Presence over Profit: The Psychology of Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Written by on February 11, 2014 in Economy with 0 Comments
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Gary ‘Z’ McGee | Wakingtimes | Feb 11th 2014

love and money“Money has the same relationship to real wealth that words have to meaning. And as words are not the physical world, money is not real wealth. It is only an accounting of available economic energy.” –Allan Watts

Our culture is suffering from a serious psychological hang-up: that money is real, and that people ought to suffer in order to attain it.

But what happens when we stop measuring our days by degrees of profit and start experiencing them by degrees of presence? What happens when we stop measuring our work by the daily grind of a job and start experiencing it through authentic vocation? What happens when we allow community to trump commerce? What happens when money becomes merely a side-effect of doing what we love, rather than the reason why we live?


The short-term answer is: tumult happens. Our cultural predispositions get knocked off course and everything falls apart. The long-term answer is: flourishing happens. We are liberated by what we love to do, despite money, and passion and art are ours to revel in once again. But we have to sow the painful short-term in order to eventually reap the long-term benefits. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. First we need to get our reasoning back. And that takes presence. And presence reveals that it’s all just one big persistent psychological hang-up. Like Tyler Durden said in the movie Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”

The reality is that money is a pure abstraction, about which we have some unbelievable superstitions and mental blocks. Even worse, it’s an abstraction of an abstraction; one that inculcates a sense of guilt. When money becomes the goal of life, we tend to confuse it with happiness and pleasure. When we see others without money we tend to confuse their poverty with unhappiness and displeasure, thereby creating guilt. Most of this happens subconsciously. But it’s a natural psychological reaction that plays upon our powerful system of empathy, which leads to our thinking that we should do something to relieve the suffering of others while also assuaging our own guilt.

What’s happening is we are confusing two different types of value: intrinsic and instrumental. Intrinsic value is value as an end in itself. Here, things are valuable for what they are. Things like joy, pleasure and love, which create the intrinsic motivation of wealth, as opposed to the extrinsic motivation of money. They are things we value, not for what they provide in addition, but as ends in themselves. Instrumental value, like money, is valuable only as a means toward other ends. They are valuable for enabling us to do something else. As long as we keep this in perspective then all is good. The problem is we tend to lose this perspective and treat money as an end in itself. It’s when we attempt to treat money as intrinsic value that things go awry.

The goal with presence, with discovering an authentic engagement with our world and an authentic dialogue with our fellow humans, is to merge these two value systems. A prolific example of this is Plato’s response to Glaucon’s Challenge with the Ring of Gyges analogy of justice and morality.

Acting justly is akin to being happy. Morality is to the soul as health is to the body. Just as health is of intrinsic and instrumental value to the body, so too is morality of intrinsic and instrumental value to the soul. Governing this precept, it stands to reason that wealth (of which money is just an abstraction of), is of intrinsic and instrumental value to the heart.

Presence can help in this matter. The more present we are to what’s actually happening, both in the world and in our minds, the more reasonable will be our conclusions. If, as Aristotle writes, “Reason is the special function of a human being” then a ‘good’ human being is one who reasons well. Just as the special function of a knife is to cut, the special function of a human is to reason. A ‘good’ knife is the knife that is most instrumentally knife-like. A ‘good’ human being is the one that does the human stuff best of all, and the human stuff turns out to be reasoning. A sharp knife cuts better. A sharp human reasons better. And good reasoning requires presence.


The gambit in this process is the reality which we take to be genuine and most profound, that money brings happiness and the accumulation of money is the be-all end-all of human existence, is in fact but a shadow of that which is truly valuable. It is merely a side-effect of true value, of intrinsic value. Human flourishing does not come from material wealth but, rather, from something that might not have occurred to us as being the source of human flourishing: reflection and wisdom derived from good reasoning.

That’s why Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Presence, and the flourishing that comes from it, is true wealth, whether or not money ever comes into play. Money is only ever a side-effect of doing what one loves anyway. And we are never more present than when we are doing what we love.

About Author:

Gary ‘Z’ McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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