Addendum on Unintended Consequences

11 May 2011

Wednesday


(1931) The Scientific Outlook, London: George Allen and Unwin; New York: W.W. Norton.

Yesterday in Beyond the Karhashev Scale I suggested that a moral measure of civilization could be made by considering the degree to which a civilization has control of its own destiny, not simply responding reactively to events as they happen, but proactively shaping the form that future civilization takes. Part of such a development, it seems to me, would involve systematically privileging intended consequences and taking steps to ameliorate unintended consequences.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (b.1872 – d.1970)

In so saying I was following a suggestion of Bertrand Russell from his book The Scientific Outlook. This isn’t one of Russell’s best known works, but it is a book that made a real impression on me and has continued to influence my thought, even though I sharply disagree with much of it. Russell wrote:

“I should define a government as in a greater or less degree scientific in proportion as it can produce intended results: the greater the number of results that it can both intend and produce, the more scientific it is.”

Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook, Part Three, Chapter XIV, p. 227 (New York: Norton, 1962)

Russell goes on to describe what he thinks to be a scientific society. He openly admits that it is not to his personal liking, and what he describes has a vague resemblance to what I was writing about yesterday. There is also some resemblance between the “society of experts” (p. 237) that Russell imagines and Schumpeter’s implicit predictions in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. In fact, there is much in Russell’s book (first published in 1931) that reflects the debates in political economy in the 1930s.

As I said just above, Russell is an contrarian among utopians, as he doesn’t even seem to believe in his own utopia. And of course he doesn’t call it a utopia. Russell thinks that the scientific society he described was likely, but not necessarily desirable. Much that Russell described besides not being any more desirable than it was when he wrote it, now seems also highly unlikely. In short, there is little or nothing to recommend Russell’s dystopian utopia.

We know from the painful experience of the twentieth century how badly utopias fair when we attempt to put them into practice. As I recently quoted Ernesto Sabato, “Harsh reality is a desolate confusion of beautiful ideals and clumsy achievements.” The ideals of utopia are beautiful, but the execution is clumsy. So clumsy, in fact, that that the execution can be counter-productive to the beautiful ideal.

But in considering utopias that become dystopian in practice we have to make a distinction between those that become dystopian because of their intended consequences or because of their unintended consequences. This is an important distinction, because it marks the point of demarcation between incommensurable ideals.

If we examine famous instances of utopian societies, it is not too difficult to determine whether or not we would, as individuals, enjoy living in a given society, or whether we would thrive in such a society as a result of it expressing our own ideals and aspirations. For example, Plato’s republic would be a hideous place to live for a great many people, myself included. More’s utopia would be pretty dull. Social experiments like Brook Farm, or indeed any number of extant communal living experiments ongoing as I write this, would be an absolute horror for me personally, though some individuals are so attracted to this social model that they abandon their lives in order to become part of such an experiment.

These examples of utopias are abhorrent to me personally because of their intended consequences; even if everything goes right, I still would not want to live in Plato’s republic (much less the society described in Plato’s Laws) or in any commune. This is very different from believing in or being attracted to an ideal, but finding the ideal imperfectly realized and therefore rejecting it for its failure to exemplify the ideal.

During the later stages of the Cold War, when I was growing up, it was not unusual to hear intelligent, thinking people say that the communist ideal was a noble one, but it was the execution of that ideal in actual fact that made existing communist societies as dystopian as they had become. Such comments imply that the speaker would consider living in a perfectly realized communist society, but rejected actually existing communist societies because of the unintended consequences that followed from their imperfect realization.

I would like to be able to give an example of a society that reflects my own ideals and aspirations, but which has failed in the execution due to unintended consequences, but I honestly can’t think of anything. At one time, many years ago, I was attracted to the libertarian socialism of Bataille, but since that time I have learned enough about myself and enough about the world to know that, with or without unintended consequences, such a system would not ultimately be congenial to me. (Whether or not it would be congenial to the world at large I will not attempt to determine.)

I have often thought about writing my own utopia. It is something that has been in my thoughts on and off for as long as I have been studying philosophy. In fact, I just took some notes on this theme last week, but I can feel that I am not yet prepared for this work; the requisite ideas have not yet come to fruition. So in the meantime I must refer to the utopias formulated by others, as I do not as yet have a scientific society of my own to promulgate. But when I do promulgate such a society, I will be certain to note the distinction between what I believe to be likely and what I believe to be desirable (as Russell has done), and I will also be certain to note the distinction between the intended consequences and the unintended consequences of any society I might dream up in my idle moments.

The utopian impulse is strong. The fact that I feel its pull tells me that I am not a Burkean or a de Maistrean; the fact that a utopian formulation continues to elude me tells me that I am not a Platonist or a Marxist.

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