Friday, August 22, 2008

Utility is un-Christian?

It's funny what some sources will say and do sometimes. This article in "Relevant," a "progressive" Christian publication targeting youth, has a very odd agenda and very little substance.

It starts out with an Oscar Wilde quote and an extremely brief definition of aestheticism. It then contrasts the "art for art's sake" with the stark description of utilitarianism, which praises that which creates the most happiness or does the most good. The author goes on to say that the sacrifice of the one for the many is clearly unscriptural, citing the parable of the lost sheep.

I'm not going to argue on that point, since I, too, am against the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the individual. After that, though, the attack on utilitarianism becomes less certain. The author speaks of speeding up death to harvest organs (which actually risks damaging the organs in most cases, but the author won't mention that), saying that it is or will be done to help those who could get better use out of them. The author says that "resources spent at the end of life are viewed as wasted," though many utilitarians would probably believe that the attempt to cure someone could help cure others and that the wisdom of one person could be passed on to several.

Still, though, the points are partially valid. What if we start killing people because they aren't making the most of their life and we think handing out organs will help? It almost makes sense if you believe that utilitarians are ruthless.

After that, though, the argument descends into the final stages of madness. " Yet, utilitarianism's creeping influence can be even more subtle than all this. For utilitarianism is an economic approach to life; it is quantitative rather than qualitative." In other words, it uses a more standardized measure, so it must be bad. If something can be measured, why not measure it? Just because you want to believe that a system of measuring value can be inherently subjective does not mean there aren't objective measurements to be made.

Even well-intended people and programs that accomplish much good can get caught up in this sort of thinking." Results count for something, don't they? If a program was designed to help the poor, you wouldn't really want a guy to come in to utilize it wearing a three-piece suit and a Rolex. It wouldn't do him any good, and therefore would not be utilitarian. A utilitarian charity would give to those who had objective needs, and it's hard to say that's wrong. Accomplishing the most good possible is very utilitarian.

rchitecture emphasizing function and sacrificing appearance," is the next gripe. Sounds a bit like The Fountainhead, doesn't it? If I want a sturdy building to suit my needs, I would prefer it be built to emphasize function. If you're moving a lot of stuff, you'll pick the ugly U-Haul over the pretty Porsche. If you want to make it look good, do that after designing for function.

The next supposed problem is "
Bible studies centered on 'optimizing' relationships." Y'know, the Good Book does have some advice on how best to work with, live with, and get along with your fellow man. Having the occasional Bible study that has some focus on that can't hurt.

Next up are "
'value added' approaches to education." I'll admit, I had to look this one up to be sure I wasn't wrong about what it is. It seems that "value-added" education means that you test students, monitor their progress, and use the data to monitor the programs at a school. Y'know, make sure kids are actually learning. I guess I'm just not "progressive" enough to understand why it's so bad to make sure Johnny learns to read.

Last on this list are "
ministries designed to attract quantities rather than cultivate quality." While we do want the flock to become more Christ-like, I'd say that actually attracting people to the Church might be a worthy goal. Multiple sorts of ministries can work together. You attract a bunch of people, encourage them to attend other ministries, and pretty soon, you're teaching them all sorts of quality Biblical truths. If you just go with the "quality" folks, you're missing out on the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. I seem to remember someone in the Bible hanging out with that crowd from time to time, but I just can't remember whose son he was...

As Wilde's reaction shows, utilitarianism makes no room for 'useless,' unquantifiable things such as art, beauty, or human relationships." Actually, art creates happiness without taking any (or much, at least) away. Almost the definition of utilitarianism. And human relationships are the ultimate form of utilitarianism. If two people gain happiness from interacting with each other or making a deal with each other, there is little to be said against it.

Yes, I know, when we think of utility, we think of the hammer, the plow, and the other emotionless tools of necessity. Utilitarians, though, know that there is nothing wrong with the simple house that does exactly what it was intended to do, nor the painting that reflects the spirit of that worker, evoking exactly the response for which it was intended. "Art" like a crucifix in a jar of urine is not utilitarian. It does not create a net gain of happiness; it is mere antagonism.

Art, by utilitarian standards, is okay if needs don't go unmet because of it, causing more suffering. Not necessarily encouraged, but not reviled above all. No, the useless man is the one whose art says nothing, whose hands take without trading, whose structures are so focused on aesthetics as to become unusable.

Yet, aestheticism is an extreme response to its polar opposite. In contrast to these extreme philosophies, God reflects in his creation a perfect balance between usefulness and beauty." Wow, that's the extent of the bashing of this side, huh? I guess it's hard to bash a side that's comprised entirely of the useless. If it's pretty, it's good. It kind of mocks itself.

There is, however, one area in which God upsets the balance. And when He does, it is significant to note that the balance shifts toward not utility, but beauty. That is, the beauty of His grace." His grace is not simply beauty. It, in fact, is far more tilted toward utility, as it is the way for fallible beings to get to Heaven. If it weren't for grace, Hell would be the only afterlife for the unpure, which pretty much encompasses all of us.

In its etymology, the word 'grace' means 'free' and 'unearned,' or 'pleasing.' It shares the same root word with 'gratuitous,' which means 'without reason or cause.' Truly, there is nothing more gratuitous, more unreasonable, more uneconomic, more 'useless'—or more beautiful—than the grace of God." Yes, it is free and unearned...and though sins pain God, He allows the sinner to be purified through grace. He wants to be with his creation, and this is the only way. There's a net gain for everyone who chooses to accept grace, and there's a net gain for God (though He has to feel the pain of man's disobedience). Sounds pretty utilitarian to me.

Mind you that I'm not much less guilty of oversimplifying both utilitarianism and aestheticism than the author of this bizarre article, but I stumbled upon it and could not believe that someone was arguing so fervently against utility. I am a utilitarian, except that I don't believe in the sacrifice of the one for the group--I believe that the most useful thing of all is free association among free individuals. People will make the deals most valuable to both sides, and both will benefit.

Also, don't mind the religious overtones. I'm not going to turn this into any sort of religious debate if I can avoid it. I simply chose to engage some of the religious arguments of the article's author.


AlanDP said...

He has made a serious mistake in equating uselessness with something that's freely given. If your car broke down and I gave you a ride, would that be useless because it's free? Receiving something that you don't deserve has nothing to do with getting something that's useless. They are two entirely different things that have no relation to each other whatsoever.

This guy reminds me of something Paul said:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Drew said...

You're right, Alan, though I think the author was trying (but failing) to say that it has no value to God, rather than to man (or maybe I'm giving undue credit). Still wrong, since God wants to spend eternity with His flock, but slightly more forgivable.
It's also worth noting that the quantity/quality debate is mentioned repeatedly, as though utility is achieved only in quantity. If I'm choosing something for it's utility, I won't choose more of the lower quality--I'll choose the quality best fitting the situation. Hundreds of cheap knives are less useful to me than one good knife.