Intrinsic Goods II

In the previous post I rehearsed some standard complaints agains the idea that happiness and the avoidance of pain are (perhaps the only) intrinsic goods.  I did this mainly to raise the issue I’m trying to work through, which we can get at by way of two questions: what would make something an intrinsic good? and, how do we recognize such goods?  While I’m usually not one to run together my metaphysical and epistemological question, in this case I think we have to, at least on my current way of trying to sort this out.

I want to start with some ideas I’ve gleamed from reading some works of so called “New Natural Law Theory.”  Consider first the idea a “pre-moral good”, and the putative role of these in practical reason.  As I understand it, the basic idea here is the practical reason has an analog to the principle of non-contradiction, and it is that good is to be pursued and evil avoided.  What this is supposed to mean is something like the following.  Theoretical reasoning presupposes that impossibility of a proposition being both true and false–to allow, in other words, contradictions into your reasoning necessarily entails a failure of reasoning.  Practical reason is oriented towards action, but it is still reasoning, and so must conform to a similar kind of constraint.  In this case the constraint is this: in order to constitute reasoned action, our behavior must be in the direction of ends which are taken to be reasons for acting.  The difference, for example, between behavior which is simply caused (say my arm being raised as a result of a muscle spasm) and a reasoned act (my arm being raised so that I can ask a question at a talk) is that the latter is chosen as a means towards an end, and that end is seen as in itself constituting the reason for the action.  Practical reason assumes, then, that there are things in our lives and experiences–goods–that constitute reasons for acting, and this is what is captured in the precept “good is to be pursued.”

To say that these goods can be intrinsic is to say that some ends we find worthy of pursuit are not such because they serve further ends (though they may).  Instead they are simply those things that in themselves are worthy of pursuit, and as such constitute the goods that moral constraints serve–this is the sense in which they are also pre-moral goods.  As intrinsic goods, these are said to be underivable from anything else, and also–in a highly qualified sense–they are self-evident.  Properly situated, we can just see that these things give us reason to act.

The next question, which I’ll take up in detail in a future post, is this: why would there be such goods?  That is, I want consider possible accounts of how it could be with us that we can simply recognize some things as intrinsically worthy of pursuit.  For now I’ll just list some possible answers.  First, and this is the traditional answer of NLT, is human nature.  That is, one possibility is that given the kinds of beings we are, some things are rightfully recognized (i.e. are self evidently recognized as good by right thinking people) as goods.  A long standing issue for such an approach is simply whether we can even make sense of such idea without assuming a purposeful universe of some sort.  Another way of putting this would be to ask whether so construed NLT requires–or perhaps entails–theism of some sort.  But here’s another thought.  Perhaps the category of intrinsic goods should be considered an epistemological category, rather than an ontological or metaphysical one.  That is, perhaps we can say that, the perspective of the universe aside, humans in fact come to see some things as intrinsic goods, and that’s all we need.  Here we can recognize two possible directions we could take.  One would be in the direction of relativism–intrinsic goods are no more than those things that I’ve been raised to recognize as such.  (As aside it might be noted that this is essentially what a certain kind of critic of NLT would accuse it of confusing with with a realist moral theory).  In the limit this would collapse into a pure subjectivism, and the idea of intrinsic goods would lose interest.  But here’s another possibility, the one I’d like to pursue.  Perhaps we can a clue from aesthetic values understood as ways in which humans as a matter of shared psychology respond to objectively real properties of things, and in so doing see (“find”?) things like beauty and meaning.  Perhaps.


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