It is sometimes debated whether it is possible for particular acts or maxims, or acts or maxims in general, to have intrinsic value: whether they can be nonderivatively good. E.g. Is telling the truth intrinsically right? Is killing intrinsically wrong?

It is taken for granted that extrinsic values exist, e.g. it follows from lying being intrinsically wrong that lying to Jane about not being able to attend the party is extrinsically wrong.

However, I find it somewhat plausible that all rights and wrongs are intrinsic, where each act or maxim has its own intrinsic value, not dependent on any sort of syllogism with more general acts or maxims. Lying to Jane may have been intrinsically right or wrong, it may be that an exception was made for this particular case, or that the general act of lying cannot have an intrinsic value, and that there are only specific intrinsic values. In essence, there is no such thing as an extrinsic value.

Yet, all this feels uncomfortable, are there any arguments that address this sort of extrinsic value denial?

1 Answer 1


This question shifts topic from extrinsic value to extrinsic right and wrong. The need for discussing extrinsic value becomes much more obvious when we consider cases of goodness rather than rightness.

Donuts and cars are good in certain situations. Hungry and in need of a ride, I value them enormously. But seen in a different light or in a different situation, they can look different in value. They pollute or can make me fat, and are worse things relative to bicycling or spinach.

Such variability by context is the mark of the extrinsic. If we called these things intrinsically good, we wouldn’t acknowledge their badness in some contexts.

Surely as part of basic human interaction we want and need to acknowledge that we value many such things, though we may not always value them in every way.

  • Thanks for your answer, I understand the need for extrinsic value now much better, in examining non-moral values. However, I still don't see why an act, when considering the moral judgement of it, may be extrinsically right or wrong. Oct 22, 2017 at 18:35
  • If I consider an act in the past (e.g. was lying to Jane last week about the party wrong?), or when debating what to do in a moral dilemma (e.g. should I lie to Jane about being able to attend the party?), where the context is not allowed to vary but is fixed and given, why is it assumed that extrinsic right or wrong, perhaps derived from some intrinsically right or wrong moral principle, must exist? Oct 22, 2017 at 18:35
  • You’re asking the question in the passive voice. Who are you interested in that assumes this? Oct 22, 2017 at 20:18
  • Its a theme I've encountered generally. For example in this SEP article, a section is devoted to whether intrinsic value exists, but not the same for extrinsic value. Perhaps my question is imprecisely-worded, maybe it should be 'why is the existence of extrinsic value not as doubted as intrinsic value?'. Simplygoogling 'does intrinsic value exist' yields quite a few relevant results, whereas the same for extrinsic value doesn't seem to yield any relevant results apart from this question. Oct 22, 2017 at 20:56
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    I think my answer suggests why it exists. Whether or not any specific kind of thing can be intrinsically or extrinsically valuable is a somewhat different question, and one best answered against a particular framework establishing what value is. I don’t think a particular lie has intrinsic value, and on many frameworks like consequentialism, the question of it having intrinsic value doesn’t arise. Oct 22, 2017 at 21:03

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