Like what you read?

Official Comments Policy:

This is my blog and I reserve the right to delete any comments that don't abide by these rules and/or don't contribute to the overall intellectual atmosphere of the blog. I don't mind comments from people who disagree with me, as I am very much open to reconsidering or revising anything that I write.

1. No swearing or otherwise profane language.
2. No insults or otherwise abusive language, toward me or any other commenter.
3. No spamming or trolling.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Intrinsic vs. Instrumental Value

Discussion of the concepts of intrinsic and instrumental value go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. It has pretty much gone unchallenged for all that time until the last hundred years or so, but even then there really haven't been any major challenges to the concept. The concept of human beings as intrinsically valuable is important when it comes to the discussion of abortion, and the concept of human rights, themselves, only make sense insofar as human beings are seen as intrinsically valuable. As was the case with my recent article about capacities, this is only a very basic discussion of these concepts. You can see this article here for a more in-depth treatment of these concepts.

Intrinsic value

When we say that something is intrinsically valuable, this means that something is valuable in itself. These are things that are pursued for their own sake, not to acquire something else. Things like happiness, truth, and goodness are all intrinsically valuable. You do not, or at least should not, pursue these things to get you something else, but they should be pursued because they are good in themselves. You don't need a reason to pursue truth; the fact that truth is good in itself is enough.

Human beings are likewise intrinsically valuable. They are valuable because they are created in the image of God as rational agents. As intrinsically valuable entities, human beings are good in themselves and to use them as a means to an end (or, at least, merely as a means to an end) is wrong. As an example, one reason that pornography is immoral is because you are using the people in the film as a means to an end, a means to sexual gratification.

Now the question usually comes up, how does this apply to someone who provides us a service, such as a car mechanic or a musician? Aren't we using them as a means to an end when we hire them to perform a service? The answer to this is most definitely no. If you were to force a mechanic to fix your car against his will or to refuse to pay him after he performs that service, then that would obviously be wrong. But if you hire someone to fix your car (or provide music, or to operate on you, etc.), then you are using your money as a means to an end (see below), not the person. In this case, the mechanic is providing you with his time and expertise, and you are compensating him by providing him with money.

Instrumental value

Instrumental value is a type of extrinsic value because its value comes from outside itself. Something that is instrumentally valuable is valuable as a means to an end. So money and video games are instrumentally valuable. They are only valuable because we place value on them. If we did not value money, they would be worth no more than the paper that they're printed on (or the metal that they're minted with). We use things that are instrumentally valuable as a means to get us something else, usually something that's intrinsically valuable.

Animals are a controversial example. Animal rights activists consider animals to be intrinsically valuable, but I don't. As non-rational entities, they are not valuable in themselves but they are valuable only insofar as humans have need. As rational agents, we can recognize right from wrong and act accordingly. We can recognize duties and obligations that we have to others, duties and obligations that animals don't have to each other or to us because they simply cannot recognize when something is right or wrong. If a human kills another human, it is murder. If a lion kills a gazelle, it is not murder, because neither lions nor gazelles are rational agents.

Flora is another example of instrumental value. Plant-life and trees are not valuable in themselves, which is why it is not wrong to pluck roses to give a significant other or to chop down trees to make furniture or paper. These entities are only valuable insofar as people value them. They are valuable to us because they add beauty to our planet, they take in carbon dioxide and provide oxygen, they provide shade, they provide the raw materials for building fires, furniture, houses, and other things. But their value comes from without, not from within.

The difference between intrinsic and instrumental value is an important one for the abortion debate, because all human beings are intrinsically valuable. It is wrong to kill a human being for the sake of convenience, or because we find ourselves in a difficult situation (the difficult situation should be eliminated, not the human person). Not only does abortion kill an innocent human being, but it also treats them as a means to an end, something to be eliminated to make our lives easier. This is also one reason why comparing the unborn to an acorn (as is often done) is not only biologically inept, but a false analogy when comparing value. An acorn is the same entity as the oak tree it will become, but it is not seriously wrong to kill an acorn or an oak tree, as it is seriously wrong to kill a human being unjustly at any stage of development.


  1. Hi Clinton, thank you for your thoughts and for reminding us that humans being have significant intrinsic value because it was bestowed upon us by God (which of course, is the only logically consistent reason why one can argue this – naturalism / materialism surely cannot).

    One comment I would respectfully make is that I believe you should look a bit deeper into your position that creation (including animals, flora) does not have intrinsic value. A position of some modern authors and theologians is that this outlook has contributed to the modern ecological crisis that we find ourselves in. Would you agree that there is merit in a position which asserts that God’s creation does have intrinsic value on the grounds that:
    a) It is created by God
    b) That God declares His creation Very Good
    c) It belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance
    d) That it reflects aspects of God’s nature, including His divine nature (See Rom 1)
    e) That it groans too for liberation from decay (See Rom 8)
    f) That it also is reconciled through Christ’s blood (Col 1:19-20)
    Regards, Steve

    1. Hi, Steve:

      The reason that humans have intrinsic value is because we were made in God's image. Animals and nature, while important and should not be mistreated, were not. So they have instrumental value, not intrinsic value.

      It's true that the universe reflects aspects of God's nature, groans from liberation, etc. But we also have to remember that contra pantheism, the universe is *not* part of God, it is created *by* God. A painting reflects the nature of God (and the painter), as does a sonata God and the musician. But these things are not valuable in themselves, they are valuable because they are valued by others. They are instrumentally valuable because they are not ends in themselves, as human beings are; they are means to an end (e.g. we take enjoyment in them and we find them beautiful). So we should take care of God's creation, but not because it's valuable in itself. Because it was created by God, so it is not ours to do with as we please. As God has made us stewards over creation, we are to take care of it and not mistreat it.

    2. Hi Clinton,

      Thank you for your reply. Please bear with me as this is a question I have recently been challenged with so I am keen to really unpack this.

      You assert in your article that animals are “not valuable in themselves but they are valuable only insofar as humans have need”, but is stewardship the only reason we intuitively understand that it is morally wrong to wipe out species of animals – including those which have no specific function helpful / relevant to, or aesthetic quality pleasing to humans?

      On what basis can one assert that God’s creation is only valuable because humans perceive it to be so? Even accepting that humans are created uniquely with the Imago Dei, on what grounds do you assert that this is the only factor which grants us intrinsic value? Couldn’t one just as easily assert that this grants us a unique position and relationship with God, or unique qualities, or a unique spiritual dimension that the rest of creation does not share? This would not be inconsistent with the position that all of God’s creation has intrinsic value (even if some elements – humans, have more intrinsic value than others - nature). Jesus declares we are of much more value than many sparrows, but does this necessarily mean that a sparrow has no intrinsic value whatsoever, but is only valuable insofar as we find it pleasing?

  2. I think your slight of pornography takes away from your main point. To argue that paying someone to have sex, have it recorded, and then watch it for sexual gratification is wrong but paying someone to make music for your enjoyment is right based on intrinsic value is inaccurate. From an academic standpoint they are the same thing however based on beliefs pornography is wrong while making music is a good thing.

    1. The problem lies in what the purpose of music is versus what the purpose of sex is. The purpose of sex is procreation. Of course, sex is enjoyable, but it's not the purpose of sex. Just like eating is enjoyable but the purpose of eating is not enjoyment but to nourish the body, the purpose of sex is not enjoyment but to procreate. So to use sex in a way that frustrates the purpose of procreation is wrong. Sex is meant only to be experienced by two people because it takes two people to reproduce. Two people literally "become one" because reproduction is the only bodily system that requires two people to properly function. So pornography is wrong because 1) the people having sex are not having sex to facilitate its procreative function, as well as 2) You are using the people in the video as merely a means to an end; i.e. sexual gratification. It is wrong to treat people as merely a means to an end because that dehumanizes them. It makes them no more than an object for you to fulfill some desire.

      Music is different. Music is an art form, meant to focus people on what is good and beautiful. Music, as an art form, is meant to be shared and experienced by many people all at once. So when I perform music for a crowd, the crowd is not treating me as merely a means to an end. The purpose of music is not being frustrated by coming to listen to me perform; we are facilitating the purpose of music by having practiced the music and performing it for the crowd.