A Ku Indeed!

Goods that Ain’t So Good

Posted in Ethics, virtue ethics by Chris on June 28, 2008

Zagzebski makes an interesting claim in the “Goods and Virtues” chapter of Divine Motivation Theory (pg. 110, specifically). There, she argues that there is no direct relationship between X being an intrinsic good and X being good in the highest degree. She suggests that to think otherwise is a common mistake. In this case, I’ll have to count myself in the group of deluded individuals.

I’m not suggesting that she’s wrong. I honestly have no idea. But her claim did grab me, because I’ll admit that I always assumed this to be true. She says:

There is one other common assumption about intrinsic value that I think is mistaken and that may also explain some of the resistance to the idea that pleasure is intrinsically good. That is the idea that intrinsic goodness is goodness to a high degree. What makes a good intrinsic is the source of its goodness; it has nothing to do with its degree.

Well, she’s certainly right, I think, is pointing out that the two concepts have different meanings. To say that X is an intrinsic good is just to say that its goodness is not derivative; intrinsic goods are basic, they are primitives. Seen in this way, she seems to have a point — to say that a good is self-contained and basic is not to say that it is good to highest degree (when compared with other goods). One thing shouldn’t have to do with the other.

But still this is one of those cases where although I see her point, my intuitions feel unshaken. What is it? Is it the belief that it makes little sense to say that something is an intrinsic good if it isn’t good to the highest degree? I’m not sure. Any takers?


14 Responses

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  1. Manyul Im said, on June 29, 2008 at 6:45 am

    Hey Chris,

    It seems like she’s just trying to point out that one could accept the point about pleasure–that it is an intrinsic good–while not being committed to hedonism or utilitarianism, since there may be other intrinsic goods than pleasure that are good to higher degrees.

    An aside: I wonder what her ideas about degrees of goodness are–is she a preference commensurabilist or does she have some more “realist” way of regarding one type of intrinsic good as being good to a higher degree than another?

  2. Bill Haines said, on June 29, 2008 at 9:09 am

    Chris, I think I see your puzzle and I think I can help. I think there are various different ideas that travel under the name “intriniscally” good, and one of the ideas sort of supports your view. I’ll set out two here, including that one. Z seems to be taking her account of ‘intrinsically’ from Christine Korsgaard’s article “Two Distinctions in Goodness” (Phil Review Vol. 92, No. 2 (Apr., 1983), pp. 169-195). That terminology is ambiguous as between the two kinds I’ll set out here.


    Consider the theory that anything is good insofar as it causes a balance of pleasure, where what a thing “causes” is taken to include the thing itself (as logicians list propositions among their own “consequences”). Call this theory Causal Hedonism.

    Now, a Causal Hedonist might define a qualifier “intrinsically”, kin to “in the short run,” thus: something is “intrinsically” good iff it is good in abstraction from anything it causes beyond itself. On this theory every bit of pleasure would be intrinsically good, but being intrinsically good would not imply being good. Something’s goodness is rather a total of its intrinsic plus its extrinsic goodness. My beer buzz is intrinsically good, because it’s mostly pleasure and no displeasure. But my beer buzz is bad, because the displeasure it causes in the long run (by getting me to take a second drink etc.) outweighs the pleasure of the buzz itself.

    On this use of “intrinsic”, every increment of intrinsic goodness is an increment of goodness, but not everything intrinsically good is good.


    In a second sense, “intrinsically good” might be taken to mean “inherently good,” i.e. unconditionally good. In that second sense, which is uncommon in the utilitarian tradition, being “intrinsically good” does of course imply being good. Indeed it arguably implies being better than any alternatives. And that’s sort of the idea you wanted to preserve, yes?

    – – – – –

    Consider this sort of entity: “the whole set of something’s consequences.” And suppose Causal Hedonism is true. Now, on both uses of ‘intrinsic’ I’ve described above, any such whole is exactly as good as it is intrinsically good (because it has no consequences beyond itself). So when we’re talking about whole sets of consequences we don’t need to distinguish goodness from either kind of intrinsic goodness in either sense. I think that coincidence has been a huge source of confusion in ethical theory.

  3. Bill Haines said, on June 29, 2008 at 9:18 am

    I changed the last paragraph just before posting, and the change was maybe a mistake. What I should have said was only that on the first use of ‘intrinsic’, the intrinsic goodness of those wholes is the same as their goodness.

  4. Chris said, on June 29, 2008 at 3:26 pm


    That’s helpful, thanks. I take (1) to sound like Bentham; pleasure is an intrinsic good, and pain an intrinsic evil, however that doesn’t mean that the presence of one over the other is an unqualified good or evil, given the fact that one must take into consideration consequences and the like.

    Of course, (2) as you note is closer to what I’m thinking above — that an intrinsic good sounds (at least in my intuitive ear) to be something unconditionally good.

    Let me push this a bit further, to get some additional clarity.

    As far as I (mis?)understand Zagzebski’s claim, she takes “intrinsic” to be more like (2), because intrinsic for her doesn’t mean “in the short run” but rather “non-derivative” in the sense that it’s goodness is a primitive. Asked why it’s a good, one might say, “well, because it is” with no further explanation.

    However, her claim that some intrinsic goods are not as good as other intrinsic goods seems to suggest not a claim that some intrinsic goods may wind up (in certain situations) being less valuable (as your beer buzz might not be later on, say) in an extrinsic sense, but rather a claim that, on their own, one intrinsic good may simply be less good (in degree) than another. So, taken out of situational context, intrinsic good A might be “more good” than intrinsic good B.

    My head scratching here — I think anyway — feels as if it is due to a belief or intuition that if A and B are intrinsic goods (primitives) then they must be equally valuable *as* intrinsic goods (I agree that extrinsically, they can vary from situation to situation).

    I guess here my confusion runs into Manyul’s — how can two goods be identical with respect to their intrinsic nature as goods but be scaled with respect to *how* good (as intrinsic goods) they are?

  5. Chris said, on June 29, 2008 at 3:38 pm


    First — it seems (contra my last point in the post to Bill) that you aren’t confused by my main question here. I think you are right, by the way — that’s exactly what she’s saying (about pleasure and utilitarianism and so on).

    But my concern is more basic. On the basis of what could one argue that one intrinsic good is, as an intrinsic good, less good than some other one?

    I guess my concern here might be reflected in your last question about the basis for the scaling of these goods — is it due to a realism or a preference commensurabilism? I would suspect that it is the former, but I’m not sure — and even on that level I’m still not sure how to use that answer (if it is indeed hers) to solve my basic problem. What do you think?

    It could be (it’s likely) that there’s no real problem here at all, and I just have an intuitive tangle that I need to straighten out in my own head.

  6. Chris said, on June 29, 2008 at 4:04 pm


    By the way, thanks for the Korsgaard reference. I had that paper printed off at one point (as it was referenced I think by Gary Watson and I was reading him at the time), but one thing led to another and I didn’t get to it.

    I’ll bring it with me to CT and read it, since this discussion of different goods is relevant to a paper (on C and VE) I’m hoping to develop while at the seminar.

  7. Bill Haines said, on June 29, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Chris, I don’t see a difficulty with saying that one intrinsic good has more intrinsic goodness than another, at least in my sense (1). A small pleasure (a brief or mild one) is intrinsically good, but less so than a big pleasure (a lasting or intense one).

    Maybe you’re talking about kinds of good. How about this: the kind “intense pleasure” has more intrinsic goodness than the kind “mild pleasure”?

  8. Bill Haines said, on June 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    I think there are deep difficulties with the notion of unconditional goodness, but it’s not so hard to think about goodness that is to a greater or lesser degree independent of circumstances, so I’ll talk about that instead here. Consider some highly specialized but cumbersome tool—say, Jaws of Life. Having it is good in only a very narrow range of circumstances. Consider a more basic tool such as rope or a pocket knife or a Blackberry. Let’s say a knife. Having it is good in a much wider range of circumstances. So having a knife is more unconditionall good than having a Jaws of Life. But when those two havings are good, having a Jaws of Life is (or anyway sometimes is) better than having a knife.

    Here’s a different kind of case. Suppose there is a magic red pill that will make your life a tiny tiny bit better, and not have any drawbacks. That pill (or taking it) is unconditionally good. Now suppose there’s a magic blue pill that will make your life ten times better, and not have any drawbacks. That’s unconditionally good too, but it’s better.

    One might object that the red pill isn’t really unconditionally good, because it’s not good in the case that one must choose between the red pill and the blue pill. I wonder if that’s what worries you.

  9. Chris said, on June 29, 2008 at 7:21 pm


    Right, I’m with you on your first paragraph, and I agree. Though I’m not sure that’s the kind of scaling that she is talking about (I could be wrong here, I haven’t had time yet to read the chapter closely).

    I suspect that her point is closer to your suggestion about kinds. But my question would be: why, at least in this example, would the kind “intense” have more intrinsic goodness than the kind “mild” without implicitly collapsing back into the discussion that uses (1) as its sense?

  10. Chris said, on June 30, 2008 at 7:27 am


    Thanks for the help here, first of all.

    Second, I took the Z to the treadmill this morning, and rereading the section on goods, I think I’ve misread her — I think she means the (1) sense that you’ve suggested, and if so that clears up the issue entirely.

    Here’s the money quote, I think:

    “What makes a good intrinsic is the source of its goodness, it has nothing to do with its degree. Something can be intrinsically good and not very good at all. For example, I have suggested that every true belief is intrinsically good, but surely not every true belief is very good. Some beliefs may, in fact, be trivial. So it is possible that the degree of goodness is minimal even when that goodness is not derived from anything else.” (Z, DMT, pg. 110).

    So I think she *is* suggesting your (1) here. Conceptually, a good is intrinsic when it is a primitive, but its degree depends on the manner of its instantiation, whether that be a matter of attending to its intensity, its causal effects, or whatever.

    I suppose my lingering issue here, then, is just one of vocabulary. If “intrinsic good” is really just a matter of taxonomy (not-derived, primitive goods), then it’s odd to say that “intrinsic goods can differ by degree” or “X can be intrinsically good but not very good at all” and so on. It seems to make more sense to say that the _manner of instantiation_ *of* an intrinsic good can display goodness along a varying scale of degree, because once we’re talking about that, we’re not talking about taxonomy anymore, but something else.

    On a different note — you mentioned being in CT during a time overlapping the seminar, are you still planning to be in town?

  11. Bill Haines said, on June 30, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Hi Chris,

    From the Z quote you give it seems to me she doesn’t mean sense (1). If she meant (1), then she wouldn’t just say intrinsic goods can be only slightly good. She’d say they can be horrendously bad, like the beer buzz that led to the drunk driving …

    I do plan to be in CT, not far from Middletown, but I still don’t know exactly when. Maybe late. When does the seminar end? I assume y’all will still be accessible at the same email addresses, as will I.

  12. Chris said, on June 30, 2008 at 9:15 am


    I think by the claim that intrinsic goods can be only slightly good, she’s talking again about instantiation. Knowing truths (for example) may be intrinsically good (primitives) but some instantiations of those, such as trivial ones, may be of little use (here where the scale is dependent not on the source of goodness that makes the truth’s value intrinsic, but rather the ends to which the good can be put — well, perhaps).

    Well, hopefully. Or else I’m back to square one with this problem! In the case of your beer buzz, perhaps she can say that the pleasure your beer buzz represents is an intrinsic good, but the effects of its intantiation in that instance is horrendously bad (drunk driving).

    If that’s it (geez, I’m not sure), then she’s just operating with two different notions of good here, one taxonomical and the other relating to ends (perhaps). As I mentioned above, it’s the whole claim that “instrinsic goods can be scaled with respect to goodness” that can’t be literally right, if a good’s intrinsic nature is a taxonomical issue. No?

    On CT – it ends on August 15th, I believe, though I have to leave on the 12th, due to the minor event of baby #2 making its debut. 🙂 In any case, though I’m sure we’ll talk before then, let’s stay in contact so we can go out and get an intrinsically good beer buzz, one whose goodness is not marred by unfortunate instantiation. Perhaps Alexus can head down too — UConn isn’t terribly far from Middletown.

  13. Bill Haines said, on June 30, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I’ve got an anticipatory buzz already. I’ll certainly be up there before the 12th of Aug. I might even be there in time for Eric’s talk, though there are complications involving my cat.

    I see what you mean about instantiation: she’s saying that (a) even if goods of a certain kind are intrinsically good, still the goodness of any one good of that kind can be minimal.

    Or, just possibly, she’s saying that (b) even if goods of a certain kind are intrinsically good, still the intrinsic goodness of any one good of that kind can be minimal.

    The only difference between formulas (a) and (b) is that the latter adds an ‘intrinsic’.

    If she’s saying (b), then I think there’s no way to guess from it what she means by ‘intrinsic’. If she’s saying (a), then I think she doesn’t mean ‘intrinsic’ in sense (1). If she meant it in sense (1), she’d want (for clarity’s sake) to press home the point that intrinsic goods can be bad.

    “In the case of your beer buzz, perhaps she can say that the pleasure your beer buzz represents is an intrinsic good, but the effects of its instantiation in that instance is horrendously bad (drunk driving).”

    She can say that, but in doing so she’d have said nothing about whether the buzz was a good thing (simpliciter).

    I think sense (1) of the qualifier ‘intrinsic’ makes sense only in the context of a certain kind of conception of goodness, exemplified by Causal Hedonism as I defined that.

  14. Alexus McLeod said, on June 30, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Yep–I’ll definitely be down there (all that comparative philosophy going on in my backyard is like Christmas and the Super Bowl rolled into one for me). I’m kind of halfway between Storrs and Middletown (I couldn’t take the desolation of Storrs, so I’ve tried to stay close to Hartford–although Hartford is pretty desolate itself as far as cities go…) I’m definitely looking forward to the drinking… and I guess to the talks also… 🙂

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