On Making Yourself Useful, Or Not

The Effective Altruists have persuaded Rhys Southan that his screenplay-writing is of no social value and ethically idiotic. They may be right, but he’s going to keep doing it anyway.

Good for him, I suppose. Keep trying, expect failure and look for unexpected outcomes. Take some time to think about why you want to write a screenplay or make a film or pursue a project. (This post by Jay Webb is a good place to start.) But don’t bother with people who tell you to make yourself useful.

Southan is bothered by them, I gather, because he seems to be confused about what art is and the work that artists do — a theme I touched on the other day in a post about the misappropriation of a sentence from Aquinas’ Summa, and a couple of weeks ago in my post on the word “sullen,” where I discussed Ingmar Bergman’s disciplined solitude.

He seems to understand his screenplay-writing and for that matter all art as “self-expression”; and then he asks that art improve society. On the one hand, he reduces art to vanity — not a disciplined encounter with humanity of the kind Bergman describes, but an elaborate selfie. On the other, he subordinates art to half-baked social engineering schemes and encourages didacticism or morally uplifting platitudes of the sort Alain de Botton has foisted on to the collection at the Rijksmuseum.

To ask whether art is useful is to ask the wrong question of it — or at least to invite a Thomistic quibble that restricts the meaning of the term and helps move the conversation away from confused Romantic ideas: as an operative virtue, art is useful to the artist. “The craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping.”

What’s more, to live merely by calculations of utility of the kind the Effective Altruists urge is not to lead much of a life at all: you may set out to do others some good but you probably won’t have a very good life. May I enjoy a fresh fig or a cigar, split town and head for the coast, putter around in my garden, consider an idea, make love or make a friend without submitting to a utility calculation?

Of course I can and should and will, and this isn’t just a matter of opting for pleasure over other considerations of utility.

A person who becomes my friend, or professes to love me, based on calculations of utility would have to be a sociopath or a monster of some kind. A person who tells me how I might make myself useful — appealing to moral criticism in order to advance a social improvement scheme — would be equally suspect.

To question the altruism of Effective Altruism may ultimately be an altruistic thing to do.

5 thoughts on “On Making Yourself Useful, Or Not

  1. Michael M

    Maybe it’s obvious, but I can’t help but substitute the word “exploit” for “use.” Given that utility to one’s self is of no value to others, only the latter is considered significant. Unfortunately, I don’t see how art can transcend consumerism if it seeks to be useful.


  2. david

    The – or, “a,” – misunderstanding of the utility of art, is in assuming there’s a direct cause-effect benefit. Occasionally that may be true. Reading a tragedy may move someone to an empathetic realization so great that he changes his behavior toward others. Okay that’s pretty damned rare. I digress. Art does in fact have great social utility. (Did not Shelley proclaim poets (let’s substitute “artists”) as the unacknowledged legislators of the world?) However the utility of art is by its nature indirect.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Yes, indirect and, I would say, pretty hard to specify, measure or predict, but nonetheless real and important: public experiences of art are especially important in this regard (the cinema, a tragedy played before the polis, etc.), if only for the simple reason that they provide shared experiences. It’s not just that the outcomes of these experiences might have some social utility; they allow us to see ourselves as a public or a people with things in common. Crude measures of utility like the ones effective altruists apply will never get at this.


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