Lately I have been thinking a lot about the different ways that we can value things. In particular I have been thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic value and how this relates to Kantian ethics through his views on respect. When we value something extrinsically (or instrumentally) we value that thing for the sake of something else. When we value something intrinsically, we value that thing for its own sake.
Kant’s major contribution to the concept of respect was to say that it was owed equally to all, in contrast to older views that honoured only those in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Kant justifies the idea that we are each owed equal respect by talking about how each person has intrinsic value, which he calls “dignity.” Human dignity, according to Kant is the idea that we are not fungible in the way that commodities are. Dignity is a special kind of value that Kant contrasts with price. It is because persons have dignity that they are owed respect, which entails treating others always as ends in themselves (or, as intrinsically valuable), and never as mere means (as having only extrinsic value).
In North American culture we often talk about human dignity, official documents like the declaration of independence, the UN declaration of human rights, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms all contain references to human dignity or human equality that echo Kant’s concerns. The question I have is: how well do we promote this view? Although we claim to think that Kantian respect is important, that all people are born equal and are intrinsically valuable, I think we fail to promote the idea that people have intrinsic value and more often think of people in terms of their extrinsic value, particularly their usefulness or productivity.
Cosmo recently ran a terrible feature, “7 reasons to Date a Moodle,” (a “moodle” is a male poodle and Cosmo apparently believes that geeky men are like lap dogs). The list purports to tell women why the geeky men they have been overlooking as dates might actually make the best boyfriends. Here is the list in full:
1. He’s capable of memorizing every line of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings so he shouldn’t have trouble remembering your birthday and favorite kind of flowers.
2. Sure, he may secretly want to get it on with his super hot neighbor, but knowing that you’re the hottest girl he’s ever been with will probably keep him from cheating.
3. Geeks tend to be tech-savvy. Which means not only will he be able to fix a computer problem and upgrade your software, but he’ll actually enjoy doing it.
4. Although the dumb jock thing is a total cliche, you’re unlikely to meet a dorky guy who can’t string together a sentence and carry on an intelligent conversation.
5. Since he’s supersmart and probably already making a ton of money, he won’t think being a roadie for Vampire Weekend is a great “career opportunity.”
6. He was probably bullied during high school so he’ll be sympathetic when you vent about the office bitch…and help you plot a plan to bring her down.
7. He’ll never hog the bathroom to manscape.
Violet Blue does a great translation of each item on the list, and I highly recommend reading it. In her piece she points out the negative stereotypes about men in general or geeks in particular that are presumed by the list. I want to take a slightly different look at a different problematic aspect of the list.
One issue that I have with this list is that most of the items on the list provide extrinsic reasons to value a geeky dude, but no intrinsic reasons to do so. This list does not really tell us why we should value geeky men, instead it tells us what geeky men will do for us. Take the first and third items. Cosmo tells us that the ability to memorize is good because then geeks will buy you things on those “special” days. The geeky intelligence is put in the service of the woman, for her use and material gain. Point three tells us that he will have technical abilities and will provide free tech support. In each of these points, rather than valuing the geeky intelligence or interest in technology itself (which a woman might value intrinsically, for example, if she shares this interest), the intelligence is presented as useful for the woman who really values something else (the flowers or the free tech support). Point five again talks about the geek as being of material use for the woman.
This is not confined to relationship advice for women, but can also be seen in relationship advice aimed at men, which tends to treat women as a prize, something to “get” or “score” (e.g. typing “How to score with women” in a Google search netted over 100 million results). In advice aimed at men, women are often valued for their beauty and the social prestige they will thereby impart on the man, rather than being intrinsically valued for who they are.
This is not to say that these relationship advice columns go as far as precluding the possibility of intrinsically valuing the potential relationship-partner. The advice does not negate the possibility of Kantian respect, because Kant allows that we can extrinsically value someone and still respect them so long as we also value them intrinsically at the same time. Nevertheless, this kind of advice promotes the extrinsic value of persons, or the use they will be to you, over the idea that relationships go best when we value our partners intrinsically.
2. Game Design
The second example comes from Jesse Schell’s talk at the DICE 2010 conference. Here he looks at social gaming and what game designers can learn from the popularity of facebook games. Obviously, any time you are considering people as a market, then their value will be instrumental because you are interested in how to make money from them. So you are interested in their use to you as a means to financial gain. In this video, however, Schell goes further than that, suggesting we can use the psychological mechanisms revealed by social gaming to promote certain kinds of buying habits and moral behaviour through awarding “experience points” (the relevant part starts around minute 18 of the video).
Schell suggests that we can promote “good” behaviour, not for its own sake, but for the sake of gaining points that will provide us with tax credits or some similar incentive. It seems very strange to me to think of promoting “good” behaviour in this way. If you behave in a morally good way to get experience points, I think you are having “one thought too many” to quote Bernard Williams completely out of context. (Not to mention the problems with who gets to decide what counts as “good” behaviour to be promoted). This, I think, would horrify Kant, who thought that acts were only good to the extent that they were motivated by duty (motivated by what is right) and not done merely in accordance with duty (they happen to coincide with what is right, but are motivated by other considerations). To Kant, this would not be promoting “good” behaviour at all.
The final example of promoting extrinsic value that I want to look at is taking place in academia, where research projects are increasingly valued for the sake of their economic effects. Martha Nussbaum has an article in The New Republic about the form that this is taking in the UK, where academic departments are evaluated based on the impact of the researchers’ work:
In Britain today there is a new government program called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Under the REF, scholars in all fields will be rated, and fully twenty-five percent of each person’s rating will be assigned for the “impact” of their work—not including its impact on other scholars or on people who like to think, but only including the crasser forms such “impact” might take. (Paradigmatic examples are “improved health outcomes or growth in business revenue.”) “Impact” must be immediate and short-term, and it must be brought about by the scholar’s own efforts, not by the way in which another generation might find their world enlivened by a book the scholar has produced. Britain’s assault on the love of truth for its own sake is particularly explicit, but such pernicious trends can be found in every country.
In Canada this trend take the form of assessing research projects for “Knowledge Translation,” which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Rather than valuing the research for its own sake, it gets assigned an extrinsic value.
So those are three examples of promoting extrinsic value that I have recently noticed. Over the next few weeks, I am going to be on the lookout for examples of promoting intrinsic value and might return to this topic again.
What do you think, blog readers, are there ways that western culture promotes intrinsic value for some things? Are we more prone to promote extrinsic ways of valuing instead of intrinsic ways? Is it easier to promote extrinsic reasons to value things? Does it matter if we value each other extrinsically rather than intrinsically?