Values Essay

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Values provide the moral foundations that underpin all aspects of a criminal justice system. They are the reference points that offer a moral compass to guide a raft of decision-making processes and to generally inform criminal justice policies. However, in articulating values individuals use different types of justifications, and an important distinction is made between values that are expressed in intrinsic as opposed to instrumental terms. Understanding the difference between intrinsic and instrumental values is an important feature of many aspects of criminal justice debates.

Expression of Values as Personal Preferences and /or as Moral Norms

Before examining the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic values, it is worth noting at the outset that values can be expressed as personal preferences and/or as normative prescriptions to be adhered to by all within a given jurisdiction. Values expressed exclusively as personal preferences are limited to guiding the actions and activities of the person holding the values. From this perspective,  one person’s subjective values are not imposed upon others. On the other hand, values that are defined as social norms purport to enforce a degree of moral conformity across the social and/or jurisdictional parameters within which they are established. Within the context of criminal justice ethics, values expressed as moral imperatives are of primary concern because of the extent to which they establish what is deemed to be good or right for everybody. Values expressed as personal preferences, on the other hand, are limited to the private affairs of individuals and have no immediate  or tangible  impact  on the wider community.

An exception to note here is that there can be public clashes between the subjective values of an individual and the values expressed as moral norms underpinning the fabric of the society in which  the  individual  resides.  Individuals  may choose nonconformity against the moral norms of a society if they feel that their subjective values are compromised by doing so. Such individuals may therefore be required to take a moral stance, effectively as a type of conscientious objector. However,  this only becomes a criminal justice issue if such a stance takes a public form.

There might also be times when individuals willingly and openly challenge the socially accepted values within a jurisdiction on the grounds that their own, subjective values are morally superior. Such challenges often underpin, for example, acts of civil disobedience. However, when this occurs the expression of values as personal preference begins to also take the form of moral values by which all individuals should live. An important point to note here is that the normative, moral characteristics of values are determined by the way values are expressed,  independent of how widely acknowledged they are as the dominant moral values within a society.

Instrumental Values: Means to an End

Instrumental values are values that are justified with references to outcomes or consequences. A value presented in this way is a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. The language of “means and ends” is common within ethical debates, and a prime criminal justice illustration of this is in relation to noble cause corruption. So, if one says capital punishment is justified because it produces a significant reduction in homicides, then one is expressing the death penalty as having an instrumental value in deterring  others from committing murder. All arguments concerning punishment that are based upon deterrence express instrumental values. This is because the justification is expressed in terms of what individuals think the punishment will achieve. For example, saying that prison is preferable to community sentences because it is more likely to deter others from committing crimes expresses punishment in instrumental terms. The prison sentence is favored because of what it achieves.

Of course claims about what a particular policy will or will not achieve are often contentious and debatable. There are disagreements about whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Evidence is presented on different sides of the argument to show that the death penalty is effective or ineffective, or even that it has no significant impact either way. Such disagreements are based upon facts concerning  the extent to which something  has had a positive, negative, or neutral impact. While advocates on all sides might disagree on the conclusion, they justify their own particular understanding of the argument using instrumental values as the basis of their respective claims.

The extent to which instrumental values are presented as means to a further end can lead to them being perceived as relatively narrow and lacking in moral character. Short-term financial concerns are at times the dominant values directing criminal justice policies. They express instrumental values that can be indifferent to deeper moral considerations. While it might be appropriate to say that community sentences are preferable to prison sentences because they cost the taxpayer less money, such a claim does little to establish whether community sentencing is preferable from a moral perspective.

However,  instrumental values  can  also  be framed in ways that are much more considerate of longer-term deliberations and much wider social and  environmental concerns.  They can also draw upon a series of instrumental arguments that  provide  a richer and deeper compound approach to establishing the instrumental value of a policy. So, for example, one might say that community sentences are not only less expensive but they also avoid exposing petty criminals to more entrenched lifelong offenders within prisons. One might add that doing community service is more likely to increase the perpetrator’s sense of shame and awareness of community, which in turn decreases the likelihood of recidivism. There could be a long list of different considerations, each with competing advantages and disadvantages. While it would be unusual to find that a policy would be preferable to alternatives on all counts, one would nonetheless be able to establish from this process which policy is of greater instrumental value overall, all factors considered.

Instrumental values, therefore, should not be dismissed too readily as being overly superficial and lacking in moral depth. Instrumental values can be expressed in narrow and shallow ways, but they can also be used more positively and thoughtfully to understand the worth of a policy, action, or activity in relation to the promotion of a more equitable, fair, and just society. They do not only need to refer to the most base of considerations, such as how much something costs in financial terms. They can also draw upon a whole raft of ethical considerations.

There  is, however,  a fundamental problem with instrumental values and that is the extent to which they require reference to a noninstrumental value against which they can be assessed. Because instrumental values are justified as means to an end, one needs to be able to establish what that end is in order to pass judgment on the instrumental value.

Intrinsic Values: The Measure Against Which Instrumental Values are Judged

The idea that something has intrinsic value can be expressed in different ways. The dominant and most simplistic way in which a value is deemed to be intrinsic relates to what has been previously discussed about the “means and end” characteristics of instrumental value. By defining a value as intrinsic in this sense, one is saying that it represents a desired end in relation to other values that are means toward this end. The distinction here between intrinsic and instrumental values is hierarchical. Intrinsic values have a more fundamental character; they are deemed to be self-evident truths or assumptions beyond question. Intrinsic value understood in this way requires no further justification. It is an accepted good that is independent of any external factors. It is in this sense that individuals speak of something as being a good in and of itself.

So, for example, within a criminal justice context one might say that the preservation of human life is an intrinsic value. It is a self-evident truth that requires no further justification. In order to achieve this intrinsic value, criminal justice initiatives are established. For example, the rule of law, policing provisions, health and safety regulations, individual  laws, and social norms are all justified as instrumental values, with reference to the intrinsic value of preserving human life. Importantly, the breaking of laws, health and safety regulations, and social norms are sometimes permitted in order to preserve a human life; likewise, policing provisions and the powers afforded to the police will fluctuate according to a society’s need to ensure an adequate protection of life. Even the rule of law will be violated in extreme cases. This is because all of these entities, even something as fundamental as the rule of law, are ultimately justified with reference to an even more fundamental objective.

Of course there are times when one legitimizes the taking of another person’s life. Capital punishment  is used in a minority  of jurisdictions across the world as a legitimate form of punishment, sanctioned by the state. Likewise, soldiers are expected to take the lives of enemy combatants when at war, and police officers are at times required to kill individuals posing an immediate threat to the safety of others. However, in all of these examples the taking of a human life is justified on the grounds that doing so will save the lives of others. Advocates of capital punishment, for example, might argue that the death penalty reduces the incidents of homicide over time; in war scenarios each side claims that the taking of lives is a necessary evil and a means toward ensuring peace and the preservation of life. Similarly, a police officer only has legitimate authority to shoot a suspect as a means of protecting the lives of those under the immediate threat of significant harm posed by the suspect. In each of these cases the taking of a human life is presented as both an instrumental and intrinsic value.

This emphasizes that intrinsic value, understood in this first sense, is required to avoid a problem that emerges if something only has instrumental value. This problem is that without some constant defining values there would be nothing to measure instrumental values against. In order to have instrumental value, the “means” require “ends” from which an action or perspective can be seen to be instrumentally valued. For example, within a utilitarian ethical framework, ideas of happiness or welfare are used as reference points that require no further justification or explanation. Welfare and happiness are simply accepted by utilitarians, and as such take the form of intrinsic values within a system of reasoning that is predominantly based upon instrumental reasoning.

Two More Interpretations of Intrinsic Value: Ends in and of Themselves

While intrinsic values can be ends in and of themselves, this is not precisely the case when considering the preservation of human life. If the preservation of human life can also be portrayed as a means, then it cannot be portrayed exclusively as an end in itself. It is more precise to say that this first understanding of intrinsic value emphasizes the role intrinsic values play within a moral framework that focuses on means and ends and the justification of actions with reference to the consequences they bring about.

There is a second use of intrinsic value that is concerned not with means and ends, or indeed any relationship between that which is being valued and another entity. Instead, one can define something as having intrinsic value if it can be established that it has value in and of itself. Justice, for example, can be portrayed instrumentally as being a necessary means of ensuring order in society and thereby enhancing the quality of life for the majority of people within a jurisdiction. However, it can also be portrayed as something that requires no further justification because it captures the inherent qualities of what it means to be human. From this perspective justice has intrinsic value in the sense that it is a good in and of itself, because it would be meaningless to speak of humanity and human society without a conception of justice at the core. Justice, in other words, is something natural within human beings; it is not an external or artificial constraint imposed against  their nature. Education is discussed in similar terms. The liberal conception of education expresses its value not as a means of getting a better job, but as a good in and of itself. The pursuit of knowledge, like justice, is thus presented as an intrinsic quality of what it means to be human.

This understanding of intrinsic value is never justified in relation to what it achieves. Indeed, there is no need to justify things that are seen to have intrinsic values. They are naturally occurring phenomena, and if they are suppressed or ignored they will simply reemerge at a later point. An unjust society from this perspective is unsustainable. The natural, inherent thirst for justice within human beings will always exert itself and overcome tyranny. The notion of natural forces at work within this conception of intrinsic value is becoming an important consideration within the context of green criminology, in which individuals are being asked increasingly to consider justice in relation to the intrinsic value of nonhuman life.

This green perspective is also being reenforced by a third way in which to understand intrinsic value. This third expression of intrinsic value concerns the relationship between the person valuing and the thing that is being valued. For something to be said to have intrinsic value in this third sense one says that its value is independent of being valued. Here the value is said to be objective, rather than defined by the subjectivity of the person doing the valuing. The importance of this third use is the assumption that an entity can be said to have value even if there is no one to value it. Establishing the objective value of something in this sense is not dependent upon it being widely supported; it does not need to be the dominant value in a society. Indeed, within this notion of intrinsic value it is possible to imagine that there will be objective values to which individuals are currently oblivious. Importantly though, from this perspective, at some point in the future such objective, intrinsic values will become apparent to individuals.

As a final comment, individuals are living at a time when understanding values is becoming ever more pressing within criminal justice contexts. Moral certainties of previous years are progressively becoming ethical dilemmas and people are increasingly required to examine the fundamental intrinsic values that shape their responses to these new challenges.


  1. Benton, Ted. “Rights and Justice on a Shared Planet: More Rights or New Relations?” Theoretical Criminology, v.2/2 (1998).
  2. Kleinig, John “Rethinking Noble Cause Corruption.” International Journal of Police Science and Management, v.4/4 (2001).
  3. O’Neill, J. Ecology, Policy, and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World. London: Routledge, 1993.
  4. Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. London: Paladin, 1977.

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