Intrinsic value of choice

I know that this question has practical and political implications, but for now, I’m treating it as a “just for fun” philosophical question.  Just wanted to be upfront.

What is the value of freedom of choice?  Does it have intrinsic value, or is its value purely instrumental?

A thing has “intrinsic value” if it is valuable in itself.  It has “instrumental value” if it is valuable because it is a means to get something else of value.  For instance, suppose we have a choice between mushroom and cheese pizza.  This choice has instrumental value, because it’s a means for people to have the kind of pizza they most prefer.  But does the choice also have intrinsic value?

Under an initial analysis, I thought the answer was “no”.  If I’m presented with a one-time choice between A and B, and I choose A, did the other option B do any good?  At least within a consequentialist ethical framework, it sure doesn’t seem like it.  After all, option B had no bearing on the consequences.

But perhaps this analysis only makes sense for a one-time choice.  If you think about the choice between mushroom and cheese, that’s not just a single choice made by one person at one point in time.  It’s made by lots of people every time they order pizza, or go to a party where both are available.  Some people choose cheese, and some choose mushroom, and so it would seem that both options have bearings on the consequences.  But is the value intrinsic or instrumental?

At this point, I thought, “Gee, I should just look it up in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”.  I didn’t find anything on SEP, but I found an interesting paper:

Gustafsson, J. E. (2019), A Paradox for the Intrinsic Value of Freedom of Choice. Noûs.

I don’t have journal access, but I found a pdf through Gustafsson’s website.  I’ll summarize the main argument.

Gustafsson describes choices using a choice set.  For instance, if I have a choice between X, Y, and Z, then the choice set is {X,Y,Z}.  If I’m forced to choose X, then the choice set is just {X}.

Another important concept is the idea that some choices may be “rationally required” and some “rationally permitted”.  If we think people may rationally prefer cheese pizza or mushroom pizza, then we say that both options are rationally permitted (relative to one another).  On the other hand, if we believe that nobody can rationally prefer pineapple pizza over cheese pizza, then we say that cheese is rationally required (over pineapple).

The argument is structured as an argument from contradiction.  Suppose we believe that freedom of choice has intrinsic value.  Gustafsson states five conditions that should hold under this belief, and one small assumption that most people would agree with.  Then he uses the five conditions and one assumption to prove a contradiction.  I’ll go through the conditions/assumptions (but not in the same order).

Existence of dominated diversity:  There exist choices X, Y, and Z, such that X and Y are rationally permitted relative to one another, but Z is rationally required over both X and Y.  For example, we could say that X is “buy a pizza” and Y is “don’t buy a pizza”, and Z is “get a pizza for free”.  It’s rationally permitted to prefer pizza to money, or to prefer money to pizza, but keeping both seems like clearly the best option.  It’s not a perfect example (Gustaffson has a better example with insurance), but clearly I’m writing this while hungry so let’s go with it.

Value of rational diversity: If there’s any situation where having a choice has intrinsic value, it’s when you have additional rationally permitted options.  I’m going to use a bit of math notation, and say V(A) is the intrinsic value of choice for choice set A.  So we can say that V({buy a pizza, don’t buy a pizza}) > V({buy a pizza}), because buying a pizza and not buying a pizza are both rationally permitted over one another.

Harmlessness of expansions: Adding more options never hurts.  For instance V({get a pizza for free, buy a pizza, don’t buy a pizza}) ≥ V({buy a pizza, don’t buy a pizza}), because all you’ve done is add an extra option.

Insignificance of dominated options: Options that aren’t rationally permitted don’t change the intrinsic value of a choice set.  For instance, V({get a pizza for free, buy a pizza, don’t buy a pizza}) = V({get a pizza for free}), because the free pizza was rationally required anyway.

Parity of no-choice situations: The intrinsic value of a choice set with only one option is the same regardless of what the single choice is.  The idea is that a forced choice offers no freedom of choice at all.  Under this principle, we can say V({get a pizza for free}) = V({buy a pizza}).

Transitivity of weakly better freedom of choice: Gustafsson’s name for this is a mouthful, but basically it just means the intrinsic value of choice obeys transitivity relationships.  So, if V(A) ≥ V(B) and V(B) ≥ V(C), then V(A) ≥ V(C).

Some readers may have figured out where this is going.  We just chain together the inequalities…

V({buy a pizza}) = V({get a pizza for free}) = V({get a pizza for free, buy a pizza, don’t buy a pizza}) ≥ V({buy a pizza, don’t buy a pizza}) > V({buy a pizza})

Then we use transitivity to show that

V({buy a pizza}) > V({buy a pizza})

which is a contradiction.  Put in more mathematical terms, we have

V({X}) = V({Z}) = V({X,Y,Z}) ≥ V({X,Y}) > V({X})

Therefore, V({X}) > V({X})

So, that’s neat.  Freedom of choice doesn’t have intrinsic value, only instrumental value.  And it would seem this argument neither assumes a one-time choice nor a consequentialist framework.

Naturally, this is only the easy part of the argument; the hard part is justifying all those premises!  The bulk of the paper discusses objections to each of the conditions/assumptions.  But now it’s lunchtime so I leave you with this basic summary.


  1. says

    What is the value of freedom of choice? Does it have intrinsic value, or is its value purely instrumental?

    The value is primarily instrumental. For example, I dislike mushrooms. Without the option to pick a cheese pizza, I’d have to either remain hungry or eat something I dislike. Alternatively, to give a more serious example—if I got forced to live as the gender I was assigned at birth, I’d really hate my life.

    But there’s also an intrinsic value—I feel like I’m in charge of my own life. I feel like my life has value and that I’m not just a mindless prisoner and a tiny screw in an oppressive system. For example, even though I like cheese pizza and I would willingly choose to eat it, I wouldn’t like being force fed with some cheese pizza.

    Here’s a practical example. I visit my boyfriend and the only food he has at home is a cheese pizza. I’ll happily eat it without complaining about the lack of choice. But in this simple situation I was given lots of subtle choices:
    (1) I have already previously given my boyfriend a long list of all the things I don’t like eating, thus I have already made sure that he’ll prepare some food that I will like, this means I have already eliminated all the food choices I would dislike;
    (2) if the only food available at my boyfriend’s home was something I didn’t want to eat, I could always demand him to make something different (he’s a nice guy, he’d fulfill such a request);
    (3) I have chosen to visit my boyfriend on that particular day, I’m at his home as a result of my free choice, on top of that, I also got to choose which person I want as my boyfriend.

    Contrast that with a true no-choice situation, for example, some psycho kidnapping me and force feeding me with cheese pizza.

    In my own life, I tend to be uncomfortable with true no-choice situations. Even when the only option is objectively not bad at all, when it’s something I might have chosen anyway, the fact that nobody asked my opinion still bothers me. It feels like I have no voice, no say about what happens with me. Something gets done with me even though I never consented to it. Here’s a simple example: I like hugging my friends, I don’t mind being touched and touching other people as a form of showing affection. But I always want other people to ask for my permission before they touch or hug me. Even when I would answer with “sure, I like hugs,” I still want to be asked first. By explicitly giving me a choice, the other person demonstrates that they respect me and they care about my preferences. They don’t just do with me whatever they want. A few people have touched me without first asking for permission, and it always felt mildly uncomfortable for me. Even though in given situations I would have consented to hugs anyway (if asked for permission), the fact that other people failed to first ask me made me feel uncomfortable.

  2. says

    @Andreas Avester,

    Contrast that with a true no-choice situation, for example, some psycho kidnapping me and force feeding me with cheese pizza.

    That’s not really equivalent. I mean, if you were kidnapped, and the force-fed pizza, but you had the choice between mushroom and cheese pizza, that would hardly be great either.

    But yes, you could say that having extra options, even if you consistently don’t take that options, might be better. This could be framed as disputing the “insignificance of dominated options” assumption.

  3. says

    @Andreas Avester:

    But there’s also an intrinsic value—I feel like I’m in charge of my own life.

    Well, sort of. But you’re saying you don’t value the choice for the choice, but value the choice because

    1. If (Availability of choice) THEN (feeling that you are in charge of your own life) (P)
    2. (feeling that you are in charge of your own life) = (something valuable) (P)
    3. If (Availability of choice) THEN (something valuable) (P1, P2)

    But, please note, if you get that feeling that you are in control of your life from some other source (say, you’re an AI that has been programmed to believe you are in control of your own life), you still get the same value even in the absence of actual availability of choice.

    So long as “availability of choice” gets its value in this way then it can be said to be instrumentally but not intrinsically valuable.

    HOWEVER, there are also other ways to define something as intrinsically valuable. If, given what we know to be true about the universe + what must be true given the premises within a particular argument, a thing must always be valuable, THEN it is intrinsically valuable even if its value could also be cogently argued to be instrumental in nature.

    It is the existence of inevitable but conceptually distinct externalities that is the source of a large amount of the ambiguity in debating intrinsic versus instrumental values.

    There are also other issues, like what if someone doesn’t feel that they have control over their own lives, and yet still actually have the capacity to choose between {free desired pizza, free non-desired pizza – say, with pineapple – expensive desired pizza, expensive non-desired pizza, cheap desired pizza, cheap non-desired pizza, no pizza}? Even if the value of choice to you could be said to be inevitable and thus, for our purposes, intrinsic, the value of choice for this other person who feels out of control might truly be entirely instrumental.

    When the value of choice is intrinsic for some and instrumental for others, what can we say more generally about the value of choice? Is it “really” instrumental because its value is non-intrinsic in at least one case? Is it “really” intrinsic for converse reasons? Something else?

    Value and valuing are two of the hardest problems in philosophy, which is one reason why consequentialisms are so many, so varied, and so contested. How can someone else determine how much I value a thing?

  4. says

    This is very good. I think the argument is sound. With your permission, could I use your article as a resource and lecture topic for my economics students?

    It feels counter-intuitive, but I think our intuition conflates instrumental and intrinsic value, which seems to make some sense because assigning intrinsic value to an instrumental value might be a useful computation-conserving heuristic. I like having the choice between pepperoni pizza and sausage pizza just because sometimes I prefer pepperoni and sometimes I prefer sausage; and in a social sense, I like that there’s a choice between meat-lovers’ and vegetarian pizza because even though I would never buy a vegetarian pizza, I value my vegetarian neighbors’ utility.

    There is also empirical research that shows that too much choice tends to make people less happy. See, e.g. Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice.

    I’ve thought about this a bit, and I can’t think of a counter-example that doesn’t reduce to instrumental value.

    I’ve written myself about the concept of “moral inversion”. For example, from Reflections on money:

    We construct short-term goals and rewards to instrumentally achieve a long-term goal, but then we assign an intrinsic good to the short-term goals directly, which often inverts our judgment of the long term goal. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig explains the concept in his (probably apocryphal) story about the sacralization of cows in India: these cows are incredibly useful, therefore they must be gifts from the gods, therefore they are sacred, therefore we must not use them. The moral value of the cow has been inverted from valuable because they’re useful to useless because they’re valuable.

  5. says

    @Larry #4,
    You have my permission.

    It feels counter-intuitive, but I think our intuition conflates instrumental and intrinsic value, which seems to make some sense because assigning intrinsic value to an instrumental value might be a useful computation-conserving heuristic.

    That’s very insightful.

    There is also empirical research that shows that too much choice tends to make people less happy. See, e.g. Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice.

    Yes, I thought someone would eventually bring that up. I would argue that what’s going on, is that the choices have changed. Suppose we compare the choice set {cheese} to {cheese, mushroom, pineapple, pepperoni, sausage}. The “cheese” in the first choice set isn’t quite the same as in the second choice set, because the first one is just “get a cheese pizza”, and the second one is “get a cheese pizza, and experience the cognitive load of having to make a choice”.

    Gustaffson mentioned this as a possible objection to the “harmlessness of expansions” condition, but remarked that the proof only required three options at most.

  6. says

    Regarding the paradox of choice: more choice leads to reduced satisfaction only when people have no clue what they want. Connoisseurs, on the other hand, love more choice, because that’s the only way how they can get their favorite option. For example, I am familiar with dozens of apple cultivars, and I can recognize the subtle differences between them. It’s impossible for me to buy apples in a regular supermarket, because I don’t want to eat either “Red Delicious,” or “Golden Delicious,” or “Gala.” I dislike all of these alternatives. I buy all my apples in a farmers’ market where I can choose between several dozen different apple cultivars. This one is my favorite apple cultivar. No supermarket ever sells these apples, because they are just so tiny and not particularly attractive looking. But their taste is amazing and my all time favorite. When I go to a farmers’ market to buy apples and I see dozens of options, I don’t get paralyzed by too many choices. I have already sampled every one of them, and I simply buy one of my favorites (I have several apple cultivars that I really love).

    Of course, when I have to buy something that I’m unfamiliar with, I do experience difficulty deciding which option to pick. For example, if I had to buy wine, I’d just buy whatever is cheaper, because I know almost nothing about wines.

    Moreover, often when technically I’m presented with multiple choices, in reality there is only one (or just a few) choices to make. For example, if I had to pick between mushroom or cheese pizza, in reality I would have only one option (cheese), because I dislike the taste of mushrooms, thus a mushroom pizza is automatically discarded as an option.

    Anyway, overall I’m skeptical about all those blanket claims how more choice leads to worse satisfaction. It depends.

  7. says

    I’m not familiar with the thesis of The Paradox of Choice but feel certain that it must only apply to certain kinds of choices. After all, writing even a short essay requires hundreds of choices, but I doubt that’s what psychologists look at when they study choice.

  8. says

    I think the argument is true, but I also think it might beg the question. The key assumption is the “Insignificance of dominated options.” If having choices is intrinsically valuable, then I don’t think this assumption can be always true.

    There are other objections. One is Hume’s (I think?) surreptitiously locked room: I am sleeping, and someone quietly locks my bedroom door from the outside, and unlocks it just as I wake. While the door is locked, I am a prisoner, and if I knew the door was locked, I would be less happy than if I knew it were unlocked, even though in both cases I prefer to stay in my room sleeping.

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