Philosophy Weekend: Are We All Closet Utopians?

Utopian idealism is out of style. It’s been out of style for a few decades now, at least.

When we discuss politics or ethics, we try to avoid sounding hopeful or idealistic at the risk of sounding naive. If we have a utopian idea we’re likely to keep quiet about it, because this is never a winning position in a debate. It’s too easy to scoff at hope.

Even when utopian idealism is a winning position, as during Barack Obama’s “hope”-filled 2008 presidential campaign, it’s usually a costly one. Obama’s implicit vision of hope and change emanating from Washington DC has earned him enduring ridicule. (Sarah Palin opened her speeches in 2009 with the question “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?”, and I know one environmentalist Obama-hater who only refers to the President as the “Pope of Hope”.) It’s much easier to be cynical about the fate of humanity than to be caught dreaming about the practical possibility of a better world.

But here’s the funny thing: nobody wants to admit to being a utopian, yet most of us are.

It sneaks out in hidden ways. I was talking to a Tea Party/conservative friend at my job. This person claims to wish for smaller government in the United States of America, but also wants the federal government to pass a constitutional amendment banning abortion. I asked him, “how is banning abortion smaller government? Don’t you know that people will plan illegal abortions, and that the government will not be able to prosecute abortions without invasive investigations into the private lives of citizens?”

My friend is an excellent software developer, and I respect his intelligence even though I don’t often agree with his politics. The one thing we’ve been able to agree on is that we both consider ourselves libertarians, and for this reason I pressed him for an explanation of his paradoxical stance on abortion, and wouldn’t stop pestering him. Finally he said this: “it will be difficult at first to prosecute abortions, but then the gradual increase in sexual morals will lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies, so over time the problem of abortion will be mostly solved.”

“So”, I said, “you actually think a constitutional ban on abortion will cure our society of sexual immorality?”

“I don’t know if it will or not,” he said. “but it will be a step in the right direction.”

My friend, I was shocked to realize, is a closet utopian. What struck me at this moment is not that I’d gotten my frequent debate opponent to speak falsely, but that he’d revealed a deep and difficult truth. He thinks society is sick, and can be cured. He wants the USA federal government to initiate this cure by passing a prohibitive law.

Many conservatives are closet utopians, though they’d never admit it to Mark Levin. I needled my Tea Party friend about this for a few days (I also asked him “do you even have sexual morals?”, which was a serious question, and which he only answered with a grunt).

But I have to admit that he got back at me this week (as I mentioned, he’s a pretty smart guy, and doesn’t miss a chance). I was expressing my support for stronger gun control laws following last week’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. “Gun control laws, huh,” he said. “How the hell do you expect the government to enforce that? You think gun control laws will be easier to enforce than abortion laws?”

I had to pause to try to think of an answer, and in fact I never thought of one. I do support gun control laws in the USA very strongly, but I suppose I have to admit that I don’t think the government would be able to enforce the law effectively. So why do I feel so strongly that stronger gun control laws would be a good idea?

It’s because I’m a closet utopian. I think society is sick and needs to be cured. I think an effective gun control program would eventually lead to a decrease in gun violence, and to an enduringly more peaceful and cooperative society.

“Some libertarian you are,” my friend mocked. “Some hippie. You actually think you can cure society by enabling ‘The Man’ to control your freedom.”

I think we all need to accept and come to terms with the fact that we are sometimes closet utopians. Pondering this, it occurred to me that I’ve never read the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More. Maybe the text in which originated the word will shed some light, so I’ll be including this book in my holiday reading.

5 Responses

  1. Your friend is indeed smart,
    Your friend is indeed smart, what a great comeback!

    I have utopian dreams myself. I think we all do.

    there’s that buddhist maxim about how we all want and need the same things in life.

    we just have different ideas about how to get ’em.

  2. The Preamble of our
    The Preamble of our Constitution reads : “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    That in itself is Utopian as is our Declaration of Independence when it states : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    All men may be created equal but proof of that has not been as positive as we’d like to believe during 236 years of our government. Is this not Utopian?

    The Ten Commandments are chock full of ideals of the way we should live our lives… lives that would promise the followers a Utopian Wonderland where life would be seemingly that of near perfection.

    Despite the fact that thousands of years have passed since these ‘Commandments’ were written, there is little sign that we as representatives of the hu’man species is anywhere close to that Utopia.

    Our own simple lives are filled with Utopian ideas and ideals when we run out and buy the latest and greatest product that will cure our ills or make our lives run smoother and more efficiently so our precious time will be used for more wonderful and positive things to bring us happiness and joy in greater abundance. But we all know that is far from the facts. We work harder and deal poorly with the stress of our modern world and have at best a whopping 2 weeks off out of 50 to vacate from our jobs and worries that we may lose that job to circumstances beyond our control. We will forgive those shortcomings in order to save and build for that Utopia that is just around the corner…

    When viewed in these contexts it becomes apparent that any Utopia is but a vacation from the daily grind we all deal with day after day, week after week and year after year with much needed breaks to celebrate damn near anything to take our minds off that incessant grind that we find ourselves locked into.

    Those few breaks we do have, including the season we’re in now, do offer us glimpses of that Utopia where life is seemingly as it should be as promised by those Commandments or any other religious guidelines for a better life.

    The promises of any government are promises that ideally will be followed by that government’s followers be it written in a Constitution or preached by the leadership so as to give some hope for the dreams we have about some future in our lives before we pass on from this cycle of life which is littered with promises broken and dreams unfulfilled because, unfortunately, Utopias of any kind are drug-like to suspend reality but for a limited time and that short period we use as the impetus to continue dreaming that Utopian dream that allows us to be what we so often feel we are owed by either a religious promise or a governmental agreement that we obey to gain those just rewards.

  3. ..the sickness of society can
    ..the sickness of society can never be cured. It is fatal. However, the symptoms can be treated and tamed for a while..centuries even. We can have daily utopias if our expectations are realistic…

  4. There was a time in the 1970s
    There was a time in the 1970s when the US seemed to be heading toward my Utopia – Roe v Wade, the death penalty suspended in Illinois, the Equal Rights Amendment (which ultimately was not ratified). A kinder, gentler US. But this was not a Utopia for everyone, and the pushback toward another vision has been hard and is still going on.

    Still – though a smaller government may be Utopia for some, imagine the United States being governed by a body the size of say the State government of Wisconsin. The private sector would run everything – and outsource it all to India and China. The people running the Transportation and Communication Corp. would be incredibly rich. The rest of us would have lives that are nasty, brutish and short.

    On the abortion utopia, when you ban abortion, people will still have abortions. Does anyone remember when we banned alcohol?

    We need to have a utopian vision, but a practical application.

    Things like raising or lowering taxes should be practical matters, not religious convictions.

  5. I think one interesting
    I think one interesting question is: ┬┐Supposing that everyone agrees that abortion is “bad” and violates human rights, should it be banned even if it could not be controlled?

    To me the answer is yes, because laws are supposed to represent the current society’s understanding of ethics, the penitentiary aspect is secondary.

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