In Defense of Uselessness
The catch of pragmatic and utilitarian approaches to incentives in education
By MARTIN REZNY
While I do believe that all pragmatism shouldn’t just be thrown out the window in education, I must say there are some philosophical hurdles to the utilitarian approach as well. In response to what you and Evan Nibbe recommend, I’d say the main complications are twofold — first, what is a utility, and stemming from that, what exactly is being rewarded here?
If you really think about it, there’s very little obvious consensus on what’s needed in any society. It seems uncomplicated, but it truly, deeply isn’t. For starters, who is the society? The majority? The wealthy and powerful? Fellow countrymen? Human beings as such? There are people who have means, and there are people who have needs. As I have mentioned before, these two kinds of groups have mutually exclusive interests, for the most part. Which matter more?
In terms of education, it is in the interest of the have-nots to raise themselves out of poverty, threatening the wealth and position of the haves. On the other hand, it is in the interest of the haves to maintain a classist divide. And this is not a static conflict. The key dynamic is that of time — what’s needed now may not be the same as what may be needed for the future. Utilitarians can be conservative, but they can also be progressive. This conflict is very current.
Is it more useful when a person studies to be a plumber when there’s a shortage of people who want to be plumbers, or is it more useful to have more people study, say, robotics, so that we move our society faster to a state when no plumbers will be needed? And what about people who want to be something without an obvious direct utility, like poets, musicians, or actors? Even in terms of utility, what makes manual labor automatically more of use?
What does it mean for something to be of use? If it’s what people demand, then arts are surely demanded. If it’s a matter of need, then arts are surely needed to keep people functional, both individually and socially. An individual with her spirits lifted is much more productive, after all, and healthier. A society with languishing culture is withering on the wine, more susceptible even to a military conquest, and certainly to a cultural one, if it falters in terms of morale and identity. Work is work, skill is skill, all useful.
The additional problem here is that we often lack the necessary foresight to accurately judge what useless thing of today will lead to a technological or cultural revolution in the future. At some point, a computer was a fanciful notion, as was money, or writing. What may have seemed like excessive indulgent nonsensical waste of resources in the past can now be fueling tourism of entire nations, if nothing else, or may have inspired technologies.
It also takes a village of useless failures to have a diamond appear in the rough. Incentivizing people to not try doing something likely useless at all may preclude anyone from having a useful breakthrough in one of the fields that have rare, but extreme, positive returns. That includes most higher arts, but also many humanistic and fringe sciences. Even among the popular arts, it takes allowing many bad bands to try before next Beatles are guaranteed.
And finally, why should the older generations treat the younger ones as their resources? Arguably, the generation before mine was one of the most wasteful and selfish in all of human history, driving the planet to a climate catastrophe, nuclear annihilation, and mass extinction of all kinds of species. There’s something incredibly arrogant about thinking of the children mainly as future pensions-generating machines. And it’s not only about unearned entitlement.
Even assuming that children are possessions of their parents to a degree where they have material obligations to repay parents for being brought up, on the basis of what exactly should the preferences of the older generations overrule those of the younger ones? Preferences in terms of what kind of work or art should be produced, or what values should be the foundation of the future? After all, the young people will be living in that future, not the old.
Unsurprisingly, older people tend to demand respect for the elders and praise it as a key virtue, but what if a situation arises when the younger generation is more knowledgeable, tolerant, and altruistic? This is also not a hypothetical clash, it’s very real today, perhaps more so than ever — young people are on the whole more educated and more progressively oriented. Are we at a point when we need to look more towards tradition, or towards future possibilities?
Unless there’s a solid ethical foundation to what’s being rewarded as useful, all that’s being rewarded is obedience. Which is especially weak if we’re talking about obedience to things like militant tribalism, shauvinism, science denial and overall anti-intellectualism, material narcissism, and other examples of the more brutish and unenlightened vestiges of our past. I do like the idea of utilitarianism, but not of the kind that tries to sidestep ethics.
I guess my question would be, are there any unequivocal common goods?
PS: I’m sorry to say you would be wrong in assuming that anyone has actually ever sponsored my writing. In the year that I’ve been doing this, one or two people have bought few songs of mine in the total value of about ten dollars, but no one has donated a single penny for my writing, out of thousands of reads.
Not even my friends, but they are Czech, so that’s perhaps just a culture of cheapskates at work. I try to keep the option as easy and visible as possible, but I guess I treat it as an experiment, more than anything else — can one make a living on the internet without being manipulative, trendy, or low-brow? The preliminary results are not very encouraging. But I keep trying.
I don’t really have a good theory yet, however, as to why it is that way. I guess partially it must be free-riding, and partially it probably does mean that I suck compared to other authors around. I do get a lot of positive feedback though, and virtually no negative one.
People are likely extremely not used to paying for whatever it is that I do, since it’s not genre-music or genre-writing, or particularly click-baity, and maybe I’d just need to put in a lot more time into it that I don’t have. Because it isn’t a source of revenue. Well, there’s always the option that it’s simply me being cursed, so there’s still hope for others. #SilverLinings
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