U is for Utility

| April 19, 2014

1. An item’s utility is gauged by its ability to satisfy an intended need. This goes beyond objects and into actions and people. When being evaluated on one’s job effectiveness, one of the main aspects of assessment would be a person’s utility. Does this worker do what is expected? But what if the need is misguided? In much of our current educational activities, effectiveness is based on test scores. If a teacher is doing his or her job, the students’ tests scores will rise. If the teacher is ineffective, the test scores will be lower. This is how we gauge a teacher’s utility. The desire to have such a cut-and-dry method of evaluating an educator’s effectiveness is due to the fact that it is so difficult to actually assess how a teacher is doing. Because there are so many factors that go into teaching, an outsider has a difficult time looking into the classroom and saying, “This is an effective teacher.” What does an effective teacher look like? I have no idea. But I do know that an effective teacher is not necessarily one whose students score well on tests. Yet, it is the simplest solution to the problem of educator evaluation. When something is too complex to evaluate with ease, there tends to be a desire to reduce its complexity and quantify it.

2. The water, gas, and electric that comes into a home are deemed utilities. These are the things that satisfy needs; they are not ends in themselves. I would not be satisfied with paying for electricity if I had no items using electricity. Same for water and gas. These are necessary things that do not have inherent value but only have use value. But maybe this division between inherent value and use value should be questioned. If something is inherently useful then maybe its properties should consist of its use value. Even if you only use gas by transforming it in some way (such as burning it for fuel) it is possible that the things you use it for are properties of the gas itself. We give value to things and we also label an item’s properties. Maybe the values and properties should be intertwined so that our value of an item is incorporated into its very properties.

3. A “utility player” in sports is someone who can play multiple positions. The player is able to morph into whatever position is necessary for the team. These players typically fill a need that arises throughout the game or the season. The inherent worth of these players is in their ability to change roles. Not being pinned down to one position gives the player value. This is opposed to someone such as a designated hitter. The designated hitter is the opposite of a utility player. While the utility player has value in being able to morph into whatever form the team desires, the designated hitter has one role. The DH does not play in the field and is actually not even useful in the National League (the American League being the only league that even allows for the DH). The DH has one purpose: to hit the ball. The narrowness and importance of this position is mind-boggling.

4. A moral utilitarian would probably not believe in inherent value of things, but only in value in terms of relations. A believer in utilitarian morality might promote the idea that killing one person in order to save 10 is morally correct. The main question that drives moral decisions is “What action would allow the most people to benefit?” But utilitarian morality is more nuanced than it might appear. For instance, one might take into consideration, in the example above, that the one person who was going to die might actually end up bringing happiness to many people while the people who survive might bring sadness to others. In this case, would it be right to allow the 1o to live if the one who could being happiness (if alive) has to die? As the graphic below depicts, the problem with utilitarian morality is that we lack a complete knowledge of circumstances. We do not know what will happen after we save someone.

5. Utilitarian ethics extends into political philosophy as well. A utilitarian politics searches for the social situation which produces the most happiness for the most people. Happiness and suffering are important concepts in this political philosophy. The issue might be in trying to determine what constitutes happiness. Since my happiness might be different from yours, whose happiness overrides the others. One of the main tenets of this philosophy also addresses the fact that one’s happiness cannot bring sadness to (or reduce the happiness of) another person. So even if my actions make me infinitely happy, if they bring you sadness, my actions should not be allowed. This also brings up the question of gauging someone’s happiness. Do we use a point system? Maybe having a million dollars gives me 200 happiness points but having a job you love (regardless of income) gives you 200 happiness points. What if these two scenarios are mutually exclusive. I cannot have the million if you have the job and vice versa. What situation should be promoted in this instance? And what if my million dollars gives me 200 happiness points but your million dollars only gives you 100 happiness points. Each person’s conditions of happiness makes it a difficult political philosophy to enact.

6. A utility of art is something that Socially Engaged Artists attempt to discover. We have become accustomed to the idea that art has no purpose or utility, but this might be a recent development. In prehistory, art seemed to have a deliberate purpose. Looking at cave paintings, one realizes that these painters must have believed in the utility of their art. Why else would they have gone through the trouble of creating these works? There had to be some inherent purpose that went beyond merely painting on some walls, trying to depict animals. Some historians believe that the paintings were actually meant to capture an animal before a people went hunting. In their position, then, the art was useful in that it allowed them to capture an animal. Contemporary art has seemingly lost this utility and artists engaged in socially engaged projects seem to be making attempts to bring utility back into the world of art. But if an art piece had a utility, would we base our judgements on its effectiveness? This brings us back to the problem of gauging the effectiveness of something that is not easily evaluated. If a socially engaged artwork perform its intended task does that make it good art? What about all the aspects of an artwork that are not incorporated into its original intention, how could we forget about these aspects?