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Intrinsic Value and Investment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009


In this paper I critically evaluate Ronald Dworkin's attempt in Life's Dominion to understand sacred value as a form of intrinsic value which is grounded in investment. I argue that there are two problems with Dworkin's conception of intrinsic value. First, it does not allow him to distinguish, as he must, between incremental and sacred values. Secondly, sacred value qua intrinsic value is not the kind of value which can be grounded in investment. I argue that both of these problems are an implication of a realist conception of intrinsic value. Nevertheless, investment does seem to play a role in our judgements about intrinsic value and in light of this I aim to develop an alternative account of intrinsic value whichcan make sense of this.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1999

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1 However, for a critical discussion of this aspect of Dworkin see Barclay, Linda, ‘Rights, Intrinsic Values and the Politics of Abortion’, Utilitas, xi (1999)Google Scholar.

2 Dworkin, Ronald, Life's Dominion, New York, 1993, p. 71Google Scholar. Hereafter page references are given in the text.

3 It is worth noting here that the importance of distinguishing sacred value from incremental value is that it allows one to avoid the problem of being morally required to bring more human beings, works of art, or species into existence. If human life were incrementally valuable, then not only would abortion be problematic but so would contraception and deliberate non-conception. It is, therefore, necessary that Dworkin distinguish sacred value and incremental value if he is to avoid this potential problem.

4 For instance, consider the following view of the sacred from Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Trask, Willard R., New York, 1959, p. 116Google Scholar: ‘For religious man, nature is never only “natural”; it is always fraught with a religious value. This is easy to understand, for the cosmos is a divine creation; coming from the hands of the gods, the world is impregnated with sacredness. It is not simply a sacrality communicated by the gods, as is the case, for example, with a place or an object consecrated by the divine presence. The gods did more; they manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena’ (original emphasis).

5 Consider the following passage from Eliade, p. 10: ‘The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from “natural” realities. It is true that language naively expresses the tremendum, or the majestas, or the mysterium fascinans by terms borrowed from the world of nature or from man's secular mental life. But we know that this analogical terminology is due precisely to human inability to express the ganz andere; all that goes beyond man's natural experience, language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience’ (original emphasis).

6 However, Dworkin is not the first to suggest such an account. The broad outline of the type of account Dworkin offers is already present in the work of Ashby, Eric, ‘The Search for an Environmental Ethic’, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. i, ed. McMurrin, Sterling M., Salt Lake City, 1980Google Scholar. Ashby writes: ‘What I find myself groping toward is an ethic which regards as sacred (in a secular sense of that word) not the products, but the creative process of evolution. It would, according to such an ethic, be vandalism, and therefore immoral, to destroy unnecessarily something which we cannot create and which is the expression (and not the end-product) of millennia of evolution; something whose very survival endows it with the options of further evolution’ (28). And, also: ‘One practicable rule of thumb which might be useful would be to apply to natural objects criteria similar to those we apply to the treatment of objects created by man. To permit a river to be damaged by pollution would be the same kind of negligence as to permit a Renaissance mural to fall into disrepair’ (p. 29).

A similar idea can also be found in Sidgwick when he attempts to explain how it is that even utilitarians can accommodate the ‘awe’ we feel for common sense morality. Sidgwick writes: [H]e [i.e., the utilitarian] will naturally contemplate it [i.e., the dictates of common sense morality] with reverence and wonder, as a marvellous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth, showing in many parts the same fine adaptation of means to complex exigencies as the most elaborate structures of physical organisms exhibit: he will handle it with respectful delicacy as a mechanism, constructed of the fluid element of opinions and dispositions, by the indispensable aid of which the actual quantum of human happiness is continually being produced.' Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., Indianapolis, 1981 (1907), pp. 475 fGoogle Scholar.

7 There are, however, a few problems in saying just what the ‘inviolability’ of the sacred amounts to, since it cannot simply mean that the value in question can never be sacrificed or traded off (Dworkin admits as much in formulating his ‘metric of dis-respect’) and, furthermore, since inviolability is often invoked in explicating other distinct moral concepts such as rights.

8 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica, Cambridge, 1993 (1903), p. 236Google Scholar.

9 There are two reasons for this. First, it is not at all clear that it ispossible to imagine and properly consider the value of anything in absolute isolation. And secondly, even if we could do so it seems distinctly possible that virtually nothing would possess this kind of value.

10 I borrow this way of putting Moore's point from Korsgaard. See Korsgaard, Christine, ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge, 1996CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 To those inclined to agree with Moore that intrinsic value is solely dependent upon a thing's intrinsic properties this proposal may sound strange – perhaps like it is giving up on the idea of intrinsic value. However, Shelly Kagan offers a compelling argument that it is possible to separate intrinsic value from a thing's intrinsic properties such that relational properties (even instrumental properties) can be the basis of a thing's intrinsic value. See Kagan, , ‘Rethinking Intrinsic Value’, Journal of Ethics, ii (1998), 277CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Moore, G. E., ‘The Conception of Intrinsic Value’, Philosophical Studies, London, 1922, p. 260Google Scholar.

13 Kagan, however, doubts that the term ‘intrinsic value’ is used much in ordinary conversation, but he does think the concept is plainly implicit in our thinking about value. And this would be enough to make it incumbent upon any value theorist to account for it. See Kagan, 279.

14 The connection between intrinsic value and instrumental value, however, is a complicated one. Korsgaard, for instance, considers this distinction to be a ‘false contrast’ and instead argues that the relevant distinctions are the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction and the instrumental/final distinction. She claims that ‘[i]f intrinsic is taken to be the opposite of instrumental, then it is under the influence of a theory: a theory according to which the two distinctions in goodness are the same, or amount to the same thing’ (Korsgaard, p. 250). She is surely right about that, but my point is that it is also true that there will be only two separate distinctions under the influence of a theory. Kagan, for quite different reasons, claims that ‘the familiar contrast between intrinsic value and instrumental value is mistaken, or at least dangerously misleading’ (Kagan, 281). The reason, according to Kagan, is that it is possible for instrumental properties to be the sole basis of a thing's intrinsic value such that the distinction collapses.

15 By ‘objectivist’ I mean a value theory which makes room forthe possibility of right and wrong answers to questions of value.

16 I do not intend this list to be definitive or exhaustive of the objectivist possibilities.

17 Even if I am wrong about this the rest of this paper is by no means vitiated. Rather the discussion up until now and what follows would constitute a clarification and development of Dworkin's view, and would still constitute an argument against realist theories of intrinsic value.

18 If Dworkin cannot adequately address this problem and thereby sustain his conception of sacred value, then his account will have unacceptable implications about contraception and deliberate non-conception. See n. 3.

19 I might also briefly mention still two other problems with this proposal. First, there is the problem of whose desires should count if there is disagreement – otherwise, whether a particular thing is a sacred or incremental value will itself be relative to what a particular individual happens to want. Secondly, it threatens to collapse the distinction (such that all intrinsic values are sacred), since it seems there might be no particular thing, in fact, which we always want more of.

20 Note that this passage is ambiguous between the weak and strong interpretations of investment.

21 Consider, for instance, objections such as Mackie's argument from queerness. The task of identifying the intrinsic properties that give rise to intrinsic value is precisely the kind of ontological problem that Mackie is pointing to in his argument from queerness. Thus, it should come as no wonder that Mackie's argument is directed at conceptions of value such as Moore's. See Mackie, , Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London, 1977, esp. ch. 1Google Scholar.

22 See Kant, , Lectures on Ethics, trans. Infield, Louis, Gloucester, MA, 1978, pp. 239–41Google Scholar. Though Kant phrased the problem in terms of duties we might recast it in terms of value: instead of the view that we do not have direct duties to animals and animate objects but only indirect duties which are the offspring of our duties to other people, we can recast this as the view that animals and inanimate objects have not direct or intrinsic value but only an indirect value which is contingent upon our actually valuing them.

23 See, for instance, Regan's, Tom objection that indirect duty views are morally arbitrary in his The Case for Animal Rights, Berkeley, 1983, ch. 5Google Scholar.

24 An account of investment need take no position on whether there are objective values – that is a separate matter.

25 The most complete forms of investment will involve acting on one'splan, but nevertheless some sense can be given to the idea that one is investing simply by forming an end or forming a plan to realize that end in cases where this involves significant deliberation.

26 The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn., ed. Simpson, J. A. and Weiner, E. S. C., Oxford, 1989, vol. viii, p. 46Google Scholar.

27 The process becomes part of the agent's end.

28 Note that I do not intend this account of intrinsic goods to be a complete account of intrinsic values. I do not think that the things which we classify as intrinsic values all fall neatly under a single account. Some things which we judge to have intrinsic value have it independently of human investment and these necessitate still other accounts of intrinsic value.

29 Though this may sound extreme it actually is quite common and understandable: for the agent the loss amounts to a loss of her past as this is precisely what the object embodies.

30 I would like to thank Darlei Dall'Agnol and Linda Barclay for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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