The second theory, the theory of intrinsic value, also has roots in ancient ethics, specifically, Plato’s theory of Forms. But unlike Plato’s theory, the basic tenets of which include certain doctrines about the reality and transcendence of value, the theory of intrinsic value neither contains nor presupposes any metaphysical theses. At issue in the theory is what things are good in themselves, and one can take a position on this issue without committing oneself to any thesis about the reality or unreality of goodness or about its transcendence or immanence. A list of the different things philosophers have considered good in themselves would include life, happiness, pleasure, knowledge, virtue, friendship, beauty, and harmony. The list could easily be extended.

An interest in what constitutes the goodness of the various items on the list has brought philosophers to focus primarily on the question of whether something unites them. The opposing views on this question are monism and pluralism. Monists affirm the list’s unity; pluralists deny it. Plato, for instance, was a monist. He held that the goodness of everything good in itself consisted in harmony and therefore each such thing owed its goodness to its being harmonious. Alternatively, some philosophers have proposed pleasure as the sole constituent of goodness. Indeed, conceiving of pleasure as a particular kind of experience or state of consciousness, they have proposed this kind of experience as the only thing good in itself and characterized all other good things as instrumentally good, as owing their goodness to their being sources of pleasure. Thus, hedonism too can be a species of monism.

In this case, though, one must distinguish between the view that it is one’s own experiences of pleasure that are intrinsically good and the view that anyone’s experiences of pleasure, indeed, any sentient being’s experiences of pleasure, are intrinsically good. The former is called (by Sidgwick) egoistic hedonism, the latter universal hedonism. This distinction can be made general, as a distinction between egoistic and universal views of what is good in itself or, as philosophers now commonly say, between agent-relative and agent-neutral value. As such, it indicates a significant point of disagreement in the theory of intrinsic value, a disagreement in which the seeming arbitrariness and blindness of egoism make it harder to defend.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Ed., pp. 285-6

I was dumbfounded when I read the bolded text. Yes, egoistic hedonism may seem arbitrary. Why does the agent deserve pleasure and the others don't? That's a good question.

However, if egoistic hedonism is deemed arbitrary, then hedonism itself can be deemed arbitrary: why is the pursuit of pleasure valuable, seems like an arbitrary choice for me. Perfectionism can be deemed arbitary: why is the pursuit of excellence valuable? Seems arbitrary to me. Why choose utilitarianism over deontology? Seems arbitrary to me. In other words, many philosophical issues can be deemed arbitrary if egoistic hedonism is deemed arbitrary, and this is not a useful accusation at all.

What do you think of my analysis?

  • 2
    One reason for the desire to come up with a non-hedonistic system is that pleasure-like states are not typically stable enough to sustain the intuition of obligations-as-"inescapable" (or escapable only with some difficulty). Meaning: we have an intuition that obligations are relatively stable, or stable for a good enough number of "practical" purposes. So there are others who try yet to find a stable desire/pleasure which could fix a more stable responsibility upon its claimants, maybe. The arbitrariness isn't so much in the type of content as in its tokens... Jul 20, 2023 at 9:24
  • @KristianBerry The dictionary does not talk about the arbitrariness of hedonism as such. It talks about the arbitrariness of egoism, which is the basis of my question. Jul 20, 2023 at 9:37
  • Look in to Nonduality.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 20, 2023 at 10:37
  • @tryingtobeastoic hmm, egoism (or some forms of egoism) might face a similar problem: if my obligations depend on self-interest, then they will be as stable only as my self-interest is. Perhaps it would be end up being the compounded arbitrariness of egoism combined with hedonism that is most arbitrary, here? Jul 20, 2023 at 14:34
  • do egoists say/think that they - rather than others - "deserve" hedon? i'm not sure. i think language of that sort is more open to rebuttal (you didn't finish your dinner), and if not the phrase is fairly empty, as it depends on nothing whatsoever. you may think universal hedon - like any universal prescription - also depends on nothing whatsoever, it being for everyone. but that's not how moral systems unpack, unlike - we may assume - egoism
    – user66760
    Jul 20, 2023 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


Sure, you can call a lot of theories of intrinsic value arbitrary. But the point the passage is making is that egoistic hedonism is arbitrary by comparison to universal hedonism. This is because egoistic hedonism first arbitrarily picks out pleasure as the quality that has intrinsic value, and second, arbitrarily picks out a single individual in the universe to be the one whose pleasure has intrinsic value. Universal hedonism makes the first arbitrary choice but does not need to make the second arbitrary choice, so it is less arbitrary than egoistic hedonism.

We can think of Occam's razor and minimum description length here. A theory of intrinsic value is a description of which items or attributes in the world have intrinsic value. The shorter the description, the less arbitrary the theory and the more favored by Occam's razor it is. If David is an egoistic hedonist, then his description of which items have intrinsic value must not only specify what pleasure is, it must go on to list sufficient attributes to distinguish David from anyone else, such as David's full name, birth location, and birthday. This is a longer description than a universal hedonist would need, and hence disfavored by Occam's razor.

Egoistic hedonism also runs into the problem of specifying a person's identity in a general way that holds up to philosophical thought experiments. Suppose David is exactly cloned in such a way that we cannot say which is the original and which is the clone, like a cell undergoing mitosis or the ship of Theseus. What does his theory of intrinsic value say about which, if either, of these clones are intrinsically valuable? Suppose David's mind or body is altered so he thinks and appears differently in certain ways. Would the pre-alteration David judge that the post-alteration David still has that egoistic intrinsic value? This would presumably depend on the nature and magnitude of the alterations, and David is left trying to say what, if anything, is "essential" about his identity.

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