“You’re Not The Special!”: President Business’s Theory of Extrinsic Value
In President Business’s Bricksburg, we see a world in which the value of its citizens is socially determined. On this understanding of value, a person’s worth is not something she possesses intrinsically, butit is extrinsically conferred in a variety of ways by the judgments of others. The song “Everything is Awesome,” whose message President Business ensures everyone in Bricksburg has internalized, captures the conditional nature of President Business’s understanding of value (or “awesomeness,” as he calls it here). “Everything is awesome,” President Business’s pop music propaganda tells us, and on two conditions: “when you’re part of a team” and “when we’re living our dream.” In this catchy tune, President Business proposes that awesomeness depends both on belonging to a “team” through relationships with others and participating in the Bricksburg “dream” that he systematically propagates. As we discover over the course of the film, President Business views the value of individual people as similarly dependent on such social conditions.
We witness one expression of this model of value early in the film during a commercial that encourages its viewers to “eat a complete breakfast with all the special people in your life.” The term “special” in this sentence surely is not suggesting that those with whom you eat breakfast are special because of any particular intrinsic characteristic they possess. Rather, they are special by virtue of being of great significance or importance to you. The commercial demonstrates an extrinsic account of value, in which a person’s value does not depend on any intrinsic quality he possesses but instead is socially conferred by others’ valuing him.
This extrinsic account of value reflects the theory of value articulated by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his book The Reasons of Love. Nothing in the world is truly valuable in its own right, he says. Instead, “it is by caring about things that we infuse the world with importance.”1 Frankfurt explains this in terms of love:
As I am construing it, love is not necessarily a response grounded in awareness of the inherent value of its object. It may sometimes arise like that, but it need not do so .... It is not necessarily as a result of recognizing their value and of being captivated by it that we love things. Rather, what we love necessarily acquires value for us because we love it. The lover does invariably and necessarily perceive the beloved as valuable, but the value he sees it to possess is a value that derives from and that depends upon his love.2
Frankfurt considers his love for his children to illustrate his point:
The particular value that I attribute to my children is not inherent in them but depends upon my love for them. The reason they are so precious to me is simply that I love them so much . In any case, it is plainly on account of my love for them that they have acquired in my eyes a value that otherwise they would not certainly possess.”3
For Emmet, whose plant is the closest thing to a special “person” in his life to eat breakfast with, the dependence of his value on others’ evaluations is problematic. Nobody really values him. Clearly influenced by the account of value that President Business propagates in his television commercials, Emmet tries desperately to fit in with his coworkers and win their approval. A surprised yet forlorn expression comes across his face, however, when Bad Cop reveals to him that his acquaintances do not actually value him or think that he is special. At this moment, Emmet begins to realize just how unspecial and worthless he is according to an extrinsic account of value.
The scene in which Bad Cop interrogates Emmet shows that particular qualities—such as being perky, liking sausage, or simply having a penchant for nearly collapsing in laughter at the mention of your name—can elicit positive value judgments from others. Unfortunately, in Emmet’s case, it is the lack of interesting qualities that renders him boring and worthless. “He’s just sort of a little bit of a blank slate, I guess,” Larry the Barista notes on Bad Cop’s recording.
In a similar vein, Emmet is not deemed worthless merely because no particular person values him but because others consider his contribution to society to be negligible. Let’s call this an economic account of value. According to this model, a person’s worth derives from her “market value,” or the value of the services she provides to society.
This can be considered another extrinsic account of value because it is socially conferred. Unlike the Frankfurtian account, however, a person’s value does not depend on a particular individual valuing him. Instead, a person’s worth is determined by the value that the members of society collectively place on the goods or services he produces. We value certain knowledge and skills, such as the experience and technical expertise of a surgeon, because they are not easily replaceable and because we value the restoration of health that the surgeon provides.
Though this value could be partly expressed in monetary terms, we can understand it as a broader expression of the overall value a person brings to others. In President Business’s Bricksburg, others’ assessments of a person’s contribution to society (in addition to her specialness to particular individuals) constitute the principal measure of her value as a human being. Implicit throughout the film is the notion that Emmet’s status as a construction worker, holding an unskilled job in which he could easily be replaced, contributes to his unspecialness. More importantly, we are constantly reminded that Emmet’s ideas are, as MetalBeard describes them, “so dumb and bad that no one would ever think that they could possibly be useful.” Emmet’s sole original idea—a double-decker couch—seems so useless that nobody finds it interesting or worthwhile. The general consensus is that Emmet offers nothing unique to society, and he is thus deemed to be a completely useless figure.