A Troublesome Quartet

Based on the following line of thought, it seems to me that if one is a buck-passing existence-internalist who accepts a certain thesis about motivational diversity, then she or he should give up on one of those commitments or give up thinking that anything has intrinsic value. (There are other ways to frame the matter, of course.) But I’m not yet sure that the following line of thought is unproblematic. Feedback is welcome!

    P1: (Intrinsic Value) Something has intrinsic value. [In other words: Something is worthy of being valued (by anyone) for its own sake.]

    P2: (Fitting Attitudes Reduction) Something’s being worthy of being valued (by anyone) for its own sake just is for it to be such that there is reason for anyone to value it for its own sake.

    C1: So, there is something such that there is reason for anyone to value it for its own sake. (from P1 and P2)

    P3: (Existence-Internalist Thesis) For any thing X and any agent A, there is reason for A to value X for its own sake only if a (specified) X-related motivational fact about A obtains.

    P4: (Motivational Diversity) For any thing X, there is some possible agent A such that the (specified) X-related motivational fact about A does not obtain.

    C2: So, for any thing X, there is some possible agent A for whom there is not reason for A to value X for its own sake. (from P3 and P4)

    C3: So, it is not the case that there is something such that there is reason for anyone to value it for its own sake. (from C2)

    C4: So, C1 & C3 (Contradiction)


28 Responses to A Troublesome Quartet

  1. Sven Nyholm says:

    Drop the “by anyone” clauses and the problem is solved. That’s my take. What has value might have its value due to its intrinsic features—that is, if we are asked to explain what’s good about the thing, we should appeal to various intrinsic features of it. (Happiness is one example.) However, the background condition for these intrinsic features’ being reasons for us to pursue the thing may still be some psychological fact about us. Sharon Street, for example, argues that things derive their status of being reasons for us from facts to do with which of our evaluative attitudes would withstand scrutiny from the standpoint of other evaluative attitudes of ours. On such a view, there are going to be things that have intrinsic value for us and anyone like us in the following sense: the people in this group all have reasons to pursue the things in question for their own sake. So long, then, as we don’t require that anybody would have these same reasons, then we don’t have to reject any of these four ideas. (We just have to slightly revise the two first claims, by dropping the “by anyone” part.)

  2. Alex Silk says:

    Hey Steve. Very interesting argument. Here’s my initial thought. It seems like someone might object to your definition of “intrinsic value” and so deny P1 and maybe P2. For example, an antirealist like Street might claim that claims about value are always to be indexed to some agent. I.e., sentences like “X is valuable” are ill-formed, and should instead be of the form “X is valuable for agent A.” For according to such an antirealist, there are facts about value, but such facts don’t hold independently from agents’ evaluative attitudes in combination with the non-normative facts. So the antirealist might instead want to interpret P1 as follows: (P1*) Some things have intrinsic value, i.e., there’s some agent A and thing X such that “X is worthy of being valued for its own sake by A” is true. Accordingly, we’d get a revised version of C1: (C1*) There’s something such that there’s reason for some agent A to value it for its own sake. But then no contradiction will follow in the rest of the argument, and so the antirealist can maintain that some things are intrinsically valuable, where the notion of “intrinsic value” is suitably interpreted in the above way.

    If you think that for something to be intrinsically valuable it must be such that every possible agent has reason to value it, then the existence of intrinsic value is almost, by definition, incompatible with antirealism. (I say ‘almost’ because on Korsgaard’s constructivism, evaluative facts don’t hold independently of agents’ evaluative attitudes, but there are still things that we must value if we value anything at all.) But you might think that the antirealist can still suitably talk about things having intrinsic value. If not, why not?

  3. Alex Silk says:

    (Whoops, I didn’t see Sven’s comment before I posted mine. It looks like our comments make the same point?)

  4. Sven Nyholm says:

    Yeah, I think they pretty much make the same point, only putting it in slightly different ways.

  5. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    I can’t remember what “buck-passing” accounts of value are, but if they imply what Street would call a “realism” about mind-independent values, then I don’t think Steve’s argument applies to her.

    I took Steve to argue that if someone thinks one or more things are valuable independent of all our evaluative attitudes, plus the other three things, those people have to give up one of their beliefs, unless they don’t mind contradicting themselves. If I’m right about that, it should be no surprise that Street and other antirealists can evade its force. Right?

  6. Sven Nyholm says:

    Scanlon calls the following the “buck-passing” account of value:for something, such as some event, to be good, or valuable, is for it to have features that give people reasons (in certain contexts) to respond to the thing in question in various positive ways. For example, something may be good by being desirable in the sense that we, or some of us, have reasons, provided by various features of this thing, to want it. Going to some party might be good for me in this sense since there will be dancing at the party, plenty of good food, and nice people to talk with, all of which are things that constitute for me to want to go this party. Its being good that I attend the party is not the reason I should go; my reasons are, rather, constituted by the things that make it good for me that I go to the party. In this respect, the normative buck is passed to the good-making features: these, rather than the goodness itself, are what give me my reasons, Scanlon says. In effect being good, or valuable, is reduced to having reasons-giving features.

    Thinking all of this is compatible with holding various different anti-realist views. One could, for example, be a Street-style constructivist or an expressivist while being a buck-passer in the sense explained above.

  7. Steve C. says:

    Hi Sven and Alex,
    Thanks for your comments. Your point, as I understand it, is that my interpretation of premise 1 is contentious: “Something has intrinsic value” need not be understood as “Something is worthy of being valued (by anyone) for its own sake.” In particular, you want to say that one might unobjectionably understand value to be relativized to agents. That doesn’t sound like value to me.

    A few points:
    1. Both of you suggest that we understand intrinsically valuable as being intrinsically valuable for S. Perhaps, but it will be important to say what the “for S” amounts to so that we can see if this corresponds to our intuitive notion of a thing’s being worth valuing for its own sake. We use the value-for locution to talk about people’s welfare (e.g. “Torturing Johnny is bad for him”), but this is clearly not the same thing as our notion of intrinsic value. For instance, I might think that watching violent images might be good for Manson (by making him happy!) without being good. So perhaps you could say in other words what you mean to express by “for S”? Then we can see if this matches our intuitive notion of something’s being worth valuing for its own sake.

    2. My suggested interpretation of P1 was “Something is worthy of being valued (by anyone) for its own sake.” What are you suggesting as an alternative? Perhaps “Something is worthy of being valued (by someone) for its own sake”? My worry is that this is far too permissive. If value-for-S is established by facts about S’s psychology, and we are allowing any possible agent to count, then it may turn out that virtually everything has intrinsic value. Many of the things that we intuitively judge not to matter will end up mattering.

    It seems to me that our intuitive understanding of intrinsic value is not relativized to agents. So, I think someone who is committed to P2-P4 needs to reject that anything has intrinsic value in our standard intuitive sense.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that she or he can’t accept a reforming definition of the phrase “intrinsic value.” One could use the “value” terminology to talk about this relativized notion.

  8. Alex Silk says:

    Hey Steve (N-Y). I think your reply seems to characterize intrinsic value in a misleading way. You say, “I took Steve to argue that if someone thinks one or more things are valuable independent of all our evaluative attitudes, plus the other three things…” So, in light of the fact that P1 is about intrinsic value, it seems like you’re equating “having intrinsic value” with “being valuable independent of all our evaluative attitudes.” But the intrinsic/extrinsic value distinction seems to cut across the realism/antirealism distinction. What makes a value intrinsic seems to be, not that it holds independent of our evaluative attitudes, but that it’s valuable in virtue of certain of its intrinsic features. And both a realist and an antirealist could accept that there are intrinsic values in this sense.

  9. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Alex and Sven,

    For once, I meant only to offer an interpretive point. As a matter of Campbell scholarship, I think I correctly interpreted Campbell’s sense of “intrinsic value.” (See Steve C.’s most recent post.)

    In support of Campbell’s proposed sense of “intrinsic value,” when we talk about an “intrinsic” property of an object, don’t we usually mean that the object has the property without reference to anything else? It doesn’t *have* to mean that, but it’s a handy way of distinguishing it from, say, relational or extrinsic properties. If that’s right, then objects can have all sorts of intrinsic properties that make me value them without any of those intrinsic properties being “value.”

    In short, I think we should reject what Dworkin calls the “mor-on” theory of intrinsic value, but I don’t know what other options there are without ditching the “intrinsic” piece. Nobody would stop us from continuing to use “intrinsic value” to refer to properties that some people like, but that might be a bit confusing.

  10. Steve C. says:

    Alex and Steve NY,
    To clarify: by “intrinsic value,” I don’t mean value that is tied to intrinsic properties. Napoleon’s hat may be intrinsically valuable (i.e. worthy of being valued for its own sake, or valuable in itself) in virtue of having the extrinsic property of having been worn by Napoleon. Perhaps it would be less misleading to talk of non-instrumental value.

    Steve, I think your interp of me is close to right. I don’t think our ordinary notion of intrinsic value is a notion that is relativized to individuals.

  11. Sven Nyholm says:

    Hey guys,

    I had the same idea as Alex in mind: something has intrinsic value if what’s valuable about it has to do with its intrinsic features. In buck-passing talk: if the reasons to respond favorably to it are constituted by facts about its intrinsic features. What Steve calls “intrinsic value” corresponds to what Rabinowicz and Ronnon-Rasmussen call “final value”: value as an end, which something might have partly because of its extrinsic properties. SOmebody might think, for example, that it is good in itself, or as an end, when somebody gets the punishment they deserve. The value of the event of this person’s being punished would derive partly from its relational properties: ones to do with how, given what the guy had done in the past, he now deserves the punishment.

    Now, for the “for somebody” part. What I meant when I was talking about what has intrinsic value for somebody was the following: something is, in this sense, intrinsically good for A if, for example, A has reasons to pursue this thing as a goal, reasons given by intrinsic features of the thing in question.
    This is, I agree, not a good way of putting things since we can have intrinsic-feature-given reasons to pursue other things than our own well-being.

    Part of the reason why qualifying these values so that they hold only for particular people sounds un-intuitive is, I suggest, the following: we normally assume that most people have reason to intrinsically value what we have such reasons to value, and we are often right in assuming this. But, upon reflection we should, I think, feel less confident that this is the case.

    Steve N-Y: the only options are not (1) we accept the “moron” theory or (2) we think being valuable is just being liked. We have already mentioned the expressivist option, and there are other options as well: inter-subjective theories, various kinds of reductive theories, etc. If being intrinsically valuable is having value to do with intrinsic properties, then obvsiously there are loads of different ways of going once we have this idea.

  12. Steve Nayak-Young says:


    I’m not trying to limit anyone’s options, I swear!

    I just meant that if “intrinsic” means what I think it means, then anything that has “intrinsic value” has it no matter what anyone thinks, even if there are no agents capable of valuing, etc. That’s why I don’t ever talk about “intrinsic value” — it seems clear that there isn’t any such thing, as I interpret it.

    But as you say, we could also use the same phrase to mean something like “intrinsic properties that are valued by or valuable to some or all people.” Nobody could stop us from doing so, and if we explained what we meant, nobody would be confused.

  13. Steve C. says:

    “Part of the reason why qualifying these values so that they hold only for particular people sounds un-intuitive is, I suggest, the following: we normally assume that most people have reason to intrinsically value what we have such reasons to value, and we are often right in assuming this. But, upon reflection we should, I think, feel less confident that this is the case.”

    Hey Sven,
    So, it sounds like you and I are agreed that the notion of something’s being worthy of being valued for its own sake, but only by some agents seems unintuitive. Very good.

    You propose an interesting explanation: it’s unintuitive because, though the notion of intrinsic value is relativized, we tend to assume that everyone is similar enough that the things that are valuable relative to us will be valuable relative to everyone else as well. So, there’s just a (probably bogus) universal assumption that whatever is worthy of being valued by one is worthy of being valued by all.

    In contrast, I suggest that it’s unintuitive because our notion of intrinsic value isn’t relativized to particular agents. If a thing is valuable, then it’s worthy of being valued–period. But valuing is something that valuers do, so this raises the question “Worthy of being valued by whom?” The naturalness of talking of value with no reference to agents coupled with the unnaturalness of specifying some restricted class of agents suggests to me the answer: it’s worthy of being valued by any valuer whatsoever. If Mozart’s Requiem is an admirable piece, then it’s worthy of admiration, period. It’s worthy of anyone’s admiration, even if there are some out there who would never admire it. Those people just have deficient sensibilities.

  14. Sven Nyholm says:

    I never said that the assumption is that *whatever* is worthy of being valued by one is worthy of being valued by all. The point is rather, there are some select things that we most likely assume that pretty much anybody has reason to value, for example their own happiness/well-being. And, this assumption is not altogether mistaken, since pretty much anybody does have reason to value these few things. But, whenever we reflect on whether it really is the case that any possible minimally rational being has these reasons, then this might start seeming less plausible (for the kind of reasons Street offers in her articles).

  15. Sven Nyholm says:

    Perhaps I should have said “I never meant to suggest that *whatever* is worthy of being valued by one… etc”. (Because looking back at my previous comment, I could have been clearer in the way I was putting things.)

  16. Steve C. says:

    Hey Sven,
    Well, if you were going for the weaker claim that “there are some select things that we most likely assume that pretty much anybody has reason to value…”, then how is this supposed to explain how it seems unintuitive to speak of value relativized to only some agents? After all, we make tons of value-attributions. If we make this unanimity assumption for only “some select things,” shouldn’t there be a great many other things for which we think we have reason to value them without thinking that pretty much anybody does? If so, shouldn’t we be quite comfortable with the idea of relativized value? But we’re not, it seems.

  17. Richard says:

    I’d reject P3 (unless it’s idealized so far that P4 fails). Everyone has reason to value the cessation of undeserved suffering, for example.

    But I agree with Sven and Alex that anyone who rejects this ‘objectivist’ view will thereby want to modify P1 and P2. Assuming that all value is agent-relative value, it follows that we can’t talk of “intrinsic value” (or desirability) simpliciter. On this relativistic view, value (including non-instrumental value) must always be assessed relative to a valuer.

    This seems independently plausible in at least some cases. Consider family heirlooms. They may be non-instrumentally valued by folks in the family, but outsiders couldn’t give a toss. Is the heirloom “intrinsically valuable”? The question is incomplete. It may be non-instrumentally valuable to folks in the family (they have reason to non-instrumentally care about it), but not to others.

    P.S. I think Steve N-Y is picking up on the fact that some folk use talk of “intrinsic value” to mean absolute or agent-neutral value. Yet another reason to retire the ambiguous term in favour of the more straightforward ‘non-instrumental value’.

  18. Alex Silk says:

    Hey again Steve. You say, “our notion of intrinsic value isn’t relativized to particular agents. If a thing is valuable, then it’s worthy of being valued–period… it’s worthy of being valued by any valuer whatsoever.” First, if you think that *all* valuable things are “worthy of being valued-period” then this seems like a very strong claim. There are lots of things I value without thinking are worthy of being valued by any valuer. But, second, if you were just talking about intrinsically valuable things (which I assume you were), and you were saying that our concept of intrinsic value is a concept of something worthy of being valued by any valuer whatsoever, then I still think this sort of claim needs to argued for and not just assumed as the “intuitive” one. For by analyzing intrinsic value in this way you’ve ruled out on purely conceptual grounds there being any intrinsic value if antirealism is true. And not only if some “strong” version of antirealism is true, but also if weaker versions of antirealism are true – where by ‘weaker’ versions I mean certain sorts of positions usually the heading of naturalist realism, but which claim that which natural facts evaluative facts are identical with is independent of our evaluative attitudes, and thus would agree that were our evaluative attitudes significantly different, what we’d have reason to value would also be different in loosely corresponding ways (like Lewis’s dispositionalist account and Railton’s 1986 account). So according to your analysis, only so-called “strong” versions of evaluative realism (like non-naturalist versions) can count as legitimately talking about things having intrinsic value. And so it seems like this analysis needs to be argued for – especially in light of the fact that there’s another plausible analysis of intrinsic value out there that makes no such commitments (i.e., the analysis according to which intrinsic value is value in virtue of certain intrinsic features).

  19. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Alex,

    You said, in response to Steve C., that if “you were saying that our concept of intrinsic value is a concept of something worthy of being valued by any valuer whatsoever, then I still think this sort of claim needs to argued for and not just assumed as the ‘intuitive’ one.”

    If someone has an “intuitive concept” of “intrinsic value,” then I suppose we could argue about what that is and who has it — perhaps we could take a survey. However, “intrinsic value” strikes me as a piece of technical jargon rather than a term with which many folk associate an intuitive concept.

    In any case, this strikes me as the sort of disagreement that invites disambiguation, not argument. As a matter of translation, either of “value that is intrinsic to an object” and “value that is associated with an object’s intrinsic features” seem reasonable enough, so why not just explain in which sense you intend to use the technical jargon when you use it?

    (Or one could stop using it, as I have, but I don’t mind if others want to keep talking about “intrinsic value” for old times’ sake.)

    Steve C. has done a pretty thorough job of explaining what he means (I see now that my interp wasn’t quite right), so I don’t see what further productive discussion we can have concerning his proposed use of the ambiguous term/phrase “intrinsic value.” Is anyone claiming that he should not or must not use it in the sense he describes? Or is the claim that his use is more confusing, less intuitive, less “accurate” than other uses?

    (I suspect I sound polemical, as usual, but these last two questions are not merely “rhetorical.”)

  20. Steve C. says:

    Hi guys,
    For the purposes of our discussion, let’s assume that my “in other words” introduces a stipulated meaning for the first premise. Making that disambiguation, I assume that all parties will be on board with the argument going through (though not with it being sound, of course).

    Then, we can have a separate dispute as to whether there is a legitimate reading of “Something has [non-instrumental] value” that involves some relativized understanding of value. As I’ve said, I’m skeptical. My own sense is that thinking something valuable is thinking that it has value, that it is worthy of being valued, period.

    (Richard, I agree. Let’s improve the language and stop using “intrinsic” here.)

    Ok, I’ll try to say something more about this separate dispute soon.

  21. Steve C. says:

    Ok, I now have some worries about the argument too, in the ballpark of what you (Alex, Sven, Richard) were raising. A bit sketchy at this point, but I’m curious to hear what you think.

    -I’ve been moving somewhat freely between talk of a thing’s having value and a thing’s being valuable, but I’m now wondering if that move is misleading. It seems like money has value just in virtue of being valued by people. Perhaps I should have framed the first premise as “Something is valuable for its own sake” or “Something is good in itself.”
    -Today I was thinking about a thing’s being enviable. “Queenie has an enviable five-year fellowship.” Does that mean that her fellowship is worthy of being envied by *anyone*–in the sense of any possible agent? That seems wrong. By Queenie herself? By Donald Trump? I’m still inclined to think that being Xable is being worthy of being Xed by anyone, but it seems as if “anyone” is going to vary by context. (Perhaps the domain can be restricted to those sufficiently like “us” in some cases.) Yet, for the contradiction to go through, it seems that “anyone” in P1 and P2 needs to refer to any possible agent. And once we understand P1 in that way, it doesn’t seem costly to reject it.


  22. Richard says:

    One way to explicate your first point would be to distinguish (i) things that one has (antecedent) reason to care about, and
    (ii) things that one just happens to (permissibly) care about (and that perhaps have a kind of importance in virtue of this).

    The question, then, is whether some objects might be such that only some people have antecedent reason to care about them. (This is what it would be for an object to be ‘valuable’ or ‘good in itself’ in an agent-relative way.) But when put like this, the idea certainly seems perfectly coherent. So I’d like to hear more about the grounds for your intuitive resistance (assuming it’s not just a matter of confusing this particular sense of ‘intrinsic value’ with one of the other senses, e.g. that of absolute/agent-neutral value).

    I’m also curious what you think of the heirloom example.

  23. dtlocke says:

    Given your argument, what the first sentence of your post should say is:

    ‘…or give up thinking that anything has intrinsic value for any possible agent.’

    And yeah, that is exactly what they should give up.

    (I think I’m just echoing what some people have already said, especially Sven in the first comment. But I just got to this thread and, dang, you don’t expect me to read through ALL of it, do you?!)

  24. Steve C. says:

    Dustin, agreed. I reach the same conclusion in my last comment.

  25. Steve C. says:

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for the comments (and it’s good to hear from you, by the way). You say, “The question, then, is whether some objects might be such that only some people have antecedent reason to care about them.” That’s not quite the question that I took us to be discussing since I’ve been willing to answer that question with a confident ‘yes’ all along, as you have. Perhaps I haven’t been very clear. Let me try to do better.

    I’m completely on-board with there being reasons for me, but not for you, to care for my family heirlooms. My doubt concerns the claim that we have an ordinary notion of value (as opposed to reason) that is relative in this way…other than welfare value (which I agree is a kind of agent-relative value, but presumably isn’t the sort of value that you have in mind since, plausibly, welfare value doesn’t simply reduce to reasons to value). I take it that you have in mind a notion of agent-relative value that reduces to agent-relative reasons to value. Our ordinary ways of thinking about what is valuable, as far as I can tell, don’t seem to be relativized to agents in this way. Or least, I have quite a bit of difficulty expressing this notion in value-speak. (If this notion were part of our ordinary thinking, shouldn’t we find means to express it?) To illustrate the worry, say that you and I are talking and I say “My family heirloom is valuable, don’t you agree?” Say that you and I are both agreed that you have no reason to value my family heirloom. You might remind me of this. How would I qualify my claim, in ordinary value-speak, to make clear that I was only making a point about agent-relative value? I might say, “Sorry. I meant to say ‘It is good/valuable to me.'” But that seems to express that I value it, or I believe it good/valuable, and these both seem distinct from the claim I have reason to value it. Or “Sorry. I meant to say ‘It is good/valuable for me.'” But that seems to be a way to express that it contributes to my well-being, or that I believe it good/valuable. Or “Sorry. I meant to say ‘It is good/valuable relative to me.'” But I feel quite sure no one talks this way.

    All that said, I have no complaint with us using phrases like “good for me” or “valuable to Beatrice” to talk about agent-relative reasons. It’s just not clear to me (at this point) that we’ve been doing that. But, I may be wrong.

  26. Richard says:

    Ah, that’s helpful. But is there a reason to care about ordinary value-speak? If philosophical analysis reveals that ordinary language does a poor job of tracking the fundamental normative distinctions (i.e. between the various kinds of reasons that there are), mightn’t a little revisionism be called for?

    So, although I agree with you that agent-relative value is a notion unfamiliar to the folk, I’m not too worried about this. After all, the folk are implicit ‘mor-on’ theorists. It’s only once we become buck-passers that this new conceptual possibility opens up.

    Put another way: suppose we grant that there’s no such thing as “intrinsic value” in the (confused and unhelpful) folk sense. What’s the philosophical upshot? So long as we have reasons to value/desire things non-instrumentally, what is there in this conclusion that should ‘trouble’ us?

  27. Steve C. says:

    Hey Richard,
    I’m in total agreement with everything you say and imply here. It doesn’t seem like it’d be very costly to give up value-speak, or to revise our usage.

    Admittedly, when I first posted this argument (oh so long ago), I was thinking that it would have a serious bite to it. ‘The buck-passing existence-internalist who accepts P4 should admit that nothing matters!–that nothing is good or bad in itself!…’ But the point about the apparent context-sensitivity of value-ascriptions now leads me to think that ordinary thought isn’t committed to objective value in this very strong sense (of giving any possible agent reason to value a thing). So, giving up P1 (as Dustin also points out) doesn’t seem costly.

  28. Steve C. says:

    Oops. Correction: …now leads me to think that ordinary thought isn’t only committed to (and might not be at all committed to) objective value in this very strong sense…

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