We Are Marching to Utopia . . . We Will Soon Be There! 2015 Reprise

First published on the original Al Fin blog

optimists and idealists — with their ignorance about the truths of human nature and human society, and their naive hopes about what can be changed — have wrought havoc for centuries….instead of utopian efforts to reform human society or human nature, we [should] focus on the only reform that we can truly master — the improvement of ourselves through the cultivation of our better instincts. _OUP Review of “Uses of Pessimism”


Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. _Captain Malcolm Reynolds

There is something deep in human nature which has resisted change — despite the best efforts of crusaders, utopians, religionists, and wishful thinkers — for many [tens of?] thousands of years. After countless failures to reform the human spirit, most utopians are unfazed. If they can only grab enough power and control over how resources are distributed, they are sure that they can bring perfection to the land, under their own benevolent leadership. “The land will heal, the sea levels will begin to subside, and every man will say to every other man, you are my brother.” And so on.

Philosopher Roger Scruton — author of The Uses of Pessimism — takes a somewhat more reluctant view:

The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history. It also depends upon a wilful ignorance of oneself – a refusal to recognise the extent to which selfishness and calculation reside in the heart even of our most generous emotions, awaiting their chance. Those who invest their hopes in the moral improvement of humankind are therefore in a precarious position: at any moment the veil of illusion might be swept away, revealing the bare truth of the human condition. Either they defend themselves against this possibility with artful intellectual ploys, or they give way, in the moment of truth, to a paroxysm of disappointment and misanthropy. Both of these do violence to our nature. The first condemns us to the life of unreason; the second to the life of contempt.
…In order to see human beings as they are, therefore, and to school oneself in the art of loving them, it is necessary to apply a dose of pessimism to all one’s plans and aspirations. _GloomMerchant

In another piece, Scruton presents a paradoxical recommendation for how to teach children to think for themselves, logically and clearly:

…children are drawn to magic…they spontaneously animate their world with spirits and spells…they find relief and excitement in stories in which the heroes can summon supernatural forces to their aid and vanquish untold enemies – these facts reflect layers of deep settlement in the human psyche. But they also remind us that, in the life of the child, belief and imagination are not to be clearly distinguished, and that both serve other functions than the pursuit of truth.
…humanists should wake up to this point, and be careful when they seek to deprive their children of enchantment, or to replace their spontaneous fantasies with the cold hard facts of empirical science. It could well be that religion is a better discipline than pop science, when it comes to shaping the rational intellect, and that [we can offer our] children more in the way of a solid foundation, by anchoring their imagination in sacred stories and religious doctrines, than they are likely to be offered by those “Darwinian fairy tales’” as David Stove has called them, which have gained such currency in the wake of Dawkins and Hitchens.

In response to a child’s metaphysical curiosity grown-ups can say that everything has a scientific explanation. But they will know that this is a lie. The proposition that everything has a scientific explanation does not have a scientific explanation – it describes an amazing fact about our universe, a point where reasoning falls silent. There are many such points, as anyone who has children knows: why is there anything? Why should I be good? What existed before the Big Bang? What is consciousness? You can wrestle with these questions through philosophy, but science won’t answer them.

Children have an inkling of this. They also recognise that behind these questions lies a huge void – an emptiness which must be filled with love and reassurance, if their existence is not to seem like an accident. _Art_of_Certainty

Utopians try so hard to purge their children’s minds of falsehood and “error”, to create the perfect children of rational thought, capable of seeing through all the corrupt fables of the past. Except…children will be who they will be. You cannot make boys into girls or girls into boys without destroying who they are. And you cannot make humans into angels without ruining the essence of what they are. And still the utopians continue to try — until they finally throw their hands up in complete exasperation at and condemnation of the utter evil of those who do not think along the same lines as themselves, the utopians.

The disgusted dismissal of homo rapiens and all his works that we find spelled out by John Gray in Straw Dogs is not a form of pessimism. It is an attempt to dismiss humanity entirely, as a kind of plague on the face of the earth. That kind of misanthropic nihilism is of no use to us. It removes the ground from all our values, and puts nothing in their place. _GloomMerchant

At that point, they often begin to plot and fantasize the great dieoff, to cleanse the otherwise pristine Earth of the incorrigible human demons who infest the lands and oceans. Fortunately, utopians are as incompetent in planning the great dieoff as they are in most other aspects of their lives.

The point is not to resist all change or improvement of humans. But any lasting change for the better is likely to happen from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Nothing illustrates the different approaches to a better world than the contrast between the French and American revolutions of the late 18th century.

The primary difference in causes that led to the American Revolution and the French Revolution was based in the world view of the innate goodness or innate evil of man. _Hyperhistory

Not all utopians believe in the innate goodness of men — sometimes they only believe in the innate perfectibility of men. But utopias born of such ideas all come to a bitter end.

Every child has to learn to think for himself, from the beginning. But he must have a beginning from which to start.

The need for foundations is quite clearly an adaptation, and these foundations must provide the promise of protection and love, if they are to fit the new organism for its brief time in the world. If that is so, you are not going to eliminate the need for faith: the best you can do is to withhold all objects of faith, so that a child goes hungry into the life to which he or she is destined. More often than not, a humanist education will leave a child exposed to massive and mind-clogging superstitions of the Harry Potter and Star Wars kind. But these superstitions contain far less in the way of insight than is contained in the first chapter of Genesis.
Religious stories are also the result of natural selection – though selection at another level: they have come down to us because they have fulfilled a moral need. They have survived refutation because they contain, beneath their superficial falsehood, the moral truths that people need, when they must order their lives by good examples. _The Art of Certainty

This is true not only of religious stories, but of all the mythology and lasting moral fables from antiquity. Children must have some kind of foundation that transcends deductive logic, because that is how minds begin. Then, later, when they choose to either reshape or reaffirm their beliefs, they will have a sense of having decided for themselves, and feel stronger for it.

Yes, humans can make choices that make them better. Improved nutrition of mother and child can make humans stronger, smarter, taller, and sometimes capable of clearer thought. But a power structure that attempts to legislate morality, to engineer the moral and ideological purity of the human souls of its citizens — that power structure is morally bankrupt, and deserves to die quickly. If it is allowed to continue, its leaders will eventually decide that the recalcitrant citizens do not deserve the benefit of the leaders’ great wisdom. Then, beware.

This question has been acquiring an ever greater urgency over the past century — even longer. It is now coming to a head in the demographic and economic crises of many of the world’s most advanced nations. A culture that has rested on its own laurels, that has comforted itself with mental images of its own progressive improvement, is soon to be reawakened to a coarse and unruly history.

Update: January 2015 — First published in 2010 and re-published several times on various Al Fin blogs, including this one. After decades of self-deluded complacency, modern societies are once again being thrust into the intertriginous rot of history. A thoroughgoing understanding of human nature would be quite useful for those who wish to do more than just survive the coming turbulence.

Note that in the original version we had inadvertently placed the contrasting revolutions of the USA and France in the 19th century. This was a case of thinking one thing and typing another, but alas! it is too late to correct the original Al Fin blog entry. Google has forbidden it. 😉

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9 Responses to We Are Marching to Utopia . . . We Will Soon Be There! 2015 Reprise

  1. Abelard Lindsey says:

    Something I’ve noticed about all utopian movements is their belief in the one perfect answer. They are all monolithic. I consider this to be their primary flaw. They believe in the one best solution for all humans, failing to take into account that we are quite different in our wants and desires, our self-chosen lives. I believe one of the reasons for the success of free-market capitalism compared to other systems is that it is inherently decentralized. This allows for people to freely interact with and do business with each other based on personal tastes and desires. No utopian system can offer this.

  2. Abelard Lindsey says:

    Although they vehemently deny it, I consider the social conservative Christianity to also be a utopian movement. It shares all of the same characteristics common to all other utopian movements, including the claim that they are somehow different and therefor special (ALL utopian movements through out history have made this claim).

    • Stephen says:

      “Although they vehemently deny it, I consider the social conservative Christianity to also be a utopian movement.”
      Good point! I think you are right!

  3. alfin2101 says:

    You can see the same problem in many libertarian strains of thought, and in much of the motley membership of “The Dark Enlightenment.” Utopianism is tied into “magical thinking,” the supposition that everything will work out if the right kind of government or constitutional regime is in control. The “antiwar” crowd and the occupy wall street mix are other examples of the fallacy.

    A university education these days amounts to an “academic lobotomy” virtually any way you slice it. With a society full of perpetually adolescent psychological neotenates, there is no form of government whatsoever that can lead to an abundant and expansive human future. The human undergirdings of civilisation are being rotted out in situ.

    Without the resilience provided by networks of Dangerous Children, an ongoing violent clash of special interests — with the impinging malignancy of dysgenic idiocracy — is the best that humans can expect.

    • Abelard Lindsey says:

      The issue with libertarians is the same as with everyone else, They (we) tend to assume that everyone is suited to living in a libertarian society. This might not be the case. My libertarianism is more nuanced than this. That is why I’m interested in the development of technologies that empower individuals and small groups and can lead to options like seasteading (ocean city-states) and space colonization. I have no desire to “convert” others to libertarianism or transhumanism. Rather, I seek autonomy for libertarians and transhumanists from the rest of humanity.

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  5. VA says:

    I fail to see how social conservative Christianity (such as it is, what is left of it) is utopian. It takes into account the limitations of fallen human nature, unlike socially liberal ‘Christianity’ which believes it can and must bring about the Millennium described in the prophetic books, — the lion lying down with the lamb and swords beaten into plowshares, etc. That will never happen with human effort, but they refuse to acknowledge it.
    The ‘New Age’ movement, under whatever name it is known, is the utopian movement par excellence today, and it wields a lot of influence in elite circles, though it is rarely acknowledged as being significant in a political sense.
    Free market capitalism works well only with principled, moral people — we see what is happening with it in Russia or China or even the West, as Christianity withers away.

    • alfin2101 says:

      Yes. It is important to distinguish between “utopian” and “selective” movements.

      Here at Al Fin, we consider morality and moral action to be more important than religious belief. That is why we study secular ethical systems that are compatible with most religions. Unlike the gates of paradise, the next level does not exclude persons on the basis of simple faith. It is actions that count.

    • Abelard Lindsey says:

      Social conservative Christianity is utopian because, like all other utopian ideas, believes in the one perfect answer for all humans, that all of the problems of the world would go way if only every person in the world became a Christian. They also believe that their god is a magic pixie dust that can fix all of the problems of the world. If this is not utopian, than I don’t know what is.

      There is no one perfect solution for all human. There are as many different possibilities for the future as there are humans on the planet. Christianity may work for some humans. But it does not work for others, including myself. We are all different. Please do not presume to speak for me or to think what is best for me personally. I am quite capable of determining such for myself on my own.

      I seek neither to dominate or to be dominated. I seek only autonomy and independence. The Christian god, like any other god, does not respect autonomy and self-ownership in the Randian/Rothbardian sense and that makes it evil in my book.

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