<The following is a portion of Larrys Text, wikification is invited>
The theory of value is, arguably, the most important area of philosophy. The question here is: What sorts of things are good? Or: What does "good" mean? Or: If we had to give the most general, catch-all description of good things, then what would that description be?
First, two important preliminaries. Remember that I said there's an important difference between the words "morally good" as applied to persons and actions, as when we say that Mary's a morally good person and her honesty is good, and "good" in other senses, as when we say that a banana split is good. A banana split is good, but it's not morally good. Well, in fact, "good" has a lot of senses; my dictionary lists twenty different senses of the word. The word "good" is highly ambiguous. In what follows, obviously we're only going to be talking about one, or a limited number, of these senses.
The sense of "good" we're talking about is about the same in meaning as another word, namely, "valuable." So we're talking about what is good in the sense of what is valuable. And when we ask, "What things are good?" we can be understood to mean, "What things are valuable?" But even this is just a little misleading, because we aren't talking about just monetary value. Your health and your happiness are valuable in a broad sense of that word, even though you might be able to place a monetary value on your health or your happiness. Health and happiness are worthwhile or desirable -- those are two more words that mean very roughly what I'm talking about by "good" and "valuable" here. So what is really worthwhile? What is really desirable? That's the big fish we have to fry now.
The second preliminary is where things start getting interesting, in my opinion. I want you to draw a distinction. (Boy, we're always drawing distinctions, aren't we? Well, that's what philosophers do). The distinction is between instrumental and intrinsic goodness. This is a little hard for some people to understand, but I think most of you will be able to get it. Something is instrumentally good if it's good for something else; it is good as a means to getting or having something else that's good. On the other hand, something is intrinsically good if it is good all by itself, valuable in and of itself, worthwhile for its own sake. An intrinsically good thing, even if it doesn't help you get anything else that's good, is still worth having for itself.
Let me give you some plausible examples of both instrumentally and intrinsically good things. First, some instrumental goods: a hammer, or a radio. A hammer is good only because it is literally an instrument that can be used to pound nails: that's what a hammer is good for. If there weren't any nails around, or anything else that you could use a hammer to do, then a hammer would be worthless. It wouldn't be good for anything; so it wouldn't be instrumentally good. A radio is another example of something instrumentally good. The only thing that makes a radio valuable is that you can turn it on and listen to music or talk or news. The radio by itself is worthless; the reason it's a good thing, the reason it's valuable, is that it lets you listen to stuff. So hammers and radios, and just about all the stuff we surround ourselves with at home, are all instrumentally good.
Now here are some plausible examples of intrinsically good things: the pleasure we get from listening to a great piece of music, or understanding philosophy. The kind of music I like is Irish fiddle music. I can listen to that stuff all day long. Now that music isn't good for anything in particular (except maybe for dancing, or learning how to play it). But I just enjoy listening to it and getting great pleasure from it. The pleasure I get is good in itself, valuable all by itself; it's very worthwhile, and would be worthwhile even if it didn't help me in any other way than give me pleasure.
Or take now understanding. I believe, and I believe many people in academics would agree with me, that understanding is good in itself. Even if it isn't good for anything else -- even if the understanding can't be applied in any obvious way, it is better to be enlightened than to be ignorant. In fact, understanding is so important in itself that a lot of people will go to a lot of trouble thinking and arguing and researching, some or much of it unpleasant, just so that they can arrive at a better understanding of a topic or a question. Of course, if you disagree with me and you think that understanding is never good in itself, but only good for what you can do with the understanding, then you won't like too many "pure" subjects; you'll tend to like the "applied" subjects, anyway. You won't like mathematics, philosophy, or theoretical physics very much. But the people who do like such subjects will often swear that understanding is something that is worthwhile in itself.
But it's not like it's always an either-or proposition. Some things are both good in themselves, and good for getting other things that are good. They are both intrinsically and instrumentally good. Like understanding. Some physicists will swear that physics is just really neat all by itself, understanding the principles of physics is worth having just for its own sake; but they will also be quick to point out that it was an understanding of the principles of physics that put men on the moon. Now as for putting men on the moon -- I don't know if you'd want to call that an intrinsically good thing. Surely it's good for a lot of other things, such as perhaps the self-esteem of Americans. But maybe it was also good in itself -- the very fact that human beings stood on the surface of the moon was something good in itself.
Anyway, we don't have to decide that question, because we're doing philosophy and we're talking in generalities. So to go back to the beginning of the discussion: we're talking about the theory of value, and the theory of value asks, "What sorts of things are good, or valuable?" And now that we are armed with a distinction, between intrinsic and instrumental goods, we can make the question more precise. Because ultimately we want to know what things are intrinsically valuable. That's what the theory of value is particularly concerned with: What things are good in themselves?
Well, I want get us started on the way to an answer, like this. Pick anything at all that you think might be good. Let's take the example of the radio. A radio is good. Some things are good for getting a radio -- such as money, and radio factories. Those are both instrumentally good as ways to get radios. On the other hand, a radio is itself merely instrumentally good. I doubt that it is good in itself; it's only good for what you can hear on the radio. The news is an example of something that is a good that the radio is a means to getting. But listening to the news is also probably only instrumentally good. Maybe it's good in itself, intrinsically good, to some extent; but really, there are reasons why we listen to the news. We use the news to help plan out our lives. If for example we think that there is going to be a recession soon, then we may not want to make any big investments. Listening to the news can be a means to getting information that allows us to take political action. For example, we might hear on the news that there is going to be a rally for some cause that we support. Then going to the rally -- that is definitely instrumentally good, in that it is supposed to be good for something. Namely, the political rally is supposed to be good for achieving some sort of political change that you favor.
And so on. You get the idea: what we do in life is try to get, and keep, a bunch of different good things. We all know very well that we have to pursue some instrumentally good things in order to get the intrinsically good things. For example, most people pursue money as merely an intrinsically good thing, so that they can afford what they call "the finer things in life," and those things, like concerts, vacations, and of course a happy family, are supposed to be good in themselves, or intrinsically good. But it's ultimately, in any case, the things we believe to be intrinsically good that we want. So up at the top of the heap, the pinnacle of the hierarchy of goods that we aim at, there are the intrinsic goods. And the question before us now is: What are they? Which things are intrinsically good?
A. Values subjectivism.
In this connection I'm only briefly going to discuss relativism, or subjectivism, about intrinsic goods. Let's call this values subjectivism. Here is what values subjectivism says:
Something is intrinsically good for a person iff that person desires the thing for itself, or is part of a group of people who desire that thing for itself.
So you want to know what all intrinsically good things have in common? Why, it's the fact that I want it for itself, not as a means to anything else. That's what intrinsically good things have in common: I want them. Or it's the fact that my group wants a thing for itself that makes it intrinsically good. So if you want to answer the question, "What things are intrinsically good?" you need only answer a further question, "Well, what do I, or what does my group, want not merely as a means to something else, but for itself?"
I'll bet you know what I'm going to say about this theory. Couldn't you be wrong about what is good for you? Let me give you an example. Say Adolph, an SS officer during World War II, runs a Nazi concentration camp. Say he takes great pleasure in torturing Jews. In fact, he wants this pleasure not as a means to anything else; Adolph regards this sick pleasure as something that is good in itself. Now, does that mean that the pleasure he gets from torturing Jews is intrinsically good for Adolph? Do you really want to say that? I mean, don't you rather want to say that Adolph is a vicious criminal, and that the sick pleasure he takes in torturing Jews is not at all valuable or good in any sense? That, in fact, that pleasure is so bad that it is a very great evil?
I suppose if you wanted to stick to your guns on this, you'd say, "It's evil for us to get pleasure from torturing someone. But it's good for Adolph." If this is your view, then consider carefully what you're saying. You really are saying that it is good for Adoph that he gets pleasure from torturing Jews. That really is a valuable thing for Adolph. It is worthwhile in itself, for Adolph. If you ask me, that's just insane! I'm not going to dignify that view at all with an argument. Against my usual practice, I am just going to say that this seems to me to be a very obvious counterexample to values subjectivism, and let it go at that.
Now, I don't mean to deny that there may be some considerable variation from person to person, or from culture to culture, about what is intrinsically valuable or good. I'm not denying that. Many people find great value in many different sorts of experiences. And we want to have a theory of value that accounts for the fact that each one of a huge variety of different sorts of experiences are all intrinsically good: and so we can ask, "What do all those various experiences have in common, that makes them all intrinsically good?" Notice that we can do this, and thus recognize what is good in many different cultures. Meanwhile we can utter reject and despise any view that says that something like getting pleasure in torturing Jews is good in any sense. Not even good for Adolph; indeed it is not valuable in any way for Adolph. He may take pleasure from it; but it is not valuable, or worthwhile, in any way. His pleasure is utterly lacks value and is worthless -- indeed, far worse than simply worthless.
I know that values subjectivism is very popular in some other departments, like the English department, and the department of Fine Arts. But isn't it interesting that, when you get to the philosophy department, most of the philosophers, people who specialize in thinking about this stuff, will tell you the theory is clearly wrong? I just think that's interesting. I won't comment any further on that though.
Next time we are going to finish up talking about the theory of value by considering two leading contenders, hedonism and eudaimonism. Then it's on to the theory of conduct.
Last time we wound up putting values subjectivism through the wringer. I said I'd give only one objection to that theory, but I lied. I'm going to give another objection, which will set us up for the rest of our discussion of the theory of value.
Remember what values subjectivism says. To put it roughly, it says that whether or not something is good for me depends on whether or not I desire it. So if I desire it, if I want it, then it's good. Now, I think that values subjectivism is pretty obviously false. I mean, what if I want some cake that happens to contain a lethal amount of arsenic? Then I want the cake but definitely it's not a good thing. But anyway, I am sure that some of you will continue to hold onto this view regardless of what I say; irrational beliefs die hard.
So I want to ask a question of those of you who think that values subjectivism is true -- those of you who think that if you want something, that makes the thing good for you. Surely, you do want to pursue good things in life. So here's the question: If you don't know what you should pursue in life, if you don't have any definite desires, then how can you decide rationally what to pursue? To put it differently: If you don't know what's good, then how can you decide what is?
Notice that values subjectivism can't answer this question. All it says is: if I want it, or if my group wants it, then it's good for me. But suppose that at present, neither I or my group desire something, nor are we averse to it. We don't take a stand on whether the thing is desireable. Well then, as a values subjectivist, how can you decide whether the thing should be desired? If you had a positive account of which sorts of things are intrinsically good, then you might be able to answer this question. But if you have no such positive account of goodness, if all you say is that the good things are the things you want, then you have no way of deciding whether something you do not yet want is, well, worth wanting. Something becomes good only after you start wanting it. So how do you decide whether to want something? That's a problem you face constantly if you're a values subjectivist.
But for that matter, it's a problem for everyone who does not yet have a clearly worked-out account of intrinsic goodness. Think of it like this. "Intrinsically good" means, very roughly, "worth wanting for its own sake." But aren't there some things that you might be unsure about whether they're worth wanting for their own sake? How do you decide?
For example: children. I think most parents would agree that their children are desirable for their own sake -- not because as a means to anything else, not even as a means to parental happiness. Honestly, is the only reason that children are a valuable thing, for example, the fact that they make adults happier? Is that the only thing that makes children valuable, or worthwhile, or good things? Surely not. They are not valuable merely as a means to the parent's ends.
But distinguish the children themselves from having children. Couples have to make the decision as to whether they want to bring children into the world. Then the question for you, as potential parents, is: Would the addition of more people to the world, being raised by you, be a good thing? That is a question that a lot of people find very difficult to answer. I think a complete theory of value should help you to answer it.
Here's another example of something you might wonder is worth wanting for its own sake: money, or what money buys. I guess there are a few people in college, especially business majors, who would say they that money is an intrinsically good thing, and worth wanting for its own sake. They live for money. But of course nearly everyone has entertained the thought that money isn't valuable for itself. Some people act as though it were; but even most of those people, in their sober moments, will acknowledge that money is good only instrumentally, only as a means, to getting what it can buy.
Well, look at all the different things that money can buy: houses, cars, clothes, jewelry, vacations, social status, and so forth. The world today is filled with people who behave as though these things are good in themselves; a big house and a nice new BMW are worth having for their own sake.
I don't know even if it's true, though, that people want these things for their own sake. Because it seems to a lot of "upwardly-mobile" people want nice houses and cars because such things do, or will, give them pleasure. Is the reason you want a big house that it is intrinsically good -- worth having for its own sake -- or is it because the big house will give you various sorts of pleasures? I think it's probably the pleasure you're after. A cynic might say, "No, it's just social status that these ?upwardly-mobile? people want." But surely thinking that you're part of the "in" crowd gives you pleasure -- and that's why you want to be part of the "in" crowd (that is, if you do want that). Social status -- which for younger people consists of being "hip," or for older people consists of being "respectable" and "distinguished" -- social status is a source of pleasure to some people.
So some philosophers have gone through this train of thought, or one roughly like it, and come to the conclusion that pleasure is, ultimately, the only intrinsically good thing. That view is called hedonism. Hedonists have the following view about what is intrinsically good:
Something is intrinsically good iff it is a type of pleasure.
But let's not forget old Adolph who takes great pleasure in torturing Jews. We wanted to say that that pleasure was not good in any sense. So what's this then? Have we discovered that some pleasures are not good? Well, surely some pleasures are totally corrupt. Suppose that I get great pleasure by being a respected member of the mafia. Is the pleasure I take from being a respected member of the mafia something desirable at all, let alone desirable for its own sake? Surely not! There are all sorts of pleasures which are base and corrupt. John Stuart Mill, a famous 19th-century English philosopher, drew a distinction between base and higher pleasures. I'm sure you can see the difference. After all, you have experience of the difference in your own lives, all the time! You all know very well that some pleasures are bad, and you'll regret indulging them; other pleasures are much more worthwhile and wholesome. Surely we do not want to say that base pleasures are intrinsically good! They aren't good at all. (Although, note, that in our reading Hospers has a hedonist who is rather stubborn about this point.)
Anyway, one thing we might observe is that Adolph's torturing pleasure, and the pleasure I get from being an accepted member of the mafia, are both pleasures that result in pain for other people. The pleasure Adolph takes in torturing others leads him to cause them pain; and the pleasure I take in being part of the mafia leads me to bump off inconvenient people, causing great pain to them, their family and friends. So we could revise our definition of hedonism like this:
Something is intrinsically good iff it is a type of pleasure that does not lead to pain for oneself or for other people.
According to this account of intrinsic goodness, Adolph's torturing pleasure and my mafia pleasure are definitely not good. But even this is probably not quite right; this definition may exclude some pleasures that are intrinsically good. For example, what if I take great pleasure in running forty miles a week? But this gives me sore muscles sometimes. Then the pleasure I take in running is a type of pleasure that does lead to pain for myself; so according to the above definition, that pleasure is not intrinsically good. Still, I might want to say that the pain of sore muscles is worth it. So this definition of hedonism would have to be further refined, if we wanted to allow the pleasure of running long distances to be intrinsically good.
Well, I'm not going to bother refining the definition any further -- I'll leave that as an exercise for you to do, if you're interested. There's a more important point to be made now. Basically what we're trying to do here is to say which pleasures are "higher" pleasures, or simply good pleasures. Some pleasures are good, some aren't so good, some are corrupt, and some are just downright evil. So we might just ask this question: what is it that makes a given pleasure good? That's an interesting question, I think. It could be whether the pleasure itself has pleasurable vs. painful consequences. And if that's the case, then we could hold onto hedonism. We'd just say: there is some refinement of the hedonist's account of "intrinsically good" which would match up with our ordinary notions of which pleasures are good and which are bad. Then the hedonist's point is, to put it roughly: the only intrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures. Everything else is either instrumentally good -- that is, it is a means to getting good pleasures -- or else it is bad.
So consider that now: the only intrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures. But then aren't we giving a circular account of "good" -- if we saying that the good things are good pleasures, then we're using the word "good" to define itself. If you think that, then you aren't understanding the suggestion I just made. So let me be clearer about what I was just suggesting. It's not simply to say that "the only instrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures." It is to say, rather: we can identify which pleasures are good by formulating a principle. We aren't going to try to formulate it in class -- I'm just saying that perhaps it could be formulated. And this principle would tell us which pleasures have the most pleasant consequences. In other words, we try to find out which pleasures will result in the most other pleasures. Then we call those pleasures "intrinsically good," and only then do we say: "the only instrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures." That allows us to get around the circularity problem.
Now to make the transition to the next theory of value, I want us to think about something I just said a little more carefully. I said that there might be some principle, that we might come up with, a principle that would tell us which pleasures have the most pleasant consequences. Which are the pleasures such that, if we indulge them, we will end up with the most other pleasures in the end? Now notice that in order to explain which pleasures are good, here, I have to use some such words as "in the end." In other words: in my entire life. Because that's what we're talking about. The proposal is that whether something is a good pleasure or not depends on its effects on the rest of my life. We shouldn't just look at individual pleasures as they occur at particular times, and, considering them in isolation from everything else going on in our lives, pronounce them "intrinsically good," just because they are pleasant. No, whether a pleasure is worth having depends on its being, as it were, part of a whole series of pleasures that makes up a very pleasant life. Now, do you see where I'm going with this? Why don't we say that it's not pleasure per se which is intrinsically good, but instead a happy life?
C. Eudaimonism and other theories of value.
Let's be clear about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is a mental state or process, and events of pleasure are relatively brief. When I listen to a great piece of music or eat a delicious meal, I experience a whole series of pleasures, sound and taste sensations -- a series of pleasure-events, as it were.
And as we all know very well, it is possible to have lots of such individual pleasure events and to be a thoroughly unhappy individual. Why? Because happiness is something that occurs over a long time. You can have a good hour, or even a good day, in the sense that you're in a good mood and have all sorts of pleasant feelings over that amount of time. But you could, in spite of that, have an unhappy life. It's sad to say, but it's true. We might not like to think about it, but it is definitely true.
Anyway, the suggestion now is that it's not pleasures, individual events, which are intrinsically good. Those individual events are themselves only instrumentally good; they are good or worthwhile only as a means to something else. And what they are worthwhile as a means to, is a happy life. A healthy, tasty meal is a good thing. But it's not good in itself -- it's only good as a means. To what? To a happy life. The suggestion is that no pleasure is intrinsically good, good in itself; any individual pleasure is good only as a part of a happy life. The only intrinsically good thing in this case would be a happy life.
Now finally I think we have arrived at a view that a lot of you probably hold. It's not money, or power, or fame, or individual pleasures that are intrinsically good; those things are good only as means to what we are all ultimately after, namely, happiness.
And what is happiness? We're not going to get into that. Let's just say that happiness is the state that your life is in, when you tend to experience a lot of pleasures of various sorts, and relatively few pains, discomforts, and so forth. And so you could think of a happy life as one that is full of lots of pleasures. And notice, we aren't necessarily talking about a dissolute, corrupt, immoral "life of pleasure" here. Because those people who are dissolute, corrupt, and immoral, and who seek out pleasure from crime, casual sex, drugs, petty power games, and so forth, very often end up very unhappy people indeed. Just look at the lives of lots of drug dealers, or Hollywood stars, for examples of that. No, the happy life is one in which one has an excellent chance of having pleasure from the beginning of the life to the end. And that is going to include not "lower" pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex, it is going to include many "higher" pleasures like understanding, the appreciation of art, deep friendship and love, and so forth. The experience of all of those pleasures together is what goes to make up a happy life.
Notice that I am at present skipping over any detailed consideration of pluralism, which is that there are a number of different intrinsically good things. E.g., you might want to say that understanding and friendship are both intrinsically good, and good as means to pleasure, or happiness, or anything else. They are good all by themselves. If you think that there are a number of different intrinsic goods or values, then you are a values pluralist. We are only looking at kinds of values: monism, that is, the view that there is only one kind of thing that is intrinsically good. So far, we have considered the views that pleasure and that happiness are the only things that are intrinsically good.
Now let's look at a closely related view -- the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's view. On this ancient Greek view, it was not happiness, which is a mental state over time, which is intrinsically good -- it is, instead, something like happiness, but eudaimonia, for which there is no word in English, except perhaps the word "flourishing" or "well-being." Eudaimonia is more than simply happiness; it is a happy life that is well-lived. Happiness is a subjective state. Eudaimonia is an objective state; literally, it means something like "having a good spirit."
To explain the difference between happiness and eudaimonia, let's look at an example where someone is happy, but not eudaimon, as the Greeks would say. (Eudaimon is the adjective; eudaimonia is the noun.) Say there is a man, call him Tom, who is in the prime of life. He has a happy family, he is well-liked by his colleagues, he is making a lot of money, and generally is very happy himself. Now suppose there is a parallel universe, just exactly like this one, except in the parallel universe, instead of Tom there is Bill. And Bill is exactly like Tom, just as happy, except for a few basic differences. In fact, Bill's family only appears to him to be happy; they're actually repressed and not very happy at all. His colleagues pretend to like him, but they say mean things about him behind his back. And though his job seems very stable, he is about to be divorced and fired. And then just add to the misery of the situation, let's say Bill is going to die right after that.
Now at the moment, Bill is just as happy as Tom. They both have had happy lives. In fact, in terms of their mental states, they are both equally happy. But now let's evaluate their lives: surely we'd want to say that Tom's life is better than Bill's. In fact, unbeknownst to the hapless Bill, he's about lose his wife, his job, and his life. And for a long time poor Bill has been living a lie. He doesn't know it, but he has. On the other hand, Tom's happiness is totally solid, built on honesty, strong relationships, and so forth. From an objective point of view, from a view informed by all the facts, we'd greatly prefer Tom's life over Bill's.
Aristotle and the Greeks would say that Tom is both eudaimon and happy. But they deny that Bill is eudaimon, however happy he might be. And they would insist that the important thing in any case is eudaimonia. So let's give a name to this ancient Greek view -- eudaimonism. It says:
The only intrinsically good thing is a person's eudaimonia, i.e., a state of happiness, measured in an entire life, that is grounded upon solid, relatively unchangeable facts and not deception and mere luck.
I'm sorry I can't make this definition any tighter or clearer. The point is that there is a kind of solid happiness that preferable to a flimsy happiness; and that only that solid happiness, only eudaimonia, is really worthwhile.
I'd also suggest that this is why some thoughtful people go to such lengths to be honest with themselves and with their loved ones. They do not want to find out, somewhere down the road, that they have been made happy by lies and deception, even if it's self-deception. Deep down those people know that it is eudaimonia, a life well-lived, and not merely happiness, that is the important thing.
Now, I've explained that someone might say that individual pleasures are only instrumentally valuable, as parts of or means to eudaimonia, or flourishing, or a life well-lived -- however you want to describe that. But then mightn't you want to go one step further, and say that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole? In other words, here is the suggestion: a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but only as a means to the success of society as a whole?
I am quite sure that a lot of people will find this suggestion odious. They certainly find their own lives intrinsically good -- worth having for their own sake -- and not merely as means to the success of society, meaning all the other people in some given group. But if you have studied much socialist political theory, you will find them saying just this: an individual's life is not important, or valuable, in itself; it is valuable only as a means of, and as a part of, the flourishing of society as a whole. I'm sure you can see that, indeed, this is one (only one) of the main bones of contention between statists of all stripes and classical liberals, meaning the people who want the state to keep its hands off of people as much as possible.
So the question at issue now is: Is an individual's life intrinsically good, or is it merely instrumentally good? Is an individual's life, well-lived, something that is desirable for its own sake, or is it desirable, ultimately, only as a means to having a happy society?
This is one way, but not the traditional way, to state the dispute between egoism and utilitarianism. But usually, egoism and utilitarianism are regarded as theories of conduct, and right now we're doing the theory of value. So let's instead use the terms "values individualism" and "values collectivism" to mark the dispute. Here are some definitions:
Values individualism is the view that only individual lives (or their eudaimonia) are intrinsically valuable; and so they are valuable not merely as a means to the flourishing of society.
Values collectivism is the view that individual lives (or their eudaimonia) are only instrumentally valuable, i.e., good only as a means to the flourishing of society; the flourishing of society (whatever this might be) is the only intrinsically good thing.
I personally think the dispute between values individualism and values collectivism is just fascinating. But we don't have the time to get into it properly. If we wanted to get into this dispute properly, we'd have to take another class or two, at least.
But just for the sake of completeness, let me mention one more view, which is held by some environmentalists. It shouldn't come as any surprise to you that some people want to take matters one step further. It's not merely the flourishing of society that is the only intrinsically good thing. It's the flourishing of all sentient life. Or perhaps all life, period. If you want a name for that view:
Radical values environmentalism is the view that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem; individuals and societies are merely instrumentally valuable, good only as means to having a flourishing ecosystem.
Once again, I am just going to mention this view. We don't have time to get into a proper evaluation of it.
Notice now the succession of things that we have considered as the kind of thing which is intrinsically good: we've gone from particular events of pleasure, to an individual's happiness, to an individual's eudaimonia, to the flourishing of a society, to the flourishing of an entire ecosystem. So I think that you can see that there is a rather difficult problem about the scope of the theory of value. Where do you stop, in this succession of items, in your account of what is valuable for its own sake? If you say that an individual pleasure is valuable for its own sake, then why don't you say that an individual's entire happiness is valuable for its own sake? And so forth.
Well, let me remind you of one thing: if you are a values pluralist, then you will maintain that many different kinds of things can be intrinsically good. As a values pluralist, you might say: every item in this succession of items is intrinsically good. The goodness of a particular experience, of an individual's whole life, of society, and of an ecosystem, are all worth having for their own sake, and not merely as a means to something else. So as a values pluralist you would say: I don't have to decide which of these things is intrinsically good, because they are all intrinsically good.
I'm sure many of you would like to be values pluralists now. That would be a nice position to be able to hold, but I'm not sure it will stand up to careful scrutiny. Why? Well, notice that sometimes, there is a conflict between different levels of goods. Let me explain. Sometimes we have a choice, for example, to sacrifice our own pleasure, or happiness, or even our own lives, for the sake of many other people. This appears to be what happens when soldiers go off to a bloody and desperate war, for example, or whenever anyone gives up any large amount of time to some very difficult, painfully difficult, charitable cause. In cases like that, you're weighing two things: your own individual happiness, and the more general happiness of a lot of other people. And if you conclude that you should sacrifice your own happiness, in one of these ways, what does that amount to?
Honestly, it looks to me as though you're assuming that your own happiness is not as important as that of many other people. If you're a soldier, voluntarily marching off to a bloody war, you have weighed the two things, and have concluded that you are willing to make your life a means to the happiness of other people. And if in the end, you are willing to make your life a means to the happiness of other people, then aren't you saying that your life is merely instrumentally good? That it is only good as a means to the happiness of others?
Well, I don't think you have to say that. It seems to me that you could say that your own life is worthwhile in and of itself, and that it is worthwhile as a means to the happiness of others. Remember, the same thing can be both instrumentally and intrinsically good: I gave understanding, or knowledge, as one possible example. I'm saying now that a human life might be another. So that's a way you might hold onto values pluralism. Two different things, your life and the good of society, can both be intrinsically good, even though you might sacrifice the first for the second. There's no contradiction in saying that.
This leaves an issue unresolved, though: the issue of the relative importance of intrinsic values. The issue of more versus less valuable, of figuring out which of different things is more or less important. That is, if you are looking at a number of different things that you say are all intrinsically valuable, you still have to ask: Which of these things is most valuable? If I had to rank these things in order of importance, how would the ranking go? So you could be a values pluralist and still be an individualist, or a collectivist, or a radical environmentalist. You would just have to say: the most important thing, the most valuable thing, is my own flourishing; or, instead, the flourishing of society; or, perhaps, the flourishing of the environment. As a values pluralist, you would admit that other things are intrinsically valuable. It's just that they aren't as valuable as that most-valuable thing.
I hope, after all this, you can see why I say that the theory of value has an excellent claim on being the most important area of philosophy. So much else in life rests on the theory of value that we accept. Crucial life decisions you make, and the habits you develop, and your deepest political convictions all ultimately rest on the theory of value you adopt.