Instrumental and intrinsic value are technical labels for two poles of
an ancient dichotomy. People seem to reason differently about what
they ought to do, seeking legitimate ends, and what they are able to
do, seeking efficient means. When reasoning about ends, they apply the
criterion intrinsic value. It identifies legitimate rules of behavior,
such as the Ten Commandments. When reasoning about means they apply
the criterion instrumental value. It identifies efficient tools, such
as scientific and technological theories. Few question the existence
of these two criteria, but their relative authority is in constant
This article explains the meaning of and disputes about these two
criteria for judging means and ends. Evidence is drawn from the work
of four scholars.
The word "value" is both a verb and a noun, each having multiple
meanings. But its root meaning always involves normative qualities
such as goodness, worth, truth, justice. The word reports either the
rational act of judging or individual results of judging the presence
of such qualities.;:3:37–44
Judgments of normative qualities are commonly believed to be
rationally authorized by two distinct criteria applied to two distinct
realities, one static, the other dynamic. People reason about 1) what
they ought to do—intrinsically legitimate ends—and 2) how they
ought to do—conditionally efficient means. Ends are rules for
action, judged unconditionally legitimate in themselves. Means are
constantly evolving tools, designed to work efficiently in various
Following the usage of German sociologist
Social action, like all action, may be [judged] ...: 1) instrumentally rational (zweckrational), that is, determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment of other human beings; these expectations are used as "conditions" or "means" for the attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued and calculated ends' 2) value-rational (wertrational), that is, determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success;...,:24–5
... the distinction between what is good "in itself" and what is good "as a means."
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.
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.:14, 29, 34
... the more the value to which action is oriented is elevated to the status of an absolute [intrinsic] value, the more "irrational" in this [instrumental] sense the corresponding action is. For the more unconditionally the actor devotes himself to this value for its own sake, ... the less he is influenced by considerations of the consequences of his action.:26, 399–400
Weber accepted the reality of two criteria, but Dewey did not. In The Quest for Certainty, he explained the origin of this false dichotomy.
Man who lives in a world of hazards ... has sought to attain [security] in two ways. One of them began with an attempt to propitiate the [intrinsic] powers which environ him and determine his destiny. It expressed itself in supplication, sacrifice, ceremonial rite and magical cult .... The other course is to invent [instrumental] arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account;...:3
... for over two thousand years, the ... most influential and authoritatively orthodox tradition ... has been devoted to the problem of a purely cognitive certification (perhaps by revelation, perhaps by intuition, perhaps by reason) of the antecedent immutable reality of truth, beauty, and goodness. .... The crisis in contemporary culture, the confusions and conflicts in it, arise from a division of authority. Scientific [instrumental] inquiry seems to tell one thing, and traditional beliefs [intrinsic valuations] about ends and ideals that have authority over conduct tell us something quite different. .... As long as the notion persists that knowledge is a disclosure of [intrinsic] reality ... prior to and independent of knowing, and that knowing is independent of a purpose to control the quality of experienced objects, the failure of natural science to disclose significant values [valuations] in its objects will come as a shock.:43–4
Finding no evidence of "antecedent immutable reality of truth, beauty, and goodness...," Dewey argued that both efficient and legitimate qualities are discovered in the continuity of human experience, which is never static or unconditional.
Dewey's ethics replaces the goal of identifying an ultimate end or supreme principle that can serve as a criterion of ethical evaluation with the goal of identifying a method for improving our value judgments. Dewey argued that ethical inquiry is of a piece with empirical inquiry more generally. .... This pragmatic approach requires that we locate the conditions of warrant for our value judgments in human conduct itself, not in any a priori fixed reference point outside of conduct, such as in God's commands, Platonic Forms, pure reason, or "nature," considered as giving humans a fixed telos [intrinsic end].;:114, 172–3; 197
Philosophers label a "fixed reference point outside of conduct' a
natural kind, and presume it to have eternal existence knowable in
itself without being experienced. Natural kinds are "mind-independent"
and "theory-independent" valuations.
Dewey granted the existence of "reality" outside of experience, but
denied the possibility of knowing it or its qualities apart from human
ends and actions.:122, 196 Reality does not consist of static
natural kinds with intrinsic qualities, but rather of ceaseless
activity. Humans may intuit static kinds and qualities, but such
private experience cannot warrant inferences or valuations about
mind-independent reality. Reports or maps of any sort are never
equivalent to that which is mapped. They are fragmentary perceptions
of unceasing processes. 
Belief in static reports of private intuitions that ignore existing
conditions was labeled by Dewey "immediate knowledge,;:109 and
by Weber as grounds for "value-rational" action. Other scholars used
Value judgments have the form: if one acted in a particular way (or valued this object), then certain consequences would ensue, which would be valued. The difference between an apparent and a real good [means or end], between an unreflectively and a reflectively valued good, is captured by its value [valuation of goodness] not just as immediately experienced in isolation, but in view of its wider consequences and how they are valued. .... So viewed, value judgments are tools for discovering how to live a better life, just as scientific hypotheses are tools for uncovering new information about the world.
In brief, Dewey rejected the traditional belief that judging things
good-in-themselves, apart from existing means-end relations, can be
rational. The sole rational criterion is instrumental value. Each
successful valuation is conditional but, cumulatively, all are
developmental solutions of problems. Cumulative instrumental success
provides a legitimate moral compass. Competent instrumental valuations
treat the "function of consequences as necessary tests of the validity
of propositions, provided these consequences are operationally
instituted and are such as to resolve the specific problems evoking
John Fagg Foster (1907-1985)
Economist John Fagg Foster refined John Dewey's analysis of the
irrationality of intrinsic value and the potential of instrumental
value. He clarified differences between Dewey's instrumental criterion
and the most widely endorsed instrumental alternative, the utility or
At least since Aristotle, scholars have reasoned that individual wants
are intrinsic traits of human nature, the satisfaction of which is a
legitimate end. This belief is embodied in the criterion of utility,
which holds that individuals--and groups of individuals in
societies--legitimately try to maximize the sum of their want
Utilitarians hold that individual wants cannot be rationally
justified. They are intrinsically worthy mental valuations and cannot
be judged instrumentally. This belief supports philosophers who hold
that facts--"what is"--can serve as instrumental means for achieving
wants, but cannot authorize ends--"what ought to be." This fact-value
distinction creates what philosophers label the is-ought problem:
wants are intrinsically fact-free, good in themselves, while efficient
tools are valuation-free, usable for good or bad ends.:60 In
modern North American culture, this utilitarian belief supports the
[T]he things people want are a function of their social experience, and that is carried on through structural institutions that specify their activities and attitudes. Thus the pattern of people's wants takes visible form partly as a result of the pattern of the institutional structure through which they participate in the economic process. As we have seen, to say that an economic problem exists is to say that part of the particular patterns of human relationships has ceased or failed to provide the effective participation of its members. In so saying, we are necessarily in the position of asserting that the instrumental efficiency of the economic process is the criterion of judgment in terms of which, and only in terms of which, we may resolve economic problems.
Since wants are shaped by social conditions, they must be judged
instrumentally. Wants arise in problematic situations when habitual
patterns of behavior fail to maintain instrumental
correlations.:27 Foster supported with homely examples his thesis
that problematic situations--"what is"--contain the means for judging
rationally "what ought to be."
Consider infants who have mastered the skill of crawling--"what is."
They observe people walking, and spontaneously recognize that walking
is more efficient than crawling--an instrumental valuation of a
desirable end. They engage in learning to walk by repeatedly moving
and balancing and judging the efficiency with which these means
advance toward their instrumental goal. When they master the new
skill, they experience great satisfaction, but satisfaction is never
Consider the global problem of unemployment. Since the industrial
revolution began, large groups of people have been deprived of
traditional means of participation in two social functions--productive
activity and income security--and of the dignity maintained by that
participation. Conditions that exclude participation--"what is"--must
be replaced by new patterns of inclusion--"what ought to be."
At the end of World War II, the United States faced the threat of
massive unemployment caused by demobilization. Labor markets--the
traditional utilitarian solution to unemployment--appeared unlikely to
avoid that threat. The solution was to prescribe a new pattern of
correlated behavior to maintain participation: the G.I. Bill, which
generously subsidized education and livelihood for veterans and
fostered a massive burst of innovation and economic expansion. The
instrumental moral compass of participation worked.; Intrinsic
value as either rule or reality was ignored.
Foster labeled successful applications of instrumental value
"instrumental efficiency." But he realized that efficiency by itself
contaminates reasoning by turning a dynamic process--"what ought to
be"--into a static valuation--"what is." Turning a
conditionally-successful tool into a static end-in-itself is
To guard against this contamination of instrumental value, Foster
revised his label for that criterion to the ungainly expression
"developmental continuity." This label stresses the condition that a
successful operation must not lead down a dead-end street. The same
point is made by the currently popular concern for sustainability--a
synonym for instrumental value.
Dewey's and Foster's arguments that instrumental value is the proper
criterion for judging both means and ends continue to be ignored
rather than refuted. Scholars continue to accept the necessity of
knowing intrinsic value--"what ought to be"--independently of
transient conditions--"what is"--appropriate for instrumental value.
Nothing belongs any longer to the realm of the gods or the supernatural. The individual who lives in the technical milieu knows very well that there is nothing spiritual anywhere. But man cannot live without the [intrinsic] sacred. He therefore transfers his sense of the sacred to the very thing which has destroyed its former object: to technique itself.:143
La technique was published in English in 1964 with the title The Technological Society, and quickly entered ongoing disputes in the United States over the responsibility of instrumental value for destructive social consequences. The translator of Technological Society summarized Ellul's thesis:
Technological Society is a description of the way in which an autonomous [instrumental] technology is in process of taking over the traditional values [intrinsic valuations] of every society without exception, subverting and suppressing those values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all non technological difference and variety is mere appearance.:v-vi, x
Ellul opened The Technological Society by defining instrumental efficiency as no longer a conditional criterion. It has become autonomous and absolute.
The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.:xxxvi
He accused instrumental judgment of destroying intrinsic meanings of human life. "Think of our dehumanized factories, our unsatisfied senses, our working women, our estrangement from nature. Life in such an environment has no meaning.:4–5 Weber had labeled the discrediting of intrinsic valuations "disenchantment;" Ellul came to label it "terrorism.":384, 19 He dated its domination to the 1800s, when centuries-old handicraft techniques were massively eliminated by inhume industry.
When, in the 19th century, society began to elaborate an exclusively rational technique which acknowledged only considerations of efficiency, it was felt that not only the traditions but the deepest instincts of humankind had been violated.:73
Culture is necessarily humanistic or it does not exist at all. .... [I]t answers questions about the meaning of life, the possibility of reunion with ultimate being, the attempt to overcome human finitude, and all other questions that they have to ask and handle. But technique cannot deal with such things. .... Culture exists only if it raises the question of meaning and values [valuations]. .... Technique is not at all concerned about the meaning of life, and it rejects any relation to values [intrinsic valuations].:147–8
Ellul's core accusation was that instrumental efficiency had become absolute--a good-in-itself.:83 It wraps societies in a new technological milieu with six intrinsically inhuman characteristics:
a) It is artificial; b) it is autonomous with respect to values [valuations], ideas, and the state; c) It is ... self-determinative independently of all human intervention; d) It grows according to a process which is causal but not directed to ends; e) It is formed by an accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends; f) All its parts are mutually implicated to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them or to settle any technical problems in isolation.:22
Tiles and Oberdiek found Ellul's characterization of instrumental efficiency inaccurate.:22–31 They criticized him for anthropomorphizing and demonizing instrumental value. They countered by examining the moral reasoning of scientists whose work led to nuclear weapons. Those scientists demonstrated the capacity of instrumental judgments to provide them with a moral compass to judge nuclear technology with conscience and responsibility, with no need for intrinsic rules. Tiles's and Oberdiek's conclusion coincides with that of Dewey and Foster: instrumental value, when competently applied, is self-correcting and provides humans with a developmental moral compass.
For although we have defended general principles of the moral responsibilities of professional people, it would be foolish and wrongheaded to suggest codified [intrinsic] rules. It would be foolish because concrete cases are more complex and nuanced than any code could capture; it would be wrongheaded because it would suggest that our sense of moral responsibility can be fully captured by a code.:193
In fact, as we have seen in many instances, technology simply allows us to go on doing stupid things in clever ways. The questions that technology cannot solve, although it will always frame and condition the answers, are "What should we be trying to do? What kind of lives should we, as human beings, be seeking to live? And can this kind of life be pursued without exploiting others? But until we can at least propose [instrumental] answers to those questions we cannot really begin to do sensible things in the clever ways that technology might permit.:197
Anjan Chakravartty ( ) See also: Selective realism Philosopher Anjan Chakravartty came indirectly to question the autonomous authority of instrumental value. He viewed it as a foil for the currently dominant philosophical school labeled "scientific realism," with which he identifies. In 2007, he published a work defending the ultimate authority of intrinsic valuations to which realists are committed. He linked the pragmatic instrumental criterion to discredited anti-realist schools known as logical positivism and instrumentalism Chakravartty began his study with rough characterizations of realist and anti-realist valuations of theories. Anti-realists believe "that theories are merely instruments for predicting observable phenomena or systematizing observation reports." They assert that theories can never report or prescribe truth or reality "in itself." By contrast, scientific realists believe that theories can "correctly describe both observable and unobservable parts of the world.":xi, 10 Correct theories--"what ought to be" as the end of reasoning--are more than tools. They are mappings of properties of an unobservable and unconditional territory--"what is" as reality in itself.:xiii, 33, 149 Chakravartty committed fellow realists to three metaphysical valuations or intrinsic kinds of immediate knowledge. Competent realists affirm that natural kinds 1) exist in a mind-independent territory possessing 2) meaningful and 3) mappable intrinsic properties.
Ontologically, scientific realism is committed to the existence of a mind-independent world or reality. A realist semantics implies that the theoretical claims [valuations] about this reality have truth values, and should be consrued literally ... Finally, the epistemological commitment is to the idea that these theoretical claims give us knowledge of the world. That is, predictively successful (mature, non-ad hoc) theories, taken literally as describing the nature of a mind-independent reality are (approximately) true.:9
He labeled these intrinsic valuations semirealist, meaning they are currently the most accurate theoretical descriptions of mind-independent natural kinds. He found these carefully qualified statements necessary to replace earlier descriptions discredited by advancing instrumental valuations. Weber had labeled progressive discrediting of intrinsic valuations "disenchantment"; Ellul had labeled the destruction of intrinsic valuations "terrorism." Chakravartty defended intrinsic value against these errors by redefining traditional natural kinds to maintain their status as evidence for believing in unobservable realities. He put forward the thesis of semirealism, according to which we must treat well-tested theories as good maps of natural kinds because their success means they conform to mind-independent, unconditional reality.
Scientific theories describe causal properties, concrete structures, and particulars such as objects, events, and processes. Semirealism maintains that under certain conditions it is reasonable for realists to believe that the best of these descriptions tell us not merely about things that can be experienced [judged by instrumental value] with the unaided senses, but also about some of the unobservable things underlying them.:151
Causal properties are the fulcrum of semirealism. Their [mind-independent] relations compose the concrete structures that are the primary subject matters of a tenable scientific realism. They regularly cohere to form interesting units, and these groupings make up the particulars investigated by the sciences and described by scientific theories.:119
Chakravartty argued that these semirealist valuations authorize scientific theorizing about pragmatic kinds as scientists search for natural kinds. The fact that theoretical kinds are frequently replaced does not mean that mind-independent reality is changing, but simply that theoretical maps are approximating unconditional reality.
The primary motivation for thinking that there are such things as natural kinds is the idea that carving nature according to its own divisions yields groups of objects that are capable of supporting successful inductive generalizations and prediction. So the story goes, one's recognition of natural categories facilitates these practices, and thus furnishes an excellent explanation for their success.:151
The moral here is that however realists choose to construct particulars out of instances of properties, they do so on the basis of a belief in the [mind-independent] existence of those properties. That is the bedrock of realism. Property instances lend themselves to different forms of packaging [instrumental valuations], but as a feature of scientific description, this does not compromise realism with respect to the relevant [conditional] packages.:81
In sum, Chakravartty argued that changing instrumental valuations are warranted as they approximate unchanging intrinsic valuations. Scholars continue to perfect their understanding of applications of intrinsic value, as they deny the developmental continuity of applications of instrumental value.
Abstraction is a process in which only some of the potentially many relevant factors present in [unobservable] reality are represented [mapped] in a model or description with some aspect of the world, such as the nature or behavior of a specific object or press. ... Pragmatic constraints such as these play a role in shaping how scientific investigations are conducted, and together which and how many potentially relevant factors [intrinsic kinds] are incorporated into models and descriptions during the process of abstraction. The role of pragmatic constraints, however, does not undermine the idea that putative representations of factors composing abstract models can be thought to have counterparts in the [mind-independent] world.:191
As Chakravartty's arguments demonstrate, the ancient dichotomy between reasoning about efficient means and legitimate ends shows no sign of being eliminated. See also
Fact-value distinction Instrumentalism Instrumental and value rationality Instrumental and value-rational action Natural kind Value (ethics) Value theory
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