23 March 2007

Distinguished Distinctions

In light of Eric Brown's comment perhaps it would be fruitful to start a thread on the "two distinctions in goodness": What are those distinctions? Are they employed by classical authors, such as Plato and Aristotle? Should the two distinctions be more widely used in interpretations today, i.e. is this a valuable distinction that scholars today ignore to their own detriment?

First, the two distinctions themselves. For this, one cannot improve upon Chris Korsgaard's lucid explanation:

It is rather standard fare in philosophy to distinguish two kinds of this value of goodness, often called "instrinsic" and "instrumental". Objects, activities, or whatever, have an instrumental value if they are valued for the sake of something else--tools, money, and chores would be standard examples. A common explanation of the supposedly contrasting kind, intrinsic goodness, is to say that a thing is intrinsically good if it is valued for its own sake, that being the obvious alternative to a thing's being valued for the sake of something else. This is not, however, what the words "intrinsic value" mean. To say that something is intrinsically good is not by definition to say that it is valued for its own sake: it is to say that it has its goodness in itself. It refers, one might say, to the location or source of the goodness rather than the way we value the thing. The contrast between instrumental and intrinsic value is therefore misleading, a false contrast. The natural contrast to intrinsic goodness--the value a thing has "in itself"--is extrinsic goodness--the value a thing gets from some other source. The natural contrast to a thing that is valued instrumentally or as a means is a thing that is valued for its own sake or as an end. There are, therefore, two distinctions in goodness. One is the distinction between things valued for their own sakes and things valued for the sake of something else--between ends and means, or final and instrumental. The other is the distinction between things which have their value in themselves and things which derive their value from some other source: intrinsically good things versus extrinsically good things. Intrinsic and instrumental good should not be treated as correlatives, because they belong to two different distinctions.
Korsgaard goes on to examine Moore, Ross and Kant: "These philosophers," she writes, "all separated the two distinctions..."

One might wonder whether ancient philosophers did as well--since I believe their interpreters rarely do so and rely, rather, on the conflation that Korsgaard says is "standard fare in philosophy".


Anonymous said...

Clearly, according at least to the way Korsgaard defines “instrumentally good”, the term isn’t appropriately attributed to extrinsically good things (at least not necessarily). But the point she makes in the passage Michael quoted need not extend to everyone’s use of the term. E.g., in my Intro Ethics course, I always teach a distinction between intrinsic goodness & instrumental goodness that is unaffected by K’s objection. And I believe it’s a distinction commonly used by specialists in Value Theory – most prominently, I suppose, by Mooreans (e.g., Chisholm 1968, “The Defeat of Good & Evil”, p. 34). It’s this: Intrinsic goodness (just as K explains) has nothing to do with the way a thing happens to be valued; it has rather to do with a thing’s intrinsic features, not with how it’s related to other things. One of these points may similarly be made about instrumental goodness: it has nothing to do with the way a thing happens to be valued (as it does on K’s definition: “Objects…have instrumental value if they are valued…”); but instrumental goodness (according to a Moorean understanding) differs from intrinsic goodness because the former has to do with a thing’s extrinsic features – specifically, its actual causal relationship(s) with other things. On this understanding of instrumental goodness, a thing has it if it in fact brings about another good thing - whether or not it happens in fact to be valued by anyone (as a means or otherwise). So according to this definition, “instrumental goodness” is just a subspecies of extrinsic goodness. Also, notice that, on this definition, instrumental goodness & intrinsic goodness aren’t “opposites”; a thing may have both.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pakaluk, I love your stuff!


Michael Pakaluk said...


I find very instructive your observation that Korsgaard defines one of the two contrasts subjectively (as it were), as a matter of how we value things, and the other objectively, as a matter of what has value. Surely this indicates that something has gone wrong, or at least that her project is not that of making two distinctions in the same thing at all. And I suspect it points to a much deeper problem in her exposition.

But apart from her explanation of the distinctions, suppose we were to characterize them as follows. What in that case, do you think, would be amiss?

instrumental--good as productive of something good
final--good not as productive of something good

intrinsic--good on its own
extrinsic--good not on its own (viz. only when taken with something else that is good)

(I take it that subjective analogues would be available for all of these. Simply replace 'good' with 'correctly valued'.)

Anonymous said...

According to your definitions just above, Michael, a purely instrumental good would appear to be an extrinsic good, since just on its own a purely instrumental good would be good but not on its own (i.e., not without what it produces). But not every extrinsic good would be instrumentally good.

Your definition of "final" is purely negative, so it's hard to tell what it is supposed to identify exactly, unless you just meant it to encompass all goods that weren't instrumental. Given the way you define "final", some intrinsic goods would be final (viz., those intrinsic goods that were not productive of further goods), while other intrinsic goods wouldn't be final (viz., those intrinsic goods that were productive of some further good).

I'm not criticizing your definitions - just feeling them out. I hope I've understand you.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I agree with what you say.

Eric Brown said...

A good thread.

As to Michael's question, I think that Stoic ethics is unintelligible without the distinction between the two distinctions. On their account, some things that are indifferent to my success (eudaimonia) are finally valuable. The account of why these things are not good, however, turns on the observation that their value is conditional (i.e., extrinsic). So the Stoics recognize that some things have final but extrinsic value.

This is pretty clear in the Stoic case. The evidence is much less clear for their predecessors, but I think that what the earlier representatives of the Socratic tradition is best understood to make the same recognition that some things other than virtue are both finally and extrinsically valuable.

Michael Pakaluk said...


The example you give from the Stoics of the utility of the distinction is the same as that which Korsgaard gives from Kant; we value happiness as an end, but it is only extrinsically good:

"Since the good will is the only unconditionally good thing, this means that it must be the source and condition of all the goodness in the world; goodness, as it were, flows into the world from the good will, and there would be none without it. If a person has good will, then that person's happiness (to the extent of his or her virtue) is good. This is why the highest good, the whole object of practical reason, is virtue and happiness in proportion to virtue: together these comprise all ends that are objectively good--the unconditional good and the private ends that are rendered good by its presence" (181).

eric brown said...

Sorry to be slow in following up on this. I did not mean to suggest that the Stoics agree with Kant that happiness is merely extrinsically good. Rather, I meant to say that some things that the Stoics take to be indifferent to happiness (I called this success = eudaimonia, not the things plural) are valuable as ends though not intrinsically. Health is a good example.