Terminal Values: 10 Examples and Definition

terminal values examples and definition, explained below

Terminal/intrinsic values are the ultimate ends or goals that we wish to achieve.

For example, happiness is a goal that is universally desired. Terminal values are desirable in and of themselves. So, we don’t say we “want happiness for these 5 reasons”; instead, we simply say we “want to be happy” because it’s the goal.

Terminal values include goals that can be personal (e.g. happiness) as well as professional (e.g. recognition).

Identifying our terminal values helps us figure out what we truly want in our lives and plan our journeys accordingly.

Definition of Terminal Values

Robert Audi defines intrinsic/terminal value as:

“value that something has in itself, independently of its relations to other things” (Audi, 2004).

The sociologist Max Weber originally came up with the concept of “instrumental” and “intrinsic” (also called terminal) values (1978). 

He defined intrinsic value as actions that are shaped 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).

In contrast, instrumental values are actions determined by extrinsic expectations that are “means for the attainment of the actor’s own rationally pursued and calculated ends”. Weber hinted that efficient means always do not lead to legitimate ends. 

See Also: Different Types of Values

The Complexity of Terminal Values

In philosophy, intrinsic/terminal value is a complex idea, which is subject to scholarly debate.

For many philosophers (Epicurus, Bentham), pleasure is the ultimate end. Others, such as C. I. Lewis, believe that what is ultimately desirable are experiences that give “satisfactoriness”; pleasure is simply one form of satisfaction (Audi, 1999). 

Other philosophers (such as Moore and Rashdall) count many other things as intrinsically good: consciousness and the flourishing of life, knowledge and insight, friendship and mutual affection, etc. (Audi).

Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen explains how intrinsic/terminal values are even more complex. He points out how some objects may be valuable for their own sake; however, this may be linked to “relational properties that are not internal to the value bearer” (2015).

Take the case of a “unique” painting. Now, we might think that this painting has an excellent intrinsic/terminal value. However, the uniqueness itself is a feature that is related to the outer world. If someone made several copies of the painting, it will no longer be unique.

Therefore, “what is valuable for its own sake, that is, what has final value, may well accrue to something in virtue of some of its externally relational properties—uniqueness being a bona fide case of a relational feature.” (2015).

So, intrinsic/terminal value is quite a complex idea philosophically. Some scholars have also questioned the validity of intrinsic value while others have defended it. We will talk more about this later. 

See Also: Explanation of Values in Sociology


  1. Happiness: All human beings want to be happy. To achieve this terminal value, we try to make use of various instrumental values, such as being loving, helpful, forgiving, etc.
  2. Success: Success refers to a sense of accomplishment. Although different individuals can have different definitions of success, we all have the desire to achieve certain goals and live satisfying lives.
  3. Family Security: Wishing well for our families and taking care of them are crucial to all of us. In professional lives, individuals who value family security highly may choose to work close to their homes or have jobs that allow work-life balance.
  4. Recognition: Recognition is the desire to be acknowledged and appreciated for our work. Humans have a basic need for social connection and belonging; recognition satisfies this need. It is also an important motivator and boosts our self-esteem.
  5. Knowledge: The acquisition of new ideas is done not just for pragmatic purposes (say employment) but also as an end in itself. Human beings have an innate curiosity, which throughout history, has made us learn about the world. Knowledge is essential for our personal growth and also gives us satisfaction.
  6. Moral Virtue: Positive character traits and behavior constitute another terminal value. We aspire to be virtuous not because it will lead to some other benefit but simply because it is the right thing to do. Additionally, it also gives us inner peace and happiness.
  7. Love: Love in various forms (such as friendships, relationships, etc.) is a significant value. Meaningful social connections are fundamental to human life, and they give us a sense of belonging, support, and companionship.
  8. Self-Expression: Self-expression refers to the ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings. It can take many forms, such as writing, music, painting, etc. Self-expression is a fundamental human need, which allows us to explore ourselves and share an authentic version of ourselves with others.
  9. Aesthetic Experience: This refers to the subjective experience of beauty. Aesthetic experiences can come from looking at a beautiful landscape or engaging with a moving work of art. It fills us with a sense of wonder, making us feel connected with the world.
  10. Freedom: We all wish to live according to our own values without undue interference from others. Freedom is a fundamental human need, and it translates to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. Freedom allows us to live happily while also encouraging social progress.

Instrumental vs Terminal Values

Terminal values are ends in themselves while instrumental values are the means to achieve those ends. 

Instrumental values are means to achieve other desirable ends/goals. They are used to guide behavior and actions. For example, cheerfulness is an instrumental value, which allows us to build a positive environment and maintain healthy relationships. 

Instrumental values differ from terminal values in the following ways:

  • Means vs Ends: Instrumental values are the means to achieve something while terminal values are ends in themselves. For example, an instrumental value like discipline is a way of repeatedly performing certain tasks. This in turn can lead to terminal values, such as satisfaction, success, etc.
  • Context-Dependent vs Non-Changing: Instrumental values are usually context-dependent, and they can change as per social situations, group dynamics, and life experiences. In contrast, terminal values are unchanging—happiness is something that we always desire. Another way of saying this is that instrumental values are focused on the immediate present while terminal values are eternal.
  • Individual vs Universal: Instrumental values typically vary between individuals while terminal values are often the same for everyone. So, all of us desire happiness and success. But, how we plan to achieve them, that is, our instrumental values can differ significantly. Some people might always be helpful while others might prioritize their own career over those of others. 

Defence of Intrinsic/Terminal Values

While some scholars have questioned the legitimacy of intrinsic/terminal values, others such as Jacques Ellul and Anjan Chakravartty have defended them.

John Dewey, following Max Weber, argued that intrinsic value is problematic because it ignores the context and consequences of beliefs and behaviors (1929). Similarly, Foster believed that it was necessary to identify the developmental sequences of means and ends (Marc, 2000).

However, there are some scholars who have defended intrinsic/terminal values.

1. Jacques Ellul

Ellul argues that technology has contaminated instrumental value, and therefore, the latter must be subordinated to intrinsic supernatural value.

John Dewey and J. Fagg Foster considered instrumental value to be the core of human rationality. However, Ellul sharply criticized the autonomous authority of instrumental value, especially instrumental technology. 

“There is nothing spiritual anywhere”, he writes, “But man cannot live without the [intrinsic] sacred.” In the absence of the spiritual, man transfers his sense of sacred “to the very thing which has destroyed its former object: to technique itself.” (1964). 

In other words, Ellul felt that technology has destroyed the intrinsic meanings of human life. He traces this phenomenon to the 1800s when handicraft techniques were eliminated by inhuman industries.

Ellul’s point is that instrumental efficiency has become absolute i.e. a good-in-itself. The only way to escape from technology’s negative effects was to go back to the authority of unconditional sacred valuations. 

2. Anjan Chakravartty

Chakravartty defended intrinsic/terminal values by taking recourse to science.

He argues that intrinsic values are necessary elements of all science; that is, they are necessary for the belief in unobservable continuities. He calls his thesis semi-realism, which states that scientific theories can help us understand mind-independent, unconditional reality.

Scientific theories may change over time, but this does not mean reality itself is changing. Instead, our understanding and approximation of natural phenomena are getting better, taking us closer to reality.

To summarize, contingent instrumental valuations are significant only to the extent that they help us approximate unchanging intrinsic valuations (2007). In other words, science ultimately takes us to terminal values, which are most important.


Intrinsic/terminal values are ends in and of themselves.

They are the ultimate goals that we wish to achieve in our personal and professional lives. Philosophically, intrinsic value can be a complex idea, which is subject to much debate. While many scholars have attacked intrinsic value, others have also defended it. 


Audi, R. (2004). “Intrinsic value”. In R. Audi (Ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed., pp. 125-126). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chakravartty, A. (2007). A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dewey, J. (1929). Quest for Certainty. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society. Berlin: Knopf.

Rønnow-Rasmussen, T. (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tool, M. (2000). Value Theory and Economic Progress: The Institutional Economics of J. Fagg Foster. New York: Kluwer Academic.

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Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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