Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dialogue: What is useful?

I've been thinking about that book you had mentioned by Bernard Suits that I read the other week, I tell G.

Suits imagined utopia could not last, because people would tire of abundance and absorbing games. They'd lose interest in the harmonious relations and lack of conflict for their own sake. They would want to be useful. He argues people would eventually come to value a laboriously hand-assembled hovel which leaked, for example, far more than a vastly better free palace, because people would feel some usefulness in building the hovel rather than having a house automatically provided.

So then: what is useful, do you think, exactly?

Well, she says, it's the feeling that things are consequential. They count for something. People want to believe what they do counts.

Counts for what, I say? I had thought about this before, I continue, and decided it's an easy answer when there's scarcity or danger. It counts when you put food on the table or a guard at the gate to help you and your village survive. But if survival or material goods aren't a problem, what is useful?

She pauses for a few seconds and thinks.

I suppose, she says, it has to relate to what being a human being is for, or what it is our nature to do. I guess it does come back to the Greek stuff you talk about - realizing potential, or doing what is your nature to do. I do think Suits is right. If everything is harmonious, people will still want things to count for something.

What more can we say about this? The standard answer in economics is that what is useful is simply what people are prepared to pay for - their revealed preference. To ask any more is to indulge in dubious metaphysics.

But that can't be right. There's a famous question in contemporary philosophy, posed by Robert Nozick (which I talked about before here) - the experience machine. You sit inside and close the door and attach the electrodes. The machine gives you the perfect illusion of living the perfect life. You can be fabulously wealthy and successful and admired. You can win the Oscar and the Nobel Prize for Physics and outdo Shakespeare, so that you can live entire lives of perfect bliss.

Would you ever pull the plug in favor of living your own real life instead? How much does authenticity or growth or striving or development matter?

It is very hard to define useful without it being useful for a particular purpose. In a sense, Suits is saying utopia would shrivel from purposelessness. I say our economy has become sufficiently abundant, sufficiently developed beyond material scarcity, that we are increasingly confused about what is useful. And that is because we have lost any vitality in discussions of purpose. We have a real problem in figuring out what is useful because we can't talk properly about purpose. Politics and economics have ignored that for three generations.

Let's imagine, I say to G, that someone retires at 65 after a successful career with Procter and Gamble. He made Tide detergent slightly better and increased market share. Is that useful? We'd have to say in general social terms it would be, at present. After all, if we defined "useful" as changing the world, almost no one can do that in any but the smallest and most local of ways.

Yes, says G, that's probably true. Probably.

Maybe being useful is simply making the world a better place, making a small contribution. But how do we measure that? And do we really honor or reward it?

We can't even ask the question properly without some ethical dimension. And our public ethical discussions are crippled by trying to be neutral and impartial and ignore ends altogether.


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