Goodness: Intrinsic and Instrumental

We describe things as being good in two ways. Some things are good because they get us other good things. This is instrumental goodness. Money is a great example of this. Money buys us things we like and is good because it gets us what we want. Other things are good because of what they are. This is called intrinsic goodness. Friendship is a good example of this. We value friendship because it is friendship. No further reason is required. If anything at all is good, then at least one thing is intrinsically good. This leads to the positions of moral pluralism and moral monism.

There is a very simple proof of this claim. Suppose that nothing was intrinsically good. Now suppose that something is good. Since nothing is intrinsically good, that good thing must be instrumentally good. It is only good because some other thing is good. That further thing is good only because some further thing is good as well. This means that there must be an infinite series of things each of which are good only because of the further thing in the series. But that is a problem. Each of these things in the series is only good because of the final thing the series. So if nothing in the series of things is good in itself, then nothing in the series is good at all. Therefore, nothing is good in the series. Since this contradicts the original assumption, we now know that the assumption is false. If something is good, then something is intrinsically good.

There are now two main positions on intrinsic goodness. Either one kind of thing is intrinsically good or more than one are. The position that only one kind of thing is intrinsically good is called moral monism. The position that many things are intrinsically good is called moral pluralism. Generally, moral monists pick one thing – such as pleasure, utility, preference satisfaction or the well-being of society – and claim that this one thing is what makes everything else good. Moral pluralists do not always have lists. They simply say that many things are good because of what they are. Friendships are good but so is knowledge.

There is only one way to determine which position is better supported by the evidence. We must examine our reasons for claiming that particular things are good. Are friendships good because we both get pleasure from them? Or are they good because they are friendships? If we examine various kinds of goods in this way, it should become obvious which position is right. We can examine our reasons in two ways. First, we could examine the reasons we actually give if we are asked. This way is the least informative. We might be deceiving ourselves, be ignorant of how we actually treat real situations or we might simply have failed to think about the issue in any depth. Second, we could examine the behavior, beliefs and structure of how and why we act the way we do. Do people usually value friendships for their own value or for another value? Their actions will show which position is true.

Freedom and the Good

I have said in past posts that freedom is important because it gets us what we want and that freedom is incompatible with immoral decisions. It follows quite simply that the importance of freedom means that there must be more than one good thing we can do. Although this is not by itself an overwhelming reason to believe in that particular moral theory, it does contribute to the reasons we already have for believing it.

Remember that freedom is not compatible with wanting to do bad things. So that means that freedom is choosing to do the good things that we want to do. Now suppose that there was only one good thing to possibly do. We speak of such a situation as one in which we are not free. I was forced to stop that criminal, the policeman says. He chose to stop the criminal because it was the only good option available to him. However, without other good options, he wasn’t really free. Nor is that my only line of evidence. When we discussed the importance of freedom, I mentioned the importance of freedom of choice. That is the sort of freedom that lets us do whatever we want. But what value could that sort of freedom have unless we can choose more than one good thing? I suggest that it would have no value. So at a first look, it appears that freedom requires that there be more than one good option.

As I have suggested, this actual means something for our moral theories. It means that no maximizing theory of morals is true. This is because there is at least one case where one person has a choice in which there are at least two options that are both good. There are two ways to evaluate his choices: the two options are equally good, the two options are differently good. If they are equally good, then there is some measure (preferences, pleasure) that they both equally have. If they are differently good, then there is no measure that can compare them. They are just different and good and that is all that can be said. If freedom is common rather than rare, then it is far more likely that different goods exist than that equal goods exist. But if different goods exist at all, then it is not possible to measure goodness in general. If it is not possible to measure goodness, then it is not possible to get a maximum. Therefore, it is very unlikely that a maximizing theory of morals is true.

If a maximizing theory of morals is false, then it is simply false that we ought to do as much good as possible. Rather, moral theories just tell us not to do bad things. Different goods means that talking about how much good I did is a nonsense claim. It is no different than claiming that blue is more colored than green. Personally, I think that this is acceptable. There is no good reason to believe in maximizing theories of morals anyway. I think that freedom far outweighs any vague moral ideas we might have on that issue.