14 June 2010

Beyond Utopia and Myopia

Will Wikinson leads us on a thought experiment about the role that future events (such as developments in technology) might play in changing our standards of the ideal social order:
"Suppose that in the future an unpredictable advance in technology fundamentally changes the way humans are able to relate to one another, and this changes not only how we are brought up, but also changes what kind of society seems desirable, and what rules of the social interaction strike us as reasonable. Suppose we would, given our present values, consider all this an immense advance over the status quo. But it remains that we’ll probably never imagine it."

"Now take it further. An unpredictable change in technology allows us to intervene directly to change our biology and psychology. After exploring the possibilities for some time, post-humanity arrives at social order that is widely considered not only profoundly just, but also profoundly beautiful and true. We judge that this is in fact the very best we can do, and that we did it. But from our position in the here-and-now, this awesome apotheosis of history seems, to the extent we are able to fathom it at all, off-putting and weird. Starting from here, we’d never set out to get there."

He continues to outline what he believes are the implications of this thought experiment on the relationship between "speculative utopianism" and "modest incrementalism" in our social theorizing.
"This kind of reflection I think leaves us with two main, opposed ways of thinking about normative ideals in politics. (1) Speculative utopianism that makes not very well-grounded conjectures about the scope of institutional possibility with more or less indifference to the existence of a path from here to there. (2) Modest incrementalism that makes heavy use of social scientific evidence to argue for the best feasible path from here to a not-very-distant there. Then, once we get to wherever we ended up getting to, we see how things look from there and try it again.  Now, philosophers like to argue that (1) provides a regulative ideal that clarifies the meaning of “best” when undertaking (2). But I think my simple thought experiments about the inscrutability of the future show why that’s wrong. The speculative ideals we’re likely to come up with from our armchairs are likely to be irrelevant given unpredictable changes in future technology, institutions, and wants. But if we start from here predicting the unpredictable, we’ll keep it modest."
I think that Will Wilkinson's critique of what "philosophers like to argue" to make the case for "modest incrementalism" provides a useful insight for Baha'is. It is, however, ultimately limited by its failure to account for the Revelation of Baha'u'llah. It rings true that what we Baha'is understand as "utopia", or the future "kingdom of God on earth", is severely limited by both our own spiritual lenses (think children of the half light), and our limited knowledge about future world developments. These developments, aggregated, will greatly shift our perception of what it means to be a Baha'i. Indeed, if we were to catch a glimpse of the Baha'i community 100 years into the future, we might find it so "off putting and weird" that we would just shrivel up and die. Therefore, making our activities strictly contingent upon a "regulative ideal" of our currents visions of "utopia" would be just be silly. Fortunately, the Baha'i Faith, through the institute process, is a laboratory of incremental knowledge generation and an engine of human development, empowerment, and transformation. It has become much more a faith of concrete and adaptive action than vague ideals, something the author would like.

But sometimes we all need to stick our heads out of the weeds, even if our vision isn't very clear. I doubt that even in the medium term provisional goal setting can satisfy the fundamental human tendency to hope and idealize. Only by recognizing the revelation of Baha'u'llah can we avoid both utopia and myopia. Consider this passage from the recent 2010 Ridvan letter from the Universal House of Justice.

Baha'u'llah's Revelation is vast. It calls for profound change not only at the level of the individual but also in the structure of society. "Is not the object of every Revelation" He Himself proclaims, "to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?" The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Baha'i endeavor to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed. 

We can barely begin to grasp the "Kingdom of God on earth", but we can be assured that we are moving towards it. This assurance, found through our faith in the Covenant, frees us up and motivates us to focus on the here and now, without get lost in the weeds


  1. Looking back on the past 60 years, idealists seem to have lost a passion for "thinking big." There's been a tendency to assume any thought of utopia is either naive, inasmuch as it's a waste of time, or it's criminal, inasmuch as National Socialism and Communism we're fueled by dreams of utopia. Thus, well-intentioned individuals have urged each other to focus on modest incremental changes that would hopefully accumulate over many generations: Push some legislation here. Argue for debt relief there. Let's try to raise money for some scholarships. This is what Will Wilkinson is talking about when he mentions "regulative ideals." To think about social progress through regulative ideals is to approach the process as a series improvements on what we already have. But maybe, we can do better than what we already have.

    We can see something similar in the evolution of cars. For over a century our thinking about the automobile has been limited to what an internal combustion engine makes possible. Contemporary cars are a big improvement over the first horseless carriages. But, more and more, the internal combustion engine is hindering our capacity to respond to new needs, i.e. ecological sustainability, affordability, problems with crowded roadways. Modest incrementalism can't take us much further. What's needed is a great innovation that completely changes our conception of how to get from here to there. For that to be possible, it requires a certain culture among manufacturers and engineers. It means they need to have a sense of daring and confidence whenever they start thinking outside the box.

    I think what Will Wilkinson is getting at is that we need to nurture the conditions in which we can create something entirely new, something unpredictable that bursts the limitations of our regulative ideals. In my opinion, I think this is perhaps the most important, most fundamental context within which to understand the framework for action the Universal House of Justice has been helping the Baha'i world to construct. Our aim isn't just to tinker around the edges, get a few Baha'is here, start some children's classes there. Our aim is to gain experience creating new realities and nurturing their development. Our aim is build the power for innovation. Now, the scope of those innovations is relatively narrow. But as the process gains momentum, it can begin to alter the life of society at progressively more fundamental levels.

  2. Okay, I'll admit it. My previous comment does a pretty poor job of reconstructing what Wilkinson was actually arguing. I see now that he's distinguishing the use of regulative ideals within utopian thought from a "modest incremental" approach, which as Jason points out is suggestive of learning in action as it is practiced in the Baha'i world.

    However, for the reasons I give above, I do think regulative ideals and a sort of modest incrementalism are complicit in the leveling down of late-20th century thought; even though that's a different context and using the terms in slightly different ways.

    It's all about the internal combustion engine, I swear. I promise to read posts more thoroughly before leaving long comments.

  3. Mr. Cat,

    Your first comment was good and interesting, I was just wondering who's post it was addressed to, and which Will Wilkinson you were summerizing :)

    You write,

    "Our aim is build the power for innovation. Now, the scope of those innovations is relatively narrow. But as the process gains momentum, it can begin to alter the life of society at progressively more fundamental levels."

    I think that you are write on track, which is why it is so hard for us now to predict far into the future, and restrict our actions based upon some fuzzy ideal. This doesn't mean however that we shouldn't nurture the conditions for radical innovation, we just need to realize that it takes one day at a time with faith in the covenant when it gets hard or confusing.