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Dignity vs. Utility

Posted by on April 16, 2009

I’m as wowed by Susan Boyle as anyone, and I wish her continued success in the talent competition, but I’ve been bothered by thoughts similar to those that prompted Dennis Palumbo to ask, “What if Susan Boyle Couldn’t Sing?

“The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn’t sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don’t match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?”

Mr. Palumbo makes most of the points I would have made, and probably better than I would have made them. What I’d add is that one of the warped philosophies that support such prejudice is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism regards people as valuable insofar as they can produce and good or service useful to others. That includes entertainment.

Had Susan Boyle not sung well, the judges and audience would have continued to think poorly of her. Her “inner beauty” would be irrelevant because she would have failed to establish her worth. Unmarried, unemployed, unattractive, and untalented, she’d be of no use to them.

In truth, a person’s dignity is not derived from our social standing, our achievements, our wealth, our talents, or any other way society might consider us useful. Rather, it is not derived at all; it is inherent. Religious or not, few would argue against the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” or “Do not so to others what you would not have them do to you”. Necessary prerequisites for this rule to work, however, are that we must regard other human beings first and foremost as persons with intrinsic dignity and never as objects to be used or means to ends.

If our societies have forgotten or rejected these foundational principles, God help us all, for some day we – or perhaps our progeny – may cease to be sufficiently useful to society. Then what?