Intrinsic Goods

I heard a talk recently, which I didn’t much like.  It was a consequentialist critique, or was meant to be, of a prominent moral philosopher whose work I don’t know very well, and for all I know deserves to be dismissed.  The arguments offered here, though, were meant to indict deontology in general, and in that respect were mostly just silly.  Worse, the presentation was abysmal, or at least I thought so, though that is largely because– being a bit old fashioned I suppose–I expect philosophers of some note to adhere to some minimal standards of professionalism.

It wasn’t a total loss however.  At the beginning the speaker acknowledged a commitment to some “intrinsic goods”, and as it happens I’ve been thinking a bit about this idea recently.  As we would expect from a utilitarian, the speaker suggested that happiness and the avoidance of pain are two such intrinsic goods, maybe the only two, a claim that has always struck me (like many) as pretty obviously wrong on both counts.  Not surprisingly I’ve never been much attracted to utilitarianism.  It is worth rehearsing, however, just what I think is wrong with this idea, because it ties into what I’m coming to think is a pretty powerful way to think about intrinsic goods coming out of the so-call “New Natural Law” theorists.

The obvious objection to the claim that happiness is intrinsically good is that we can find happiness (or pleasure) in evil things.  Conversely, painful experiences can be morally desirable.  There are two standard consequentialist responses.  One is, of course, to say that “evil” pleasures actually cause more pain than pleasure all things considered, and that morally good pain always involves a lessening of pain, all things considered.  The second move, which is Mill’s, is to distinguish pleasures by type, and to argue that forgoing lower pleasure for the chance of higher pleasures is morally preferable on utilitarian grounds.

Both these moves seem to me to suffer from revealing problems.  The first depends on the implausible supposition that we can’t actually find greater pleasure in patently evil behaviors, that somehow the world will always guarantee that those things we would  find insufferable instances of cruelty, injustice, unfairness, etc. will never have a higher utility.  (I take it this is the point Nietzsche made against utilitarians (among others) so long ago when he accused them of thinking they could get rid of Christian ethics without anything actually changing.)  The second suffers from having to suppose–again in the face of obvious facts–that people’s preferences are for higher pleasures in actual choice situations.  Both moves depend, moreover, on the exceedingly unlikely supposition that we can meaningfully compare and rank different kinds of pleasures–there is an assumption that the various manifestations of the supposedly intrinsic good of happiness are commensurable.

What all this suggests, is that these standard moves depend for what ever plausibility they have on some unspoken commitments, and I think what they are committed to is precisely the reality of intrinsic goods that go well beyond pleasure and pain.  I think these unacknowledged goods also provide the standards by which we in fact judge different pleasures and pains.  Specifically, we object to someone finding pleasure in ways that require the violation of more basic goods (like life).  We place the pursuit of knowledge, for example, above that pursuit of self-indulgent pleasures precisely because we recognize knowledge as an intrinsic good and not hedonistic pleasures. Being unwilling to acknowledge such common place commitments, the utilitarian simply makes up stories to get her judgments to come out right, but it’s the commitments to these kinds of intrinsic goods that are really driving the show all along.

More on this in a future post.

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