Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pursuing as an end and pursuing as a means

One might think that to pursue (desire, hope for) something is to pursue it either as a means or as a final end. But that is false. Here is a nice case. Let us say that you don't know whether symmetry is worth having for its own sake. An omniscient being (or just an axiological expert) tells you that you will be better off for ensuring the existence of large symmetrical patterns on your walls. You ask whether this will be good in and of itself for you, or whether it is merely instrumentally good. The being declines to answer. You now have good reason to pursue the large symmetrical patterns on your walls (and desire and hope for them). But notice that you are not pursuing the patters as either a means or as an end. You are not pursuing the patterns as a means, because you do not believe that they are a means to anything valuable. You are not pursuing them as a final end, because you do not believe that they are intrinsically valuable. Instead, you believe the disjunction of the two value claims, and that is enough to justify your pursuit (and desire and hope).

In fact, this sort of thing is quite common. We have good reason to think that something is valuable, say because friends we respect pursue it, but we sometimes don't know whether it is valuable merely as a means or as an end. But this ignorance doesn't stop us from pursuing it. Thus, one may well pursue good reputation without having settled whether it is intrinsically or instrumentally worth having.

It is common to divide up pursuit (desire, hope) into the instrumental and non-instrumental. If so, then this case counts as non-instrumental, simply because it is not, in fact, instrumental. However, the term "non-instrumental" is often used as if it were more than just the denial of "instrumental". A "non-instrumental desire" is thought of as a desire for the thing itself, for instance. The above shows that this is mistaken, because it makes one think that there is a dichotomy where in fact there is a trichotomy: the instrumental, the intrinsic, and that which is neither instrumental nor intrinsic.

I've for a while been bothered by the phrase "non-instrumental value", which makes it sound like it's a derivative notion with the basic notion being that of instrumental value. And now I see that I have good reason to avoid the phrase. For non-instrumental value corresponds to non-instrumental pursuit. And the category of non-instrumental pursuit is not a natural way to slice things up: it is a disjunction of final pursuit and neither-final-nor-instrumental pursuit.

Interestingly, though, while the phrase "non-instrumental desire" is extensionally problematic given the kinds of cases I've been talking about, "non-instrumental goods" does manage to be extensionally right: it slices axiological nature along its joints, because the third category that arises for pursuit, desire and hope arises from subjective considerations, and hence does not apply to the good itself. But, nonetheless, it is better to avoid the phrase. "Intrinsic" or "basic" is better.


Heath White said...

This is a great point. It corresponds to the idea in the theoretical realm that we can believe or know, without understanding the reasons for it. I've never seen the point made for the practical but it works.

On a different note: don't mix up 'final' and 'intrinsic' goods. All instrumental goods are (probably) extrinsic, i.e. valuable because of their relation to something else, but it doesn't follow that a final good is intrinsic. Something might be valuable because it is rare or unique, for example, and this is an extrinsic but non-instrumental good.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A related point in the practical realm is that the alleged dichotomy between being moved by moral and by non-moral reasons (or by moral and by prudential ones) will not be exhaustive. For to act all one needs is the belief that one has a reason--one does not need to know what sort of a reason one has. (Think of an expert who tells one that one has a reason to do A, but who fails to specify if the reason is moral or non-moral.)

Similarly, the dichotomy between believing something for pragmatic reasons and believing it for epistemic reasons can fail. (Think of an expert who says in a given situation: "Be optimistic! Assume it'll all work out." You don't know if that's pragmatically or epistemically justified, but you do it anyway, trusting the expert.)

All this is grist for the mill of someone like me who thinks the realm of reasons is unified (I often put the point by saying that all reasons are moral reasons). But the point is somewhat independent of that.

Though, I think, there is probably a bit of a feeling of alienation when one acts on a reason proferred by an expert and has no idea what the expert's reason actually is.

I am not sure about intrinsic vs. final. I think of knowledge as an "intrinsic good". But knowledge is relational. (x knows p only if p, after all) I'll need to think some more on this, thanks!

Brandon said...

I'm skeptical; in the symmetry case you are obviously ensuring the existence of large symmetrical patterns on your walls for the sake of being better off. That you don't know why or how you'll be better off for it doesn't change anything; it's still obviously a means, because being better off is obviously valuable. Likewise, with your friends case, we don't know whether it should be pursued as a means or an end, but it doesn't change the fact that we are pursuing it as a means -- if you are pursuing good reputation without knowing whether it is intrinsically or instrumentally worth having, you are still pursuing it as an end. What you are doing is pursuing it as an end but leaving open the possibility of subordinating it to a greater end somewhere down the road. And this makes plenty of sense: something can be both an end and a means (e.g., by being the end of this particular action, but chosen because it is a means to a larger project).

I do agree, though, that the dichotomy between moral and non-moral reasons is a false one.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When something is an aspect of well-being, as friendship, esthetic goods, etc., and it is pursued because it is an aspect of well-being, then it is being pursued for its own sake. Then, well-being isn't some further thing, for which this is a means.

If I don't know whether something is an aspect of well-being or a means to an aspect of well-being, then I neither pursue it as a means nor as an end.

Maybe, though, one can introduce the notion of constitutive, rather than causal, means, and then one may be able to say that one can pursue something as a constitutive means. If so, then I need to modify the symmetrical patterns case. The being tells you simply that it will be better if there are large symmetrical patterns on your walls. the being doesn't tell you if it'll be better for you or for others. The being doesn't tell you if the symmetrical patterns are that which constitutes the value, or if they are merely means to something else (maybe the symmetrical patterns will scare off invading aliens, thereby making the aliens better off morally and the earthlings better off materially).

Brandon said...

I still don't see that that would make any difference. If the being tells you that it will be better, you are still doing it as a means in the pursuit of what is better. I do think one needs to recognize constitutive means, but since in neither this version nor the original do you actually have any notion of how it would be constitutive, or even that it would be constitutive, you can't be pursuing it as a constitutive means. But that doesn't rule out that it is still a means, with the question of whether it will turn out to be constitutive or not left open.

It seems to me that both in the post and in the comments you are conflating two different things: objective means-end relations (or perhaps more accurately how we ideally should order things as means and ends) and subjective use of things as means and pursuit of things as ends. Your cases set up situations where we don't know the former and still can pursue things; but that doesn't actually tell us whether or not we pursue things only as ends or as means. Am I just missing some turn in your argument?

Adam said...

This is a very interesting take on the subject. It is a theme I've found particularly important (and controversial) in loci of theological aesthetics and practical theology of the arts.