Saturday, January 22, 2011

Infrastructure versus architecture

A public utility plans to run high-tension lines next to a college containing a number of important works of architecture. The power poles and wires would also obstruct the distant view of a main building on campus, which the architect purposefully designed to be seen as people approached from afar. The utility claims that that location had the lowest cost, and the college has taken the utility to court to stop the installation of the power lines there.

We often think of a utility in terms of the publically regulated companies that provide us with the water, heat, and power we use in our daily lives. But the word “utility” has a different meaning in ethics, and understanding that difference can help resolve this dispute. Ethically, utility means the usefulness of an action, and it leads us to ask, of any situation: did it produce good consequences or bad, and if so, for whom and how many? Utilitarianism, one of the dominant modes of modern ethics, has “utility” as its root word, and it can prove useful in sorting out conflicts like this one.

Among the various types of utilitarianism, the distinction between hedonistic and ideal utility might shed the most light here. Hedonistic utilitarians judge the consequences of an action according to the pleasure it brings or the pain it avoids. In the case of this power utility that wants to route its lines in the most cost-effective way, the reduced expense to the company and presumably the reduced rate increases to customers that result from it, produces the most pleasure, if measured economically.

Ideal utilitarians see things differently. They argue that we determine something to be good or bad for reasons that transcend simply pleasure or pain. A good consequence for an ideal utilitarian would factor in intellectual, aesthetic, or even spiritual values, and not just those related to physical pleasure or economic profit. That distinction has obvious relevance to current political debates. Those who would willingly cut government spending on what they see as extraneous activities in order to keep taxes as low as possible clearly fall into the hedonistic camp, even though such “conservatives” might not like being branded as hedonists. Meanwhile, those who willingly pay more taxes in order to support public benefits such as parks, schools, and arts and cultural organizations just as clearly fall into the idealist camp, a description that might also rub some “liberals” the wrong way.

In the situation here, the power company has made a hedonistic argument: run the power lines along the lowest-cost route to keep ratepayers’ increases down. Meanwhile, the college has made an idealist one: the aesthetic value of its buildings makes their visual disruption by power lines an unacceptable consequence. These two positions may seem irreconcilable, but not so, according to the 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill. He argued for a middle ground, that while pleasure matters to people, there are higher and lower pleasures. The pleasures of the body and the profits of marketplace, for example, remain of lower quality than the pleasures of the mind and profits of cultural activities, which Mill saw as having a more enduring and ultimately more satisfying nature.

To the hardheaded CEO or a hard-hearted conservative, such sentiments may seem cloying. When the bottom line becomes the primary determinant of all value, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual values have little to do with the utility of an action. But ideal utilitarians and those who accept Mill’s middle ground have a compelling case here. The slightly increased cost of re-routing the power lines cannot compare to the irreparable damage to the college’s campus or the visual disruption of peoples approach to it that the intended location of the power lines would cause. The rate increase that might come as a result of routing the lines would affect only the ratepayers and only once; meanwhile, the impact of the proposed route would affect the college’s faculty, staff, students, and visitors for a very long time. Based on the simple utilitarian calculus of what brings the greatest good to the greatest number, apart from one’s hedonistic and idealistic leanings, there is no question that the greatest utility stems from the utility moving its lines and respecting the approach and aura of the campus.

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