Instrumental and intrinsic value

In moral philosophy, instrumental and intrinsic value are the distinction between what is a means to an end and what is as an end in itself.[1] Things are deemed to have instrumental value if they help one achieve a particular end; intrinsic values, by contrast, are understood to be desirable in and of themselves. A tool or appliance, such as a hammer or washing machine, has instrumental value because it helps you pound in a nail or cleans your clothes. Happiness and pleasure are typically considered to have intrinsic value insofar as asking why someone would want them makes little sense: they are desirable for their own sake irrespective of their possible instrumental value. The classic names instrumental and intrinsic were coined by sociologist Max Weber, who spent years studying good meanings people assigned to their actions and beliefs.

The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory provide three modern definitions of intrinsic and instrumental value:

  1. They are "the distinction between what is good 'in itself' and what is good 'as a means'."[1]:14
  2. "The concept of intrinsic value has been glossed variously as what is valuable for its own sake, in itself, on its own, in its own right, as an end, or as such. By contrast, extrinsic value has been characterized mainly as what is valuable as a means, or for something else's sake."[1]:29
  3. "Among nonfinal values, instrumental value—intuitively, the value attaching a means to what is finally valuable—stands out as a bona fide example of what is not valuable for its own sake."[1]:34

When people judge efficient means and legitimate ends at the same time, both can be considered as good. However, when ends are judged separately from means, it may result in a conflict: what works may not be right; what is right may not work. Separating the criteria contaminates reasoning about the good. Philosopher John Dewey argued that separating criteria for good ends from those for good means necessarily contaminates recognition of efficient and legitimate patterns of behavior. Economist J. Fagg Foster explained why only instrumental value is capable of correlating good ends with good means. Philosopher Jacques Ellul argued that instrumental value has become completely contaminated by inhuman technological consequences, and must be subordinated to intrinsic supernatural value. Philosopher Anjan Chakravartty argued that instrumental value is only legitimate when it produces good scientific theories compatible with the intrinsic truth of mind-independent reality.

The word value is ambiguous in that it is both a verb and a noun, as well as denoting both a criterion of judgment itself and the result of applying a criterion.[2][3]:37–44 To reduce ambiguity, throughout this article the noun value names a criterion of judgment, as opposed to valuation which is an object that is judged valuable. The plural values identifies collections of valuations, without identifying the criterion applied.