Talons Philosophy

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Metaphysics Reading- Kara

intrinsic morality

My question concerns intrinsic morality. Are humans born with an ingrained moral code? Would we be moral without those roots? And perhaps most importantly, is morality, in its entirety, merely just another social construct? These aren’t new questions, so as I’ve been considering them I sought out to clarify some of these terms.

Jeff Landauer writes: The idea of intrinsic value is a rationalization. For morality to be useful, values must exist as absolutes. If values are subjective, then they are mere figments of imagination, and one cannot hold others to one’s personal moral standards, since they are believed without reason. Intrinsic value attempts to solve this problem by creating absolutes that are always true. The value exists as a characteristic inherent in the object.”

Let’s begin with the clarification of “intrinsic.” Intricism is “the belief that value is a non-relational characteristic of an object.” [Intrinsic Value].

When we examine intrinsic morality with this understanding present, we can gain new insight. It would seem paradoxical that an inherently subjective concept such as morality, commonly suggested to be heavily influenced by factors like environment and familial values, could ever be intrinsic.

Indeed, this theory is supported by experimental findings such as the repeatedly referenced, iconic, Stanford Prison Experiment. In an analysis of the study, Saul McLeod states:

“Zimbardo proposed that two processes can explain the prisoner’s ‘final submission’. Deindividuation may explain the behaviour of the participants; especially the guards. This is a state when you become so immersed in the norms of the group that you lose your sense of identity and personal responsibility. The guards may have been so sadistic because they did not feel what happened was down to them personally – it was a group norm.”

This conclusion would support the theory that people readily conform to the social roles they are expected to, even at the cost of individualism, health, and highly ingrained morals. Thusly, this conclusion would argue against the postulate that humans have any intrinsic morality – if it is easily sacrificed in the name of conformity, it was never intrinsic to begin with.

Interestingly, The Stanford Prison Experiment is often cited as proof that humans are born with intrinsic morality, but it is of a far darker sort than most are comfortable to admit.

The swirls are supposed to represent literally "churning evil" inside our heads. :/

The swirls are supposed to represent literally “churning evil” inside our heads. :/

Zimbardo is famous for stating that “that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny.” Fortunately for the idealists and optimists of the human race, this premise is widely regarded as false. The true lesson of Stanford is that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors of brutality, not that those behaviors are quickly and easily coaxed out of us because they are lurking close beneath the surface.

So perhaps intrinsic morality doesn’t exist. Most of my findings have echoed that hollow truth. However, perhaps a shade of it persists in all of us, in a very base form – that of the basic and fundamental perception of pain and pleasure. James Grey has a FAQ that elaborates on this, but for now we can just look at this excerpt:

We know what has intrinsic value through experience. We experience that pain is bad and pleasure is good. We know other people have the same kinds of experiences for similar reasons. We know other people’s pleasure is good just like our own and their pain is bad just like our own. That is why it makes sense that we care for other people. To not care for other people is irrational because we aren’t the center of the universe. Other people also exist and they are just as important as ourselves. To act like one’s own pleasure matters, but no one else’s pleasure matters is a strange denial of intrinsic value.

If something is intrinsically good, then we should have reason to believe that it’s not merely good in some other sense. We shouldn’t merely desire it, and it shouldn’t merely be useful. Pleasure in particular seems like something we desire precisely because it feels good and it “feeling good” seems like a good reason to think it really is good no matter who experiences it.”

Perhaps the only real intrinsic morality we are born with is that pain is bad, and that pleasure is good. If to be “good” is our end, or even if the actual experience of pleasure is the end, then the only real subjective part is the means by which we achieve that end. Violence, dominion over others, spiteful behaviour, and the dispensation of wrath are all known and documented to give pleasure, so it could be said that these actions, as means to a “good” intrinsically moral end, are intrinsically moral in and of themselves – except that, they are not known to give the MOST pleasure. Humans are drawn towards compassion, empathy, love, forgiveness, and peace because it is known to give long term fulfillment and pleasure, far surpassing the former list of concepts.

And, if:

  • To bring pleasure is “good”
  • To not bring pleasure is “not good”
  • Something that brings less pleasure is “less good” then something that brings more pleasure
  • To be “good” is the only form of intrinsic morality we have

Then the more commonly cherished concepts like compassion are more intrinsically moral than the more fringe concepts such as spite.



FAQ on Intrinsic Value. (2011). Retrieved April 20, 2016, from https://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/faq-on-intrinsic-value/

Intrinsic Value. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2016, from http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/Evil_Intrinsicism.html

McLeod, S. A. (2016). Zimbardo – Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html

The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment – The New Yorker. (2015). Retrieved April 20, 2016, from http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-real-lesson-of-the-stanford-prison-experiment



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