There are many futures out there, and some of them are truly wonderful. The purpose of this post is to inspire you to imagine the best ones: in other words, your vision of utopia. Sometimes we are scared to imagine utopia, because we think we might look ridiculous, or that we are somehow “tempting fate”. But if we don’t bother to think about what we really want, we’ll get something we don’t want.
According to one vision of utopia we have succeeded in reversing the aging process, and have therefore conquered death. We have invented faster-than-light travel and found other planets, even more rich and diverse than Earth. This allows us to expand our population indefinitely, so that we can live for ever and still enjoy the company of children. Pain and suffering have been abolished, and this has not made us any less compassionate (as some feared), because compassion involves sharing in the joys of others, not only in their suffering. Religion has disappeared as a source of superstition and conflict, but still plays a role in inspiring us.
In my vision of utopia we live in harmony with our environment, which bears considerable resemblance to the natural environment in which our stone age ancestors evolved, but without the suffering and cruelty. We are not bored. We are constantly pursuing exciting goals, and experiencing the satisfaction of working together on common projects and exceeding our wildest expectations. We have learnt how to experience pleasure without needing to experience pain and suffering in order to notice.
I believe that technology has a crucial role to play in bringing this about. I love the idea that we might be able to prevent and reverse aging, and the role that technology can play in preventing disease and maximise our capacity to enjoy life.
Alongside the utopic futures there are of course also dystopic ones: the nightmare scenarios that we fear. Technology also plays a role in those. We need to focus on them as well, in order to steer ourselves safely towards the futures that we actually want. But for now I want you to focus on the scenario I’ve described, and leave a comment. I want you to tell me whether you find it too abstract or unrealistic to be worth focusing on, or whether you find it terrifying, horrific, wonderful or intriguing. The more we share and discuss our visions of utopia, the more likely we are to create a future that suits all of us.
Utilitarianism is a branch of moral philosophy according to which the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximising some measure of “utility” summed over all sentient beings. “Utility” can mean different things such as pleasure, satisfaction of preferences or even knowledge, but the basic idea is that, ultimately, there is just one criterion for determining the moral worth of an action, and that this must involve consideration for the action’s consequences.
Utilitarianism emerged in England in the 18th and 19h centuries, initially as a basis for getting rid of useless or corrupt laws and social practices. The idea that the actions are not good or bad in themselves, but that their moral worth depends on their consequences, was a novel one at the time, and had a profound influence on the formulation of policy.
Utilitarianism has its detractors, however. The idea that you can compare the happiness of two distinct persons such that they can be “added together” to form a total is highly controversial, and it has also been pointed out that one can never foresee all the consequences of an action. Some complain that utilitarianism downplays the importance of intention, while others worry that it could be used as a justification for slavery, genocide and other breaches of human rights.
My own position is that, while there are obvious problems, the basic concept has an important role to play in helping to forge consensus on what kind of future we actually want, and on the measures required to get us there. It’s not necessarily “utilitarianism vs the rest”: we can draw inspiration from various ethical principles. But as the philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out, in a dispute between reasoning beings you need a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole. And in that context it seems difficult to beat “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” as an overarching principle.
But what do you think? Is utilitarianism a helpful idea or not?
Welcome to my blog! I’ve decided to set up a blog because I want to exchange ideas that I (or others) think are important for the future of humanity. You can read more about my current intentions on the “about” page. An important point is that the life and blood of this blog will be the comments I receive from others, much more than my own posts. So please, go ahead and write a comment. At this stage, just about any kind of feedback or contribution is welcome!