Writing in First Things, Aaron Kheriaty examines the growing epidemic of "deaths of despair."
In a meritocratic age, we are valued for our usefulness. Whether in the rich precincts of Palo Alto, where children face high pressure to perform, or the forgotten stretches of West Virginia, Americans are increasingly told that they are valuable only insofar as they contribute to a productive economy. Old sources of meaning—fatherhood, fraternity, civic involvement, church membership—have receded in significance before the SAT and future earning power. When the useful replaces the good and efficiency becomes the highest value, human beings are instrumentalized. This happens at a personal level when freedom is seen as doing what you want, making life a mere means of gaining pleasure. Rather than opening up new vistas of freedom, economic and social liberation has made men subject to a logic of utility. Among the dreary death works produced by today’s culture industry, there are T-shirts that proclaim, “I’m not saying I hate you, but I would unplug your life support to charge my phone.”