# Patching up a regress argument for intrinsic value

Proponents of intrinsic value have sometimes attempted to argue for its existence via the following sort of regress argument:

Something is valuable; but if it is valuable, it must be valuable either as a means to something else that is valuable, or else valuable in itself.  If all valuable things were good merely as a means, there must be an infinite chain of instrumental goods extending into the future, without ever leading to any intrinsic good.  Such a chain is impossible.  Therefore, something is intrinsically good.

Both friends and foes of intrinsic value have found this line of argument problematic.  It is possible, they say, for there to be an infinite chain of merely instrumental goods extending into the future.  This objection gains strength from the obvious parallels between the regress argument and first-cause arguments for the existence of God.  Many philosophers have found it reasonable to reject first-cause arguments for God in light of the possibility of an infinite chain of cause and effect stretching into the past; why, then, should we not reject the regress argument for intrinsic value as well?
I think a little tinkering can make the regress argument fairly plausible.   I wonder if anyone will agree, and if anyone will think the argument is interesting at all.

First, since the argument will be based on a notion of instrumental value, we must be clear about just what sort of instrumental value we have in mind.  There are many ways something might be instrumentally valuable.  This argument employs a notion of instrumental value according to which something is instrumentally good just in case it leads to something good.  In what way must something’s effect be valuable in order for it to have productive instrumental value?  We have to be careful not to beg questions by insisting that the effect be intrinsically good.  Let us leave unspecified the way in which the effect must be valuable.  As long as it is valuable in some way, the cause has productive instrumental value.  Thus I propose the following definition:

D1.  X has instrumental value =df x causes something valuable.

Henceforth when I talk about instrumental value I will have in mind the sort defined in D1.
Second, we need to be clear about exactly what it would take for a regress argument to succeed.  The argument is supposed to show that there is such a thing as intrinsic value.  But this could mean different things.  It could mean that there is a property of intrinsic value (whether or not that property is actually instantiated), or it could mean that something is actually intrinsically valuable.  I take it that foes of intrinsic value would not be satisfied to say that it is just a contingent fact about our universe that it does not contain intrinsic value, and that if things had gone a bit differently, there might have been some around; rather, they seem to want to say that there is something fishy about the very idea of intrinsic value, and that, in a very strong sense of ‘could,’ nothing could be intrinsically valuable.  So I would regard it as worthwhile merely to establish that it is possible that something is intrinsically valuable.  Nevertheless, I will also attempt to establish that something actually has intrinsic value.
On to the argument.  First, I will argue for the conclusion that there is a property of intrinsic value that is instantiated at some world.  I begin with a premise that follows trivially from D1.

P1.  At every world where there is something with instrumental value, that thing causes another valuable thing at that world.

Now we need a premise that lays out some possibilities.  Recall that the problem with the original regress argument was supposed to be the possibility of a chain of instrumentally valuable things stretching indefinitely into the future.  Call that the infinite future possibility.  I am skeptical, but instead of being high-handed, I will grant that possibility.  In fact, I can think of some other possibilities as well.  There seems to be nothing contradictory in the idea of an instrumentally valuable thing X causing another instrumentally valuable thing Y an hour later, and Y causing instrumentally valuable thing Z a half hour later, Z causing instrumentally valuable thing W fifteen minutes later, and so on.  If so, there could be instrumental value without intrinsic value and without a causal chain stretching infinitely into the future.  Call this the Zeno possibility.  Here’s another possibility:  suppose time is circular.  Then X could be instrumentally valuable in virtue of causing Y, which is valuable because it causes Z, which is valuable because it causes X; we would seem to have instrumental value without intrinsic value.  Call this the circular time possibility.
Call the infinite future, Zeno, and circular time possibilities exotic possibilities, and say that such possibilities obtain at exotic worlds.  There seem to be two ways a world could be when it contains something instrumentally valuable:

P2.  If P1, then at every world where there is something instrumentally valuable, either (a) something has intrinsic value or (b) the world is exotic.

Now we need a premise that says that something, at some non-exotic world, is instrumentally valuable.  And what reason could there be for denying this?  It is one thing to admit that there are these exotic possibilities; but who would think that exotic possibilities are required for the existence of instrumental value?

P3.  There is at least one non-exotic world where there is something instrumentally valuable.

These three premises establish

C1.  Therefore, there is at least one world where something has intrinsic value.

And C1 entails

C2.  Therefore, there is a property of intrinsic value.

Which is what I was trying to establish.
The argument for actual intrinsic value is pretty similar:

P4.  Some things are instrumentally valuable in the actual world.
P5.  If P4, then either something actually has intrinsic value, or the actual world is exotic.
P6.  The actual world is not exotic.
C3.  Therefore, something actually has intrinsic value.

This argument is a little bit less of a slam-dunk.  Why think the actual world is not exotic?  Take the possibility that there is a chain of instrumental goods extending infinitely into the future.  If that possibility were actual, and if there were no actual intrinsic value, then certain counterfactuals would be true, such as:  If the world were to end in a trillion years, then there never would have been any value in the universe.  Such counterfactuals are not true.  Similar problems involving truth-values of counterfactuals would arise if we supposed that the actual world were exotic in one of the other ways described.  Actual instrumental value just does not depend on exotic possibilities being actual.

Objections

P1 is true by definition, so it is not a plausible candidate to reject.  What about P2?  The obvious way to object to P2 is to say that I have left out some options; there might be ways for something to cause something valuable without either there being something intrinsically valuable or the world being exotic.
The most promising way to object to P2 is to say that there are kinds of value other than instrumental and intrinsic value (Korsgaard, Tara Smith, etc.)  Perhaps something could be instrumentally valuable in virtue of leading to something with some sort of value other than intrinsic value; and perhaps something could have that other sort of value without there being any intrinsic value.  This is a possibility to be taken seriously, but it is insufficient merely to object that there might be such a sort of value.  We must look at some alleged sorts of non-intrinsic, non-instrumental value, and see whether those sorts of value require the existence of intrinsic value or not.
Some (Ross, C.I. Lewis, Gibbard, Korsgaard) have argued that there is a sort of value called contributive or contributory value.  Contributory value can be easily illustrated with aesthetic examples.  A beautiful painting might be divided into parts such that each part is ugly on its own.  But when the parts are put together, the result is beautiful.  The parts may be said to have contributory value in virtue of making a larger whole more valuable.  Roughly speaking, something is said to have contributory value if it contributes to the value of a larger whole of which it is a part.  The existence of contributory value is controversial in ethics; it seems to depend on the existence of “organic unities.”
Suppose something has instrumental value in virtue of causing something with contributory value.  When something has value in virtue of contributing to a larger whole, we can ask of this larger whole:  what sort of value does it have?  It must be either intrinsic, instrumental or contributory.  If there’s no intrinsic value, then the larger whole must have instrumental or contributory value.  Suppose it has instrumental value.  Then we evidently face the instrumental value regress problem again.  Suppose the larger whole has contributory value.  Then it must be part of a still larger valuable whole.  And now we face another sort of regress:  not a causal regress, but a part-whole regress.  Each thing with contributory value contributes to a larger thing with contributory value.  And the same considerations apply to this sort of regress:  surely it is not necessary, in order for anything to have value, that the universe be large enough to fit an infinite series of larger and larger goods.
Another purported type of non-intrinsic, non-instrumental value is signatory value.  Sometimes we say that something is a “good sign,” and one thing we sometimes mean by this is that the thing is a sign or indicator of something good.  For example, when looking at an x-ray that shows no sign of broken bones, we might say “that’s a good sign” – meaning that it’s good that the x-ray is the way it is, because it indicates good health.
But signatory value doesn’t seem to help solve the regress problem.  Again, we must ask about the valuable thing signified by the good sign, in what way is that signified thing valuable?  If it is also good as a sign, we run into a signatory value regress.  (Unless things can be signs of each other – but surely that’s not required for the existence of instrumental value.)  If it is good in some other way, we run into one of the other regresses already discussed, unless there is some intrinsic value somewhere.
Now we begin to see a pattern.  Whatever sort of valuable thing an instrumentally good thing leads to, we can ask of that thing:  in virtue of what is it valuable?  Unless it is valuable in virtue of some relation to something intrinsically good, we get a regress.  Foes of intrinsic value must come up with some sort of non-intrinsic value that can stop this regress, or the argument goes through.

## 40 Replies to “Patching up a regress argument for intrinsic value”

1. I’m not sure that P1 is true by definition. That is, I’m not sure that D1 implies P1. Suppose that some thing X is such that (i) X is the only valuable thing, and (ii) X causes itself. Then, according to D1, X has instrumental value. But this makes P1 false, since P1 requires that there be another valuable thing, which, by hypothesis, there ain’t.
Perhaps you need a premise ruling out self-causation. Or perhaps you should include worlds containing self-causation among the class of exotic worlds.

2. David Shoemaker says:

A quick response to Campbell: I assume Ben easily gets to rule out your example, given that self-causation is logically impossible. As Aquinas puts it, if a thing were to be the efficient cause of itself, “so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.” This may not vindicate P1’s being true “by definition,” but it’s surely the next best thing.

3. Hi Ben,
I like this line of argument. Very interesting stuff. A few ideas.
First,
“D1.  X has instrumental value =df x causes something valuable.”
You need something more here to avoid a ‘silver lining’ objection. Every hellish, crappy thing that happens causes *something* good. The recent sunami unearthed valuable ruins off the coast of S. India. But a sunami isn’t instrumentally valuable. It isn’t ‘good for’ unearthing ruins. It seems there must be something intentional there. Or something, I don’t know what.
Second, I think you can strenthen the regress argument’s claim. At least as the Aristotelian argument goes, it supposes that there *must* be something intrinsically valuable if anything is to have value. That there happened to be something intrinsically valuable would be worthless to the argument.
A last thought. P1 supposes that instrumental value is causal. But what about ‘doing x in order to y’, where the two are not causally related. E.g., lots of my students take readings courses with Professor S in order to fulfill a requirement for degree F. Taking the readings course is an instrumental good, but it doesn’t cause the fulfilling of the requirement. It is identical with it.

4. Campbell – I guess I could say what David suggests. Given what else I’m allowing as possible (circular causal chains and such) I’m not sure I should say that. The other thing would be just to modify D1 to say that something is intrinsically valuable iff it causes something *else* that’s valuable. Then it would entail P1.

5. Robert,
“Every hellish, crappy thing that happens causes *something* good.” Right. I think there’s a more commonly used concept of instrumental value, call it “overall” instrumental value, according to which merely bringing about something good isn’t sufficient for instrumental value. And actually I think there’s an argument from overall instrumental value to intrinsic value too. Maybe I’ll post it later on. But I think there’s also this weaker concept that I’m trying to capture here, which we might think of as instrumental value “in a way,” or “prima facie” instrumental value, or something like that. The reason for using the weaker concept has partly to do with the fact that I don’t think you can define overall instrumental value without appealing to intrinsic value. (That’s the gist of the other argument.) So the argument would be circular from the get go.
“Second, I think… worthless to the argument.” I’m all for strengthening the argument, but I don’t get the point here.
“Taking the readings course is an instrumental good, but it doesn’t cause the fulfilling of the requirement. It is identical with it.” Interesting idea. I’m not sure I want to say both that it’s good to do x in order to do y, *and* that x=y, because then I’d be saying it’s good to do x in order to do x. And then it seems odd to say that doing x has instrumental value. But I might be OK with saying that if doing x *constitutes* doing y, or *entails* doing y, and doing y is good, then it’s good to do x in order to do y. I hadn’t thought of that as a sort of instrumental value, but it does seem to be.

6. I wasn’t thinking that the identity was the identity of meaning. And I take that back about the regress argument being based on a necessary claim. Mill’s regressive argument is clearly meant to establish something contingent. It doesn’t have to be that, given there are instrumental goods, there is an intrinsic good.
There is still something that puzzles me. You say that at exotic worlds, there is instrumental value and no intrinsic value. I’m puzzled by the idea of a world with only instrumental goods. Isn’t that a world that is valueless? Suppose, for instance, I said I’ve got a good car. You ask, ‘What’s it good for?’ I say, ‘Good for going up and down the street ‘, you say, ‘What’s that good for?’ I say, ‘Good excuse to get a car’, you say ‘What’s a car good for?’ And so on. What I want to know is ‘Which of those things do I really value?’ If I there’s no answer, then it seems I don’t value either, not that I value both.

7. Robert – I’m inclined to agree with you about those sorts of worlds. But not everyone agrees, and the people who don’t agree are among those the argument is supposed to convince.
But there is a way to have instrumental value without intrinsic value. Suppose all that happens at a world is someone prevents something bad from happening. That preventive act has instrumental value, but by hypothesis there’s no intrinsic value at the world. (That’s another reason I use the particular sort of instrumental value I do in this argument. I’m guessing nobody thinks the only instrumental value is preventive value.)

8. Dave — my thought was, given that Ben allows of circular causation (if only for argument’s sake), he must also allow self-causation, or else deny the transitivity of causation. Suppose X causes Y, Y causes Z, and Z causes X. If the “causes” relation is transitive, then it follows that X causes X. To be sure, self-causation is pretty weird (though, I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “logically impossible”). But is it any more weird than circular causation?
This suggests another possibility for Ben’s argument: he might treat self-causation as a limiting case of circular causation — where there’s a maximally small circle, as it were. He might then simply substitute “a” for “another” in P1. At any rate, I should stress that I don’t see this as any great problem for the argument. Just a little nit-picking.
By the way, Ben, I notice that you tie the possibility of circular causation to circular time. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Couldn’t one have circular causation without circular time? That would involve backward causation, where the effect precedes the cause. But we’re supposed to be allowing those wacky possibilities, right?
One last thing: I’m intrigued to know if there are any people who explicitly accept instrumental value while at the same time rejecting intrinsic value. If there are such people, what motivates their view? Perhaps they would be more inclined to reject your P3, which you don’t really discuss in your post.

9. Campbell – right, I shouldn’t tie circular causation to circular time.
I think there are people who accept instrumental value but not intrinsic value. Some of the pragmatists like Dewey seemed to do that, as well as their spawn like Monroe Beardsley and some current environmental types. Tara Smith seems to hold that same combination in “Intrinsic Value: Look-Say Ethics.” I’m open to suggestions about what’s motivating these people. I suspect the usual epistemological and metaphysical worries about intrinsic value are behind it. I am pretty sure Beardsley accepted P3, but I don’t know about Smith. She seems to be aware of only two definitions of instrumental value: one that defines it explicitly in terms of intrinsic value, and one that defines it as just being effective at bringing about some effect without entailing anything about the value of the effect. She believes in the second but not the first. I think most people believe in a stronger conception of instrumental value than just being effective at bringing something about.
Other people like Gil Harman and Paul Taylor seem to accept intrinsic value but don’t think the regress argument works. (At least, as of the 1960s they didn’t think so.) So the argument is aimed at them too.
I need to do more research on this, so if anyone knows of places where people have discussed this argument, or of people who believe in instrumental value but not intrinsic value, I’d like to hear about it.

10. Ben — I’ve been thinking about how to “axiomatise” your argument. Perhaps the following would do the trick.
First, some definitions:
Let X be the set of all things.
Let V be the property of being valuable; “Vx” means x is valuable
Let C be the causing relation; “xCy” means x causes y.
Say that a thing x is intrinsically valuable iff (i) Vx, and (ii) for all y in X, xCy -> ~Vy.
Now, consider the following four claims:
Transitivity: for all x,y,z in X, (xCy & yCz) -> xCz
Irreflexivity: for all x in X, ~xCx
Finiteness: the set X is finite
Existence: there exists some x in X such that Vx.
I’m pretty sure that these four claims jointly imply that at least one thing is intrinsically valuable. Thus, in order to establish your (weaker) conclusion, you need only maintain that the conjunction of the four claims is contingent; there’s some possible world in which all four hold.
How does that sound?

11. Campbell – that sounds pretty good. One thing I don’t like is the definition of intrinsic value. As I understand it, it entails that if something is intrinsically valuable, it doesn’t cause anything valuable. I wouldn’t want to say that. That definition could work as a definition of what it is to be valuable but not instrumentally valuable, so we could still get an argument for non-instrumental value out of those definitions and claims. That would be something interesting, but not quite what I want.

12. Ben, do you think (a priori for now!) there must be two different versions of the regress argument, one on the ‘valuer’ side and one on the ‘values’ side? I think I’ve often thought of it both ways, without realizing there was a distinction. So, for instance, on the ‘valuer’ side, your argument goes more or less like this:
1. X is valued instrumentally iff x is valued because it is thought to cause something else that is valued.
2. In every world where there is something valued instrumentally, that thing is thought to cause another thing that is valued intrinsically or the world is exotic.
(assume no exotic worlds)
3. There is at least one world where something is instrumentally valued.
4. So, there is at least one world where something is valued intrinsically.
5. So, some things are intrinsically valued.
And so on.
The reason I suggest this is that one wants to ask after the valuing on the RHS. I guess it seems attractive that it is a rational constraint that you can’t value everything instrumentally, the something has to matter to you for its own sake.
Well, in any case, the rationale behind this way of thinking is different from the more metaphysical argument you have provided.

13. Robert – yes, I think there would have to be different arguments. I was only arguing for the value side, not the valuer side. The valuer side seems like it would be easier – all you have to do is produce someone who values something for its own sake. The business about exotic worlds wouldn’t seem necessary. You have to do more on the value side, since people who value things for their own sakes might be bad valuers for all we know.
Of course, it’s a stronger claim to say that you *can’t* rationally value something without valuing something for its own sake. I’m not sure I’d endorse that idea, though I see the appeal. For one thing, think of the preventive value case from my previous comment. One might rationally instrumentally value the act that prevents the bad thing, and not value anything for its own sake. (One would merely have to rationally disvalue the bad thing that’s prevented.) I’d also wonder about paradox of hedonism issues. It could be that in order to get what’s really valuable in itself, you’re better off not valuing *anything* for its own sake – a better strategy might be to value things merely as means to other things. There might be a way in which that’s irrational, but it would take some argument to convince me.

14. Campbell says: “I’m intrigued to know if there are any people who explicitly accept instrumental value while at the same time rejecting intrinsic value. If there are such people, what motivates their view?” Ben asks this too.
Well, I don’t know if I qualify exactly, but here’s the problem I have with intrinsic value. I hope it helps. As I see it, the problem arises this way. We can and do make an ordinary qualitative distinction, in particular cases, between a desire for X and a desire for Y, where the (main or only) reason I value X is that I can use it to get Y, say if X is the key to the cookie jar and Y is the cookies themselves. It looks like this renders my desire for X unstable in a sense, considered relative to Y; maybe I should look around for a better (more reliable, permanent, less costly) means to Y than X is (what if they changed the lock? Then my key would be no good). My desire for X needs justification in a way that Y doesn’t (X is for cookies; Y is cookies). But then maybe the same is true for Y, relative to a “higher” good Z (why did I want the cookies in the first place? Maybe there are donuts to be had…). It can then seem natural to ask: is there anything which is good not relative (“instrumental”) to another good but good absolutely (“intrinsically”)? If so, that might provide a sort of grounding for our deliberations which would otherwise be lacking – we wouldn’t have to worry, concerning such a good, that our valuing of it was subjective or transitory or whatever other flaws a “merely” instrumental good might be supposed to have.
But for “spawn of Dewey,” as Ben calls us, this distinction only makes sense in, or with respect to, actual contexts of (inquiry and) deliberation, not as part of an independent ontological project (as if we were looking at the “set of goods” and labeling each member “instrumental” or “intrinsic” – objectively of course – or looking for the one ideal Good, whatever that means). In such contexts, all I really care about is deciding what to do (what to value over what given my present commitments, how to modify my commitments based on what I know, etc.). That’s just what deliberation is. The question “and what is that (say X) good for?”, with the implication that X might not be as valuable as, or in the way that, I thought it was, gets its only sense from the contextually prior question “what should I do (value) here (now, in this situation)?”
So let’s say we play the regress game. I know that I have different commitments than you do, so at first I take your question “what’s that good for?” at face value and answer accordingly. But after a while the question seems more and more obtuse. Why are you asking me what good it is to be rich, or healthy, or wise? Aren’t you committed to these things as goods yourself? Or even if not, do you still not understand why it is that I value them? Do you really see a possible problem in my scheme of valuations (given my beliefs, interests, etc.)? If the answers to these last three questions are (yes, no, no), then I know the actual deliberation is over, and the reason you keep on pressing me is that you have ontological concerns (which you see as) independent of inquiry and deliberation; but I don’t, so I’m finished.
So construed, the regress of intrinsicality is analogous to the skeptical regress of empirical justification. In either case, Deweyspawn (or even more frightening, Wittgensteinspawn) quit when our “spades are turned,” before it has become clear to you whether what we see as “bedrock” is truly absolute (which we of course do not claim) or just another relative (which we do not claim either). Once we have what we came for, we leave the field to those of you who care about such things. Note that this does not mean that we deny the possibility or even actuality of intrinsic goods (or ideally solid justifications), as has been assumed. It’s the skeptic or anti-realist who does that. He’s the one still arguing with the dogmatist or realist when we pack up and leave. This may be clearer in the epistemological setting (Skeptic: “What if that isn’t true?” Dogmatist: “It is too true, because … because P! Surely you believe P!” Skeptic: “But what if it isn’t? What if … what if S, or T?” Me: “Later, guys.”)
As for your (P3): it sounds fairly truistic, except that it does have a decidedly free-floating ontological feel to it, which makes me uneasy. How about this? In this world, which I believe to be “non-exotic,” I value my car keys because they allow me to drive my car. Does that help, say by entailing (P3)? (P2) embodies the assumptions (interests, commitments, whatever) I have been denying, while (P1) strikes me as a bit dodgy in its appeal to causality (as I think others mentioned). Beware the per oscurius explanation! Or in any case don’t tie value constitutively to causality unless you have to.
By the way, y’all should take a look at this new blog Dissoi Blogoi, which has been discussing this same issue (or almost) in the context of Plato and Aristotle. (See neighboring posts too.)

15. Ben, isn’t what is required for the regress only that a world contains the *possibility* of intrinsic value? It doesn’t require that there be some intrinsically valuable thing in that world. That seems to me to be what is in play in the supposed exotic world you mention. It seems to me that if removing a bad is not good, then there is no extrinsic value either in that world. The removal of the bad thing has to be a good result for it to be good to get rid of it. That good result, of course, was not in that world, but it was reachable from that world.

16. Duck,
thanks for the comment and the link. Lots of stuff to respond to, but let me start with this:
“But for “spawn of Dewey,” as Ben calls us, this distinction only makes sense in, or with respect to, actual contexts of (inquiry and) deliberation, not as part of an independent ontological project.”
Surely we can make value judgments about counterfactual situations, can’t we? Furthermore, we seem to be able to make lots of value judgments about situations where no deliberation is involved in any obvious way – judgments about the values of natural disasters, diseases, unexpected pleasures, and so on. I just don’t see any necessary connection between value and deliberation.
“Why are you asking me what good it is to be rich, or healthy, or wise?”
If the suggestion is that it’s obvious that these things are goods, and no explanation of why they are good is forthcoming, I would think you’re just saying that they’re intrinsically good. If the suggestion is that the explanation of why they are good is obvious, then I’d like to hear it.
“Do you really see a possible problem in my scheme of valuations (given my beliefs, interests, etc.)?”
Yes. You value three things. You might have to give up some of one for one of the others. What will you do? You need to do some theorizing to get an answer. And, on my view, you aren’t likely to get very far if you confine your theorizing to contexts of actual deliberation.
“In this world, which I believe to be “non-exotic,” I value my car keys because they allow me to drive my car. Does that help, say by entailing (P3)?”
I suppose so, if driving your car is good.
“(P1) strikes me as a bit dodgy in its appeal to causality”
Because there are *other* ways of being non-intrinsically good other than causing something good, right? I happily agree with that, but all I need for the argument is that *some things* are good because of what they cause. So I’m not tying value in general, or even non-intrinsic value in general, to causality.

17. Robert – not entirely sure I’ve got the question, but I’ll say a couple of things. You’re right that all I need is the possibility of intrinsic value. So if preventive value at one world entailed intrinsic value at another, that would be great. (And I think it does, but not for regress-argument reasons.) But it would be question-begging to assume that. Preventive value at one world just entails *some sort* of value at another world. And you can’t get a regress going that way, at least not easily, because what you get is a regress of worlds, which is not problematic at all, I don’t think. P at w1 is good because it prevents bad thing Q at w2; Q at w2 is bad because it prevents good thing R at w3; etc. None of w1, w2, w3,… need be exotic at all. I’m not sure if that’s what you were thinking of.
“It seems to me that if removing a bad is not good, then there is no extrinsic value either in that world.”
Removing/preventing the bad is merely extrinsically good. So we still haven’t got any intrinsic goodness at any world by assuming preventive value.

18. Let me be a bit more precise (I seem to be too cryptic for my own good!).
My thought was that in the world you describe, you suppose there must be two things, something bad and the means to remove it. The question is, why do you say that the means of removing the bad is in that world instrumentally good? It doesn’t seem self-evident to me that it is.
Take two worlds, one in which there is the bad thing, and another identical world without it (absent the means to remove it.) Only if the latter world is a better world than the former are the means of removing the bad–the means of getting to that world–instrumentally good.
But then there is the question, ‘in what sense is the latter world ‘better’?’ And presumably we now have the regress again unless it is intrinsically better.
Perhaps I’m thinking that the absence of a disvalue is a value.
That, I think, was what I was saying (bear with me, I’m a behaviorist and so I don’t know what I think until I see what I’ve said!)

19. OK, I’m starting to get it. I wasn’t thinking of a world like that. I was thinking of a world where nothing intrinsically good or bad happens at all; something prevents something bad from happening, so no bad thing happens there. The preventing thing is instrumentally good at that world, but nothing intrinsically good or bad happens at that world.
“Take two worlds, one in which there is the bad thing, and another identical world without it (absent the means to remove it.) Only if the latter world is a better world than the former are the means of removing the bad–the means of getting to that world–instrumentally good.”
I agree. But now we need an argument for the claim that it’s intrinsic value we’re talking about when we evaluate worlds. I think there might be such an argument, but it’s not a regress argument. (A regress of worlds won’t be problematic because logical space is plenty big enough for all the worlds you’d need.) The argument I have in mind is this: if we’re going to assign value to whole worlds, it’s got to be intrinsic value, because what other sort of value could a whole world have? It can’t be instrumental value, because whole worlds don’t cause anything; it can’t be contributory value, because whole worlds aren’t part of anything bigger; etc.

20. Ben – thanks for the reply. This isn’t the place for a lengthy explanation of my own views, but I’ll try to clarify a bit in response to your questions, which for space reasons I won’t repeat here.
First, it seems that my use of “actual” is misleading, making it sound as if I rejected theorizing (or philosophy itself, as W-spawn are suspected of doing, in their (our) return to the “everyday”) entirely, in favor of merely ground-level (inquiry and) deliberation (on the one hand) and actually occurring situations (on the other). With respect to the latter issue, I agree that we can make value judgments about counterfactual situations, as well as (some but not all) thought experiments. We deliberate about what we would do; or, in more distant or abstract instances (now incorporating the former issue above), about what sorts of considerations would be relevant, how to rank them (or how to decide how to do so, etc.). (Some) discussions of unexpected pleasures etc. could be of this sort. All this is unobjectionable. (This was the intent of the qualifier “or with respect to” in my original sentence, but I see now that that was not enough – sorry!). The problem arises (I grant this is vague, but there really is no general answer as to when or how this happens) when theory takes on a life of its own – when abstractions or idealizations are invoked with no specific connection given to the case (or case-type) under discussion. The connection I am concerned to preserve between value and deliberation is a conceptual one in this sense. If I can’t see the issue as related in any way to a decision I would be asked to make – if it has become a purely ontological inquiry (with which, again, I do not equate theorizing) – then I lose the thread. For example I have nothing to say about your original argument beyond my misgivings about the premises (I accept your defense of P1 though). By the time we get to the part about exotic worlds, we have left my world far behind (so to speak).
It may be that those concerned with “intrinsicality” (here and elsewhere) consider the conceptual link between (I’ll call it) metaphysical theorizing and rational deliberation to be preserved by a reference to an ideally rational agent. Maybe something is intrinsically good, for example, if an ideally rational agent always values it. My worry is that the idealization here threatens to undermine the conceptual connection to deliberation which the reference to an agent looks like it might be thought to preserve. That is, I have the same sort of problem with ideally rational agents (which I grant that you did not bring up) that I do with intrinsic goods. Obviously there’s more to say about that, but let’s move on.
Now, about my hypothetical discussion. Remember that my imagined protest about odd questions comes after several previous exchanges (and is thus addressed not to you, referring to my own arguments in my comment, but to my imaginary interlocutor, referring to a previous discussion I have not given). I’m not suggesting that it’s obvious that these things are goods, or that there cannot be any explanation in particular cases of why they are good, or that they are intrinsically good (although I must, in the example, have appealed to them as good at some point (they were the good at which some other, now-revealed-as-“merely instrumental” good aimed) to provoke the questions I’m puzzled by).
I have been taking the thought about intrisicality to be: if a good is “merely instrumental,” then it might not really be good at all. (That’s why you added the caveat about driving my car: the keys were good instrumentally only if driving is itself good.) To what good is it a means? If that good is intrinsically good, then we’re set – the first good was (or at least might be; this is not the only test) good after all; but if it isn’t, then in order to defend it (the first good) as good at all we must ask to what good that second good is a means; and so on. This is the regress you discuss.
Here is where my analogy to the skeptical regress was supposed to help. When the skeptic claims to doubt each subsequent justification as itself possibly not true, he makes us wonder what he himself believes, given that he has been presenting himself as an agent. He no doubt (!) sees himself as ideally circumspect, doxastically speaking, but in denying all belief he undermines his own implicit claim to agency (Myles Burnyeat is good on this in the context of ancient skepticism). This is why pragmatists see such theoretically motivated doubt (as opposed, again, to theoretical reflection itself) as idle “paper doubt” (Peirce’s term). That is, it’s theoretically idle, not just practically idle, in cutting itself off conceptually from the practical inquiry that gives it its sense.
That’s why, to return to the value case, I fantasized, in my underdescribed example-schema, about having defended a claim like “and the vitamins themselves are valuable because, well, they lead to health.” If the response is “but why is health valuable?” I start, as I may have already, to lose the thread (and of course for him this is just where things start getting interesting, as possible candidates for intrinsicality come into view). That’s why I ask for more information. You don’t think health is good? (Note that what matters for our deliberation, as per the paragraph before last, is that health be (agreed to be) actually good, not intrinsically good – that’s what would ratify as good that good (here, taking the vitamins) just acknowledged as instrumental to this one, which is what we were concerned with.) If you (not you, Ben) have a reason relevant to our previous discussion (that is, that actually counts as a reason why I might not want to take the vitamins, if it is given that they do indeed lead to health), then let’s hear it. If not, what are we talking about?? I want him to stop being perverse – again, in the way the skeptic is, in backing off of actual commitments, or pretending to, for theoretical reasons, as if (for example) he were taking the role of an ideally rational agent.
Wow, this is just as long as the other comment – I better stop now. I hope I was clearer this time. It won’t convince you, of course, but it might help point to the more fundamental philosophical differences here (which is another reason I should stop). I did not respond to one of your comments (the third), because something struck me about it that I want to think more about. Maybe I’ll take the (methodological) issue up on my own blog (if we ever get going, that is!), where I can stretch out without boring everyone else. Thanks for the space!

21. Ben — I was rather surprised when you said this:

But there is a way to have instrumental value without intrinsic value. Suppose all that happens at a world is someone prevents something bad from happening. That preventive act has instrumental value, but by hypothesis there’s no intrinsic value at the world.

It seems to follow, by your own definition of instrumental value, that this thing — the preventative action — causes something valuable. But what is the valuable thing so caused? And how do we rule out “by hypothesis” the possibility that this latter thing — the valuable thing caused by the preventative action — is intrinsically valuable?
Also, if the world you describe is indeed one in which there’s instrumental value without intrinsic value, then your premise P2 implies that it’s an exotic world. But it doesn’t seem to be exotic in any of the ways that you identify — i.e., circular causation, Zeno cases, etc.

22. Duck- thanks for the comment. I think the analogy to the skeptical regress is interesting. Regresses in general are interesting; I wish I had something more general to say about which ones are bad and which ones aren’t.
Campbell – I think I just wasn’t clear about one thing in the original post. I definitely *don’t* think that the only way to be instrumentally good is to produce something good. (My D1 is not supposed to capture every sort of instrumental value.) That’s one way to be instrumentally good, and my argument is based on the existence of things that are instrumentally good in that way. Another way to be instrumentally good is to prevent bad things. In the prevention example I mention in the comments, nothing is instrumentally valuable in the sense captured by D1.

23. Ben, I still want to say that something isn’t instrumentally good unless it leads to something good. And I want to say it in your case—the case of preventing something bad—by saying that if the absence of that bad thing weren’t good, it wouldn’t be instrumentally good to prevent it. After all, sometimes the presence of a bad thing is a good (there is a mound of theodicy saying so.) I’m not just saying that the bad thing makes the whole overall good, or better than it would have been. I’m saying that the presence of the bad thing, itself, is a good. Perhaps this is a case: the presence of pain in the conscience of some wicked person. Pain is bad, but the presence of that bad here is good.

24. Robert – I think you’re making two different points. One is that if it’s good to prevent a bad, then the absence of that bad is good. I might agree with that, but the issue (insofar as I’m still following the dialectic) is whether the absence of bad is *intrinsically* good. And that can’t possibly be true, because then the whole universe would be full of intrinsic goodness.
The other point is that the existence of something bad can be good. This seems separable from the point about preventions. Again, we have to be careful about what sorts of goodness and badness we’re talking about. I don’t see any plausibility to the idea that the existence of something bad is *intrinsically* good (but I don’t know if that’s what you were suggesting). I think in the sorts of cases you have in mind, the presence of a bad thing has contributory value of the sort I discussed in the objection to the regress argument. It makes some larger whole better in virtue of being a part of it. I think something like contributory value was crucial to Leibniz’ theodicy.

25. Ben — small question: why is it obvious that the whole universe is not full of intrinsic goodness?
More generally, I guess I’d like to hear a little more about what you mean by intrinsic and instrumental value. Initially I had assumed (a) that intrinsic value was defined negatively as non-instrumental value, and (b) that instrumental value was defined by D1. But it turns out that neither assumption was correct. So now I’m wondering, how are these terms defined for the purposes of your argument?

26. Campbell – I just don’t know of any plausible axiology that assigns intrinsic value to, say, huge areas of empty space, or to rocks, or other things where there’s an absence of badness. The only possible motivation I see for saying that empty space is intrinsically good is the view that everything is either intrinsically good or intrinsically bad, and I see no reason to hold such a view
For the purposes of the argument, instrumental value *is* defined as in D1. I think there is another familiar sense of instrumental value that is *not* captured by D1 — call it “overall” instrumental value. This is the sort of instrumental value that something has in virtue of the values of all the things it causes and prevents. Robert was, I think, alluding to this sort of instrumental value in his initial comment. What I want to say is that everyone who believes in *overall* instrumental value also believes that there are things that have instrumental value in the weaker sense captured by D1.
I didn’t define intrinsic value, but I definitely don’t want to define it as non-instrumental value, for reasons that emerged in the objection to P2. For now I’m happy to think of intrinsic value either as “value for its own sake” or as “value in virtue of intrinsic properties.”

27. Ben — you write:

The only possible motivation I see for saying that empty space is intrinsically good is the view that everything is either intrinsically good or intrinsically bad, and I see no reason to hold such a view.

Do you see any reason not to hold such a view? I’m just trying to figure out what’s at stake here. Earlier, in response to Duck, you disavowed any connection between “value and deliberation”. My worry is that, if value is disconnected from deliberation (and related notions like choice and action), then any particular view about value will be unmotivated. Why should I say either that empty space has intrinsic value or that it doesn’t, if this makes no difference to how one ought to deliberate or choose or act?

28. Campbell – As I understand what’s happened here, Robert was suggesting that *the absence of badness* is itself (intrinsically?) good. So, here’s a problem. How good is it? Think of all the bad things that are absent from my office. There’s an absence of people being tortured. There’s an absence of people with mosquito bites. (Unfortunately there’s *not* an absence of people with paper cuts! Ouch!) How good is it that there aren’t people being tortured in my office? Very very good! How good is it that there aren’t people suffering from mosquito bites? A little good, but not that good. What could any of that have to do with the *intrinsic* value of what’s happening in my office? Are we supposed to, say, add up the value of people not being tortured and the value of people not having mosquito bites (and a billion other things that aren’t happening) to figure out the value of what’s going on in my office? So my answer to the question about what’s at stake is to say that what’s at stake is avoiding absurdity.

29. Ben, I hope my position doesn’t commit me to all that (or to being able to count all of the possible fat men in the doorway!). My point wasn’t very sophisticated, just that I was skeptical of there being things that were instrumentally good because they prevented a bad *tout court*. The absence of the bad that was prevented would have to have itself been a good thing for it to have been instrumentally good to prevent it. I don’t know whether that absence would be ‘intrinsically’ good or what. But I don’t know what else to say about it for now. Perhaps I’ll end up agreeing with you that the view isn’t defensible, since you seem to have pretty good reasons to reject it.
I still don’t quite get why you want to restrict instrumentally valuably things to those things that cause something valuable at that world. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but consider this case: Suppose we have a world in which there is something that could cause something valuable but as the actual history of that world goes, it in fact doesn’t (imagine an undiscovered cure for cancer). It still seems to me to be instrumentally good; the mere accident that it never had occasion to bring about a good shouldn’t count against it.

30. So, the alleged problem with the view that “the absence of badness is itself good” is that this view implies — absurdly, you say — that, in order to figure out the value of what’s going on in your office, we need to consider not only those things which are present (e.g. people with paper cuts), but also those things which are absent (e.g. people with mosquito bites). But this doesn’t strike me as absurd. It seems to me that, in order fully to comprehend the value of the goings-on in your office, we need to know, for example, that if there were mosquitoes biting people, those goings-on would be worse than they actually are. But, in order to know the latter, we need to know that there’s an absence of people being bitten by mosquitoes in your office. If we fail to take that absence into account, then we fail fully to comprehend the value of what’s going on in your office.
Perhaps your claim is that, although the absence of mosquito bites is relevant to the value of the goings-on in your office, this is not because the absence of mosquito bites is good; rather, it is because the presence of mosquito bites would be bad. But I don’t see why these aren’t just two ways of saying the same thing. Is this merely terminological? Or is something more important at stake here?

31. Jamie says:

Suppose the fundamental axiological facts are the facts about what is better than what. (Cf. John Broome’s ” Goodness is reducible to betterness: the evil of death is the value of life”.) There are no extra facts about which things are simply valuable, or good, because there is no ‘absolute zero’ of value. Maybe this is wrong, but it isn’t nuts. So suppose it’s true.
We still need to know what people mean when they say that something is good. When the something is a state of affairs, then to a first approximation, let’s suppose, it means that it is better that the state of affairs should occur than that it not occur. (This makes it similar to the construction “I prefer that S”, where without a contextual contrast this presumably means that the speaker prefers it to not-S.)
So what would it mean to say that huge areas of empty space are valuable? Well, I guess it would mean that it is better that there should be these huge empty areas, than not. But whether this is true depends on what the alternative is. If this space was very likely to be filled with nauseated puppies, then I guess it is indeed good that there are huge empty areas.
To pose a problem for the view that the absence of bad things is itself a good, Ben asks: How good is it? It is a whole lot better than the nauseated puppies. It’s just a little better than a hangnail. And so on. And besides all those comparatives, there aren’t any other axiological facts.

32. Can the regress argument be stated coherently using the ‘better than’ relation? It seems a bit more unweildy, but perhaps: If something is better than another, it must be either instrumentally better or intrinsically better. If every better thing were merely instrumentally better, then there would be an infinite chain of instrumentally better things. Therefore, there must be something intrinsically better.
The structure of the infinite chain would be: x is better than y in producing z. z is the target we’re aiming at because z is better than v in producing w. w in turn is the target because w is better u in producing t. And so on, unless we reach some n such that n is intrinsically better than some m.
What is odd is that the ‘better than’ relation raises the possibility of an infinite chain within a world. So suppose in the world in which n and m exist, there are an infinite amount of things, each one of which can be ranked as intrinsically better than another and intrinsicaly worse than some other. The introduction of intrinsic betterness here would then not have stopped the infinite regress. (The same, I suppose, would be true in a world in which there were an infinite chain of things, each one of which was instrumentally better than some other thing, and instrumentally worse than another, at producing some z.

33. Robert,
The reason I want to restrict instrumentally valuable things to things that cause something good is I need that in order to get the regress argument to work. Of course, I recognize that there are instrumentally valuable things that don’t cause anything good. And I agree with you that according to one way of thinking about instrumental value, preventing something bad is not sufficient for having instrumental value. This just shows that there are notions of instrumental value that don’t give us a regress argument for intrinsic value. (At least not a regress argument like the one I’m giving here.) It doesn’t show that nothing answers to the concept of instrumental value defined in D1. Anyway, I don’t think we’re really disagreeing about anything, as long as you’re not saying that absences of badness are *intrinsically* good.

34. Campbell,
You say:
Perhaps your claim is that, although the absence of mosquito bites is relevant to the value of the goings-on in your office, this is not because the absence of mosquito bites is good; rather, it is because the presence of mosquito bites would be bad. But I don’t see why these aren’t just two ways of saying the same thing.
I *do* think the absence of mosquito bites is good! I just don’t think it is *intrinsically* good. Let me try again to convince you of this.
I take it that the value in a situation is determined by the intrinsic values of the things going on there. So, if hedonism is true, and I’m getting a bit of pleasure and no pain right now, the situation right around here is slightly good, in virtue of there being something intrinsically good in it. You seem to be taking seriously the idea that absences of bads are *intrinsically* good (otherwise we are not disagreeing about anything). And, presumably, absences of goods are intrinsically bad. Problem: there are infinitely many absences of intrinsic bads, and infinitely many absences of intrinsic goods, in this situation. If those absences are intrinsically good and bad, and if their intrinsic values are, like the values of pleasures and pains, helping determine the value of this situation, then the fact that I’m getting a bit of pleasure will be swamped by the infinite good and infinite bad of all the absences. My pleasure won’t make even a little bit of difference; the situation would contain just the same amount of value as it would if I weren’t getting the pleasure. *Every* situation will have just the same value, because it will have infinitely many intrinsically good absences and infinitely many intrinsically bad ones, and adding a finite amount of pleasure or pain will fail to affect the value of the situation.

35. Jamie,
I think Robert is right about the Broome idea – I would be perfectly happy to have a regress argument from instrumental value to intrinsic *betterness.* If goodness is reducible to betterness, then I’d also have an argument for intrinsic goodness. (I remember not finding Broome’s arguments very convincing – as I recall, his arguments seemed to apply only to extrinsic, not intrinsic, value.)
I would have thought that the way to reduce intrinsic goodness to intrinsic betterness would be to say something like this: x is intrinsically good iff it is intrinsically better that x exist than that nothing exist.

36. Jamie says:

Robert:
I don’t understand what regress you are talking about now. It’s certainly true that there can be an infinite sequence of things, each better than some other, each worse than some other. That is not a regress, any more than the existence of the integers is a regress.
Ben:
x is intrinsically good iff it is intrinsically better that x exist than that nothing exist.
Well, I don’t know that there is such a thing as intrinsic betterness. Being intrinsically good might be reducible to better than __ plus other conditions. Maybe.
More important, I don’t think you should rule out by definition the view that it is intrinsically good that nothing exist. I had a friend in college who was studying physics, and he claimed to be strongly in favor of entropic processes on the grounds that we ought to try to get the universe over with as soon as possible. Probably false, but it does seem coherent to hold that it is better that nothing exist than that any particular thing exist.
Why don’t you like the idea that a state of affairs is good iff it is better than its complement? That seems to me the most natural thing to say. It makes goodness simpliciter analogous to the more mundane kinds of goodness. It is good for a wide receiver to be fast, for example, because it is better for one to be fast than not to be fast. It’s not good for him to be fast because it is better for him to have speed than to have nothing.

37. Jamie – I’m OK with saying that a state of affairs is all things considered good, or overall good, iff it is better than its complement. (Of course, as you mentioned in your previous comment, this means that whether something is all things considered good will depend on what we take to be happening if it doesn’t happen. But that’s OK – I don’t mind some context-sensitivity to overall value claims.) What I don’t like is the claim that a state of affairs is *intrinsically* good iff it is better than its complement, for the reason already given – it makes the absence of intrinsic badness intrinsically good. And if we think that intrinsic values can be added up to get values of worlds, we don’t want to say that absences have intrinsic value.
You’re right that I shouldn’t rule out by definition the idea that nothingness is intrinsically good. I prefer to take intrinsic value as primitive, rather than defining it in terms of betterness. That allows me to say that the view that nothingness is intrinsically good is coherent. Another possibility would be to say that x is intrinsically good iff x is (intrinsically) better than something that is intrinsically neutral, and that x is intrinsically neutral iff x is neither (intrinsically) better nor worse than its complement. What about that? (Assuming you’re willing to go along with intrinsic betterness.) That wouldn’t rule out your crazy friend’s axiology. But I prefer to take intrinsic goodness as primitive and define betterness in terms of it.

38. Ben, you write: “I take it that the value in a situation is determined by the intrinsic values of the things going on there.” I don’t generally find it helpful to think of goodness or value in this way. But let me go along with it for now.
It’s important to note, I think, that there are different ways in which the value of a situation might be determined by the intrinsic values of things going on there. One possibility — the one which you appear to have in mind — is that the value of a situation is given by some additive function: we assign to each “thing” a number representing its intrinsic value, the sum of the numbers so assigned then being taken to represent the value of the situation.
But there are other possibilities. Consider, for example, the following principle:
(P) For any situations X and Y, if the intrinsically valuable things in X are a proper subset of the intrinsically valuable things in Y, then X is worse than Y.
Suppose that we assign intrinsic value to absences, so that the situations X and Y both contain an infinite number of intrinsically valuable things. The principle (P) might nonetheless imply that one situation is better than the other (because it’s possible that a proper subset of an infinite set is itself infinite).
That’s a little quick. But you get the idea, I hope.

39. Campbell – I get the idea. But that strategy won’t enable you to give an *extent* to which one situation is better than another – only to say that one is better.
Let me say why this is all puzzling to me. Suppose you’re a hedonist. The way I suggest you formulate your view is, roughly, to say that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad, and that the values of complicated things are determined by the values of the pleasures and pains there.
You might say, why not *also* say that absences of pain are intrinsically good, and absences of pleasure are intrinsically bad? Well, suppose it were possible to make that idea coherent, and to formulate a version of hedonism that incorporated absences in such a way that it would reflect the hedonist’s value intuitions. What have we gained? We’ve made our axiology more complicated, but haven’t got anything in return for that complication. At best we can mirror the simpler view.