"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