The Extrinsic and Intrinsic


Evaluating something is difficult unless you have a criteria. Evaluation of someone is even harder unless you have a criteria. Yet since the only way to make sense of the world is to evaluate it, there are all sorts of cognitive shortcuts and biases to make it easier. The only issue that then arises is when the shortcuts and biases themselves are flawed. And I don’t know about you, but for me, this most often arises in the case of extrinsic versus intrinsic valuations.

Pope Francis has recently been lauded and chided for his latest encylical, Evangelium Gaudium. I don’t intend to go in depth re the encylical; as I am woefully unprepared to do so. However, what I have read thus far seems to fumble with the same case of extrinsic and intrinsic. And no wonder: we’re not exactly well equipped to deal with the issue, having brains that are trained to compare and choose.

Rough definition of extrinsic value: that which a thing or person or place does, that is of value. And an even rough definition of intrinsic value is not quite the opposite, but rather the complement: what a thing or person or place simply is. (Note: I don’t pretend to be more than a street philosopher, so I am well aware these definitions aren’t perfect but at least they are workable.)

And the problem I constantly encounter is that it’s hard for me to distinguish intrinsic from extrinsic when it comes to people. Animals, tools, places, toys, books, and countless other items are easily evaluated. The Chromebook which I am currently typing on is intrinsically valuable to the tune of $249, according to its original price tag. However, its extrinsic value is potentially much greater, as I may create something of great worth with it. Someone’s pet dog is a different, thornier matter. The dog was purchased for a sum of money, but the sum of money is only the barest estimate of what that animal may mean to someone.

Such systems of measurement as prices and hours of labor and all are necessary in order for the world to function, yet they can lead to clouding of thought, as in the case of Pope Francis’ encyclical. The Pope is focused mainly with the intrinsic value of people. And in his view, every single person on earth is intrinsically equal, as each person has an immortal soul. Yes, the extrinsic value and well-being of many people may have increased over the past few decades…but has the opinion of their intrinsic value improved?

But once you think about it, even if that statement seems a perfect no-brainer on the surface, how often do we really operate under that assumption? I, for one, often fluctuate between acknowledging such intrinsic worth and mistaking it for somehow being less than someone’s extrinsic worth. I see an executive or engineer on the freeway driving an expensive Mercedes that cost more than my college education, and I see a hobo wandering the median beyond him, and I must admit that I do mistakenly assume at times the woman in the Mercedes is worth more. I certainly feel that I should care more about the Mercedes driver more than the hobo, even if I should feel more for the hobo. (Somehow, exerting emotion feels compensatory, although I’m sure the hobo would probably appreciate $20 more.)

Extrinsically speaking, she may well be. She may produce hundreds of thousands of dollars’ value every year with her specialized skills, far more than whatever the hobo may produce. But she and the hobo are intrinsically worth exactly the same. And this is the difficult issue the Pope grapples with: the world and society treat the woman with much greater respect than the hobo, because it’s easy to deal with the extrinsic. (And it’s not a bad thing to do so; if it’s the only thing you can afford, sending good vibes or praying or whatever use of your time you choose to offer to those you deem less fortunate, which is after all valuable to you, is definitely noble in many ways.)

The economic value that I can produce in an hour’s worth of tutoring is roughly $40, according to what the markets, that fluid collection of crowds, determine. (And they’re usually pretty trustworthy.) That’s an easy number. Numbers in general are easy: $37,000 a year, $15 a share, etc. But we can’t really place a price on a human life, although we are forced to quite often for decent reasons.

Yet we can’t rely on that type of thinking in real life. Reality demands a higher order of thinking; a juggling of intrinsic and extrinsic value. I acknowledge it at times, but I mix it up quite often. It’s frankly exhausting to do so. But simply because it’s so easy to neglect the extrinsic, the Pope emphasizes it. Of the two values, intrinsic value is the value that dare not speak its name. (To egregiously misquote and misappropriate.)

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