Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature are two books both about how much better life has gotten, relative to how it used to be. But they treat the word “utopia” in very different ways. First, Pinker:

Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would kill only one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or–projecting into the indefinite future–infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.

Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world and yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.

The second genocidal hazard of a utopia is that it has to conform to a tidy blueprint. In a utopia, everything is there for a reason. What about the people? Well, groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps it essentially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world. They may be entrepreneurial in a real and a world that works by communal sharing, or bookish in a world that works by labor, or brash and a world that works by piety, or clannish in a world that works by unity, or urban and commercial in a world that has returned to its roots in nature. If you are designing the perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the start? (pp. 328-329).

The forces of modernity–reason, science, humanism, individual rights–have not of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence (p. 694).

Now Easterbrook:

In the Middle Ages, Europeans dreamed of a utopia called Cockaigne. Said to exist on a distant isle, Cockaigne was a place where unlimited food appeared whenever anyone wished for it. Roast meats, grilled fish, stuffed goose, and fruit pies could be had in any quantity simply by thinking of them; rivers flowed with wine; no matter how often drained, cups magically refilled themselves with beer; some buildings were even made of food.1 You could sleep as long as you wanted: days on end, if you wished. You could have sex with whomever would agree, as often as you wanted, without pregnancy or any legal complications. Everyone wore clothes made from fine fabrics in bright colors: in the Middle Ages, fine clothing being what the typical person most longed to possess. Everyone’s pockets bulged with gold. Most of all no one had to work, for no work needed to be performed. Food grew itself; plates washed themselves; fires tended themselves.

Small wonder that men and women in an age of poverty, drudgery, food shortages, and condemnation of sex dreamed of a realm of drinking, eating, sleeping, free love, and never being called to toil. Musicians of the Middle Ages sang songs of Cockaigne; mothers hushed children to sleep with tales of how they would someday be transported to this land; many must have reflected, bitterly, on how merciless was fate to allow men and women to imagine such a kingdom but never experience it. Historical asterisk? With the exception of exemption from labor and a few details like washing the dishes, hundreds of millions of Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians today reside in Cockaigne (pp. 311-312).

I lean towards Easterbrook’s approach. No, the world isn’t perfect, and some people still get dealt a shitty hand, even in rich countries. But to describe the gains humanity has made in the past five centuries merely in terms of improving statistical trends doesn’t do them justice, I think. It leaves too much room for someone to say, “ah, but what about the evils of consumerism?” (which is largely a product of the fact that ordinary people are no longer struggling for mere existence, and because of this can engage in patters of consumption that used to be possible only to the very rich.)

And I dislike making “utopian” a dirty word, because all too often I see accusations of “utopianism” made simply on the basis of someone being enthusiastic about how much progress we’ve made so far, and optimistic about our ability to make more progress in the future. The problem with the Communists and the Nazis wasn’t their beliefs about how much better the world could be. Rather, it’s that real utopias (or the closest thing we have to real utopias) are founded on doing the opposite of what the Communists and Nazis did, that is to say they’re founded on limited government power and respect for individual rights.

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