Is Utopia Possible?
In every second, of every day, you have to decide between action and inaction. We're all tangled up in a web of cause and effect and so every choice you make has gravity and pulls us towards one of two futures: one that is more heavenly or one that is more hellish; one that is more utopian versus one that is more dystopian.
It's human nature to dream about utopia: a place better than here. We dream about what our lives could be, and some of us dream bigger, about what the world could be. One thing's certain, there's always a place that exists outside of space and time, it's better than here, and it's where we want to go.
But all things come with a price tag, and you have to decide whether you're willing to pay the cost. In some sense, your life is defined by the costs you're willing to pay. A better world exists, and it demands payment; so, what are you willing to sacrifice?
Fate Demands a Price
In his story The Monkey's Paw,William Jacobs writes about a man who acquires a magical monkey paw that will grant him three wishes. Much to his dismay, the man finds out that each wish comes with an unintended side effect. When the man wishes for 200 pounds, he receives it — as compensation for the death of his son. When he wishes for his son to come back to life, he does — as an undead being. Fate demands a price and if the man would not voluntarily choose his sacrifice, it would have to be decided for him.
The residents of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World live in a technologically advanced utopia: they're happy, healthy, and youthful. They don't fear death. When their time comes, they go in peace. Class hierarchies exist but everyone has been psychologically conditioned to love their place within them. Babies are genetically engineered. Residents of this utopia have no attachments to one another. In the words of one character, “everyone belongs to everyone”. Everyone has multiple sexual partners, and orgies are commonplace. If at any point in time a resident feels down, they can take a drug called Soma to uplift their mood. Soma brings on feelings of euphoria — with no downsides. In order to maintain the utopia’s ideals of “community, identity, and stability", residents have to make a heavy sacrifice. They give up their individuality, art, religion, love, and, ultimately, their freedom of choice.
Utopian thinking isn’t just confined to literature. The 20th century saw the rise of many charismatic leaders claiming to know the way to Eden but, wherever they were leading us, the cost was too high. In some ways, we were like the man with the monkey paw: we wanted the benefits of utopia, without the responsibility of bearing the costs. But fate demands a price, and when we gave up our responsibility, we gave up our individuality and, eventually, our humanity.
Despite these negative examples, I do believe utopia is possible. In his recent book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker documents all of the positive changes the world has undergone since the Enlightenment. For example, average life expectancy has increased from 30 years of age, in the 1750s, to 70 years of age worldwide . Deaths due to malaria have declined by 60% from 2000 to 2015 . Worldwide rates of extreme poverty have been declining since the 1800s . All of these are what I would call positive-sum games: win-win situations for humanity as a whole. I think the important questions to ask are how many of these positive-sum games could we play, how much better could the world ultimately get, and how do we continue down this path? At the same time, how do we avoid traveling down some of the paths we already went down in the 20th century?
Static Ideals in an Evolving World
You can think about the world at different levels of analysis. The highest level might be something like universal. The levels that follow that — in descending order — are the planet, the country, the community, the family, and, lastly, the individual. The lower levels are all nested within the higher levels which means that all levels are interconnected. The individual affects the family, which affects the community, and so on. The opposite is also true.
The problem with conceptualizing utopia is that it gets created at the higher levels such as the country or the planet. By starting at the higher levels, we force all the lower levels to mesh with it. Anything, or anyone, that fails to harmonize with the highest level is seen as unfit for utopia and must be removed. This type of utopia always devolves into a totalitarian dystopia. In design, we call this a top-down approach: the highest ideal is generated and all of the lower levels are adjusted to meet that ideal. A top-down approach will always succumb to evolutionary pressures because a static and constant ideal can't survive in a dynamic and evolving world.
The opposite of a top-down approach is a bottom-up approach. Instead of starting at the highest, you start at the lowest level of analysis possible. In our case, this would be the individual. You start by creating a simple set of rules that govern the individual and allow the system to self-organize. From individuals — communities, cities, and nations emerge. Bottom-up systems harmonize well with nature because they can evolve and adapt. In fact, evolution is a bottom-up system: it’s governed by rules of survival and reproduction . YouTube is also a bottom-up system: it analyzes our behavior and evolves based on how we interact with it. The algorithms of today are more than mere technology: they're alive and YouTube is an evolving ecosystem. Bottom-up systems are partly unpredictable; we don’t know what the YouTube homepage will look like in a year from now, let alone life on Earth in 1000 years. It’s impossible to predict what an emergent utopia would look like.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying a bit here. Many systems are a mix of top-down and bottom-up elements.
With that said, are there a minimum number of rules that, if an individual were to enact them, would allow a better world to emerge?
Fictions & Oughts
The philosopher David Hume famously pointed out that it’s difficult to determine the way the world should be based on the way the world is: this is known as the Is-Ought problem. Science gives us a description of how the world is and philosophy gives us a prescription for how we ought to act.
Our ability to successfully cooperate depends on how much overlap there is between our philosophies.
For example, let’s say that I own a restaurant and you want to come in for a meal. We both believe that a restaurant ought to serve its customers food in a timely, friendly, and fair manner. We also believe that a customer ought to come in and be respectful of the owners, the restaurant, and the other customers. This can be a very good reciprocal relationship for the both of us. But if I believe that I ought to maximize my profits at the expense of customer service, a conflict will arise between us.
What you and I believe about how people should act in restaurants is what historian Yuval Harari would call a fiction . We all believe in a set of complex fictions that allow us to cooperate at an impressive level — relative to other species. Some notable fictions we may believe are human rights, democracy, capitalism, and money. Money becomes more than mere paper when everyone believes in the fiction that gives it value.
Society can function smoothly because of our ability to believe in fictions. The degree to which a utopia is even possible is dependent on our ability to construct a fiction that is universally agreeable.
Emergent and Evolving Morality
So we’re looking for a set of rules, or a fiction, that an individual could live by that would bring the best possible world about. In other words, we’re talking about morality or ethics. Everyone has their own opinion about the best fiction to live by — and they should. If you buy my argument so far, then you understand that everyone should have, and share, their own fictions so that the best cultural fiction can emerge. And just as individuals and cultures evolve, so too will the fictions they hold: preserve what works and discard what doesn't.
The Positive-Sum Game
If there’s one abstract rule that an individual could live by that I believe would allow utopia to emerge, it’s the belief in the importance of playing positive-sum games. This means that each individual intends to act in a way that is simultaneously best for them and everyone around them. The society that emerges from these individuals would be one that is self-improving and respects the potential within each individual. Members of that society never try to win at the expense of one another or, in other words, play zero-sum games.
Science, Reason, and Humanism
If we wanted to create a flying machine, how could we do it? Our best bet would likely be to collect a large set of species that could already fly and determine the principles that unite them. By discovering the principles of flight, we could successfully produce an infinite variation of machines that could fly.
Could we do the same thing with morality? Could we study our history and determine a set of fictions that would allow us to identify and successfully play positive-sum games?
In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker compiles an enormous amount of data that shows how the world has improved on several important measures such as health, longevity, wealth, inequality, human rights, and so forth . He claims that the fictions that allowed us to successfully play these positive-sum games were science, reason and humanism and, quite frankly, I think he makes a pretty good case.
The Price We Pay
I said earlier that fate demands a price. So, what's the price we must pay for a better world?
It requires that each individual remain adaptable, and be willing to give up on old and comfortable fictions for unfamiliar yet better ones.
It requires enough discipline to carefully estimate the probabilistic outcomes of each action based on past experience — to take carefully calculated steps forward.
But, above all else, it requires courage. The courage to lose in the short term so that the individual, or their children, or their community can gain in the long term. The courage to be open and to deal with bad players in the hopes of finding good players for positive-sum games.
The Emergence of Utopia
Maybe utopia isn't a place we can be but, rather, it's a place we can always choose to go. We can only approach it but never quite make it — like a line trending towards an asymptote. Utopia doesn’t exist in the brain of one person, or group, to bring about but, rather, it emerges from our collective interactions with one another as individuals.