Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

A Basic Distinction in Moral Philosophy

Father teaching daughter counting allowance money in living room
Money is considered an instrumental value. Hero Images/Getty Images

The distinction between intrinsic value and instrumental value is one of the most fundamental and important in moral theory. Fortunately, it is not difficult to grasp. You value many things: beauty, sunshine, music, money, truth, justice, etc. To value something is to have a positive attitude towards it, to prefer its existence or occurrence over its non-existence or non-occurrence. But you can value it as an end, as a means to some end, or perhaps as both at the same time.

Instrumental Value

You value most things instrumentally, that is, as a means to some end. Usually, this is obvious. For instance, you value a washing machine that works, but purely for its useful function. If there was a very cheap cleaning service next door that picked up and dropped off your laundry, you might use it and sell your washing machine.

One thing nearly everyone values to some extent is money. But it is usually valued purely as a means to an end. It provides security, and it can be used to purchase things you want. Detached from its purchasing power, it is just a pile of printed paper or scrap metal. Money has instrumental value only.

Intrinsic Value

Strictly speaking, there are two notions of intrinsic value. Something can be said to have intrinsic value if it is either:

  • Valuable in itself 
  • Valued by someone for its own sake

The difference is subtle but important. If something has intrinsic value in the first sense, this means that the universe is somehow a better place for that thing existing or occurring. What kind of things might be intrinsically valuable in this sense?

Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill claim that pleasure and happiness are. A universe in which a single sentient being is experiencing pleasure is better than one in which there are no sentient beings. It is a more valuable place.

Immanuel Kant holds that genuinely moral actions are intrinsically valuable. So he would say that a universe in which rational beings perform good actions from a sense of duty is an inherently better place than a universe in which this doesn’t happen. The Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore holds that a world containing natural beauty is more valuable than a world without beauty, even if there is no one there to experience it.

This first notion of intrinsic value is controversial. Many philosophers would say that it makes no sense to talk about things being valuable in themselves unless they are actually valued by someone. Even pleasure or happiness are only intrinsically valuable because they are experienced by someone.

Focusing on the second sense of intrinsic value, the question then arises: what do people value for its own sake? The most obvious candidates are pleasure and happiness. Many other things that we value—wealth, health, beauty, friends, education, employment, houses, cars, washing machines, and so on­—we seem to desire only because we think they will give us pleasure or make us happy. About all these other things, it makes sense to ask why we want them. But as both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill point out, it doesn’t make much sense to ask why a person wants to be happy.

Yet most people do not only value their own happiness. They also value that of other people and are sometimes willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of someone else’s. People also sacrifice themselves or their happiness for other things, such as religion, their country, justice, knowledge, truth, or art. Mill claims that we only value these things because they are linked to happiness, but that isn’t obvious.