Utility, or usefulness, is an invisible thread that runs through and organises every aspect of our society. It is a basic, universal and inescapable measure of all worth in modern lives.
This is obvious in our attitudes to work and education. Economics treats utility as a measurable quantity which serves, and even dictates, decision-making. Many academics, particularly in the sciences, now need to justify their research in terms of “impact”, a quantifiable indicator of economic or social contribution. The governments of the US and the UK have cut down on their funding for liberal arts subjects, for lacking an obvious and measurable use. The assumption is that education should be a means to produce future workers.
But even beyond work, leisure is presented as the means to recharge our body and mind so we can keep on working, and is turned into a commodity, to be bought or sold, in the tourism industry.
This has repercussions on our moral discourse too, implying that being useful equals to being good. Anything without use value will be treated as luxury and indulgence, or dismissed as laziness or a moral complacency.
Indeed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber argued that utility, as an approach to life, may have its historical foundations in the Protestant work ethic.
The use driven approach to life fundamentally denies anything that is not a means to an end. If we really take utility as the only meaningful value, our lives would be merely parts of a never-ending production line – we function as long as we last and then can be replaced. This has been presented as progress, but the endpoint is uncertain: we may arrive at the utopia of economic or technological advancements, or we may come to understand that this is actually a myth of modernity, a distant and never realised promise.
Perhaps going back to the lessons of ancient Chinese Daoism might help us see the limits of our modern and contemporary fixation with usefulness.
The Story of a Useless Tree
In his work The Inner Chapters, the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi tells the story of a tree which enjoys being useless. This tree has grown to a vast size and is worshiped in the village. Its branches are “too twisted and gnarled to be used for beams or pillars”, while its trunk is “too splotched and split to be used for a coffin” (translated by Brook Ziporyn in his Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings). So one day when a carpenter encounters the tree, he believes the tree to be “worthless lumber”. Yet, the tree responds to the carpenter’s criticism by appearing to him in a dream and asking him:
“What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult…Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That’s why they die young…They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world.” (Ziporyn’s translation)
Should We Judge Others? Read more In this story, the carpenter’s view is in modern western terms utilitarian. Regardless of the size of the tree or its being worshipped, to the carpenter the tree is nothing more than a waste of space. The existence of the tree serves no purpose. However, the tree feels blessed by its uselessness: it survives, while other “useful” trees are cut down, to be used as wood, or damaged by such violence.
In a quirky and humorous manner, Zhuangzi conveys the basic point that the tree’s very life is saved by its being useless, while its fellow trees that produce things of use are destroyed. In other words, in viewing something simply in terms of its usefulness, we have denied its right to be.
"The principle of utility has fundamentally undermined the individual, who is supposedly at the heart of our society."
Zhuangzi sees uselessness as something the tree has to cultivate. As the tree states, “I have been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it.” (Ziporyn’s translation) Before being cut down, a tree is already only judged for its use value. This is the “insult” Zhuangzi’s tree speaks of. It is unable to remain as it is. The tree has to go out of its way to avoid being caught up in this, in order to just be a tree.
This is how Zhuangzi carries out a project of resistance to utility, which he clearly sees as praise-worthy. Ziporyn continues to translate: “This is the worthlessness [uselessness] that the Spirit Man relies on.” Zhuangzi refers to the Spirit Man as both an exceptional figure and exemplar who we can all aspire to be like. He means that the way of the tree, like the way of the Spirit Man, is something we should follow. Although the useless tree appears to only be taking care of itself, Zhuangzi develops the cultivation of uselessness with two key notions, i.e. wu wei and ziran, in Daoist philosophy:
Wu wei is generally translated as action-less action. It was expressed by the Daoist philosopher Laozi as a principle for government by the sage, who “conducts affairs on the principle of take-no-action [wu wei].” (Keping Wang’s translation of Dao De Jing in his Reading the Dao: A Thematic Inquiry) On the surface, this principle might appear as an excuse for laziness, passivity or inaction. Zhuangzi further develops it to be more accurately understood as a call to let beings be. As an ethical principle, action-less action requires us not to force our will or impose utility onto others.
Ziran, as a Daoist principle, is often understood as naturalness, or more specifically, as spontaneity. An entity is said to be ziran if it is allowed to be itself. This thus calls on us to allow both ourselves and other beings to be. Zhuangzi’s understanding of uselessness, which refuses judgement or manipulation of any entity based on its utility, contextualises the meaning of ziran. Thus, he challenges other schools of thought in his time, such as the Confucians and the Mohists, who held that the aim of education should be to produce scholars who could be of use to the state.
Zhuangzi also frequently presents the figure of the Spirit Man or Daoist sage, who is associated with the approach to life of the useless tree, as an eccentric figure. An example is “the madman Jieyu”. Zhuangzi is not asking people to copy these eccentrics in every conceivable way. Precisely because their eccentricities are thought of by many as useless, they do not fit in the conventions of the society nor are they demanded to conform. Thus, these eccentrics show different ways of being.
Are We Free?
Can we make anything out of this story? Is it a paradox to, as Zhuangzi does, consider that uselessness may have a part to play in life? Zhuangzi’s useless tree may seem distant to us. His eccentric sages, on the contrary, may be more understandable because they somehow echo with the individualist values of western society. Yet, the Daoist approach is still in many ways quite different.
The idea that as a liberal society, we value the individual, is indeed nominal. This individuality, in contemporary western society, is always treated as commodity. Hence, today it is frequently said that “one has to market oneself”. The marketing of oneself above all else has become a cultural and practical obsession. We might have overtly done it, for example, on CVs and social media, or in other subtler ways throughout our life. One’s individuality is viewed effectively as a means to present oneself. And presenting oneself in such a way often implies that one is of use. Sometimes, this is even done to the extent that one’s whole identity is being defined through one’s usefulness.
The basic cruelty and alienation of life based around marketing one’s usefulness can be seen in the use of language. For example, incongruous terms like “human resources” are omnipresent in casual thinking. Such language callously lumps humans together with other resources, such as coal, steal, timber, etc.
This condition is at odds with the humanism underlying western thought since the enlightenment. It reflects the strange double-think of modern life and alleged individualism. The principle of utility has fundamentally undermined the individual, who is supposedly at the heart of our society.
There may be no hope for ever changing the way we think about utility. Zhuangzi’s story of a useless tree at the very least helps to rediscover a place for uselessness. It presents an alternative way to think of freedom – we must stop feeling that we have to be useful all the time, or seeing that there is no more to life than utility. We need to challenge the destructive aspects of the tyranny of utility in contemporary culture. In this way, perhaps we can just be ourselves again.