Dissecting Utopia: Soluble and Insoluble Problems

What is meant in calling a prediction of the future, or a political theory making such predictions, ‘utopian’? Of course it means that it’s unrealistic and optimistic, but can this be made at least moderately precise – the sort of thing that bitter opponents might agree on the application of before they begin swearing at each other?

For instance, sometimes people treat ‘utopia’ as defined just by contrast to actuality: it’s anything that’s radically different to the status quo. This may be sufficient for many practical purposes, but in a way it’s much too weak, since nobody seriously doubts that in 300 years, human society will be radically different to what it is now. And although not everyone thinks that it will be, on balance, better, there are enough people who do (flying cars, after all) that this seems to overly dilute the meaning of ‘utopia’.

A different definition would call a society ‘utopian’ not simply for being different and better, but for being free of problems. But now we seem to have gone too far the other way, and made the concept overly strong. Who would really imagine a society of humans with absolutely no problems? This seems more like a caricature, a straw man.

Moreover, a society with no problems at all might well sound more dystopian than utopian, because no problems means no problems to solve, and our brains are largely designed for problem-solving. No problems means nothing to do, and having nothing to do is rather boring.

So maybe this is a clue the Goldilocks-esque definition that’s neither too weak nor too strong: a utopia is a society without an insoluble problems. Soluble problems are great, it’s just these insoluble ones that we want to be rid of. But then what is an ‘insoluble’ problem?

Simply saying ‘one that you can’t solve’ won’t do, because solubility is relative to many things, most obviously who ‘you’ are and how long you have. What’s soluble in a century is insoluble in a minute. But normally this doesn’t bother us because we will, all by ourselves, tend to adjust the problems we try to solve, the tasks we set ourselves, to what’s appropriate given the time and other resources we can deploy. I don’t try to build Rome in a day, or on my own; I’m also not satisfied with merely serving tea to the builders, if I have some ideas about architecture. I’ll seek my own level.

So we might define as ‘relevantly insoluble’ cases where this doesn’t happen: where someone is caused to ‘have a problem’ that they can’t solve, and can’t set aside (as one might with, say, the problem of how to colonise Alpha Centauri), and define ‘utopia’ as a society without no, or almost no, relevantly insoluble problems.

People might have such problems for social or biological reasons. For instance, every day I find myself compelled by my biology to face the problem of “how am I going to find enough food to eat?” Other biological problems are less regular: when I’m full of malaria germs, I face the urgent problem of how I can avoid sickening and dying.

Now, for Luke Roelofs, these problems are easily soluble, because of the way that society has disposed of its considerable powers for making food and curing disease. For lots of other people these problems are close to being insoluble. So one definite feature of any society that deserves to be called ‘utopian’ is that it disposes its powers so as to make everyone’s biological problems easily soluble.

This is roughly the import of ‘minimum utopia’ in this piece by Norman Geras (link provided in comments by Nakul): that nobody on earth be needlessly starving, sick, abused, or humiliated.

The more complicated part is where it’s social mechanisms themselves that generate relevantly insoluble problems. This might happen in lots of ways: people might be put under impossible or contradictory requirements, or might be tasked with enforcing rules onto others that those others cannot help but strain against. It might involve enlisting people to impose such intolerable rules on themselves. Or it might involve setting different people, or groups of people, social tasks that bring them necessarily into conflict.

In this latter sense, the phrase ‘classless society’, an occasional definition of ‘communism’, would be a particular aspect of utopia; that a society is free of a certain important subset of relevantly insoluble problems, those associated with the exploitation and subjugation of one class by another.

I think this is something like the right definition, because it connects up with a particular philosophical debate that is not one-sided. That’s the issue most famously discussed by Isiah Berlin in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, of whether all genuine values are reconcilable. If, as Berlin insinuates and clearly believes, many values are irreconcilable, i.e. cannot be simultaneously satisfied to their maximum, then there must always be some relevantly insoluble problems.

So are all genuine values reconcilable? Good question:

This entry was posted in Comments on Wright, 'Envisioning Real Utopias' and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dissecting Utopia: Soluble and Insoluble Problems

  1. Nakul says:

    Oops, I clicked yes when I meant to click no.

  2. Pingback: Are All Genuine Values Ultimately Reconcilable? | Majestic Equality

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