I’m happy to introduce our current Featured Philosophy, Gwen Bradford, who teaches at Rice University and has written a creative and insightful book on achievement. Her post today is on the nature and value of uniqueness. Please comment with your thoughts about the interesting new territory that Gwen is exploring!
I have been thinking about uniqueness and its relationship to value.
The issue first arises in one of the important moments in value theory. The orthodox conception of intrinsic value as value strictly in virtue of intrinsic properties was questioned by counterexamples pointing to extrinsic properties generating what’s plausibly intrinsic value. Monroe Beardsley in 1965 wrote this:
One inconvenience of this definition can be brought out as follows: A sheet of postage stamps has been misprinted – the central figure, say, is inverted. …[but] its value is not for the sake of anything else. (Beardsley 1965: 61-62).
And other philosophers since followed with examples of uniqueness shifting the conception of intrinsic value away from the traditional Moorean one (E.g., (Kagan 1998: 282-283; Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen 2006: 120).
I think that there are (at least) three kinds of uniqueness, and none of them have the relationship to intrinsic value upon which the original examples rely. Here I am going to sketch the three kinds, and I would like to hear what you think.
Type 1 Uniqueness: “this one is different from all the rest”
Beardley’s stamps are unique insofar as they are different from the other stamps of the issue. This is the commonsense Type 1 Uniqueness: something is unique just in case it is different from other members of its kind. To be precise, when there is a norm of similarity across the members of a kind, a member of the kind is unique when it has some property or properties that distinguishes it as dissimilar from the other members of the kind. It is related to rarity – a member of the kind is rare when there are relatively few of them that have the properties that make them dissimilar to other members of the kind.
Clearly, however, not just any old thing accrues intrinsic value when it is dissimilar from other members of the kind. If there is a malfunction at the toothbrush factory resulting in a two-headed toothbrush, it would not deserve to be enshrined in a museum. This supports the conclusion that uniqueness enhances pre-existing intrinsic value, but does not imbues it to anything.
And yet, what have we just seen as the showcase example of the relationship between uniqueness and intrinsic value? Something that’s one of the very archetypes of not intrinsic but mere instrumental value, namely, a stamp. Rare stamps and coins are the most obvious examples of uniqueness enhancing intrinsic value – but stamps and money are clear instances of things whose value is instrumental and not intrinsic. So either uniqueness does imbue things with no prior intrinsic value with value, and a two-headed toothbrush is, in fact, intrinsically valuable, or we are mistaken in thinking that uniqueness is relevant for value in this way.
Perhaps you are not keen on philately and are willing to simply reject that uniqueness is relevant for value. But there are other very compelling cases that we should not be so willing to cast aside. Many of us consider a good use of our time to spend the day at the museum, admiring great works of art and historical artifacts, such as Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi or medieval suits of armor, and (at least part of) what makes these objects interesting and worthy of our attention is that they are unique – you can’t see anything like them anywhere else. At least part of their value, it seems, is related to their uniqueness.
Type 2 Uniqueness: “Nothing else like this one exists”
I want to suggest that in these compelling examples, it is a different kind of uniqueness that matters. And, moreover, the relationship to value that arises from Type 2 Uniqueness concerns a change not in amount of value, but kind.
I propose that Type 2 Uniqueness is a matter of having properties that can no longer be newly reinstantiated. Of course, properties by definition are such that they can be multiply instantiated, i.e., are borne by multiple objects. But some properties, simply as a matter of contingent fact, can’t be reinstantiated anymore, such as the property of being painted by Picasso or being an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. It is this sort of property that I want to suggest is responsible for our intuitions about the significance of uniqueness. Like Type 1 Uniqueness, Type 2 Uniqueness is also related to rarity – an unreinstantiable property may be instantiated in more than one object, and the significance increases as this number grows smaller.
Now, of course virtually everything has contingently unreinstantiable properties. The pen that you just used to write down a note is the only pen that will ever have the property of you having used it just now to write down that note. To be sure, uniqueness is ubiquitous. What it significant in some cases but not others?
Consider good-making properties in general. Many (if not most) good-making properties are reinstantiable. Being pleasant, being beautiful, or bearing the autograph of Beyonce are all good-making properties that are reinstantiable. Other good-making properties, such as being an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus can’t be newly instantiated, simply as a matter of historical fact. (Of course, there’s the substantive question of which properties are good-making, but they seem to be treated this way and it’s not implausible to think we are correct in doing so.)
Here is the suggestion about unreinstantiable good-making properties: they result in irreplaceable value. Irreplaceable value is value that, if lost, can’t be replenished in the same way, even if it could be replenished in amount. There isn’t a great deal of discussion in the literature conceptualizing irreplaceable value, but one way in which things might be thought to have irreplaceable value is by having good-making properties are the sort of properties that can’t ever be reinstantiated to make anything else good again. So objects that have good-making properties that are unreinstiantiable are irreplaceably valuable. Their value, one might say, is unique.
So Type 2 Uniqueness is a way for value to be unique. This suggests that we were misled in thinking earlier that uniqueness is a formal property that generates intrinsic value. I’m suggesting that Type 2 Uniqueness and irreplaceable value, not Type 1 Uniqueness and augmented intrinsic value, explain intuitions about cases where uniqueness is relevant for value. Previous philosophers were mistaken in thinking that uniqueness enhances intrinsic value. Rather, it is a matter of irreplaceable value resulting from bearing unreinstantiable good-making properties.
What does this suggest about the Moorean conception of intrinsic value? Nothing conclusive yet, but it is down an important counterexample, suggesting that the debate merits revisiting.
Type 3 Uniqueness: “nothing else like this one could ever exist”
Now I haven’t yet said anything about people. Uniqueness matters for the value of persons, and, if anything does, persons have irreplaceable value. From this one might conclude that persons have Type 2 Uniqueness and this is what characterizes our irreplaceable value. But I don’t think this is right. Type 2 Uniqueness is a matter of contingently unreinstantiable good-making properties. To be sure, people have many good-making properties that are contingently unreinstantiable, such as personal histories or talents. But the value that people have in virtue of these properties surely does not exhaust the sense in which persons are irreplaceable. The irreplaceability of persons seems more aptly characterized as necessary, not merely contingent. Moreover, there is a relationship between Type 2 Uniqueness and rarity that is not true of persons. When unreinstantiable good-making properties are multiply realized, their bearers may be rare, approaching unique as the number shrinks. But people are not like that – even if sometimes we may describe someone’s talent as “rare” it’s not the case that the irreplaceable value of persons is a matter of exceptional traits. People with very common traits are just as irreplaceable as those with rare ones.
What distinguishes the irreplaceable value of persons seems more accurately characterized as something that could not possibly be multiply realized. It is a matter of something that is necessarily unreinstantiable.
But this sounds very mysterious. What is at the root of Uniqueness Type 3 and the irreplaceable value of persons? I look forward to hearing what you think about this question as well as my arguments above.
Beardsley, M. C. (1965). Intrinsic Value. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 1-17. Reprinted in Rønnow-Rasmussen, T., & Zimmerman, M. J. (Eds.). (2006). Recent Work on Intrinsic Value (Vol. 17). Springer.
Kagan, Shelly (1998). Rethinking Intrinsic Value. The Journal of Ethics. 2(4), 277-297.
Rabinowicz, W. and T. Rønnow-Rasmussen (2006). A Distinction in Value: Intrinsic and for its Own Sake Reprinted in Rønnow-Rasmussen, T., & Zimmerman, M. J. (Eds.) Recent Work on Intrinsic Value (Vol. 17). Springer.5