I’ve been in some discussions at Camels With Hammers about morality, and came across a case where a distinction that I have made in the past but usually don’t formally make and that isn’t normally made in the literature is actually a crucial one: the difference between saying that something has intrinsic value and that something has intrinsic moral value.
I’ve talked before about how you should only do moral things because they are moral, and not because they give you something else. This means that morality has intrinsic value, at least in my view; it should only be chosen for its own sake and not the sake of anything else. But if we just stop at saying that it has intrinsic value, then there is a concern that it seems that pleasure is also something that has intrinsic value, and then if I say that being moral means choosing things that have intrinsic value over things that don’t, pleasure seems to be something that fits in there. Since I reject all hedonistic moral systems — and Utilitarianism is one of these — that leaves us in a bit of a bind.
But note that I don’t have to stop at intrinsic value. I can distinguish between having intrinsic moral value and having intrinsic hedonistic value. At this point, I can then make my distinction and argue that while pleasure has intrinsic value, it isn’t a moral value, which means that while it doesn’t fall into the intrinsic/instrumental distinction it does fall into the intrinsic moral/intrinsic hedonistic one. At which point, the argument that pleasure does have intrinsic value doesn’t come into it at all.
Now, the hedonist can argue that pleasure itself does have intrinsic moral value. But note that most of the hedonistic arguments rely heavily on pleasure or happiness being the only thing that everyone values. But my distinction acknowledges that, but moves on to demand that the hedonist demonstrate why pleasure itself is something that has any moral value at all, let alone intrinsic moral value. That everyone values it doesn’t mean that they value it for its moral content, or that it has moral content at all. So the hedonist needs to make a link between the value of happiness and the moral value, unless they want to argue that morality itself is not something we should value for itself.
Both tacks are problematic. Against the first, we can muster the intuitions that there are cases where increasing the happiness or pleasure of the majority of people — taking the Utilitarian case as an example — does things that we think are immoral. If you could prove that slavery increased happiness more than not having slavery would, then it would be moral to institute slavery. But most of us would recoil at such a claim. And there are many other cases where we can raise doubts that increasing happiness or pleasure would make the action moral, or have any impact of the morality of the case. On the other hand, to argue that we are only interested in being moral to the extent that it increases our happiness or pleasure leaves them open to the charge that they should abandon morality if it would increase happiness or pleasure. But this does not seem reasonable; surely it is not praiseworthy to act admittedly immorally for the sake of increasing pleasure or happiness. So it’s only natural that most hedonists want to take the first tack, and while they may be right and might be able to bite the bullet on those cases it’s still a problem that they have to address.
For me, morality and being moral is a valuable end in and of itself. Because of this, I am drawn to moral systems like that of the Stoics or Kant that recognize that some things just have intrinsic moral value and do not need to be justified beyond that. The problems with pleasure or happiness being that standard are serious enough to make me reject them out of hand. Thus, I argue that while pleasure has intrinsic value, it does not have intrinsic moral value, and so if you want to be moral you should always choose being moral over gaining pleasure, but it’s fine to seek pleasure if that doesn’t cause you to act immorally. Which is pretty much Seneca’s defense of his own wealth while considering money an indifferent.