4. The Effect of Utility on Approbation
"Utility is one of the principal sources of beauty," Smith writes. Our first thought for designing any object or system is effectiveness and efficiency in its intended purpose - and this alone, with no further ornamentation, gives it a sense of cleanness and purity of purpose that renders it agreeable.
We find this also in the terse statements of philosophers, whose ruminations we may find tedious, but who on occasion express a concept in a brief phrase. The elegance of such an expression makes the notion seem all the more profound.
People express that they "love" certain of their possessions, and Smith reckons that this sentiment is the emotion they feel and the reminder of the good that they achieve by using it. To look upon a saddle is to contemplate the experience of riding, and to sample the pleasure of past rides and the happy anticipation of future ones.
And of course, a similar account can be made for the way in which we find things disagreeable based on negative past experiences.
Smith further observes that we are also pleased when the "arrangement of things" promotes convenience, even if that convenience is for the sake of others, and even if we have no immediate need of it. Consider the example of a man whose maid has upended all the chairs on the dining room table. His immediate need would be met by turning over only one chair - but his inclination is to turn over all of them, to put them in their proper places so that guests may find them convenient to use, even though he is at the moment dining alone.
This desire to have the power to do things that we never will actually do has been the ruin of some men, who spend money on "trinkets of frivolous utility" and fill their homes with possessions they will never use. A woman may own a hundred pairs of shoes and never wear most of them, or a man may have a workshop stocked with tools and supplies for tasks he will never perform - both take pleasure in having the power of options, even if they know they will never avail themselves of them, and become defensive at any suggestion they get rid of the things they will never need because it diminishes their power to no longer possess them.
(EN: this proclivity seems sharpest in the middle classes, as the poor tend to be very utilitarian in their possessions and the rich have the wealth to get what they do not have. Those who experienced want in the past are more likely to hoard possessions when they have the means to obtain them.)
There is also a passage about coveting possessions as coveting power: consider how the poor look upon the possessions of the right and imagine they would be content and happy if they owned so many things.
This is the reason that man seeks to amass possessions even when his needs have been met - and has an infinite appetite for conveniences. In all, the rich consume little more than the poor, though they select for themselves the best of what is available, but instead amass power that is in many instances unneeded.
This same principle gives rise to conspicuous consumerism - to display one's possessions is to imply one's power to use them. The objects are visible symbols for an invisible sense of power that is difficult to recognize, more difficult to articulate, and more difficult still even to understand.
As such, Smith feels it is well that "nature" imposes stern limits on our material wealth - to enable us to make better choices, and to demand that the things we gather are made to suit their purpose well: to be capable and durable.
Reaching further, our love of objects leads to love of systems, and this principle is at play in our desire to shape society to our desires. When a patriot suggests the need for a law or an agency, he seeks to have its benefit - for himself or for his chosen friends, immediately or in future. Unfortunately, his desire for public works is not limited by his personal budget, or much thought for their expense, and it is in this manner than men of good intentions inflict the tyranny of taxation and regulation on their neighbors. Few politicians or politically inclined citizens seek to do harm to the public, but many are exceedingly stupid and shortsighted.
The Appearance of Utility as Beauty
Man is attracted to things (objects, environments, and systems) that present the appearance of utility, and finds unattractive those things that present the absence of utility, whether they obstruct utility or merely lack it.
This same sense of beauty and deformity are applied to the actions and conduct of our fellow men. It then follows that we should have respect and admiration of those who perform actions that we find to be useful - we respect the craftsman and artist for their ability to produce value, but also anyone who performs a good deed.
Philosophy precedes and antecedes our assessment: we have a sense of whether something is "right" or "wrong" according to our moral principles before it is even done because we have expectations of the consequences, and consider vice and virtue in an abstract manner. We develop and refine those same principles after an action has taken place and we can appreciate the actual consequences and our notion of whether an action is good or bad is concretized by the evidence we perceive.
Most laymen do not often consider the rationale for their emotional responses, but merely conduct themselves according to a vague and indeterminate sense of right and wrong - but their actions and reactions taken in aggregate reflect their moral code. (EN: Of course, the moral code of people who are not fond of thinking tends to be a bit dodgy and inconsistent as well.)
Our attraction to things that convey a useful benefit, disinterest in those that convey no benefit, and revulsion of things that are detrimental are all biologically functional and direct us to conduct ourselves in a way that seeks benefit and avoids harm to ourselves first and affiliated groups afterward. It is a basic survival mechanism in that sense.
As with all things, we sense attraction and revulsion by degrees and on account of a number of factors.
- Proximity - the closer something is to our physical persons or our thoughts of the moment, the stronger the effect.
- Degree- The greater the degree of benefit or harm, the stronger the effect
- Directness - That which affects us directly has a greater effect than that which affects someone whom we like/dislike, which is greater than that which affects a stranger
- Timeliness - That which has the ability to provide immediate utility has a greater effect than that which is expected to have utility in the distant future (or had utility in the distant past).
- Desire - That which fulfills the needs we most desire has a greater effect than that which fulfill needs we find trifling.
- Novelty - That which has a unique ability to satisfy an unusual need is valued over that which satisfies a routine need for which there are other alternatives
He returns to the notion that intelligence and reason can rectify our reactions to things, if we happen to pause to apply them. We must be able to accurately assess the outcome of using something, the likelihood we might use it, and possible consequences (intended or unintended) to determine the degree of utility it proposes - hence the degree to which we find it attractive or unattractive.
The ascetic does not shun utility, though he may superficially seem to do so - he merely denies satisfaction of needs he considers to be base to satisfy those needs he believes to be higher. All civilized men, to some degree, practice self-denial in the same way and for the same reason: we refrain from indulging our immediate and petty appetites to gain something greater. We often feel conflicted in doing so, and desire to reconcile the conflicts so that we may have both.
It is for these reasons that society reveres the ascetics. Scholars, monks, and the like represent the mastery of the mind and spirit over the base and vulgar needs of the body - which we not only approve, but feel is worthy of admiration. At the same time, they evoke a sense of sympathy akin to pity for the hardship they endure.
Smith asserts that women are more apt to have humanity and men are more apt to have generosity. The difference being that a woman is sympathetic for a great many more causes than a man, but is far less inclined to act in a way that remedies them - whereas men take action when they are so moved, but are seldom as emotionally invested in the lives of others.
(EN: These are gender stereotypes of the author's time, but it can be observed that the same qualities exist in the present day, though not so strongly attributed to gender: some people have broad sympathies but do little, others have little sympathy but do much. But these are not the only choices, as feel-much-do-much and feel-little-do-little are also options, though the former is often governed by the extent of our resources.)
He observes that it is often the same with public spirit. There are people who will be emotionally invested in many causes but who do little for any of them, and those who do not take interest in much but devote great amounts of time and resources to doing something effective for the few causes they espouse. (EN: Same note about little-little and much-much being options that he overlooks.)
It's finally observed that there is a genuine sentiment that arises internally: a person finds something beautiful or repugnant because he assesses its utility by his own standards. Hence there is little agreement on what is beautiful or repugnant among men, and generally accepted that each person has his own "taste" in things. So long as there is no conflict, we are largely indifferent to the proclivities of others.
It is entirely possible for a person to go along with the sentiment of others in order to appease them, but this is different to a genuine feeling of attraction or revulsion that arises internally. While seemingly disingenuous, it is functionally necessary in society for some to go along with the sentiments of others to keep the peace and to get things done.
(EN: It occurs to me that it is commonplace for people to offer enticements and incentives to others to assist them in achieving things that one person wants but another doesn't. Employment is the perfect example - the employer offers remuneration to the worker for his assistance. Though it's generally recognized now that in the choice of job and profession, many individuals seek self-fulfillment and choose situations that serve non-monetary needs.)