When free people no longer have any rational fears

Is utopia a worthwhile goal?

You’d think it would be. Overwhelmingly in fiction, however, the idea of striving to create a utopia is often revealed to be a mistake. The outcome is almost always worse than planned, and it turns into a complete dystopia. These science-fiction stories warn us that utopias are doomed to fail. In real life, the idea is essentially so unrealistic that it seems it’s not even worth talking about.

But the world is becoming a better place all the time, by many measures we’ve been improving over the last couple generations, and over the last couple centuries. Looking at the rates of poverty or violence or hunger or disease, we can show that the average quality of life is slowly but surely improving. If these issues continue to improve, will we eventually end up in a utopia? Or would we actually have to try to create it? The best way to answer these kinds of questions is to first come up with a strong definition of utopia.

We can’t concretely say whether we’re in a utopia or not without knowing what to look for, so it’s impossible to tell if we’re making progress towards a better society. A definition of utopia that’s illogical would mean we could never reach that goal, and cause us to believe that anything resembling progress towards utopia must actually be fraud or a trick – maybe humans just aren’t ready for a utopia. Or if our idea of a utopia was so complicated then it would seem that it couldn’t possibly happen for thousands of years. I think that we should at least have a proper definition so we can see where we stand now.

The dictionary defines it as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”1)From the Oxford English Dictionary https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/utopia I immediately see three problems with this definition:
• It’s an imagined place, which means that it can never actually exist.
• It’s perfect, which means that even the tiniest of flaws, no matter how insignificant, would ruin it.
• It’s already perfect, so it’s impossible to make it better in any way.

If utopias really were impossible, then it’s redundant to also say that it’s imaginary. Something that is impossible will always have to be imaginary. Instead, let’s discuss what kinds of qualities a utopia would or should have. Maybe we’ll decided that those combination of qualities actually are impossible, then we can be satisfied leaving utopias to our imaginations, but here’s no reason to rule it out right in the definition. Calling something perfect accomplishes just about the same thing. When we define circles are perfect circles, then that means circles can’t exist in the real world. It’s fine to have an idea of the perfect circle, but if we only accept perfection, then what should we call all those other round things? Imperfect circles?

One way to define utopia might be to focus on human happiness; it’s something that everyone cares about and strives for. Actually, I’d bet that it’s such an obvious way to try to define utopia that it’s what many people first think of. But it’s also easy to think of problems defining utopia like “a place where everyone is always happy.” Those kinds problems could easily lead us to conclude that it’s impossible and will likely lead to disaster.

For example, different things make different people happy, and enforcing other people’s ideas of happiness onto everyone else definitely sounds like a dystopia to me. Also, humans just aren’t wired to be able to achieve happiness forever, making it inherently imperfect and unreachable. We become used to happiness very quickly. Something that would make us deliriously happy one day might seem typical and boring a couple years later.

Our initial instinct about “happiness” might not be right, but I think it’s on the right track. Another similar idea is a certain level of advancement or achieving certain goals. For example we’ve learned to cure many diseases and that made people happy, should curing all diseases be a prerequisite for utopia? Or never having to work because we’ve invented perfect robot workers? It seems attractive to require technological progress for the creation of a utopia, but this is another easy mistake to make. We shouldn’t try to define a utopia based on possessions or some level of technology or anything besides the people that live there. Because I can’t imagine a utopia without people in it. We could have a perfect world filled with all the most advanced imaginable technology, but if there aren’t people to live there, it’s not a utopia. Our definition should be based on what the people do or feel.

So, instead of possessions or technology let’s look at other emotions related to utopias. Since happiness isn’t a good measure, how about its opposite: fear or, in a utopia, the lack of fear? This is somewhat like the idea of a place where we’re “always happy,” because if we’re always happy, then we’d never have time to be afraid. But I think focusing just on the second part, the lack of fear, instead of the presence of happiness has more potential.

The benefit of defining utopia by the lack of something is that it is possible to have a perfect absence of a thing or quality. Also, requiring people to be one thing constantly, such as happy, means they won’t have time for any other emotions that are good, like awe or curiosity, or even neutral, like boredom or laziness. Even without fear, we could still be frustrated or angry or just blasé, and having the ability to have more than one emotion seems like a good thing, the kind of thing that would prevent our utopia from becoming a dystopia. In a world without fear, people would be free to pursue what makes them happy; they might not be perfectly happy all the time, but they would have much more of an opportunity to pursue happiness. So, let’s start with a definition of utopia as “a place where people live without fear.”

A big advantage of a definition like this is that it’s measurable—measuring the lack of something is relatively straightforward. And we could be even more precise if we wanted to. I can ask myself, “Was I more afraid this year or last?” If I looked through my journal and saw that I mentioned being afraid of something 100 times last year and 75 times this year, I could conclude I had 25% less to be afraid of this year. Of course, measuring emotions won’t ever be this easy or perfect, but it’s at least possible to come up with a kind of estimate.

Imagine a future where we actually do want to create a utopia. We might start by looking at what people are afraid of. At first, it would be easy, because a lot of people are afraid of a lot of things. Maybe we poll people, and find that in the last year, 20% of people were afraid of not having enough to eat, 15% were afraid of losing their jobs, and 10% were afraid of having a heart attack, etc. (it would undoubtedly be a very long list at first). Then we could take steps to try to get rid of those fears by making sure people have access to food and healthcare for example. If things go well, then it’s possible that eventually no one will fear going hungry, and we could cross that off the list and keep working on the rest.

Eventually, we might get to the point where people rarely feel fear for anything and only about minor things, or possibly when they’ve tricked themselves into experiencing an irrational fear (like on a roller coaster or in a haunted house).

Would this inevitably lead to a dystopian future? One where people don’t feel fear because they’re drugged out of their minds or where anyone who looks like they might be afraid is dragged off to the “happiness mines” to toil away the rest of their lives? We have to keep in mind that a big part of striving for less fear is that it allows people the freedom to pursue what they want. And something that makes dystopian futures so unnerving, the thing that ruins so many utopian stories, is that people have their freedom stripped away. We should be clear that a real utopia only exists if people are free to make their own choices.

Of course just because we have a technically achievable definition of utopia doesn’t mean we have to try creating one. Progress in technology and government, among others, might slowly pull us in that direction anyway. And if we have a good definition of the term, such as “when free people no longer have any rational fears,” then at least we could feel good about the progress we’ve made and potentially one day even see it as a goal instead of an impossible fantasy.

Maybe we’ve defined utopia as being impossible or imaginary because we tend to think that we, as humans, are imperfect and that we’d ruin anything close to a perfect world. But if we think about utopia as a lack of things holding us back, then it’s more compatible with our view of human nature. In fact, just thinking of a utopia as a plausible goal might improve both our chances of eventually finding ourselves there and the journey as well.


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