Intrinsic value is the assumed worth something has in itself that is independent of its usefulness to anyone. If animals have intrinsic value then we should protect them for their own sake.
The concept of value is one of the most important subjects in ethics and is particularly significant for animal rights.
Philosophers often distinguish two kinds of value: instrumental value and intrinsic value. Instrumental value is the value or worth that something has because of its usefulness to people. Some animals clearly have instrumental value, like oxen for pulling wagons and horses for riding. In contrast, something of intrinsic value is said to have value or worth in itself, irrespective of its usefulness to humans. You may, for instance, value your cat; he seems to have no usefulness and you value him in himself for himself. Something can have intrinsic and instrumental value at the same time. You value your donkey intrinsically for himself but also value him instrumentally for pulling your cart to market. Inherent value and inherent worth are alternative names for intrinsic value.
The Importance of Intrinsic Value
Contemporary philosophers, such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan, argue that if a human or animal has certain characteristics, such as interests (Singer) or is a subject of a life (Regan), then they have intrinsic value. Furthermore, if animals have intrinsic value then we should protect them for their own sake, not just because they might be useful to us.
Some philosophers claim that intrinsic value is absolute, that all creatures including humans have the same worth. However, other philosophers hold that intrinsic value is a matter of degree. Moreover, they claim that intrinsic value is relative to humans in some way, usually that humans have more intrinsic value than animals, who often have no value. Philosophers like Descartes (1596 - 1650) and Spinoza (1632 - 1677) claimed that animals have only instrumental value for humans. They asserted that rationality and consciousness are essential for intrinsic value but that animals have neither of these faculties.
"Why should we not attribute 'intrinsic dignity' or 'intrinsic worth' to ourselves? Fellow humans are unlikely to reject the accolades we so generously bestow on them, and those to whom we deny the honour are unable to object."
Peter Singer. 1986. Applied Ethics. p228.
Some Criticisms of Intrinsic Value
Philosophers argue as to whether intrinsic value actually exists. Does it exist without humans, like the stars, or is it a concept only in the human mind, like unicorns? It may be that intrinsic value does not exist, that it is merely an apparent value that humans like to give to things they seem to have no use for.
Is intrinsic value real or imaginary, like this triangle? Could this triangle exist in three dimensions or is it an illusion?
If intrinsic value exists, where does it come from and are there qualitatively different kinds of intrinsic value, one quality for humans and other qualities for different species?
If all animals have equal (that is absolute) intrinsic value and you face a moral conflict to decide whether a man or a dog must die, then the concept of intrinsic value cannot help you because dog and man are equal. Absolute intrinsic value then loses its practical power. By necessity you may have to rank creatures in order of their importance to you and intrinsic value might only be a vague global ideal.
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