A utopian world is the best of all possible worlds. It is the world that we should want to build; it is the place we should all want to be. And yet when we task our best minds to come up with visions of utopia, they tend to disappoint. They often imagine some squalid commune — like B.F. Skinner in Walden 2 — in which conformity is bred into citizens through perfected social engineering. That doesn’t sound like the best of worlds to me. And when we move from imagination to practice, things are often much worse. Those in the grip of a utopian ideology — be it anarchist, communist, transhumanist, Islamist or other ist — are often willing to justify tremendous pain and suffering in pursuit of their vision. The practical line between utopia and dystopia is a thin one indeed.
This leads many to reject utopian thinking. And yet utopia is a philosophically fascinating concept. Is it actually possible to construct a utopian world? Does it make sense to suppose there is a single vision around which we should all rally? In his controversial 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick presented one of the most interesting and philosophically sophisticated analyses of the concept of utopia. I want to look at that analysis in this post.
The utopian section of Nozick’s book is often ignored. The book as whole tries to defend a libertarian political philosophy in three parts. In the first part Nozick presents a Neo-Lockean view of rights. In the second part he presents a critique of Rawlsian liberalism. These two parts have generated the bulk of the academic discussion. Much of this discussion is justified: there is plenty of controversial material in the first two parts — enough to last a lifetime of scholarly endeavour. But this has the unfortunate effect of relegating the third part to a relative footnote in academic history. If you asked most people what the core argument in Nozick’s book is, they would probably be able to tell you something about the first two thirds, but not so much about the last.
This is a great shame. Nozick’s analysis of utopia is thoughtful and thought-provoking. In keeping with the main theme of the book, Nozick uses his analysis of utopia as the basis for an argument in favour of the minimal state, but he thinks of this as an independent argument — one whose success or failure is not tied to the success or failure of the first two parts. Furthermore, what Nozick has to say about utopia remains interesting irrespective of your views on the minimal state.
I’ll try to explain why I think this in what follows. I’ll start by outlining Nozick’s ‘meta-utopian’ argument. I’ll then look at some criticisms of that argument. I’m using Ralf Bader’s article ‘The Framework for Utopia’ as my guide to Nozick, but I’m going to present my own reconstruction of the argument.
1. The Meta-Utopian Argument
Nozick’s utopian vision is simply stated: there is (in all likelihood) no single utopian world; the utopian world is, rather, a meta-utopia in which many different worlds can be constructed and joined. The argument for this comes in three steps. The first step is to provide a conceptual analysis of what is meant by ‘utopia’. The second step is to argue that there is no single utopia. The third step is to argue that a meta-utopia is the only stable structure that can accommodate the fact that there is no single utopia.
Let’s start with the conceptual analysis. For Nozick, a utopia is the best of all possible worlds. But what does that mean? Nozick tries to make it more tangible by asking us to imagine we have the power to create any world we like — i.e. the power to construct possible worlds. If we had that power, which world would we construct and what would lead us to call it a utopia? Nozick argues that the utopian world would be the one that is stable, i.e. the one from which or relative to which we could imagine no better world that we would rather be in. This gives us the stability condition:
Stability Condition: A world W is stable if it is judged by its members to be the best possible world, i.e. there is no world they would rather be in.
This, in turn, gives us the stability analysis of utopia:
Utopia: A world W is utopian just in case it is stable.
There are problems with this analysis of utopia, some of which will surface when we consider objections to Nozick’s argument. For now let’s just hone in on one controversial element. If you were paying attention, you will have noticed that Nozick’s analysis places internal standards of judgment at the core of what it is to live in a utopia. A world is utopian if it is judged to be the best of all possible worlds. The judgments of the people living in the world are paramount, not the judgments of some external authority nor the application of some objective standard of betterness. Nozick thinks the centrality to internal standards is justified (we’ll come back to this) but it creates problems. If internal standards are what matters, we run into the problem that there is no shared, intersubjective standard of what makes one world better than another. This makes it highly unlikely that there is a single world in which the stability condition is met for all inhabitants of that world. Some may think there is no place they’d rather be than the world they happen to be in; but others are likely to imagine a better world that is just around the corner. This probably tracks with your everyday experience. You’ll have noticed that the criteria you use to judge what makes for a good life are not the same as the criteria used by others. You might think a stable happy family life is what matters whereas others prioritise success in their careers.
Two caveats about this argument. First, note how the argument is not that a single utopian world is impossible merely that it is highly unlikely. It is possible that everyone’s internal standards of betterness perfectly coincide, but it is not very likely and does not track with what we know about the world. Second, when we say that standards of betterness vary, this does not mean that there are no shared, objective values — i.e. no grounds for agreement on what makes for a good life. There could be such agreement without their being shared standards of betterness. You and I could both agree that success in work and success in family life are important values, we just disagree on their order of priority.
This brings us to the third part of the argument. Since there is probably no single utopian world — i.e. no single world that meets the stability condition — it follows that the closest thing to a utopian world will be a meta-utopian world, i.e. one in which many worlds are possible. A world in which we are free to build and join the possible worlds that meet the stability condition for ourselves. This meta-utopia is the one that allows a thousand flowers to bloom (to quote an inauspicious source). The meta-utopia is evaluatively thin. No matter what your internal standards for betterness are, you are likely to agree that the meta-utopia is the best chance of realising utopia. The meta-utopia does not presuppose or implement any particular vision of the good life. It simply provides an overarching structure in which multiple conceptions of the good life can be pursued.
This gives us the following, informal, argument for the meta-utopia (this is a rough-and-ready reconstruction of the reasoning to this point - it is not intended to be formally valid):
- (1) A utopian world is a stable world.
- (2) A world is stable if it is judged by its members to be the best possible world, i.e. there is no world they would rather be in.
- (3) The standards by which people judge world to be better or worse are internal.
- (4) People’s internal standards of betterness are unlikely to be shared (i.e. person A may judge W1 to be the best possible world while person B may judge W2 to be the best possible world and so on).
- (5) Therefore, there is unlikely to be a single stable world (from 2-4).
- (6) Therefore, there is unlikely to be a single utopia (1 and 5).
- (7) Therefore, by implication from 2, 3 and 4, the closest thing to a utopian world will be a meta-utopian world, i.e. a world that allows individuals to create and join worlds that conform to their own standards of betterness.
You can probably see how Nozick builds this into a defence of the minimal state. His claim is that the minimal state is the closest thing to a real-world instantiation of the meta-utopia. It is an overarching institutional framework that allows people to create and join associations that are governed by their own preferred values. The minimal state is evaluatively thin: it does not presuppose or implement any particular vision of the good. It simply provides a framework within which utopian associations can flourish.
That’s the basic outlines of his utopian argument. Is it any good?
2. The Coercion Condition and the Problem of Imperialism
Let’s start by considering a major objection. This one focuses on the stability condition. You can see the intentions underlying the stability condition. It’s a sop to liberal moral presuppositions. Liberals think that you should be the ultimate arbiter of what is right for you. The ideal world is one that allows you to choose that which matches your preferences.
But no self-regarding liberal thinks that preference-matching by itself is sufficient. We need to ask: where did those preferences come from? Suppose you express a preference for a world in which you get to be a professional dancer. But suppose further that your preference for being a professional dancer was drilled into you from an early age by your overbearing mother. She always wanted to be a professional dancer herself but failed in her ambitions. She is living vicariously through you. Anytime you expressed an aptitude and desire to do something else, she berated you and convinced you that dancing was the way to go. Eventually you came around to her way of seeing things. You took her preferences on as your own. Would we really say that a world in which your preference for being a dancer is met is the best possible world for you?
The problem with such a scenario is that it seems to assign too much normative weight to preferences that might not be authentically yours, i.e. preferences that have been coerced, manipulated and brainwashed. This suggests that we need to modify the stability condition by adding an ‘authenticity’ clause:
Stability Condition*: A world W is stable if it is judged by its members to be the best possible world, i.e. there is no world they would rather be in, and their judgments are authentic, autonomously derived reflections of what they truly prefer.
The problem with the additional clause is that it makes the practical realisation of Nozick’s meta-utopia much more difficult. There isn’t any real agreement on what makes a judgment or preference authentic. Typically, liberals draw distinctions between preferences that are manipulated into existence by others, and preferences that are the product of ‘natural’, ‘organic’, or ‘non-manipulative’ forces. But according to some points of view, there is no sharp distinction between organically derived preferences and manipulated preferences. This is particularly true if you deny the existence of libertarian free will and think that all our preferences and desires are the product of causal forces.
It creates another practical problem too. If the meta-utopia needs to filter out worlds that are the result of manipulated or coerced judgments of betterness, then it seems like it entails a paradox, namely: it cannot accommodate those worlds where people’s judgments of betterness require the freedom to impose their will on others. Nozick is aware of this. In his book, he notes that there are three main types of community in the meta-utopia:
Existentialist: These are communities that adopt a pluralistic view as to what makes for the best world, and have no desire to impose any particular conception of ‘bestness’ on others. They are willing to tolerate the multiplicity of worlds that the meta-utopia entails.
Missionary: These are communities that adopt a monistic view as to what makes for the best world and wish to convert everyone to their view of bestness, but they do so through rational debate and persuasion, not through manipulation and coercion.
Imperialist: These are communities that adopt a monistic view as to what makes for the best world and wish to convert everyone to their view of bestness. They are willing to do so through manipulation, coercion and force if needs be.
While a meta-utopian institutional framework could be created that accommodates existential and missionary communities, it could not accommodate an imperialist community. The existence of such a community would violate the modified stability condition. You might say this is okay because imperialist preferences shouldn’t be allowed. But if you do so, you start to undercut some of the original appeal of the meta-utopian argument. Remember, the big advantage of that argument was that it didn’t seem to take any particular stance on what made for the best possible world: it allowed people to determine this for themselves. But now it seems like we have to start putting our foot down on some particular conceptions of bestness. This makes the argument less philosophically pure, and more difficult to implement in practice given that there are many imperialist communities already in existence.
3. Why should we focus on internal standards?
One way in which you could resolve the imperialist problem would be to avoid the original sin of the stability condition, i.e. don’t give so much weight to internal standards; use objective standards instead. Of course, this is itself replete with practical problems. What are these objective standards? Who determines what they are? It is those very problems that make the appeal to internal standards quite attractive.
Still, many will feel jittery about the appeal to internal standards and this prompts the question: can we say anything to assuage these jitters? Bader argues that we can in his piece about Nozick. He makes three arguments. The arguments are interesting, but not necessarily mutually consistent.
The first is that there is a strong case for the use of internal standards. Bader thinks that the internalist approach makes for a substantive and theoretically interesting account of utopia, viz. a utopia is a world which is preferred to all other possible worlds by its members. This seems to be both a novel and interesting approach to utopian thinking. Appealing to external standards is less substantive and theoretically interesting. For the externalist, the account of utopia falls out of the particular theory of value to which they adhere. This means all the theoretical and argumentative heavy lifting is borne by that theory. But, of course, debating the merits of particular theories of value is what value theorists have been doing for centuries. So the externalist approach to utopia just replicates centuries of debate about value. The internalist approach, in addition to paying heed to the practical reality of diversity, holds out the promise of providing something different.
The second argument is that there may be plausible grounds for linking internal and external standards. The idea is that a plausible theory of external value should incorporate an endorsement condition, i.e. it should be something that can be endorsed and agreed upon by everyone who is subject to it. Bader explains it like this:
What is objectively best should ideally not be completely disconnected from what the subjects take to be best. The endorsement condition allows us to retain the previously established results in the con- text of external standards.
The third argument is a practical one. It suggests that epistemic humility is a must when it comes to utopianism. If we have learned nothing from history it is that utopian world-builders often get things wrong and cause great hardship and suffering in the process. We should guard against repeating such mistakes. This means that we probably shouldn’t be too bullish about any particular external theory of value. Even if we think it is on the right lines, we should factor in some element of risk and uncertainty. Bader thinks that if you incorporate this epistemic humility into your externalist theory, you’ll end up with something pretty similar to Nozick’s internalist theory. This is because an epistemically humble approach would require some accommodation to the views of others and some degree of experimentation with world-building.
I’ve gone through these three arguments in some detail because I think they are interesting not just in what they have to say about to Nozick’s meta-utopian argument, but also in what they have to say about all arguments in which internalist and externalist approaches to value seem to clash. It may turn out that in many of these cases there is more common ground between the internalists and externalists than we first suppose.
I don’t have too much more to say. To briefly recap, Nozick’s theory of utopia is an oft-neglected part of his case for the minimal state. What’s more, the theory holds interest even if you reject his libertarian outlook. Nozick presents an interesting conceptual analysis of what it means to live in a utopian world. He claims that a utopian world is an world that meets the stability condition (i.e. is such that no member of that world can imagine or would want to move to a better world). He then argues that there is unlikely to be a single world that meets the stability condition: people’s judgments as to what is best vary considerably. This suggests that we need a meta-utopia: a world in which people are able to build and join worlds that meet their own stability conditions.
Interesting though this theory may be, it does suffer from some considerable problems, particularly when we try to imagine what it would take to implement a meta-utopia. It seems like stability by itself is not enough. We need to ensure that people aren’t coerced and manipulated into worlds that are not of their choosing. But this, in turn, means that we cannot accommodate people whose utopian preferences require the freedom to coerce and manipulate others.
Suffice to say, despite its practical problems, Nozick’s theory does have some interesting repercussions for contemporary discussions about online and virtual communities. You can probably guess what those repercussions might be, but I won’t say anything about them for now. I hope to consider them again in a future blogpost.