Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Value of Music

A few years ago I was in conversation with an American businessman who casually remarked that "It [life] all boils down to money, sex and ego!" He was astonished when I disagreed with him, saying that no-one had ever questioned him on this before. So I'm certainly aware that the trend has, for quite a while, been towards more and more assigning value to things that I would consider mere instrumental goods.

An "instrumental good" is something that has value only in terms of its usefulness in working towards something else that is an end in itself. Sorry to wax Aristotelian on you, but he came up with a lot of these ideas. For the Greeks, there were only three really important things: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. By "important things" I mean things to which we direct our efforts. These three things are ends in themselves. In order to seek them the Greeks also envisioned four virtues (later adopted by the Catholic Church): wisdom, courage, justice and moderation.

Money, often counted a great good, is really just an instrumental good. It is not an end in itself. Money in itself is just paper (or plastic) or 1s and 0s in a database somewhere. It is good if you use it to buy useful things for yourself or others. If you just buy cocaine with it, it is not good. So, as an instrumental good, it is all in how you use it. Sex is pretty complicated, but I think it is also best considered as an instrumental good as the value of it too depends on how it is used. You can create future generations with sex or just humiliate someone.

I have my own special theory about ego. This is one of those words that I normally refuse to use as it is a technical term in modern psychology. My policy about modern psychology, that is, psychology since Freud, is that it is so flawed that it is best ignored. But leaving the term aside, I think what the original claim is, is that gratifying one's dominance or vanity or something is a good thing. As this is often achieved by lording it over other people, I beg to differ!

This is all prompted by a poll in the Globe and Mail this morning about whether money can buy happiness. Here are the, to me, surprising results:

Vote: Can money buy happiness?
Yes, to a certain extent
No, never
Not sure, but I'd love to find out

    Wow, I thought Canadians were more sensible than this! They used to be... My vote was in the 7% who said, "no, never".

    This leads me to tying this in to music. People often talk about the decline of classical music, but rarely consider the deeper causes. In a world where people are largely committed to pursuing material goods, or some kind of new-agey bliss, classical music is likely to get short shrift. Why? Because it demands, on the part of both performer and listener, a disciplined focus. Its rewards are neither material nor blissful. It is challenging in a way that most people do not seem to want to be challenged. And finally, it exists in a non-material world that you have to enter into, which doesn't appeal so much to narcissists for whom their world is the only one!

    But classical music is definitely worth the effort:

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