Goods: Intrinsic and Instrumental

Goods: Intrinsic and Instrumental

Human life, finite and incarnate, burns with desire, craving not only physical necessities such as food and drink, but yearning also for an ever elusive wholeness.  As the poet Novalis observed, “we seek the unconditioned, but all we ever find are things.” Man’s life is thus one of love and longing. We learn much about the character of a man simply by identifying what he loves, how intensely he loves it, and the actions he undertakes on its behalf. Hence, St. Augustine would speak of love as a kind of weight determining a soul’s natural place in the cosmos (Confessions 13.9.10), Nietzsche would sing of the arrow of man’s longing (Zarthustra Prologue 5), and Hegel would declare that “self-consciousness is Desire in general” [Begierde überhaupt] (PhG 167), Goethe would portray Faust’s ascent into the Empyrean as drawn on by the eternal feminine. This fundamental longing permeating human life illumines the rational order of action. Or, in classical philosophical terms, it can reveal the distinction between various kinds of goods.

When we act, we act for a reason. We act because we want something. We eat, for example, because we are hungry and want food. We drink because we are thirsty and want drink. We go to the café, because we are lonely and want to gather with friends. Because such actions are performed for a reason, they are rendered distinct from random events and reflexive behaviors.  Consider two cases in which a man’s arm is raised and moved from side to side.

Case 1: A man sees a friend across the road and wants to convey his recognition and regards. He thus waves his hand in greeting.

Case 2: A malicious scientist injects nanobots into a man, and then sends a signal to remotely activate them. These then, in turn, cause the man’s arm to raise and wave.

Note that in the first case the man undertakes an action–he performs an act for a reason–while in the second case he does not. Though his hand raises and waves in both cases, he acts only in the first. He is merely acted upon by the scientist in the second case and his hand moves regardless of his own intentions.

This fact that actions are undertaken for reasons generates a hierarchy of action. We can see it emerge simply by iterating the question “why?” A man raises his hand in the street, and we ask him “why?” He says he wants to wave to his friend. We again, ask him why. He says he wants his friend to see him. We again ask why? He says that he wants his friend to know he is recognized and cared for. We ask why? He says his friend has been going through a difficult time and he wants to show him compassion. We ask why he wants to show him compassion? He replies that his friend is suffering and such suffering deserves compassion. Etc.

Such questioning reveals a hierarchy of goods towards which action aims. At its most basic level, some goods are pursued for the sake of others, while others are pursued for their own sakes. In our previous example, raising one’s hand was performed for the sake of waving to a friend, which was performed for the sake of being seen by a friend, which was performed for the sake of showing his friend that he was cared for, which was performed for the sake of showing compassion on his friend’s suffering. In this case, compassion would be pursued for its own sake, while all the other goods would be pursued on its behalf. In philosophical terms, we can call that which is pursued for its own sake an “intrinsic good”, and any good pursued for the sake of some further good an “instrumental good.” Glaucon sets forth this distinction in the Republic when he notes that:

“G: Tell me, do you think there is a kind of good we welcome, not because we desire what comes from it, but because we welcome it for its own sake—joy, for example, and all the harmless pleasures that have no results beyond the joy of having them?

            S: Certainly, I think there are such things.

G: And is there a kind of good we like for its own sake and also for the sake of what comes from it—knowing, for example, and seeing and being healthy? We welcome such things, I suppose on both counts.

            S: Yes.

G: And do you also see a third kind of good, such as physical training, medical treatment when sick, medicine itself, and other ways of making money? We’d say that these are onerous but beneficial to us, and we wouldn’t choose them for their own sakes, but for the sake of the rewards and other things that come from them.

            S: There is a third kind. But what of it?” (Republic II 357b-d trans. Cooper).

Here Glaucon distinguishes between goods that we desire for their own sakes (such as joy and harmless pleasures) or for their own sakes and on account of their benefits (such as knowing, seeing, and being healthy) from those goods which are merely instrumental (such as physical training, medicine, and money making). When we pursue knowledge or joy, we don’t seek any further good beyond them, but we don’t get medical treatment for its own sake. We pursue it only to secure health, not because medical procedures are intrinsically rewarding. The same holds true for moneymaking. We don’t pursue wealth for its own sake, but for the sake of other goods that can be bought with it. Aristotle is similarly dismissive of moneymaking when he observes that “the life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” (NE I.5 trans. Ross).  Though Glaucon makes a threefold distinction between purely intrinsic goods, goods both intrinsic and instrumental, and purely instrumental goods, the simple distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods suffices for our purposes.

Once we have this distinction in place, we can begin to analyze not only the trajectory of our own lives, but also the logic of entire fields of endeavor. Aristotle again does this masterfully. At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics he observes:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.” (Nichomachean Ethics I.1 trans. Ross.)

Here Aristotle declares that every art (τεχνη), inquiry (μέθοδος), action (πρᾶξις), and pursuit (προαίρεσις) aims at a good (αγαθος). He notes that some of these goods are themselves are activities, while some aim at a product beyond an activity. Take for example, the difference between the practices of tai chi and cake baking. Tai chi does not seek to create an object beyond itself, whereas cake baking does, viz. cakes. Aristotle contends that for practices which aim to create a product beyond themselves, the product they produce is superior to the practice that produces it. People pursue cake baking for the sake of cakes, not for the practice itself. Aristotle also observes that various arts form a hierarchy based upon the goods they pursue. Bridle making is pursued for the sake of riding, which is pursued for the sake of military defense, which is pursued for the preservation of the homeland, which is pursued for the sake of a culture and people, etc. The preservation of a culture and people is, for example, a greater good than a horse bridle, and, hence, the art of politics is superior to the art of bridle making.

            Aristotle continues:

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?  (Nicomachean Ethics I.2 trans. Ross).”

Here Aristotle notes that if our desires are not to be “empty and vain”, pursing an endless sequence of instrumental goods, there must be some intrinsic good at which we aim. If there are no intrinsic goods, then desire is senseless, and our best approach is to root it out. As the Buddhist tradition observes:

“The craving of a person who lives heedlessly/ grows like a maluva creeper. He moves from beyond to beyond,/ like a monkey, in a forest, wishing for fruit./ Whomsoever in the world/ this childish entangled craving overcomes/ his sorrows grow, like birana grass, well rained upon./ But whosoever in the world/ overcomes this childish craving, hard to get beyond,/ from him, sorrows fall away,/ like drops of water from a lotus leaf./ This I say to you. Good fortune to you [all],/ as many as are here assembled. Dig out the root of craving, as one searching for sira digs out birana grass. / Let not Mara break you again and again,/ as a river, a reed.” (Dhammapada XXIV. 334-337 trans. Carter and Palihawadana).

If there is such a thing as rational desire, if any desire is worthy pursuit, then something must be desired for its own sake. If this is so, then its proper identification is an essential component of a life well lived.  If the arrow of our longing is to hit its target, we must discern what that target is. Without such knowledge, we shoot aimlessly in the dark.

            Knowledge of this distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods thus holds the key to profound transformation. With the simple question of why, to what purpose, or for what end, we can order our actions and discern a meaning in the trajectory of our lives. All that is needed is the will to step back from the seemingly endless pursuit of instrumental goods and to take the time to reason, to think through that for which we yearn most deeply and intensely. What is the chief end of man? For what should we strive and struggle? In what can we hope?

Note how such profound reflection differs from the popular of wheel of life exercise pedaled by therapists, life coaches, and managers. In this exercise, a client is given a pie chart with various sections randomly assigned to sundry ill-defined and unrelated goods[1] and is asked to rate how satisfied he or she is with each area of the chart. For example, the pie might be sliced into segments labeled: leisure and entertainment, family, friends, finance, work, health, and relationships. The client would then be asked to rate, from one to ten, how satisfied he feels with each area of life. He might, for instance, give a 10 to finance, a 4 to friends, and only a 2 to leisure and entertainment. The coach would then help the client to develop strategies to increase his score in underperforming domains. This is usually done through the implementation of so-called SMART goals—goals which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. In this case, the client could be asked what it would take to raise his satisfaction in leisure and entertainment from 2 to a 2.5. He could then respond with something like: “I could Netflix and chill on Friday night”. This would be a SMART goal since it is specific—it involves watching Netflix and chilling rather than, say, birdwatching or painting–, measurable—one can measure how long a program played on Netflix and perhaps a fitness tracker could deliver data on how much chilling occurred–, achievable—the task is not beyond the client’s abilities—relevant—the task falls within the domain of leisure and entertainment–, and timely—it can be done that week, on Friday to be precise.

Such exercises, in my opinion, are an utter waste of time. Though they offer the appearance of rational reflection, they retard it in reality. This can be seen in a couple of ways.  First, these exercises simply hand down a list of putative goods from on high. One does not question whether these putative goods are, in fact, goods and what their relations are to each other.  Are the categories mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive? Does the list contain instrumental as well intrinsic goods? If so, why do they occupy equal spaces in the pie chart? If the client does have the insight to ask such questions, he or she will likely be answered with a thought terminating cliché such as “trust the science.”  Second, these activities make one think one is reasoning, when, in fact, one is merely operating as a crude calculating machine. All one is doing is assigning 1 -10 ratings and mechanically devising goals to boost those ratings. This can give the appearance of autonomy and self-authorship, but, in reality, one merely subordinates oneself to an external set of goods and to a crass means end procedure for securing those goods.  One has not thought through, for oneself, the fundamental question of the highest good.

            It is also important to distinguish the classical distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods, and the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation promoted by positive psychology, coaching, and management. The popular psychological distinction between internal and external motivation uses a vague psychological concept of the self to distinguish between various forms of motivation.

Positive Psychology.com, for example, articulates the distinction as follows:

“Motivation is the force behind human performance. It can arise from physiological or psychological needs, thoughts, or emotions (Baumeister, 2016). Our physiological needs help us preserve optimal physical functioning, while psychological needs typically help us thrive.

The source of motivation can come from within ourselves (i.e., intrinsic) or be external to us (i.e., extrinsic).

The American Psychological Association defines intrinsic motivation as “an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself (e.g., a genuine interest in a subject studied) rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained (e.g., money, course credits)” (Intrinsic motivation, n.d.).

So, we are intrinsically motivated when we do something just because we want to do it and because the act of doing it provides us with a feeling of pleasure, based on our natural interests, values, and passions.”[2]

On this view, an intrinsic motivation is intrinsic because it feels like it comes from within the psychological self. Likewise, a motivation is extrinsic because it feels like comes from outside of one’s psychological sense of self. You might, for example, play the piano because you find it pleasurable.  Since this feeling of pleasure comes from “inside” of you, the action is internally motivated. Whereas if you pursue the action only because of allegedly external factors, such as getting a cookie if you do, or being scolded if you don’t, then your motivations are external. This distinction can sometimes overlap with the classical distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods. For example, a man might work out to earn a fifty-dollar reward. In this case, working out is an instrumental good, since it is performed for the sake of earning fifty dollars, and is extrinsically motivated since it is performed for the sake of a reward. Yet, though they can sometimes overlap, it is nonetheless important to keep these sets of distinctions distinct. For, there are again a couple of fundamental problems with the popular psychological concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. First, the distinction is not sufficiently reflective. It cannot help someone grasp their life as an ordered and meaningful whole. If, in examining my motivations, all I’m doing is determining which ones feel like they are coming from inside of me and which ones outside me, then I’m not really rationally reflecting on my motives. One person might, for example, practice qi gong because they find it pleasurable, and someone else might torture animals for the same reason. Both people pursue their actions for pleasure, an internal state, and so are internally motivated. But the psychological concept does not invite us to inquire into which of these two activities is, in fact, better and whether mere pleasure is itself an intrinsic or instrumental good. The classical project, on the other hand, invites just such questions. Second, though it pretends to enhance autonomy, it actually undermines it. It assumes that an action is autonomous simply in virtue of the fact that it feels like it comes from within the psychological sense of self. But this assumption ignores the fact that the field of psychology has itself developed methods of manipulation to manufacture consent, inculcate beliefs and desires, and alter people’s self-concepts.  Indeed, the fields of marketing, PR, and contemporary corporate “journalism” depend on this fact. As Orwell depicted in 1984, in the voice of O’Brien, speaking on behalf of the party:

“Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days the heretic walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not’. The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt’. Our command is ‘Thou art’.” (Orwell, 1984 3.II).

The simple feeling of coming from inside rather than outside the psychological self is thus insufficient to secure genuine autonomy. I believe this oversight to be neither accidental nor benign. To convince people they are thinking about their lives, when, in fact, they are only reciting slogans hammered into their heads by malevolent corporate forces is itself an egregious form of manipulation.  If we are to be free to determine the course of our lives, we must, first and foremost, think critically about what is good, true, and beautiful. We must, as Kant recognized long ago, have the courage to use our own understanding. The simple question why transfigures our lives. Why, what for, to what end? These are words of fire to consume Valhalla and quicken the phoenix from its ashen slumber.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] A quick online search yields items like: health, achievements, career, finances, relationships, giving back, experiences, social, professional/ business, personal growth, spirituality, mental state, attitude, creativity, contribution,  lifestyle, recreation, friends, community leadership, sports, team, colleague, manager, mother/ father, partner, significant other, home environment, fun and leisure, spiritual growth, self, community, life vision, emotional well being, and contribution to society.

[2] Maike Neuhaus, What is Intrinsic Motivation? https://positivepsychology.com/intrinsic-motivation-examples/

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