Dr. Rettler is an assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming.
In this essay, I want to clarify and respond to a prevalent assertion regarding bitcoin — that “bitcoin has no intrinsic value.” Two preliminary things to note. First, this is not used merely as a normatively neutral descriptive statement; it’s stated as a criticism. It usually appears in the following kind of argument, often with premises elided: it’s bad to lack intrinsic value. Bitcoin lacks intrinsic value. So bitcoin is bad. Or maybe: it’s not worth investing in things that lack intrinsic value. Bitcoin lacks intrinsic value. So, it’s not worth investing in bitcoin.
Second, “intrinsic value” has a particular meaning here — one that’s used in investing. Owning bitcoin is often put in contrast to owning stock in a company that produces a good or service. In virtue of the company producing a good or service and receiving money for the good or service, stock in that company is said to have intrinsic value. Methods of calculation of the intrinsic value of a stock usually involve calculating the value of the assets the company has and/or the expected future earnings. Bitcoin is not a company and produces no goods or services — so it lacks intrinsic value. So goes the criticism.
I don’t want to argue that bitcoin has intrinsic value. And I don’t want to argue that this usage of “intrinsic value” is illegitimate. People can use terms however they want, as long as they explain what they mean when they’re using them.
Instead, I want to offer a different way of thinking about intrinsic value — one that we’ve inherited from Aristotle, Kant, and Mill. This way of thinking about intrinsic value will guide us as we consider what kind of value bitcoin does have, and what gives it that value.
On the traditional way of thinking about intrinsic value, the intrinsic value of a thing is the value that it has in itself — that is, not in relation to anything else….