Re: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Eric Watt Forste (
Tue, 6 Aug 1996 21:18:38 -0700

>Intrinsic goal: get some honey. Why? Because I just happen to want
>some honey. Why? Because ... er ..., gee, I have this mental state
>that says I desire honey. Why? Well, either the mental state is a
>stupid mistake arising from general mental flakeyness (and the desire
>for honey is therefore a stupid goal), or the mental state has some
>valid cause outside of itself, such as evolution plus a need for
>calories or nutritional completeness or some such. Why? Well, I need
>calories or nutritional completeness so I can stay alive and healthy.
>So now the goal has become either extrinsic or stupid, right?

All goals are "stupid" in *this* sense, because the desire to remain alive
and healthy arises in what you are dismissing as "general mental
flakiness". Once you get to the point where you can rearrange yourself so
as to enjoy anything (the perfect Stoic), well, you have to have some other
reason for *choosing* to do something, right? That's what I'm proposing
generalizable extrinsicity for. If you have complete control over what you
choose to be pleased by and what you choose to be displeased by, perhaps
all that's left as a rational goal is to keep your options open, or rather,
to open them further, as wide as possible.

But what you call "stupidity", I call "autonomy".

Another way to look at the dichotomy (which I'm bringing up but have no
interest in defending) is to say that intrinsic goals are goals the
recognition of the attainment of which causes a stimulus of some sort to
the "pleasure center" in the brain. *Purely* extrinsic goals do no such
thing. If you rearrange yourself so as to particularly enjoy some
"extrinsic" activity, then that activity becomes a mixed goal, both done
intrinsically for its own sake and also extrinsically as a means to further

One interesting fact from psychology is that human beings seem to be
capable of arranging their minds (over the long term, or having their minds
arranged for them by outside conditioning) so that damn near anything can
cause a pleasure response. That is, people can *learn* to enjoy nearly
anything. The intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy should certainly not be seen as
any kind of magical, hard-and-fast distinction. It's fuzzy, and most human
values partake of both sides.

>If we call it extrinsic, we should take the trouble to remember the
>original thing that made us want to call it intrinsic -- the emotion
>with which it was held. It's the emotion that makes satisfying the
>goal non-drudgery; I don't think it is important that the emotion is
>the ultimate justification of the action. Emotions are quite
>flexible, so it is very risky to use them as an ultimate

There isn't any such thing as "ultimate justification"; in fact, it's a
contradiction in terms. If I didn't believe that, I might also retort
"human intellect is quite flexible, so it is very risky to use it as an
ultimate justification".

>Quite often people think a goal is somehow "true" if you don't know
>where it came from. This is quite analogous with Christians who think
>that Faith is good simply because there is no rational reason to do
>it. Yuck. I prefer extrinsic goals, since IMO the allegedly
>intrinsic ones are either stupid goals or are really extrinsic goals
>that are not well-understood. Calling them intrinsic stops the
>understanding. Among non-philosophers, intrinsic goals are called
>"fun". These are the frivolous goals Lyle was talking about.

You say you prefer extrinsic goals, instrumental goals, to intrinsic ones.
But extrinsicity or instrumentality implies some further end in mind, and
you say nothing about the further end that you have in mind when you say
you favor extrinsic goals. I guess what you're saying is that you've
decided to adopt "generalizable extrinsicity" as your primary intrinsic
goal, and I didn't even have to talk you into it. Gosh, that was easy. I
guess I'm on the right track.

>Having fun is okay, but don't use it to justify your actions.

What do you propose as an alternative? All I can make out is that you're
agreeing with me about "generalizable extrinsicity". If you're disagreeing
with me, I'm not sure where.

My point in defending "frivolous goals" was this. What Newton was doing
during the plague year at Woolsthorpe Manor was extremely frivolous. It was
a purely upper-class intellectual pursuit with no practical application
that anyone at the time could have proposed. Even if it did have a
practical application that someone might have foreseen at the time, I can
assure you that this had absolutely nothing to do with Newton's motivation.
Newton himself thought his work during the plague year was frivolous; he
didn't bother writing it up for years, and then, after finishing the first
book of Principia Mathematica, he let it sit in a drawer for several more
years until Halley found it and talked him into finishing and publishing

What Archimedes and Euclid were doing when they developed Greek mathematics
to its height was likewise a purely frivolous goal. They had no reason to
believe that what they were doing would ever be useful to anyone but
philosophers, and they did it anyway, because they were philosophers and
that is what they enjoyed doing. Apollonius's study of conic sections lay
unused, a purely frivolous accomplishment, for almost two millenia until
Kepler, in his own frivolous astronomical pursuits, found a new
philosophical application for them.

My point then is that we had better be tolerant of people's frivolous
goals, because the only way to see what new and generally-extrinsically
valuable things might arise from them is to wait and see. Hayek makes this
point over and over again.

And given that much, I don't think it would do too much harm for you to be
tolerant of your own frivolous goals. You'll never know what you missed out
on if you ruthlessly suppress them all.

Eric Watt Forste <>