The question of intrinsic value was important to Platonic and Aristotelian thinking, and it’s been important to philosophy ever since. Since they are the forefathers of the Western ideals of logic and ethics, it is no surprise that they were moral realists. Moral realism has several flaws, that many intelligent people are still ensnared in.
Firstly, moral realism implies that morality is a natural property; like color or shape. Usually it is considered to be determinable based on the desire or aversion the individual has. But this comes down to a matter of perception to a greater degree than normal properties, because color is obvious to someone with normal faculties and we can excuse people who disagree as having damaged organs (color blind and various brain injuries). But ethics is enormously varied across cultures and even within cultures. Morality hardly has any univocal moral principles.
Secondly, moral realism implies that logic can act as a ‘sieve’ to strip morals down to an elemental form. But morals can’t live in a vacuum, and neither can we. Morals depend on environmental conditions. Relativism and perspectivalism illustrate how subjective reality is individualized. Relativism arguably has things wrong with it as well, but it currently holds a much better grip on ethics than moral realism.
Pleasure, happiness, avoidance of pain, beauty, utility, human flourishing, love, enlightenment, virtue, justice, empathy, and discipline have all been considered to have some intrinsic value. That is, that they are worth attaining not for any result, but in and of themselves. The thinking was that once you have discovered an intrinsic value, you live life in a way to maximize that value, and you will theoretically have an ethical lifestyle. Hedonism maximized immediate pleasure. Aristotle advocated for moderation, or choosing the average between extreme beliefs. Many cultures believed discipline was the best way to live.
Currently, ethics and philosophy seem to be at a standstill, as moral realism is obviously inferior to relativism. But we still strive to hold on to logic. It’s sometimes described like mathematics, because 2+2 will always equal 4. But even mathematics is built on illogical and impossible principles (irrational numbers, taking a limit to infinity).
Every practitioner of ethics and philosophy believes that there must be a “right way” to live. True relativism must accept existentialism, and is ultimately paralyzing (if relativists and existentialists really believed what they wrote, they would stop writing because it would simply be an extension of vanity. Neitzsche eventually became mute, and committed suicide. He truly lived as an existentialist). There is a ‘feeling’ that is driving us to believe that there has to be some goodness in the world. But our modern criteria for determining such has dissolved. Is the future of ethics doomed to accept Gnosticism?