Seeing Beauty in Utility with Adam Smith

arts & culture aesthetics utility beauty arts and sciences

August 9, 2023

On reflection, Smith’s claim that utility confers beauty seems powerful and persuasive."
I recently attended a seminar where participants read Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments alongside Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In TMS, Smith begins his section “Of Utility” with a bold claim seemingly designed to offend the literature majors present at this seminar. He writes, “That utility is one of the principal sources of beauty has been observed by every body, who has considered with any attention what constitutes the nature of beauty.” This response to this claim was predictably dramatic. Don’t we appreciate beautiful things for their own sake? Are we to instrumentalize beauty so crassly, and embrace utility as our metric like some rank calculator? Smith’s claim, however, is far more intuitive and persuasive than we might first suppose. 

Think, for example, of the buildings that constitute a college campus. My own graduate institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a diversity of architectural styles. Some of the older buildings in more classical or revival styles are, to my eye, clearly more beautiful than the later brutalist additions. But one could almost forgive external ugliness if a building served its function. If the eyesores on campus were pleasant to inhabit, convenient to navigate, cheap to maintain, and sturdy in their construction, there would be far less to bemoan. Unfortunately, these mid-century blights are none of these things. Their interiors are rat mazes, their exteriors crumbling, and in sum are crimes against both beauty and utility. 

As Smith argues, “The conveniency of a house gives pleasure to the spectator as well as its regularity, and he is as much hurt when he observes the contrary defect, as when he sees the correspondent windows of different forms, or the door not placed exactly in the middle of the building.” In other words, a person can find themselves thinking poorly of a home or a building they use just as easily if it is inconveniently arranged as if they see something amiss in its formal aesthetics. The two, it seems, are frequently tied up together: the ugly buildings that populate a campus may also be a nightmare to navigate, the classic buildings a pleasure to inhabit by contrast. 

Compare, too, the fragility of these brutalist buildings with their classically constructed counterparts. While fairly recently constructed buildings on UW-Madison’s campus are in dangerous states of disrepair, some scheduled for demolition, the oldest buildings on campus stand strong and steady and stately. It turns out that elements of traditional architecture, overhangs, recesses, arches, and the like, actually serve quite useful functions. They protect parts of the building that will wear out slower for their weather cover. They are not mere artificial aesthetic additions but serve to preserve the appearance and function of the building for generations to come. If they simply appeared beautiful at a distance, but crumbled on closer inspection, like temporary plaster facades, then we might find cause to question whether they were truly beautiful at all. Comparisons to whitewashed tombs come easily to mind. 

Smith also delves into beauty and art in his essay Of The Imitative Arts, and here we can draw insight helpful for the discussion of beauty and utility. Smith says that “The exact resemblance of correspondent parts of the same object is frequently considered as a beauty, and the want of it a deformity; as in the correspondent members of the human body, in the opposite wings of the same building…etc.” In other words, there is something in our estimation of beauty that comes from proportionality and symmetry in “correspondent” parts. There are parts of bodies and buildings alike that we expect to be proportional and symmetrical, and the absence of this is a “deformity” as opposed to a “beauty.”

But here, too, we see utility in the background: if a body is not symmetrical, ordinary tasks are more challenging. If a building is not symmetrical as expected, the use of the building is impaired until its irregular structure can be committed to memory. Those who indulge in difference and variety for its own sake are forsaking “that easiness to be comprehended and remembered, which is the natural effect of exact uniformity.” It is the very regularity and symmetry that grants the building its ease of use, its utility, and thus its beauty. It would be a strange building that forsakes the regularity of its columns or its door sizes for the sake of avant-garde experimentation, perhaps intriguing to look at, but frustrating to use, and certainly not immediately “beautiful.”  

On reflection, Smith’s claim that utility confers beauty seems powerful and persuasive. Outside of architecture, think of fine tools, such as a chef’s knife. A well-made knife has a beauty that cannot be fully divorced from its function, its utility. A cheaply made, plastic-handled, mass-market knife will dull and break, while a master-crafted quality knife may last a lifetime with proper stewardship. Surely the long-lasting, well-performing knife is meaningfully more beautiful than its fragile counterpart, no matter how nice the latter might look at first glance. 

The later parts of Smith’s section “On Utility” help us to develop this point further. It is here that we find the famous example of the poor man’s son, cursed with ambition, who mistakes the shiny baubles of the rich for objects of real utility and lives a miserable life striving to obtain them. Though these things have a veneer that makes them appealing, Smith argues, expensive excesses actually burden those who bear them, and can counterintuitively make their lives far worse than they would have been without those supposed conveniences. It is often fascination with the new, the innovative, what Smith calls “trinkets of frivolous utility,” that drives us away from beauty towards the ugly and the useless. With this in mind, Smith’s call to consider the utility of beauty may be a welcome addition to our aesthetic theorizing.

Want more?
Robert Edward Gordon and Daniel Asia's Heaven and Earth: Points of Convergence in the Arts and Adam Smith
Eric Schliesser's Adam Smith on the Value of Art
Learn more about the architecture and renovation of Panmure House, where Adam Smith lived in his last years.
TMS Reading Guide on Part IV, "Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation."