Materialists and utilitarians

Last Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal
Matthew 6:19

A distinction can be drawn between a person’s tendency to value the material or utilitarian aspects of their possessions. I interpret these terms informally. The dirtbagging rock climber whose life depends on his ropes and carabiners does not care in the end about their material composition, but that they will reliably bear his weight in the event of a fall. He is a utilitarian with respect to his ropes. The mensware enthusiast who resides in the Bay Area knows very well that casual athleisure is both more socially accepted and more practical than his custom-tailored shirts and suits, but he cares instead for the quality of the cloth and takes pleasure in thinking of its hand-stitched construction by his favorite Neapolitan tailor. When it comes to his wardrobe, he is a materialist.

In order to be either a utilitarian or a materialist, one’s orientation to possessions must rise above the desire for social standing. If you only see an object for what it means to others, you do not truly care about what it does or about what it is made of. While it is inevitable that one will be judged for one’s belongings, it is not inevitable that those possessions be acquired solely for the purpose of gaining approval or sending the right message.

One can consider a materialism or utilitarianism of ideas. An 30 year old American bachelor enters a crisis and begins reading self-help and spirituality books, looking for answers. The ideas are nice, yes, but his question remains unanswered: does any of this work? If he instead sought only to cultivate a mental life, constructing a tapestry out of the threads of history and philosophy, we would instead find a materialist (though a bachelor he would remain).