The modern scientific framework explains things from cause to effect. Causes explain effects. Something happens as the result of something else. The tree grows from the seed. There are observable consequences. There are sequences of events, one following from the other. Each thing is explained by what preceded it: What happened first explains what comes next. The fire caused the house to burn. The lake is full because we got so much rain. Cause and effect. Thus also, the laws of nature explain why things happen. We have found the universe to be subjected to natural laws. Gravity causes the apple to fall. Heat causes the water to boil. It’s all very mechanical, one thing to the next.
So where does human value fit in all this? The physical universe gets on just fine with cause and effect. All our evidence is from causes to effects. So why do we care? Why do things matter to us? And why does instrumental evidence matter in explaining our values? If causes are what nature is ‘interested in’, does that explain our own interests? Before human interests (or perhaps biological life) arrived on the scene, the universe spiraled out uncomplicatedly from the Big Bang in a deterministic seeming stream of causes to effects.
Humans actually work backwards. The effects are important and the causes are mysterious. Causes need to get investigated. We see effects that make a difference to us, that is, effects that matter to us, and investigate the causes. The seed grows better in one location than another, but why? What is the difference that makes the difference? Too much sun or too little? Not enough water or a surplus? If we can find the causes we can promote our interests. We can promote the effects we want.
And importantly, we can imagine things that do not yet exist. Human culture is a testament to human innovation and creativity. It exists only because we cared enough to make it happen. Human value works with nature, but it makes the world a different place. And it isn’t always important that things have been engineered and made tractable and predictable. Consequences don’t always move us. Sometimes we do things for their own sake. The arts are especially important to us because they surprise us and show us the unexpected.
Things like the arts don’t just solve existing problems, they help invent the questions. They are a guide in how we face the world. They also strain against the bonds of our reality. They are a different insight into the world from science and technology. The arts demand different things from us and from the world. Tracing out causes and effects sometimes just gets in the way. We don’t always need to know the mechanism of how things work. Sometimes, yes, but more things matter to us than simply what we can trace through the compulsions of causes to effects.
So that is the way value works, roughly. Human value cannot be fully explained merely by the cause and effect principles of the natural world. People are interested in things and there are means of achieving them, some worse and some better. There are tools we can use. What we are interested in are our own ends. We are interested in achieving them. We are drawn toward the ends like a seed is drawn toward the tree it will become. That is the purpose behind what we do and why we do it. The ends motivate us. Not the means. The ends. We can dream of a better world and figure out the means of achieving it.
But notice what happens when we move from the values of our motivation to the values of our justification. When we say that the arts are “good for” this and that other value, that the arts are instrumental in achieving our various purposes, things like a better economy, improved cognitive development, positive social impacts, and increased wellbeing, we are saying that the arts are causes of desired impacts. We are saying the value of the arts is derived from those things they benefit. We are saying the arts are a means. But in what way does this justify or even explain their value? We are attributing the value of the arts as something subservient to the effects it has on other values. We are excluding it from our ends. We have traded out the value the arts have as motivation, as belonging to our ends and our purposes, for the value the arts have as means, as the tools we use to achieve other ends. Do we even know what we’re doing?
When we attempt to justify the arts as an instrumental value we are no longer admitting the motivating value the arts have. We have traded that out for a domestic’s role, a servile and dependent role, and the truth is that we are never motivated in the same way by doing that. When we ask for art’s justification we are looking for permission. We are telling the story that art needs to first pass muster and only then will it get sanctioned. If it isn’t good for anything, the reasoning goes, it can’t be any good. And if it isn’t good it isn’t worth doing. Justifying the arts has actually threatened to push the arts themselves out the door as something conditional on our approval. It has forced a wedge between art and our motivation to be with art, to make our home and our lives in the presence of art. By turning art into a tool we have made art essentially, and paradoxically, useless.
The hammer does not motivate building the house. The car does not motivate us to drive. We have tools in our lives so we can do other things. The tools are either useful or not for achieving our goals. The goals are what counts. And when we look at the arts as merely a tool we forget that the arts are not in our lives simply to address other interests. No matter how well the arts ‘fix’ things for us, because they do have benefits, they are not important in our lives just as the result of how well they achieve results. If the economy is supposed to justify the arts, it surely does not motivate them.
The thing we have somehow forgotten in our zeal to justify our interests is that the ends justify the means. So it matters what the ends are. And turning the arts as an end into the arts as a means is catastrophically self defeating. It’s asking the hammer to justify the house. Our ends and our purposes motivate us. All else depends on that. We have moved beyond the cycle of causes and effects to purposes. The means (as a means) are without human value in the absence of our ends. A tool without a purpose is not even a tool. Hammers wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have things to do with them.
Are the arts so feeble to us that they need an outside purpose? Did we invent the arts entirely to serve some other end? I doubt it. The only evidence of people treating the arts as a means comes in the last few centuries at most, and then even it seems an outlier. So we had better adjust to the idea that ends have a value worth considering. Not everything hangs on being justified. And unless we can see the arts as an end themselves we will be trapped in the justificatory excuses that the arts are merely ‘good for’ this or that.
The value of the arts is not explained by what they are good for. The arts are what explains the value and meaning of doing what we do, because the arts frequently are our motivation. Reasons stand on the opposite end from causes. We see a concert because the arts motivate us. The role of the arts in our lives is the reason we do what we do. We paint and sculpt because making art motivates us. That is our purpose. Not the economy. Not cognitive development. Not social impacts. Not even our own wellbeing. The fundamental place of the arts in human lives is that they stand for us as a motivation.
The things we justify the arts by are never sufficient to motivate us to engage with or participate in the arts, and that is because the arts as an instrument are merely a means. We are motivated by our ends, not our means. So isn’t it odd that no child ever raised a paintbrush in the name of positive cognitive development? Even if this is the effect on kids painting, it is not the reason they paint. The justification is not the motivation. As good as the arts are for the economy, and they are, you cannot tell an artist that they either are doing or should be doing what they do just to serve the economy. That is nonsense. Treating an end as a means only makes sense if you are inspecting justifications, however legitimately or illegitimately that is undertaken. As an insight into motivation it is fails utterly.
Treating something as an end is radically different from treating it as a means. And until we can wrap ourselves around that distinction we will continue to fail the arts by fundamentally misunderstanding them. The appeals for justification have led us astray. The arts are only justified as a means, not as an end. Ends don’t rest on being justified, because they don’t themselves serve: They are what the means serve. The arts, in other words, are not something in need of being justified, they are what justify us. At least for the most part. And it is time we made peace with that.