Utility. Theoretical, Practical and Intercultural Perspectives

Volume 14 December 2016

Utility. Theoretical, Practical and Intercultural Perspectives
Anne-Marie S. Christensen and Patrik Kjærsdam Telléus

In this issue of Academic Quarter, we focus on the concept of utility. References to utility are ubiquitous in both practical and theoretical settings. One of the most widespread ways of arguing for the initiating of or holding on to a certain practice or activity is that it is useful to us, and appeals to utility is a common and important argumentative move in theoretical discussion. However, the vast and often diverse specifications of utility reveal the indeterminacy inherent in the comprehension of utility. This gives cause for a struggle for the meaning and reference of utility, which in some cases, may lead to altering the originally positive normativity of utility into a negative interpretation. We get confused about utility, and become uncertain of how to apply and how to regard the concept. But at the same time, we cannot seem to escape it or avoid it, and we certainly cannot seem to be indifferent to its forceful nature.

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Freedom of Expression in the Era of the Privatization of Reason
Henrik Jøker Bjerre

The importance of free speech is beyond dispute in liberal democracy, and is today hardly challenged by anyone, but fundamentalist, religious groups. But which purpose should free speech serve, and how should it be (re)defined and administered in order to fulfill this purpose? I claim that these questions are more important than they may seem, and that they are easily overlooked, if free speech is treated as an end in itself or as something that one should not question at all. In the liberal tradition, freedom of expression was clearly valued for its excellent utility for the progress of society, but not for being an end in itself. In this article, I want, first, to make this point clear (through a reading of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant) and, second, to offer a couple of suggestions for relevant discussions on the restrictions, regulations and reinventions of free speech that might be required today in order to sustain and revive the liberal tradition itself.

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Emotioners (u)nytte. En fænomenologisk analyse af emotioner i praktisk rationalitet
Søren Engelsen

The article offers a genetic phenomenological account of the basic role that emotions play in prudential rationality. It is suggested that feelings are the original mode of presentation of value, and that this point can make intelligible that emotions in some cases have a substantial utility with regard to the apprehension of practical matters and in others are distorting of practical awareness. It is argued that the problematic nature of some emotions in practical contexts is an unfortunate bi-product of their important functional role of being sources of value reception.

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Discovering utility between the descriptive and the normative
Patrik Kjærsdam Telléus

In the article the moral notion of utility is examined. By reading John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism the paper argues that moral concepts, like the application of utility, incorporates both normative and descriptive elements, i.e. it is both abstract and factual in nature. Therefore the paper claims that facts are a vital part of moral behavior; and that descriptive elements are essential for normative judgment and moral reasoning. The paper supports its claim by showing that the moral conceptualization of utility includes the incorporation of facts, and that the density, or quality of that incorporation is equivalent to the certainty and comfort by which the conceptualization is articulated.

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e-learning in the digital age. The utility of the entrepreneurial self
Birte Heidkamp and David Kergel

In the article we reconstruct the logic of utility and apply this concept to contemporary e-learning discourses. One main thesis is that a concept of neoliberal utility functions as a subtextual topic which influences these discourses: Not the objectives and needs of the actors define the utility of e-learning strategies, but neoliberal logic and its narration topoi. According to this neoliberal utility, anything that fosters the skills of the learner is considered as utile. The actor who actually defines why the skills are of vital importance is replaced by the discursive topoi of the neoliberal ideal-image of an entrepreneurial self. In a first step, the logic of utility will be reconstructed. Subsequently the influence of neoliberal logic on contemporary e-learning discourses is analysed via a discourse-analytical orientated approach.

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Tensions and co-existence. Exploring multi-facetted articulations of intentions of problem-based learning in higher education
Diana Stentoft

This article raises the issue of articulating intention as a means of positioning education and educational practices as useful and as offering a particular contribution to individuals and society. The paper explores the multifaceted articulations of intentions of problem-based learning, PBL, and the apparent co-existence of articulations of very diverse intentions despite potential tensions. The exploration identifies three distinct yet intertwined sets of intentions of PBL explicated in the articulations of PBL in current books and research papers. One, PBL as supporting the specific learning situation. Two, PBL as a pedagogy enabling students’ development of specific competencies. And three, PBL as a pedagogy ensuring the delivery of efficient and employable human resources who are competent to meet broader societal demands. These very different articulations of PBL currently co-exist without much debate, however scratching the surface reveals potential tensions. These tensions for example become apparent when posing the question ’for who do we do PBL’? Do we do it for the students in order to enrich him or her as individuals and give them a stake in their own education? Or do we do it for the state, the company or the organisation in order to deliver efficient and employable human resources?

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The utility of psychiatric diagnosis. Diagnostic classifications in clinical practice and research in relation to eating disorders
Gry Kjærsdam Telléus

The validity of psychiatric diagnoses has been challenged because of a generally low validity of the existing diagnostic categories. However, it is important to distinguish between the validity and the utility of the psychiatric diagnostics. Although the validity of most contemporary psychiatric diagnoses is generally low and characterized by a low degree of natural boundaries, this does not mean that most psychiatric diagnoses are not useful concepts. The aim of this article is to focus on the utility of psychiatric diagnoses. This utility will be demonstrated with eating disorders as an example.

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The Differential Uses of Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra
Prem Poddar

Amartya Sen has at various times referred to the Indian fourth century BCE thinker Kautilya. Kautilya’s treatise Arthaśāstra (literally the ‘science of economy or material wellbeing’) explored possibilities of social choice. My paper attempts to delineate the connections between Sen’s deployment of (and sometimes dissatisfaction with) ancient Indian rational thought, in particular the ethical implications of Kautilya’s arguments about the welfare of the people: “in the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king [i.e. the state] and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit. What is dear to himself is not beneficial to the king, but what is dear to the subjects is beneficial (to him).” How the notion of welfare is defined and what specific measures are advocated and put in place is as central in Kautilya’s work as it is differentially central to our own times. Ultimately, both Kautilya and Sen are acutely aware that just institutions do not necessarily ensure social justice, however it is conceived.

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Den lille og den store nytte. Et interkulturelt perspektiv på forholdet mellem nytte og frihed
Jesper Garsdal and Michael Paulsen

In this article, we expound a distinction between a “small” and a “large” notion of utility. We do this by linking the concept of utility to the concept of freedom. Our suggestions derive from two readings related to the Chinese history of philosophy. First, we develop the distinction in a reading of early classical Chinese philosophy, through a discussion of Confucianism, Mohism and Daoism. Secondly, we explore the relationship between utility and freedom in the meeting between Chinese thinking and modern western philosophy. We discuss Yan Fu’s translations of Western philosophy, particularly Mill. Through this discussion, we end up with situating the discussion of utility in the domain of human freedom. Finally, drawing on Schiller, we consider how utility and freedom should be cultivated giving rise to a kind of balance between “harmony” and “conflict” in contemporary global society.

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