Another Addendum on Unintended Consequences

12 May 2011


A couple of days ago in Beyond the Kardashev Scale I suggested the possibility of a moral quantification of civilization in terms of attaining intended consequences and ameliorating unintended consequences, and I followed up on this yesterday in Addendum on Unintended Consequences by making a distinction between utopias that are dystopian because they are another’s ideal which we do not share, and utopians that are dystopian because their unintended consequences overwhelm the admirable intended consequences. I am going to return to this once again to make another distinction.

After writing yesterday’s post I realized that there is a constructive character to non-utopian thought that privileges reform over revolution, and a non-constructive character to utopian thought that privileges revolutionary action over incremental reform. I will try to explain why this is the case.

Another way to formulate the above distinction would be to say that utopian thought is “top down,” based on a grand plan, drawn up in advance, and imposed from above. Non-utopian thought proceeds in the opposite direction, from the bottom up, involves no detailed plans for the future ideal structure of society, and emerges gradually from background events, rather than being imposed.

It might be a little awkward, but we could distinguish a “bottom up” utopianism and a “top down” utopianism, recognizing that traditional utopian thought is always “top down.” The reason this distinction may be a little awkward is that it could be argued that “bottom up” social thought is not utopian, and by its very nature cannot be utopian, although this would ultimately come to a question of how broadly we wish to define utopian thought.

Another way to look at this would be a compare it to a point I made last month in Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations. In that post I contrasted Freud’s psychodynamic psychology, concerned to address particular pathologies, with Maslow’s humanistic “third way” in psychology, that proposes something like a blueprint for a fully functional individual. Indeed, in that post I characterized Maslow’s position as utopian — that is to say, there is a sense in which Maslow develops a utopian philosophy of mind.

Freud’s thought, in contrast, is about as anti-utopian as ever thought was. Nevertheless, Freud’s thought, however cautious and even pessimistic at times, does point to an ideal, and that ideal is an ideal of human life purged of neurotic misery and mental illness. In this latter sense, we can (admittedly with hesitation) call Freud’s thought utopian, though even as we do so we understand that it isn’t quite right to do so (hence the awkwardness mentioned above).

The classical utopian is like Maslow in designing an ideal society (rather than an ideal life of an individual), and we might even call this a fully functional, self-actualizing society if we wanted to stress the parallelism with Maslovian psychology. A Freudian “utopia” would consist not in formulating a plan for an ideal society, but rather in taking society as we know it, and addressing particular pathologies — patiently, gradually, incrementally, and one-by-one taking up the problems of the world and seeking to solve them on their own terms, in their own setting, rather than counting on a single imposed solution from above solving all problems by fiat. If you think of utopianism in this latter sense you will immediately understand why I have characterized utopian thought as being non-constructive in character.

I must say that I rather like this idea, and the very idea of a reluctantly Freudian utopia, gradually coming about through the slow and steady work to ameliorate social pathologies, fills a gap in my own thought that I mentioned yesterday. Since in yesterday’s post I mentioned that I find the pull of utopian thought strong but I didn’t know of any utopia formulated to date that appeals to be personally.

I went for a walk last night immediately after posting my Addendum on Unintended Consequences and I continued to think about these themes. I realized that I rather like the world as it is, and with the elimination of some of its more noxious features (and perhaps also with the addition of some pleasant features), the world more-or-less as I know it could be something of a utopia for me. Moreover, I would not want to see the world as we know it simply extirpated in anarchic or revolutionary fury.

I value the achievements of human civilization just as I value the beauties of nature, and since both of these components of the world are part of both my personal history and my species history (what Marx called “species-being”), both would be essential to any utopia I would formulate, while the loss of either or both would for me be unacceptable.

Nature and culture are often unified in profound ways that give us profound pleasure. The view of Mount Hood from downtown Portland of the view of the Olympic Peninsula from Seattle are quite striking, and it is at least in part the synthesis of natural beauty and the beauty of civilization that makes it so profoundly affecting (for those of us who are affected by such sights; I can easily imagine someone who would find nothing beautiful about nature or nothing beautiful about cities). To take another example, familiar to all, the cityscape of Rio de Janeiro is one of the most amazing sights in the world. I defy anyone to stand on Corcovado or Sugar Loaf and not to be affected by the view.

While we all know that the city of Rio is no utopia, I would add that there could be no utopia without Rio.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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