Monday, April 17, 2017

The men who make Utopias proceed upon a radically false assumption as to what constitutes a good life.

H/T Marginal Revolution.

From Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916 by Bertrand Russell.
A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life. Without imagination and love of adventure a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy. It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil. The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull. Any man with any force in him would rather live in this world, with all its ghastly horrors, than in Plato's Republic or among Swift's Houyhnhnms. The men who make Utopias proceed upon a radically false assumption as to what constitutes a good life. They conceive that it is possible to imagine a certain state of society and a certain way of life which should be once for all recognized as good, and should then continue for ever and ever. They do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment. Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are only satisfactory, to most men, when they come in the intervals of activity. Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature. They aim rather at securing more leisure, and more opportunity for enjoying it, than at making work itself more satisfactory, more consonant with impulse, and a better outlet for creativeness and the desire to employ one’s faculties.
The sentence I have bolded is, I think, the crux. Totalitarian statists are also stasists - nothing changes.

In reality, not only does the definition of utopia differ between individuals but it also differs for an individual over time. Utopia for a fifteen year old boy looks dramatically different than utopia for that same person as a fifty year old man. If you acknowledge that every person defines utopia differently from one another and differently over time, then the coercive totalitarian project disappears. It is simply not achievable.

With that disappearance you can begin to focus on the real challenge, creating participatory systems which have the greatest probability of allowing the most number of people to achieve their transitory goals most frequently, over the longest durations of time. Much, much harder but also much more noble.

Russell's passage sheds light on the mind of the tragedy and disaster of the pathologically altruistic. The pathologically altruistic are those individuals who are uncomfortable letting others live their lives as they see fit but who wish to impose the donor's view of what the "beneficiary" should want onto the beneficiary. An imposition that usually fails to account for the beneficiaries's actual definition of utopia and which ignore the details of the circumstances constraining the beneficiary. It is why so many of these pathologically altruistic endeavors so often go astray. The pathologically altruistic are so often also both statists and stasists.

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