Does Utopian Thinking do More Harm than Good?

Utopia, a perfect society. This is a concept that has interested philosophers, politicians and general people for a long time. A place where there would be no problems and that we would all live in peace. Where nothing matters except ones happiness. But does a place like this cause more damage than the good it creates? Or is it a possible world that helps us, and government act accountable for its actions?

Does this utopia come from a time before, or a time yet to be reached. In a Judaeo-Christian religion there was once a place, when God creates the world for man, there is the Garden of Eden. And after the great fall of man, we may one day return to this paradise. A perfect paradise that provides for man, and where man only has to look after this land. Again in the fourth century BCE there is mention of a utopia from Plato, where he describes a world, where philosophers were allowed to rule as dictators over a subservient demos, as mentioned in his works, “The Republic”.

More recently, Thomas More’s book named, “Utopia”, he outlines a utopian world, and even goes as far as to draw a map to what this looks like.  A world with no private property, as this would mean that other would not be excluded. As Macpherson’s said, “the right not to exclude others”. So that no one person has right over another and that all is equal.

Another man to think in a way of a utopia was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argues ways in which we may achieve a type of utopia. He saw that there are things which we can do, and things we should do. He saw it that human nature took an easy way out a lot of the time. But ideally we should do the right things. “Ought implies can”. If we ought to do something, then we can do it. And more importantly, if morally right, we should do it. All of this was to try to achieve the idea of a, kingdom of ends. “So act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.” Kant saw that in the perfect world, we may not all be equal, but should all live by equal morals. By this means we would not have the problem if someone is doing right to wrong, but rather, if we are all doing right, or all doing wrong. In this utopian type world we would be able to be better men, and try to strive for higher pleasures.

Utopians however can be divided up into sections. This is due to the way in which we each view the world. However tow of the major groups would be the political utopians, and the social utopians. Kant’s type of Kingdom of Ends, is a political and moral utopia, where as More’s utopia is Social. Where all of us are equal, have equal status, and equal being.  Both of these types of utopias a weakness to them, and if used incorrectly may lead away from the idea that they are trying to portray.

Social utopians are based upon the idea of everyone being equal, where there truly is a sense of community and justice. However Marx brings about the argument that justice is a remedial virtue, and ultimatily in a utopia, there would be no crime, as we would not want something that we do not as other would not have it either. And we would all be equally provided for, and have the same amount. The problem here is that this leads to communism. And as Charles Darwin stated, the strongest survive and human nature would then make us want to achieve the best. There would be jealousy and the need to try to get higher. We would not be able to settle for what we have, and one man could become a dictator and enforcedly control us, leading to oppression. This would take away our freedom, and surely a key principle of a utopia would be that of freedom. But the likes of Robert Owen believed that the environment that we are bought up in would lead to the man that we grow up to be. So if we lived in a rational system of society we would be able to live in a utopia, but this would have to be on a what we need to survive community, and that community working together to provide their needs. Robert Owen (1771-1858) even went as far to set up small scale communities to see if the possibility of utopianism could serve as a system to live by. A problem is that in the modern world, small scale communities are forced to become larger communities in order to survive. Capitalism and profit based companies have suffocated small communities, and use them to provide cheap labour.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), saw that the problem was the idea of capitalism. He believed in a mutualism, mutualist socialism, and a socio-political creed that may also be called anarchism. He saw the need for a non profitable society that was self governed. He saw that there should be a small scale of ownership over “possessions” in order for there to be a vital source of independence. The problem here lies that if we own a small bit of possessions, human nature would make us envy others that own more or just the want for more. And in an anarchy society there would be no one to govern the people, leading to a general breakdown of society.

Utopianism also falls short in a political theory. This is because it can lead to a totalitarianism system, mainly being of the fascist kind. One example is that of Hitler’s Germany. Where a Germany that was failing after the First World War was reborn under Hitler’s terror and ethnic cleansing. This led to Hitler believing in a super race of people, and killing millions in the name of this ideal. The reason behind utopian can slip into a totalitarianism is because one person, or peoples, views are enforced on others, and often are tricked by government by the use of propaganda, fear, persecution and taking away of freedoms from the people. And then by enforcing this ideal onto the young. Utopianism think has also declined because of the birth of post-modernism and conservatism. This is because they have helped us in losing faith in progress and helped in a falling from grace.

So does the idea of utopia cause more harm than good? Well in religion it certainly helps in building a good society. Unlike what Richard Darwkins believes that religion is a “mene” (similar to a gene in DNA, but past in culture and society), the idea of a utopia when we die given that we live good life and help others has helped the western civilised world reach where it is today. But in some fascist regimes such as Hitler’s Germany, the ideals of one man has caused there to be great problems. These lead away from utopias, and more towards dystopias. The conservatives argue that a utopia is only reachable if we act as rational being, but well, love, emotion, and hatred, all proof that we are far from rational beings.

Perhaps Kant had it right, that we should try to act morally, and act as if living in a utopia. Then we cannot reach one, if not as a society, then as an individual.

Or perhaps Plato had an ideal way when he said that we should find our place in society. One man to follow this view was F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), who wrote, “…we have found the end, we have found self realisation, duty, and happiness in one – yes, we have found ourselves when we have found our station and its duties, our functions as an organ of the social organism”. Bradley believed that in order to find ourselves we need to find where we belong in society and do our duty. This view is completely opposite to Kant, where Kant says do it from yourself, and then if we all do it, we will find the kingdom of ends, Bradley says that we should do it for each other and then we will reach harmony.

I think that utopian thinking does not cause damage, but the fill full meant of one man’s dreams does. But then again, the word utopia, might suggest that it is impossible to find, fool’s gold, as it can mean both, good place and no place, by using the Greek words for each. Perhaps it is simply an idea, to live by and nothing more. Human nature and the natural world show us that there is no perfection. As Plato states in his forms.

*This article was written by The Paladin one of my colleagues here at ‘Only Fools Tread Where the Wise Fear‘*


Posted on April 1, 2013, in ethical/political and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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