired for their own sake and not for the sake of anything else.
Most likely you’ll think this is still pretty crazy. But there’s some striking empirical evidence in its favor. An implication of this theory is that nothing can be Bad, Worse, Worst, Better, or Best for its own sake. (Because nothing can promote itself more or less than anything else promotes itself). Initially I thought this looked like a fatal problem, but then it struck me that those expressions did all seem bad to me. So I checked google usage data, and found the following:
‘It is ____ for its own sake’ ‘It is intrinsically ____’
‘good’ 4,600,000 992,000
‘bad’ 1 480,000
‘better’ 1 420,000
‘best’ 0 5
‘worse’ 0 27,000
‘worst’ 0 2
(Note: searching on the shorter string ‘bad for its own sake’ yields many more results, but I found that the majority of these seemed to be variants either of ‘desiring what is bad for its own sake’, where ‘for its own sake’ is qualifying the desiring rather than the badness, or of ‘good/bad for its own sake’, where ‘bad’ is plausibly only included for completeness/ as an afterthought.)
This is a striking pattern of use that demands an explanation. My hypothesis predicts it, and I take this as strong evidence that the hypothesis is correct. The usage for ‘intrinsically ___’ shows that it can’t be explained by a general focus on goodness over other kinds of relations. (I take it that to be “intrinsically bad” is to be Bad in virtue of intrinsic properties.)
So I’m interested in what people think. Is the evidence compelling, or are there other good explanations available for this pattern?