Utility and Worth


Here's a strange little reflection I found on page one of a journal I started about two years ago. I avoided writing in it because it wasn't the format I generally prefer for a journal: heavy lined 8.5 by 11 loose leaf notebook paper. But for reasons I explain below, I finally started using this journal as well. I'm currently on page 13.

I have had this little book since before I graduated from high school in 1981. What the hell have I saved it for all these years? Good god, it's now 2004 and this book is still empty, unused-- not quite wasted (because it still has potential) but almost, since it is a thing that has a purpose and that purpose is going unfulfilled. And if that purpose is never fulfilled, well, then the thing is wasted.

Everything has a purpose, but we don't get to decide what those purposes are, necessarily-- only the purposes of the things we make. The purpose of a cow is not to be eaten, but to be a cow. However, the purpose of beef is to be eaten, and it would be wrong to waste beef. Once the sacrifice has been made, once a thing has been killed, then it's wrong to let it go to waste.

I'm thinking about issues of utility and worth-- I don't want to exploit things, and I also don't want to waste resources--

and that's it.


This is interesting but I think there are a couple of ideas that need to be untangled a bit. Perhaps my reading is skewed by my own concerns. There is a still-influential ethical theory that contributed a lot to the development of political economic arguments in favor of capitalism, called utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham and James Mill are probably the best-known utilitarians today. Grossly simplified, this is the school of thought that gives us the idea that whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is good. "Happiness" is qualified as utility and it is assumed that only the individual knows what brings him or her pain or pleasure.

There are a lot of criticisms of this but most germane here is the notion of “utility.” In your example, the purpose of a cow is to be a cow. But in what sense is this purposive? I wonder if it isn’t the human intermediation that gives purpose: the cow is a cow and would be pretty happy to eat grass in a sunny field. But who is to say that that cow isn’t wasted if it is not slaughtered and turned into beef for human consumption? I could say that it gives me greater pleasure or happiness to enjoy the pastoral scene than to eat the steak but it is still me determining the purpose. And if usefulness is the standard for the good, it won’t matter how much I prefer to sit on the hill watching the cow graze peacefully: more people would likely prefer the steak and so the greater good would prevail.

A more severe example would be uranium. If the purpose of uranium is to be uranium, it’s hard to say much about it, other than “do not ingest.” But if it’s mined, refined, and combined with a terrific amount of capital through hugely sophisticated technology, it can become the plutonium trigger for a nuclear bomb. And the purpose of a nuclear bomb is to kill a lot of people. Even if you argue that its purpose is to deter an attack, it deters because it kills. Now that we have enough nuclear weapons to kill everything on earth several times over, I tend to think there’s a pretty good argument to be made in favor of wasting all that technology and capital.

I’m not trying to say that we should just be wasteful. Your larger point is correct: we should conserve and not exploit. I’m just not sure that purpose and utility by themselves can show us how to accomplish that. My own sense is that we ought to add to this your wish for a lifetime connection to transcendent beauty. The cow, the unused notebook, and all the other mundane, everyday objects that surround us and shape our lives could be considered for their role in providing or blocking that connection.

Hi Spike--

I am not using "utility" in any specialized sense, and actually I find arguments based entirely on utility pretty gross. But I'm not advancing a thorough, coherent argument in the post above--as I mention, it's a "strange little reflection" gleaned from a journal.

I don't think we get to buy our happiness without regard for what that happiness costs others--that's simply wrong.

You ask, "But who is to say that that cow isn’t wasted if it is not slaughtered and turned into beef for human consumption?" *I* will say the cow isn't wasted if it spends its whole life as a cow. I have no problem saying that, just as I have no problem saying that a woman who doesn't reproduce is not "wasted," as was suggested to me in church when I was an adolescent--ESPECIALLY if that woman doesn't reproduce because she's lesbian. (It's one of those scenes that horrified and offended me even before I had much sense of sexuality: "What a waste," a man said, shaking his head, talking of some lesbian. "She probably doesn't think it's a waste, and I bet her girlfriend doesn't either," I thought, but I didn't say it.) The cow lives its bovine life; the woman lives her female life, and neither has to serve someone else's sense of utility in order to justify its existence.

re: uranium.... I read in a Tony Hillerman novel where some character claims that the reason uranium is radioactive above ground is because it feels it belong deep in the earth, and resents being brought up to the surface.

In my world view, the things in the universe have purposes independent of human utilitarian function, and uranium might very well be unhappy with the uses humanity makes of it--and the uranium is thoroughly entitled to that unhappiness. I'm bothered that we appropriate so much and assume things are here for our pleasure, free of charge and easily replenished, like roasted nuts or pretzels on a bar during happy hour.

We make many useless things. But when we kill something with the intent to use it, and then don't use it, that, to me, is grossly wrong. I am thinking here of the many very expensive cuts of meat that my mother has purchased and never gotten around to cooking, so that they have spoiled and had to be thrown out. It sickens me. It is truly, thoroughly, a waste: of life, of money, of time, of effort. Pretty much everyone has bought vegetables that have gone bad before you've managed to cook them, but not everyone has bought a prime rib large enough to feed twelve and just left it in an extra refrigerator for five weeks, until it's covered in slime and reeking like an entire slaughter house.

(And in case someone is tempted to point to this post as an indication that I do assign animals utilitarian functions, let me assure you that the chickens in it are purely metaphorical and that not a damn thing depends upon them, no matter what WC Williams says.)

I like this distinction you're making. It's the way I attempt to articulate why I'm a vegetarian willing to wear leather shoes. Once the deed has been done and the cow brought in to slaughter for someone else's dinner, it's only responsible for us to make use of the entirety of the resource. And since the demand for beef continues to outpace the demand for leather, I am comfortable knowing that no animal will die for my Danskos (although, I must say that I would still balk at leather car seats or a leather sofa).

Hi Verbify--thanks for stopping by. Yes, the direction you take this is pretty much where I'm trying to go.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on July 10, 2006 3:44 PM.

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