December 9, 2021
By George Gantz
I have often wondered about the ways that we human beings relate to the things of the material world—including to each other. There are many ways of thinking about these relationships, but one that I find particularly important is to consider the value that we perceive in the object of a relationship. One option is to focus on the value that the object of a relationship provides: What value do I accrue as a result of my relationship with such and such a person or thing? A second option is to consider the value, if any, of the person or thing, independent of her/his or its explicit function: What is the value of the thing-in-itself? The first value can be referred to as “instrumental,” and the second value can be referred to as “intrinsic.” Human beings tend to focus on what they might gain out of their relationships, but what if we were able to pull our collective attention away from the instrumental value of things in order to refocus it on their intrinsic value?
Determining the Instrumental and Intrinsic Values of a Thing
Most of the time, determining the instrumental value of something is relatively easy, since we are drawn to the good, or benefit, that comes out of our relationship with that thing. For example, the plant and animal materials that I cook and eat as food taste good and provide necessary sustenance for my body. However, even with something as obvious as the value of food, there may be conflicts among the instrumental objectives involved, which can result in a lack of clarity as to food’s overall value. For example, food that tastes good is not always good for our health. Eating too much of the wrong kinds of food has contributed to a number of public health consequences in the modern world.
Generally, though, we know our mind and our body well enough to make reasonable value judgments about what is good, from our perspective, and what is not. My family cares for me and helps me out; my friends offer companionship, and I enjoy our shared activities; my job provides me with remuneration and prestige; my car gets me around comfortably and serves as a status symbol; my time spent engaging in outdoor pursuits and traveling to see natural wonders or historic treasures is very satisfying to me. These are all examples of instrumental value.
Determining the intrinsic value of something, on the other hand, is often more difficult. Some people might argue that, or behave as if, other objects or people have little or no objective intrinsic value. In fact, most people would even struggle with identifying such value and start listing features or functions of particular objects (such as those of people, for example) that might warrant special status. However, let’s consider not just the relationship that one has with a particular object, but also the similar relationships that that object has with everything and everyone around it. People, for example, have the same kinds of relationships with each other (including with you) that you have with them. We all share the same kinds of thoughts, experiences, and feelings. So, recognized as a “thing-in-itself,” a person has intrinsic value simply by virtue of the relationships that she or he shares with other “things-in-themselves.”
The Depths of Intrinsic Value
The relationships between people are actually quite a bit richer than what the above reasoning would have us recognize. Scientific evidence confirms that all human beings share most of their genetic information and have a common biological origin. Each of us has also grown up within a community of other people that has provided us with a rich linguistic, social, technological, and cultural heritage. While there are certainly differences among groups, the general experiential process has been identical for everyone, with every single human being representing a complex web of deep relationships within and across cultures and generations. Ultimately, we are all interconnected, and I argue that this web of connectivity is evidence of our intrinsic value, since these relationships cannot be disentangled and they link each of us to everyone else.
Scientific evidence and our increasing awareness of the common origins and interconnectedness of humanity, in recent centuries, have played a part in the shift away from worldviews that would see some groups of humans strictly from an instrumental perspective. Rather than classifying some groups as “others” and deeming them as having lesser value than the group in which we find ourselves, conventional thinking has been evolving toward the idea of universal equality. For example, slavery has been made illegal throughout the world, and we have seen considerable progress in eliminating the use of caste, race, gender, or sexual orientation as a basis for distinguishing the worth and value of individual humans. That being said, there is still much more work to be done.
Now let’s consider the question of the intrinsic value of animals. Many people consider animals to be valuable only in their instrumental capacity—as food, pets, or objects to be observed in zoos or hunted in the wild. But consider an animal within the context of its relationships. Increasingly, we are finding that the social lives of animals are far more complex than we had thought. Elephants engage in deep mourning behavior at the loss of a herd mate. Whales sing ritualized songs that some suspect convey messages, memories, and emotions. All mammals have been found to engage in play, unstructured and spontaneous behaviors that are performed “for the joy of it.” Each individual animal represents a long historical sequence of genetic inheritance. Their survival and success is embedded within the changing context of community habits, parental behaviors, and environmental constraints. Each animal plays a role in both the evolution of its species and the highly integrated ecological processes that take place in its local environment. For most animals, in most environments, these processes have also reflected extensive and continuing interrelationships with human populations. So, by logical extension, we can appreciate that these rich and deep networks of relationships are important evidence of intrinsic value.
Without belaboring the point, the same reasoning can be applied to the rest of the living world. In addition to the commonality of genetic coding found among all life forms, our evolution on this planet has happened together, and so we are not as separate as we might think. In fact, another relatively recent and startling discovery concerning the interconnectedness between human beings and the living world is the human microbiome. Our bodies are colonized by microbial life forms, some of which are essential for our survival. As we are reminded of the depth of our relationships with the world around us, we begin to understand how that world lives in us just as we live in it.
It does not take much of a leap of imagination to bring the geological and meteorological worlds into the same frame. Earth’s geology, climate, and weather provide the framework upon which life arose and where humans now live—and these systems have all coevolved in an integrated process. Each rock has had a role to play in the history of the world. Each water droplet—however many times it may have cycled through air, clouds, land, oceans, and life—has a legacy. Indeed, as Nick Page, a Unitarian choir director, once put it while explaining the significance of singing songs to glorify the ritual of communion, “The droplet of water you drink today may have been in the body of Christ two thousand years ago.”
Why This Makes a Difference
So let’s revisit some of the examples of instrumental value from above. My family cares for me, and we help each other out; my friends offer companionship, and we enjoy activities together. If our focus is on the benefits that we obtain from these relationships, then these relationships are all “quid pro quo”—you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. If someone fails to scratch the other’s back, then the deal is off! But if our focus is on the intrinsic value of the people with whom we have a relationship, then we are more concerned with what is good for them—with what we can do to help them. That describes a truly empathic, loving relationship. The benefits we get in the instrumental sense are secondary to the overall benefits flowing into our relationships. We may even sacrifice something in order to promote and enhance those overall benefits to others.
My job provides me with remuneration and prestige; my car gets me around comfortably, and it serves as a status symbol. The instrumental benefits to me are obvious. The intrinsic benefits of a job are the valuable uses of doing my job well—providing good and useful services to others. The intrinsic value of a car is its function as transport, and perhaps as an aesthetic object, but the value is not what it brings to me but what it enables me to do. In one sense, these values are instrumental as they look to the purpose and function of the job and the car as the means to an end, but the end is not my satisfaction but the benefits to the larger community.
My time spent engaging in outdoor pursuits and traveling to see natural wonders or historic treasures is very satisfying. What are the intrinsic values of natural wonders or historic treasures? The historic treasures are records of the past—illuminating our relationships and institutions, helping us learn and grow in understanding. Natural wonders—indeed, all of nature in its profundity and splendor—are the seedbed from which humanity has evolved and in which we live. Treating these wonders as objects to be consumed in our travels is to treat them instrumentally. On the other hand, contemplating, protecting, learning, and respecting them is to appreciate their intrinsic value.
These examples may seem a bit contrived, but the point is that there are always two ways to look at the benefits of the people and things with which we are engaged. We can look to our own benefits (instrumental value), or we can look to the larger benefits represented in their intrinsic value. For me, this contrast is brought home by the photo (seen here) of the signage at Angels Landing in Zion National Park—an example of a thoroughly consumed natural wonder.
From the Parts to the Whole
Thus far, our line of reasoning has been concerned with human beings’ relationships with each other and with objects in the physical world, dynamics that make up the finite dimensions of our earthly existence. For those who choose not to explore their spiritual sense, these embedded relationships alone should justify their viewing all of these things-in-themselves as intrinsically valuable.
For others, however, the physical world is the manifestation of an infinite creative process that is attributable to God, which means that all of the objects in this world are of divine origin. So in addition to the myriad objects of nature (including human beings) being in a whole host of relationships with each other, they are also in a relationship with creation itself and with God. We are participating in the continued unfolding of God’s creation, which confers upon all of us—from a person to animal to a speck of dust—God’s infinite intrinsic value.
Scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) describes a beautiful concept that epitomizes the sanctity of the relationship between the human and the Divine. We are all familiar with the following verse from Genesis: “God created humankind in his image” (1:27). According to Swedenborg, this verse tells us that the human form corresponds to the structure of heaven, an idea that he refers to as the universal human:
These correspondences are manifest in all of creation. Physical things, human beings, and the Divine are connected parts of a unitary whole that is beautiful, infinite, and intertwined, each and every part in relation to each and every other part. It is all intrinsically valuable “in-and-of-itself.”
A Life of Meaning
When it comes to valuing our relationships, Swedenborg offers an important teaching.
We can value the world through the lens of our love of self and love of the world, which corresponds to the instrumental approach. Or we can value the world through the lens of our love of the Divine and love of the neighbor, which corresponds to the intrinsic approach. Swedenborg explains, drawing on the teachings of Jesus, that any actions that are based on the former are evil, and that only actions based on the latter can possibly contain good.
So now, perhaps, we can answer the question posed in our thought-experiment: “What would the world be like if humans focused on intrinsic values instead of on instrumental ones?” Quite simply: Violence would cease. Evil would vanish. The earth and all its inhabitants would heal. As Swedenborg says, “humankind is the seedbed of heaven” (Last Judgment §10).
George Gantz is a writer and philosopher at Spiral Inquiry. He serves on the board of Long Now Boston, is a fellow of the RSA US, and is a member of the Swedenborg Foundation. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Forum on the Integration of Science and Spirituality and can be found at Spiral Inquiry.