Building utopias or avoiding disasters

Neal Lantela in a lifejacket

In the car, on the way back from Tristan’s cabin, a discussion arose about the problem of racism. As usual, I rapidly found myself unable to comprehend the terminology of philosophical devotees. I have never seen abstract theorizing as a particularly good way of effecting positive change in the world, or even identifying means by which to do so. Regardless, an interesting possibility arose from the conversation. At first, consideration was being given – by some – to mechanisms through which revolution could be used to generate a kind of ideal society. Personally, I found many of the characteristics of the postulated society despicable, but that is less interesting than the very phenomenon of trying to create utopias through the application of human reasoning and abilities. This is a vice to which those farthest from the political mainstream have always been particularly vulnerable: hoping to roll over the whole elephant of society so that their ideas end up on top.

From what I know of history and political philosophy, those who try to built utopias always fail: either for themselves or for those who are meant to live in their perfect society. Perhaps the big lesson of history is that people should focus on avoiding disaster, rather than perfecting the styles of interaction between people. Of course, that leaves the issue of deciding what constitutes a disaster. Was the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War a moral disaster? What about the execution of an innocent person? What about the supposed decline of traditional family values?

The answer, perhaps, is a kind of pragmatic reverse utilitarianism which seeks to reduce violence in society to the minimum possible level, in lieu of trying to maximize utility. Utility or happiness is, after all, a fairly woolly concept and one open to flying accusations that there are ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ forms of happiness for reasons founded in morals or aesthetics. Violence, by comparison, is pretty clear cut. No doubt the idea is rife with problems – both logical and pragmatic – but it is something that seems worthy of consideration.

PS. Please note that these pictures have nothing to do with the posts in which they are embedded. They are just nice portraits from CF2 that I wanted to include in the blog. The very best photos will appear on once I get my lovely Mac back.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Building utopias or avoiding disasters”

  1. the problem with minimizing violence, in my mind, is the question that follows: at what cost? even death penalty advocates claim to be involved in minimizing violence, and much violence has been justified using that claim.

    what counts as violence becomes a necessary question. is state violence included? what methods of punishment or prevention could be used without resorting to yet more violence in the end?

    can you tell I’m a Rawlsian? I look to underlying inequities as holding the answer, not only to violence, but to a multiplicity of social ills.

  2. And for those who assert that all kinds of acts that are not physically violent are nonetheless violent?

    Forcing people not to speak their native language, for instance.

    Any well governed society involves constraints on behaviour. If the legitimacy of those constraints becomes defined by the goal of minimizing violence, we are still left with all the fundamental questions.

  3. Sounds like you’ve been reading Popper, who said much the same thing. The standard objection to negative utilitarianism is that it would seem to sanction destroying the whole world (or all life), based on the idea that short sharp shock (e.g. a nuclear WWIII) would minimise long run suffering…

  4. Another valid question is whether incremental change can ever really generate large scale effects. Perhaps revolution really is needed.

  5. There are another two problems with inverted utilitarianism, that violence is not a simple moral category at all, because it comes in all kinds of different forms, with all kinds of different motives and effects, some of which will inevitably have to be traded off against each other, and that it strikes me at least as being if not utopian in the sense that it aims for a radical restructuring of society (although maybe it would do that too) but that it seeks to eliminate moral or ethical diversity and conflict by asking for adherence to a single moral or ethical principle.

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