Instrumental values are the means to achieve some other desirable ends/goals. These values are used to guide behavior and actions.
Here, sociologists make a distinction between two types of values:
- Instrumental Values: Values that we have because they help use achieve something else – they’re a means to an end. E.g. honest is valued because it’s good for positive relationships.
- Terminal Values: Values that we have because they’re our end goal in life. E.g. happiness is not valued to achieve anything else beyond that. Happiness is the goal.
Definition of Instrumental Values
Julia Driver defines the concept in the following way:
“Instrumental value refers to the value that something has as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself”. (2001).
Anything that serves as a means to an end is said to have instrumental value. For example, a phone is a means to an end (communication). If you don’t have a phone, you can still achieve the end through other means (say video calling through your computer).
The concept of “instrumental” and “intrinsic” (also called terminal) values was coined by the sociologist Max Weber. He defined the former as action determined by extrinsic expectations, which are “means for the attainment of the actor’s own rationally pursued and calculated ends”.
In contrast, intrinsic or terminal values are actions determined by a “conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other forms of behavior, independently of its prospects of success.” (1978).
Weber included a small comment suggesting that efficient means do not always lead to legitimate ends. We will talk more about this later while looking at Dewey and Foster.
See Also: Explanation of Values in Sociology
Examples of Instrumental Values
- Obedience: We are obedient because it has instrumental value to us. It allows society to maintain social order and cohesion, such as when people follow traffic rules, follow workplace rules, or adopt social etiquette. But personally, it is instrumental because it can help us achieve personal development: when we will listen to parents, teachers, and mentors, we acquire valuable skills & knowledge.
- Cheerfulness: Being positive and taking things with a can-do attitude can lead us to many good things in life, so we may choose to be cheerful because of its instrumental value. Cheerfulness leads to lower levels of stress and anxiety while also improving physical health. It also helps lift the mood of others and create a supportive environment.
- Honesty: Honesty has instrumental value to us. If we are honest on a regular basis, we will build trust and rapport with others, which is necessary for building strong and healthy relationships. Plus, being honest means that we can be confident in ourselves and our actions, without compromising our integrity.
- Manners: Showing consideration and kindness towards others through appropriate behavior can help us achieve our personal as well as professional end goals. They promote mutual respect and harmony in social interactions while helping to avoid misunderstandings.
- Helpfulness: This refers to a willingness to help and support others without expecting anything in return. It creates a positive social environment (both in personal & professional spheres), where people can count on each other. Moreover, studies show that people who are helpful experience greater levels of happiness & wellness.
- Loyalty: Loyalty means commitment towards a person, group, or organization. It is essential for developing healthy relationships, and it provides a sense of stability, which is especially vital in today’s uncertain world. In workplaces, loyalty means working dedicatedly and being true to the company’s values.
- Creativity: The ability to create innovative ideas and solutions is a vital instrumental value. Thinking outside the box can lead to discoveries, which can advance our society. Plus, engaging in creative acts (such as writing, playing music, etc.) provides a greater sense of fulfillment & joy.
- Forgiveness: Forgiveness refers to the act of letting go of anger and resentment towards those who have wronged us. Instead of bitterness, it encourages us to be understanding & compassionate. Forgiveness can improve our relationships as well as positively impact our well-being.
- Responsibility: Being accountable for one’s actions and obligations is important in all aspects of life. It promotes personal growth by making us take charge of our lives and make decisions that align with our values. In both personal and professional contexts, it ensures that we fulfill our obligations.
- Discipline: Discipline means practicing self-control and adhering to specific routines. Channeling one’s energy in a positive direction can help us achieve our goals. It promotes personal growth by teaching us to delay gratification and face challenges. Plus, discipline is necessary to function within society, say following laws.
Instrumental vs Terminal values
Instrumental values are means to other things while terminal values are ends in themselves—the former helps us achieve the latter.
Terminal values are those values that are desirable in and of themselves. For example, happiness is something that we all want to achieve. We don’t say that “We want happiness for X reasons”; instead, we say that “We want to be happy”.
In other words, terminal values are the ultimate ends or goals that we want to achieve in life. These goals can be personal (happiness) as well as professional (recognition). Identifying our terminal values helps us figure out what we truly want in our lives.
This in turn can help us make decisions and plan the trajectory of our personal as well as professional journeys. Terminal values are different from instrumental values in the following ways:
- Instrumental values are means to achieve something while terminal values are ends in themselves. So, an instrumental value like honesty is a way of maintaining trustworthy relationships. Good relationships in turn lead to terminal values, such as happiness, love, etc.
- Instrumental values are focused on the present and are context-dependent. In contrast, terminal values are eternal and non-changing. For example, politeness is an instrumental value that is necessary for the workplace. But, at times, we may feel that directness is more appropriate and choose to be blunt. So, our larger goal of achieving success stays intact, while our instrumental values may change with situations.
- Instrumental values usually vary between individuals while terminal values are often similar for most people. For example, all human beings desire happiness, but how we choose to achieve that happiness can differ. These differences in instrumental values can often lead to conflicts, especially in workplaces. For example, some may value manners highly while others may consider them stifling. For colleagues, it’s important to recognize and negotiate these differences to build healthy relationships.
Going Against Intrinsic/Terminal Values
Dewey and Foster both prioritize instrumental values, questioning the validity of intrinsic/terminal values.
1. John Dewey
Dewey felt that belief in intrinsic value was a mistake and that the only way to judge human actions legitimately was through instrumental values. Like Weber, Dewey argued that intrinsic value is problematic because it ignores the context and consequences of beliefs & behaviors (1929).
However, unlike Weber, Dewey disagreed that supernatural intrinsic value was necessary to tell humans what is eternally “right”. Instead, Dewey believed that both efficient and legitimate values must be found in everyday life.
There is no “antecedent immutable reality of truth, beauty, and goodness”. Instead, goodness must be found in the continuity of human experience (1929). As Anderson puts it, Dewey replaces the “goal of identifying an ultimate end” with the “goal of identifying a method for improving our value judgments”. (2005).
To summarize, Dewey believed that things cannot be judged to be good in themselves; they must always be understood in the context of means-ends relations.
2. J. Fagg Foster
Like Dewey, Foster also rejected the validity of intrinsic values and argued that it was necessary to identify the developmental sequences of means & ends.
Foster rejects the legitimacy of utilitarian ends. Utilitarians argue that wants are subjective valuations that are intrinsically valuable. However, Foster says that want-satisfaction cannot be
a moral compass because wants are simply consequences of transient conditions (Tool, 2000).
He gives the example of infants learning to walk. Infants instantly realize that walking is more efficient than crawling. They begin learning it and experience great satisfaction when they can finally walk. However, satisfaction was never their end goal.
So, Foster is proposing a revised definition of instrumental value. Here, instrumental is never a “short term”; instead, it refers to instrumentally-efficient means that work towards developmentally-continuous ends.
Instrumental success is therefore similar to the modern idea of sustainability. Instead of being short-term, it is a long-term approach to solving problems.
Instrumental values refer to values that are the means to achieve some other things.
They are contrasted with intrinsic/terminal values, which are seen to be ends in themselves. So, honesty is an example of an instrumental value, which helps us develop healthy relationships. That, in turn, leads us to intrinsic/terminal values of happiness, love, etc.
Instrumental values are often context-dependent and may change over time. They can vary widely among individuals and these differences can often cause conflict. So, it is important to recognize and negotiate these differences (especially in workplaces) to maintain cordiality.
Scholars such as John Dewey and J. Foster believe that the notion of intrinsic values is false. Instead, they prioritize instrumental values and argue that we can only judge goodness by looking at means-end relations.
Anderson, Elizabeth (20 January 2005). “Dewey’s Moral Philosophy”. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University.
Dewey, John (1929). Quest for Certainty. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Driver, J. (2001). “The grounds of moral realism”. In R. Crisp (Ed.), How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tool, Marc (2000). Value Theory and Economic Progress: The Institutional Economics of J. Fagg Foster. Kluwer Academic.
Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society. Los Angeles: University of California Press.