(And that's a good thing)
The trap of utility is one of the easiest traps to fall into if you are looking to live a better life. It is easy to fantasize about living a more productive life, living like a ruthless oil baron extracting every bit of value out of your day.
This would be a catastrophic mistake.
Ends in themselves
One of the most beautiful ideas I have come across belongs to the philosopher Immanuel Kant. The idea emerges in his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals.
You see, Kant is very morally concerned with ends and means. An end meaning something that is valuable in itself and a mean being something that is valuable only so far as it gets you toward an end.
Kant has a beautiful vision of a place he calls the ‘kingdom of ends’. This is an idyllic setting of pure moral goodness where all rational beings exist equally under universal laws.
One of these moral laws is that all rational beings must be treated as ends in themselves, never as means.
In other words, any sort of action that treats another person as a means towards your own end is wrong. Kant is not one for exceptions.
- Lying to someone for any reason? Wrong.
- Torturing a terrorist to get a confession? Wrong.
Ends in other places
Our lives are filled with means and ends of all sorts of characters. Some of them have a moral dimension but many of them do not.
Eating can be a means to the end of nutrition, but many also find it an enjoyable end in itself.
Earning money is pleasurable because it affords us a means to purchasing things. Many also find it pleasurable in itself to earn money, divorcing it from having to facilitate purchases and taking relish in seeing their bank account grow.
Or how about reading, many people have had the experience of falling in love with reading only to find that love disrupted by education forcing you to use it as a means to extract information.
All these sorts of examples undergird the finding of psychologists that intrinsic motivations are particularly vulnerable to disruption by external motivations.
For example, in turning a passion into a career, it is not uncommon to lose the spark of intrinsic enjoyment that made it a passion in the first place.
This is a good reason to be wary of trying to maximize the utility of everything. But it is not the best reason.
In praise of uselessness
In an era of maximization, one can be quickly duped into thinking that the value of something is only relative to how useful it is to you.
Reading is a wonderful example of this. An example that is stoked by striking the right aesthetic poses on social media.
- What is my page quota for the day?
- Will I be able to read this book fast enough to reach my book goal for the month/year?
These and other questions emerge when you look at reading as a means to some sort of end.
But, isn’t there supposed to something intrinsically pleasurable about reading?
Even if there isn’t a goal you hit or anything tangible that you extract from sitting down with a book, isn’t there pleasure to be found in good writing?
I think there is. Good writing needs no justification or context: it is beautiful and timeless and — in this way, useless.
The best things in life are useless
Why do you love someone?
In this specific sense, it is a useless emotion. You don’t love someone because they can do or provide X. You love someone because you do, you find that you want the best for them. You want them to be happy and you want to bring them happiness and meaning. It isn’t transactional.
Sure, there is an evolutionary logic to apply to love that is of this nature, but this is not the proximate cause of our feeling love for another.
Many of us pursue whatever we pursue because we think it is an end in itself. We think there is some point where success as we define it becomes its own end. Or maybe we reach some more enlightened state of happiness.
These are the things we most value.
It seems worth meditating on those most precious places in our lives, we should guard against them being invaded by utility.