Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What purpose is served by utopian thinking?


If your immediate response is that no good purpose is served by utopian thinking, it may be because you have the wrong kind of utopianism in mind. Perhaps what has come to mind is the description of an ideal society which could only exist if all humans were angelic, or perhaps it is the failure of some utopians to consider the human costs of attempting to achieve their visions.

Anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking. In my view, there is one particular type of utopian thinking that has contributed massively to advances in opportunities for individual human flourishing and has potential to continue to do so.

Before I make the case for that kind of utopian thinking, however, I need to discuss the rise of anti-utopianism.

The rise of anti-utopianism

The main threat to discussion of the characteristics of an ideal society seems to be coming from people who view such discussion as irrelevant to the world in which we live. These anti-utopians argue that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society. They see such ideals as irrelevant because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

Anti-utopians do not necessarily subscribe to the view that “might is right”. Their belief that outcomes are determined by power struggles may just lead them to argue that “right” is irrelevant. Their beliefs differ somewhat depending on whether they come from the conservative or progressive side of politics.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the conservative side of politics tend to focus on contests between nations. They argue that such contests are inevitable, and that victory depends primarily on the ferocity of the warriors. They sometimes recognize that religion and ideology have a role in motivating warriors by reinforcing nationalist sentiments. However, they tend to view notions of human rights and morality as “rationalizations of philosophers” that weaken the ferocity of warriors.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the progressive side of politics tend to focus on power struggles between different groups in society - different ethnic and religious groups, women and men, people with different sexual orientation, and so forth. People on the progressive side of politics have traditionally presented a view of an ideal society where everyone has equal opportunities as well as equal rights, but the anti-utopians engaged in identity politics seek affirmative action to be carried far beyond the provision of equal opportunities. Ethical principles are downplayed in the struggle of particular groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.

The arguments of the anti-utopians can be challenged within the framework of the power struggle paradigms they present. For example, conservative anti-utopians tend to overlook the extent to which people are motivated to contribute toward national defence by considerations such as protection of human rights. Progressive anti-utopians tend to overlook the potential for single-minded advocacy of their own interests to encourage other groups to retaliate.

The purpose of utopian thinking

 The best way to challenge the arguments of the anti-utopians is to present some defensible utopian views.

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

If you would like to see those points explained more fully, please read my recently published book “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”. The concept of utopia is only referred to a few times in the book but, as I have just realized, much of the thinking that went into the book is utopian thinking.

Utopian thinking is intrinsic to human flourishing.  

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