Judging others by their utility to society...

I’ve seen this brought up by anti-capitalists in various media: that the whole idea of “pulling your own weight” and, to an extent, the entire concept of needing to be employed to support yourself smacks of looking at someone’s very existence and asking, “what’s in it for me?”

While I don’t know if I agree fully, it really made me think. I’d never thought of the idea of being useful to, or contributing value to, society as a whole, or even just your fellow man, in that light, and I can at least see the point.

How would you counter if you disagree, or support if you agree? What implications does either have for how we deal with the poor, disabled, etc?

I think the person who discovers the cure for cancer is more valuable as a human being than a murderous psychopath rotting in jail.

But I don’t know how to translate this belief into policy. Sure, if there’s only one life raft left, I vote for the cancer-curing scientist to get it over the psychopath. But for all I know, the so-called psychopath is actually the one who has the key to saving humanity while the scientist has a basement full of dead bodies. Maybe the cure for cancer is turns out to be worse than the disease. So how do we judge wisely?

Still, I know that I value hard workers over lazy bums. I admire the person who aims to give back to his community more than the person who cares only about himself. As horrible as this makes me sound, I feel this way because I don’t think all life is precious. A lot of “life” is burdensome and wasteful. But “burdensome and wasteful” still has their place, though. I mean, I’ve got cats who would qualify as such, but they also provide intangible benefits. Perhaps if I didn’t have their company, I wouldn’t be able to function as well as I do because I’d be sad and lonely. Maybe the basement-dwelling prolonged adolescent leech provides a similar role for his parents. Again, who knows?

I don’t think we have an obligation to do anything, though. I’m not obligated to give back to my community or be a “good citizen”. But I’m also not entitled to a judgment-free world either. If I don’t at least try to be more helpful than non-helpful, I can’t expect others to like me. That would just be plain dumb.

You have never thought about the utility of a school teacher as compared with a venture capitalist/investment banker vulture?

it’s no an uncommon thought, and one not always among “anti-capitalists”.

I think of it more along the line of “what is your existence costing me?” But abilities vary. And, paraphrasing another poster, how we value and treat our most wretched fuckups says something about us.

And someone not pulling weight in an easily quantifiable way may contribute in others.

Take for instance choosing to have a child you cannot afford. That would be most parents, as by “afford” I include affording to educate the child properly on your own dime. But even though most parents aren’t pulling their own weight, we’re probably better off with those children being born and being supported to some degree by everyone else.

Someone who creates beauty or laughter, uncompensated, is contributing.

I think the physically or mentally disabled are a special category. If someone is truly unable to contribute, or contribute in a way that earns a living wage, then society has a moral obligation to help them.

For others, at first glance it’s hard to object to the idea that able people should contribute in some way. The problem arises when all of society’s needs are being met, and there’s nothing left to do (at least nothing that earns a living wage), but there are people left over. Should we just let them starve in the gutter? Of course that raises the question of how you determine if someone is really trying and really unable to find employment. It’s a difficult problem.

I suppose the ideal solution would be some sort of guaranteed basic income. Whether that would work in the real world is an open question.

I would counter by saying that it’s a hypocritical complaint. When someone gets butthurt about the sentiment of “What’s in it for me?” it’s generally because they expected to be able to just treat the other person like a walking wallet and is offended that they think it should be a mutually beneficial relationship.

It’s also based on practical considerations. In a modern welfare state, on average, you have to have the majority paying more in taxes than they receive in services, in order to subsidize those who pay less in taxes than they receive in services. The more people you have who don’t support themselves, the more people you need who support themselves plus the others.

Also, what Grunman says. “I have worth simply because I exist, therefore somebody else should support me” is an idea that cuts both ways - if it applies to you, it also applies to me, and therefore somebody else should support me. And that somebody else should be supported by somebody else, and so on, and so on. Eventually you run out of “somebody else”.


Yeah, I think the OP got that idea wrong. If someone isn’t pulling their own weight, it’s not a matter of “what’s in it for me”, but as you said “what’s it costing me”? Those are two quite different things, when we are talking about utility to society.

Which goes to the idea that taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society. If you resent having to chip in for the education of those whose parents can’t afford it, then think of it was a way of keeping the poor from storming the gates.

Yes. I have to believe that education reduces the crime rate, so we all benefit from public education. There’s also the fact that most of us benefited from public education as children, so we shouldn’t object to now paying for others to receive that same benefit.

I think a lot of people don’t realize some of the benefits we receive for the taxes we pay. Some benefits aren’t readily apparent since they consist of a lack or at least reduction of certain problems. You don’t notice a lack of people living in the gutters. You don’t notice a lack of deadly plagues.

I’ve been known to call the “the price I pay so that I didn’t have to have my own deadbeat relatives live in my basement.”

Good perspectives echoed by others here, and I would add that I don’t think one should die for not inventing anything. I do not see homeless people as being less deserving than me or anyone else with a job. Nor do I see myself as less human or worthy than a very rich person.
Is Paris Hilton more important than the average person who works in sales? Many people contribute to society even though it is not always apparent, like a cure for a deadly, terminal disease. Everyday services like disposing of trash are one example. Imagine if no salespeople in America showed up to work for six months, what would happen to businesses and what not. Or if sanitation workers all quit their jobs.

I think we have something to contribute to society whether we realize it or not.

I think the concept of “pulling your own weight” is more one of the idea that everyone has some kind of productive capacity in terms of earning a living, not being overly dependent on others, and paying one’s fair share of taxes and fees and/or assuming one’s portion of whatever service obligations are necessary in that particular time and place.

If you lived in a frontier community, this might include being part of the militia. If you lived/live in a small rural community, this might entail membership in the VFD. For most of us, it means being financially able to feed, clothe and house one’s family and to pay all requisite taxes.

It’s an ideal, in that the optimal state would be for everyone to be able to do this, and that people who deviate from it are mostly judged on the feasibility of achieving it. For example, someone disabled in an accident is unlikely to be castigated for not pulling their weight, but someone who is otherwise healthy and reasonably intelligent will be, as they could pull their weight, but choose not to, for whatever reason.

Not everyone can pull their weight. Someone out there is a mentally handicapped quadriplegic. You’re simply not going to get a lot of value out of him.

So why keep that person around? We fear death, but that doesn’t make death “bad”. Needless suffering and pain is bad, but we can kill people painlessly (or could, if it weren’t for bans) so that’s not a component. The loss of a person is a loss of the possibility that that person represented. Except, in this case, that’s not an issue because the person has no possibilities. His death might present a loss to those around him, and cause them to suffer. But maybe they’d be just as happy to not have the burden or, more probably, they might have a better and easier life overall at the cost of temporary suffering. Or lastly, because he is a person and he did not so choose it and we have no right to force death on him. Except, the right to choose ones own life is based on the assumption that all mankind was created equal. Factually, we aren’t born equal. Nor are we equal through all stages of our life, hence why children are treated somewhat like property, why a child can’t give consent, why someone who will be horribly ill or mentally incapacitated can give their medical choices over to someone else.

Really the only argument in favor of keeping around someone who is a drag on society and a drag on those in his immediate circle (e.g., his family), is because we have the spare resources to allow for it and it prevents us from having to make the hard call.

But do we actually have “spare resources”? If a useless person is a drag on his family, preventing (for example) his sister from ever getting that degree she always wanted, going into chemistry like she wanted, and discovering a way to allow us to cheaply separate hydrogen off other compounds, that’s a great loss to society. All of the money and food that society and our taxes provide to this useless person could have been routed to someone in a developing country, who wanted to better his state and the state of his country, so that fewer people were in need. Money and food go a lot further in a developing nation than they do in the US. All of the “spare resources” that are going to support a person who is a drag on society is a “spare resource” that isn’t going to someone who would be pushing society.

Really, the only reason to have a useless person around is to satisfy a certain view of morality. Morality changes over time, because we learn more, think about things more, and try to work our precepts back into axioms. Some things just aren’t going to become axiomatic, because they just aren’t always true.

Do individual human beings have inherent value, or are they valuable only for what they can contribute to society? Are they ends in themselves, or only means to an end? And if they are only means to an end, why? What makes that end inherently valuable while the people are not?

Plus I’m afraid the logical outcome of judging others by their utility to society is a dystopia in which we euthanize the old, the sick, the “defective,” and ultimately anybody we don’t think is “worthy.”

Ah, the “everyone on welfare is a lazy bum” theory. How about the people who can’t work, as already mentioned. How about those who are ready, willing and able to work but who can’t find a job - especially one that pays enough for them to live on? Are they bums also?

And how about the CEO (hired into the job - not a company creator) who destroys shareholder value and wants a raise? That person a bum also?

Value is a human construct. If, as a society, we deem value to mean “a net benefit to humanity (or at least not a loss)”, then that’s what it is.

And if you had a million dollars that could go towards building proper sanitation and housing for a thousand people in Africa or feeding and housing ten alchoholic, mentally handicapped wife beaters, which would you do? If all people are equal, surely the larger number is still the higher priority? Or do we prefer to guarantee the life of people in our society, simply because we know that we would have to look on the starving bodies in our streets?

One could easily say that if one could, wanted to, or did and was capable of trying to contribute to society, then that’s all fair. We want to entice people to do good. If people are living in fear that they’ll be axed the moment they get sick, turn 70, or whatever, they wouldn’t work very well. It goes against human nature.

Here’s a practical argument for why we shouldn’t terminate people who are “drags”. Doing so would coerce people into making decisions that would result in more costs on society than if we had just left well enough alone.

For instance, if people knew they would be executed if they became physically disabled and no longer able to work, they would be less likely to take risks. I’m not just talking about recreational risks (skydiving, race car driving, etc.). But also occupational risks. It suddenly becomes reasonable for an employee to refuse to do anything that could put themselves in harms way unless their employer guarantees they will be taken care of for the rest of their lives if something bad were to happen.

You’d also have people working who really shouldn’t work. Employers with any sense of compassion would be more reluctant to let go of bad employees.

Expect people to have more children than they otherwise would, as well. If I’m too disabled to work and the state’s got its guns aimed at me unless I become productive somehow, I’ll pump out some babies. And not cute healthy babies that everyone will want to adopt, but ugly babies that only a mother could love. And if I can’t do that, I’ll adopt me some babies, even if it means going on the black market and finding some that have been snatched from someone else. Why the hell not? It’s not fair to have your kids taken from you, but it’s not fair to be sentenced to death just because you’re not intelligent or attractive-looking enough to make money either.

nm - if you are just going to make things up, nothing can be done.


My take:

All of human society is based on our contributions to the group. Civilization started the first time two cavemen figured out they could accomplish more together and share the benefits. If one caveman brings back enough of a food surplus to feed another member of his group, that second caveman can devote himself full-time to other tasks, like inventing the wheel, guarding the camp, or whatever other things they did.

There are two critical parts to this: (1) First caveman has a food surplus and (2) first caveman needs the service the second caveman provides (whether that be wheels, protection, labor, or whatever).

So look at it this way: First caveman has enough surplus of food to feed himself and one additional person. Second caveman has a valuable skill. Third caveman picks his nose and eats his boogers. Who does he give the food to?

The only difference between us and caveman is that our food surplus is vastly huge, big enough to support not just farmers but all manner of entertainers, artisans, laborers, soldiers, etc etc. Each of these is trading his service for food. (Or, in our case, currency that can be exchanged for food.) We also have enough of a surplus to provide for those people who do not contribute (either because they are unwilling or unable to do so).

This works great for now, because we still have surplus resources. The big question is whether this state will continue into the future. If we suffer some decline (such as a massive disaster, nuclear war, or over-consumption) that depletes our resources below our ability to support all members of the group, then we will have to make some very hard choices about who “deserves” our resources and who does not.

As it is, the human race has waaay to many people, and we are rapidly heading towards the point where we will need to make some hard choices.

But I think the counterpoint would be, we seem to ask that a lot of poor people, whose lives depend on others, and not so much of a lot of other things we should be asking that of, like corporate welfare and high finance and stuff like that.

Not that I don’t understand why, and I’m not saying that it’s an unreasonable assumption that the mega-wealthy “contribute” more to society (though whether it’s TRUE is an open question), but at the same time, the 1% can cause a lot more damage to society more immediately than most of the poor people in the country.