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Definition for Instrumental Value

Money has instrumental value because it purchases valuable goods.
Pennies on the Dollar - one dollar bill with pennies. image by Andy Dean from Fotolia.com

Value is an estimate of worth, monetary or otherwise, that an item holds. Value theory studies both intrinsic or direct value and instrumental value. According to Academic Dictionaries, “Instrumental value is the value of objects, both physical objects and abstract objects, not as ends-in-themselves but a means of achieving something else.”


Intrinsic value is the most easily understandable. You know, for instance, that joy is good. On the other hand, how do you classify money? Well, money has no value in and of itself, so it does not have intrinsic value. However, it lets you buy things with value, so it has instrumental value. An object’s instrumental value lies in its ability to help you obtain other things of value.

Direct and Indirect

Instrumental value may be directly valuable or less directly so. Music might be considered directly valuable, since it delivers pleasure as an end-in-itself. A guitar, on the other hand, would be indirectly valuable since it produces music, which then produces pleasure. An object’s place in the chain of events marks its value grade. First grade is inherent direct value. In the music example, the guitar would be second grade and so on. An object can have a different value grade depending on the chain of events it relates to.

Positive and Negative

An object with positive instrumental value is called a positive mean and it generates a positive end. Similarly, an object with a negative instrumental value is called a negative mean, and it generates a negative end. Many objects have both positive and negative value; their difference value is the difference between their positive and negative values. So, for example, the costs to operate a vehicle would be a negative value to the purchaser, while having transportation to get where he or she needs to go is positive instrumental value.

Long and Short Term Instrumental Value

Short-term instrumental value refers to a value that generates its own end in the near future. For instance, to a hedonist, a glass of wine may result in immediate pleasure. Long-term instrumental value is a value that takes a long time before generating its own end. To that same hedonist, a work project might require a long series of events before generating pleasure, and therefore has long-term value.

Intrinsic vs. Instrumental

The distinction between intrinsic and instrumental value shows the limitations of the economic approach to value. Something with intrinsic value is good in and of itself, rather than just a means for acquiring something else. For example, happiness is good on its own, not because it leads to anything else. Instrumental value rests in an object's ability to provide means to acquire something else of value. Money, for instance, only has instrumental value because you use it to get other things.

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