Friday, April 5, 2013

The Concept of Futility


It may be important for us to carefully examine the concept of futility, insofar as such an examination may enable us to more clearly define the conditions under which it is morally permissible, advisable, or necessary to concede defeat in a given endeavor or field of activity. If we have made personal or moral commitments to try to achieve success in a given field of activity, then it may be necessary for us to be able to recognize when we should admit failure and concede defeat. If we have failed in a given endeavor but have fulfilled all our personal and moral commitments to try to achieve success, then we may in good conscience be able to terminate our participation and be free to turn our efforts to a different (and perhaps more productive) field of activity.
      How do we know when it is morally permissible, advisable, or necessary to surrender, admit defeat, or “throw in the towel"? How do we know when it is morally right or wrong to struggle against overwhelming odds? Can it be heroic in some cases to refuse to admit defeat when there is no chance of victory? Can a kind of nobility and dignity in some cases be achieved by refusing to surrender to inevitable defeat, and by continuing to struggle against overwhelming odds? When does such perseverance become reckless, foolhardy, or irresponsible?
      With what degree of certainty must we know that an action is futile before we describe it as such? What is the minimum likelihood or threshold of utility of an action that must be met in order for us not to consider that action to be futile?
      When is it acceptable, advisable, or justifiable for us to concede defeat in a game of chess, poker game, bicycle race, wrestling match, boxing match, research project, legal proceeding, advertising campaign, or political election?
      Futility may be described as an inability to produce any successful result, effect, or outcome. Futile actions are incapable of producing any benefit or accomplishing any useful purpose. They are useless and of no value by any reasonable standard of utility. They have no chance (or an extremely low likelihood) of being useful, effective, beneficial, or successful.
      The principle of futility may be roughly converse to the principle of utility. While the principle of utility may hold that actions are morally right or justified insofar as they are useful and promote good results, the principle of futility may hold that actions are morally wrong or unjustified insofar as they are useless and incapable of promoting good results. Futile actions may be actions for which there is no logical basis, practical rationale, or moral justification from the standpoint of the principle of utility.
      It is not the case that it is just as well not to perform futile actions as to perform them, because the performance of futile actions may often entail an expenditure of (physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological, social, material, or economic) resources that could be used for more productive purposes. Futile actions lack the utilitarian and consequential value that belongs to useful and consequential actions, and from a utilitarian or consequentialist standpoint they are therefore not worthy of being performed at all. Furthermore, the performance of futile actions may in some cases not only be unhelpful, but also potentially harmful. Such actions may promote an inability to adapt to a given situation, rather than promoting the capacity to rectify or remedy that inability.
      An interesting question to consider, with regard to the concept of marginal utility, is whether the consumption of a product or service may have a progressively increasing marginal disutility, corresponding to its progressively decreasing marginal utility. That is to say, if the utility of each unit of a product or service becomes progressively less as more and more of the product or service is consumed, then the disutility of each unit may also become progressively greater.
      Similarly, if an action is futile but is performed repeatedly, then it may become more and more futile the more often it is performed. Repeated performance of that same useless action may increasingly become an exercise in futility.
      If an action is futile, then why should it be performed at all? If there is anything to be gained by performing the action, then it is not in fact futile.
      The performance of actions that are known to be futile may be counterproductive insofar as it may enable us to delude ourselves that we are doing something that is helpful or useful. Refusal to perform futile actions may in some cases be a means of asserting our moral integrity, rationality, agency, and decision-making capacity. However, it may in other cases be merely a refusal to comply with unreasonable requests or demands made by others that futile actions be performed (our refusal being based on our compliance with reasonable standards of moral conduct and our recognition of those cases in which requests or demands for futile actions to be performed are logically, morally, and legally unjustified).
     The nature of futility is an important object of investigation for medical ethics. A situation in which the possibility of futility must unavoidably be confronted is that in which a patient who is in complete cardiopulmonary arrest has not responded to extended attempts at CPR. Medical responders must at some point decide whether further CPR has any chance of success or whether it will be futile.
      The nature of futility is also an important object of investigation for military ethics. Assessment of the probability of military success is an element of just war theory, which questions the justification for a nation to engage in war if such engagement will clearly be futile. Some ethical questions that may need to be considered in relation to the nature of futility in military combat include: Does a soldier have a duty to perform futile actions ordered by his/her commanding officer if those actions will clearly result in the unnecessary deaths of fellow soldiers and civilians? Is the nature of futility, in some cases, merely a matter of personal viewpoint or subjective opinion?
      Some kinds of futility that we may have to confront in everyday life include

  • the futility of trying to engage in a rational discussion with someone who does not want to engage in a rational discussion
  • the futility of trying to negotiate with someone who does not want to negotiate
  • the futility of trying to convince people to agree with all of our opinions
  • the futility of trying to recall every sentence of a magazine article that we’ve just read
  • the futility of trying to repair, rather than replace, an electrical system that has repeatedly broken down
  • the futility of trying to start the engine of a car when the car’s battery is dead.
      One response that we can make to being confronted with the futility of trying to control things that we have no power to control is to adopt a stoic attitude. The philosopher Epictetus (c. 55-135 C.E.) says that wisdom is defined by a capacity to distinguish between those situations that are within our power to change and those situations that are not within our power to change. In order to attain harmony with the world, we may have to reconcile ourselves to those situations that are not within our power to change, but we do not necessarily have to reconcile ourselves to those situations that are within our power to change. Wisdom is defined by an ability to adapt to situations that are not within our power to change, while folly is defined by an inability to adapt to situations that are not within our power to change.
      Other responses that we can make to being confronted with the futility of trying to control things that we have no power to control are to trust in providence or to adopt a fatalistic attitude. Still other responses that we can make are to turn to religious faith or metaphysical skepticism. We may decide to put our faith in teachings such as that of Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” or we may decide to be skeptical about any teachings that say there is a metaphysical purpose to things.
      Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial is, in part, concerned with the futility of our trying to convince ourselves that uncertainty is not an inherent aspect of our existence. The protagonist of the novel, Joseph K., is arrested one morning at his apartment, for some unknown offense, without any formal charges having been brought against him. He is later released and returns to his job as a bank clerk, but he is unable to discover what crime he is accused of having committed. He is unable to obtain any direct answer from the court as to whether he has any legal rights. Despite his continued efforts to resolve his case, he learns that no one who has been accused of an offense has ever received a definite acquittal. The most he can hope for is an ostensible acquittal or an indefinite postponement of his case. Eventually, he is again arrested, and he discovers the futility of trying to avoid his cruel fate.
      An action may be described as futile if it cannot possibly produce any benefit and cannot possibly be effective or successful. We may therefore need to examine three criteria for the futility of an action: the action’s inability to be beneficial, its inability to be effective, and its inability to be successful. The inability of an action to be beneficial, effective, or successful may be a sufficient ground for describing that action as futile.
      The effectiveness of an action may be defined as the action’s ability to do whatever it is intended to do, and the successfulness of an action may be defined as the action’s accomplishment of whatever it was intended to accomplish. If there is no chance of an action’s being beneficial, effective, or successful, then the criteria for futility are fulfilled.
      It should be noted that the effectiveness of an action is here defined as its ability to produce its intended effect, and not just any effect at all. Actions capable of producing an effect other than their intended effect may therefore be futile if they cannot possibly produce any benefit or accomplish any purpose.
      It should also be noted that some actions intended to be beneficial turn out to be harmful or detrimental. Such actions are not futile if there is actually some benefit they could have produced, had they been successful.
      It should also be noted that some actions that are unsuccessful in producing any benefit or effect are merely of no consequence. But they are not futile if they could possibly have been beneficial, effective, or successful.
      The futility of an action is always dependent on the circumstances under which that action is performed. An action that is useful under a given set of circumstances may be futile under another set of circumstances. An action may also be absolutely or relatively futile under a given set of circumstances. In declaring that an action is futile, we should always be careful to verify that we have considered those circumstances under which that action could have been beneficial, effective, or successful.

REFERENCES

The Discourses of Epictetus. Edited by Christopher Gill. Translation revised by Robin Hard. London: J.M. Dent, 1995.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

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