Philosophy 302: Ethics
Intrinsic and Instrumental Good
Abstract: A brief consideration of
intrinsic and instrumental good leads to a important conclusion.
Only states of consciousness can be intrinsically good.
I. The idea of the good can only arise in a world where
there are beings whose interests are furthered or threatened by events (or
needs, desires, or interests).
- Consider these possible worlds:
- An uninhabited world: it doesn't really matter whether
such a world is beautiful or ugly; in such a world, nothing would be any worse
or any better than anything else.
- A world with intelligent but non-feeling beings: no
occurrence would make any difference to beings like this since
they "don't care"; they just calculate. Again, in such a world
the notions of good or evil would be meaningless.
- Compare these possible worlds to the "lack of consciousness" in
Zen Buddhism. What is, is. The ego is an illusion.
II. Intrinsic good is definable in relation to instrumental good.
good: something worthwhile not because it leads to
something else, but for its own sake alone; i.e.,
- An intrinsic good is not a means to something else, as money can be
a means to pleasure.
- You can find out what an intrinsic good is for you by asking a series of
"why" questions until a nonsense answer is reached. Suppose a hiker
is sketching yellow root. Why?, and then? (I.e. is it the beauty of the
drawing itself or is
is a means to a chain of reasons ultimately leading to the
Why did you come to class today? Answer: Coming to class will help me pass
Why do you want to pass the course? Answer: I want to graduate.
Why do you want to graduate? Answer: So that I can have an opportunity to work
at something I enjoy and make a living.
Why do you want to do that? Answer: So that I can be happy?
Why do you want to be happy? Answer: That question makes no sense.
good: something considered as a means to some other good;
i.e., an instrumental good leads to something else that is good.
- One instrumental good might lead to another instrumental
good or it might
lead to an intrinsic good. C.f., the series of why-questions above.
- E.g., many persons believe
Education --> wealth --> success --> happiness.
- Being alive might be a necessary condition for an intrinsic good, but being
alive is not itself an intrinsic good. (Think of a person in great pain on a
respirator). Thus, being alive is not desirable for its own sake.
III. What are some candidates for things that are intrinsically good?
- Going back to the example of possible worlds, we can conclude that only
states of consciousness can be intrinsically good.
- This discovery is a powerful realization--namely, because we feel as though
we have some control over our own states of consciousness. E.g., people
- overcome boredom by seeking variety and change,
- increase attention by focusing on some facet of an experience,
- entertain by exercising curiosity and playfulness,
- repeat or practice activities for mastery and centeredness of self.
- In a sense, we must to a large extent adjust to the world
(i.e., adopt naturalism)
rather than expect the world adjust to us, and being right for the world
requires states of mind.
- A change of awareness of this sort takes active awareness or active
perception--when you find or impose value on events rather that simply expect
something to grab your interest and attention.
- States of mind or states of consciousness which are intrinsically good usually
require a change in our perceptual mind-set.
Consider Spinoza's observation:
With regard to god and evil, these terms indicate nothing positive in things
considered in themselves, nor are they anything else than modes of thought, or notions
which we form the comparison of one thing with another. For one and the same thing
may at the same time be both good and evil or indifferent. Music, for example, is
good to a melancholy person, bad to one in mourning, while to a deaf man it is
neither good nor bad.
- Understanding Spinoza's notion of active awareness is akin to being released