Utopia: Its the People You’re With

Utopia is all about the people

The six communities in Anna Neima’s The Utopians all tried to create a better way to live. That might seem like the right way to approach creating a community from the ground up, but I don’t think it is. How should I live turns out to be the wrong question for a community. It’s a great question — maybe THE question for any one person. It’s a question we all answer, too, even if we never give it a thought. A community, though, has lots of people all of whom need to find their own answer to that question. A community that starts with a single answer about how to live will be crushingly dull or just crushing.

I ended my previous post on the The Utopians by arguing that it makes more sense to ask what kind of people we want to live with. People are the essence of what makes a community and it’s hard to imagine anything could be more important. If we don’t like the people, we won’t like the community. If we do, we will. It really is that simple. But deciding what kind of people you’d want in your utopia turns out to be trickier than you might think.

Or maybe it seems tricky right from the get-go.

It’s surprising that so few utopians and even fewer social ideologies have much to say about this question. Of Neima’s communities, only one had much of an answer (The Bruderhof) and that’s because it was a Christian community. Christianity is very much about what kind of person to be — more than it is about how to live (though it’s obviously both). For the Bruderhof, the answer of what kind of people to live with was simple — good Christians. For them, the hard question was what kind of community helps make a good Christian.

For the non-religious utopias, though, the answer of what kind of people they wanted in their community was never clearly articulated. Many of these communities settled on a way to live (agrarian intellectualism) that never seemed to gel and may not make much sense psychologically. But few of them seemed to have any idea of what kind of people were wanted or a plan for how the community was going to help them become that person.

Nor is it only utopian communities that are silent on this point.

The ideologues inhabiting our political spaces are full of ideas for how to structure society, but curiously silent on what kind of people we want to be. What sort of person does a Marxist community create? In the real world, the only interesting people in communist communities are dissidents. But even from a utopian standpoint, I haven’t any sense of what kind of person an ideal Marxist community is supposed to create or how it will help them become that person. The idea seems to be that, freed from the imperatives of capitalism, people will simply turn into something different and better and perhaps unknowable from our side of history. Utopia indeed!

Certainly, that new Marxist human type can’t be modeled from our current generation of leftists who appear free mostly of any necessity to be kind, humane, humorous or literate. What does the balance between freedom and equality matter in a society where everyone is an asshole?

Our most important moral traditions are silent, too. What kind of person would a Kantian or a Utilitarian want to live with? A person who always does their duty or who always follows the rules to maximize happiness? I have no idea what that person is like (except non-existent). Are they interesting? Ambitious? Funny? Kind? Creative? Disciplined? Stoic? Epicurean? Do they have a good life balance? Do they write poetry or play football? Who knows!

A list like that suggests that one way to answer the question would be to think that we want people who embody the classic virtues: people who are empathetic, courageous, generous, wise, and so on.

And, sure, that would be great. Who wouldn’t want to live in a community where everyone was nice and honorable and wise. I might have a Groucho Marx problem, but at least that sounds like something worth striving for.

Can a community create virtues? Certainly. If a community can’t, nothing can. Yet, creating virtues isn’t like creating piano players. We don’t have a blueprint for doing it — and, in fact, there’s reason to think that the process of virtue creation might be quite different for each virtue. There are also a great many virtues (Andre Comte-Sponville listed 18 in his Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, and I can think of many more). There is only so much time in a life to create them, and some of them don’t fit easily together. So while a community can work to create virtues, it still has to decide which ones.

We don’t expect any one person to embody more than a few of the virtues and we’re impressed with anyone who can display one or two consistently. That’s probably why most societies that have modeled virtue selection have emphasized a small set of virtues that capture the broader ethos of the society. Spartans were courageous, disciplined, and faithful. Athenians interesting, ambitious and creative. English gentlemen were polite, gentle, and enduring.

It’s hard to know how successful any of these societies were in inculcating the virtues they modeled, but I’m guessing they were at least better than average at producing or enhancing the virtues they most admired. We learn how to be from others. We are keenly sensitive to feedback from the people around us. A society that admires, preaches and rewards particular ways of thinking and behaving can hardly fail to create at least some cognitive dispositions that favor and exemplify its chosen values.

Unfortunately, focusing a society on a small core of virtues has its own problems. The virtues we desire are not independent of the life we choose to live. A soldier has much need for martial courage and less of gentleness or creativity. A farmer has little need of courage but great need to steadiness and discipline. The problem with building a community around a single set of virtues is the same problem with building a community around a single way to live. It might be a utopia for some but it’s a straitjacket for others.

Perhaps what we want in a community is people who have the virtues appropriate to their function. In the very first utopia, The Republic, Plato suggests that there are three types of people, and the key to his society is that each class of person fulfills the role best suited for them. You have farmers and tradespeople and merchants — and they have virtues appropriate to their role. Warriors have virtues appropriate to their martial occupations. And rulers have virtues appropriate to leadership. Plato wasn’t a virtue theorist, but he did think that regardless of the initial quality of your soul (which determines your role), it was the job of a good society to build the dispositions, values and abilities appropriate to that soul and role. His leaders had to endure a brutal and extended life of preparation before they ever practiced their function.

I take it that nobody these days would put much stock in a tri-partite soul, or the three classes Plato derives from it. Nor does it make much sense in the modern world to try and establish the specific roles in a community. One of the biggest weaknesses in the utopian communities described by Neima in The Utopians was that they made too many assumptions about how to live. Times and people change, and surely a truly excellent community would make room for that.

So instead of a catalog of roles and a plan for how to build the virtues appropriate to each role, we need a society that can help people build the virtues best suited to roles — even when those roles evolve.

There might be some ways to do that, but it seems challenging and feels like it’s working at the wrong level. Suppose that everyone in our society chose to be a warrior and modelled themselves on Sparta. That’s not my idea of utopia, even if the society then does a good job of giving them the virtues of soldiers.

Yes, we want a high-functioning society to help people acquire the virtues necessary to their roles. But I think we also want to ensure that the roles chosen don’t converge on any single model.

There are practical and ethical reasons for avoiding convergence. From a practical perspective, I’m unconvinced that a mono-focused society can be healthy and sustainable. From an ethical perspective, a mono-focused society has two (related/additional) problems: it doesn’t take advantage of difference and it doesn’t model enough different lives for people to make good ethical choices for themselves.

After all, we may not think there are three types of souls, but we have sure and certain grounds for thinking that people are quite different and that heredity has a significant influence on our neural development. In other words, people ARE different. A society that doesn’t accommodate that cannot possibly be taking full advantage of our diversity.

To whatever extent a mono-focused society gets away with forcing people into a small set of roles, it’s because it dramatically reduces the type of exemplars and the sample lives that people see modelled. Good decision-making about transformative decisions necessitates enough interesting lives to give people a chance to find a path that suits them and takes advantage of who they are. If everyone you see around you is a soldier, your path in life is limited to thinking about what kind of soldier to be.

That can’t be ideal.

But if we can’t say what specific virtues we want and we don’t want to pre-determine virtues by demanding specific roles in our community, is there ANYTHING we can say about what kind of people we want?

I think there is.

First and foremost, if I was answering the utopian question (and any real answer must always be in the context of for us, as we are right now), I want to live with people whose values include who they want to be, not just outcomes they desire.[1] People will and do make all sorts of bad choices about what to value and even what constitutes a virtue. Still, I’d take almost any society where people actively care about who to be than a culture where almost nobody thinks about it at all.

Most of us want, I think, the society of interesting people. We care about that a lot and I think we’re right to. We also want people to be different — how can you be interesting if you aren’t? We don’t want or value a monotonic culture where everyone is supposed exemplify the same virtues, where everyone is an intellectual or a farmer. No matter which you pick, if you build a society to create one kind of person, you’ll end up with a lot of people who are bad at that kind of life: bad intellectuals, bad farmers or both.

If you want a diversity of virtues, then you also want people who are open to new experiences and appreciative of a variety of different types of people. How it could be otherwise? If we want a culture that produces a variety of excellences and doesn’t insist on a specific kind of person as the ideal, it will need to provide positive feedback for many types of lives. That only comes from open-hearted appreciation. This, I think, is the ultimate ethical justification for a liberal society — liberal not merely in tolerating others, but in actively appreciating them. Because people are different, the best society will not just permit many kinds of lives, it will provide the interest and feedback necessary to sustain those lives.

Yet this appreciation for different lives and values has its limits and so does our ability to say enough about what kind of people we want to live with within the confines of traditional liberalism. As much as I admire the core liberal tradition, it presumes (mostly without realizing it) a culture that creates and encourages people to some form of ethical life. If that culture erodes (or doesn’t exist in the first place), then I doubt that a liberal society can endure or that it deserves to. Freedom without value is useless.

In a giant, complex society like ours, to go any further in defining who we want people to be may be impossible. It risks fracturing the overlapping consensus that Rawls describes (correctly, I think) as the foundation of political liberalism. A community — liberal or otherwise — can only be sustained on a foundation of shared agreement. In a nation of hundreds of millions, that foundation can’t extend too far or be too rigid else it will fracture. But what’s true in a large nation doesn’t hold in a small, experimental community where like-minded people can and should go further in figuring out what kind of people they want to live with and be.

I think the best kind of community would have far more people who are invested in craftsmanship. Our society has too few people that value, pursue and reward beauty and invest themself seriously in an aesthetic vision. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a society filled with people who care more about craft — both in creating and consuming? Craft is a powerful teacher of virtues, and centering it in a culture improves almost every aspect of a community. There are modern cultures (Japan, for instance), where aesthetics are far more deeply ingrained in the individual’s value systems. Imagine a community where houses were beautiful not grandiose, where simplicity not ostentation were esteemed? That would be nice.

In our world, education has become valued almost exclusively for the credential it provides and the career it enables. Genuine scholarship, intellectual curiosity and a real interest in the liberal arts cut no ice these days. Yet they are the hallmarks of the people I value most. Not every culture (nor every past time in our culture) has been so unthinking and unreflective. Nor need it be so in an experimental community. Centering at least part of community around a teaching college (as Santiniketan-Sriniketan did) might pull many of those reflective virtues deeper into fabric of the culture. I wrote that every real school is a kind of utopia, but so, too, should every utopia be a kind of school.

I’d want people (and a culture) that don’t think of a career as a lifetime commitment but as a commitment for a life-stage. People who are happy to go back to college in middle-age or change, fundamentally, what they are doing. Not only do I think such people are happier and more interesting, they are a useful check on the constant temptation to maximize our income.

For all of that, I still want people that strive after excellence and consistently reward it in others. I’m lazy enough to appreciate being pushed by people who care about doing things well.

The people I admire (and presumably want to live with) are ambitious but not just for money and fame. They may be ambitious engineers, designers, builders, artists or scientists, but no matter what they are doing, they care about it. They are engaged with life projects that put them out into the world and make them passionate members of a community.

People invested in interesting life-projects create their own kind of positive feedback loop. People will value a community that helps them become who they want to be and shape a good life because they can see what a community is for — they are not in the diaspora of bored consumers. And because they can see what it’s for and how it has benefited them, they’ll be invested in that community and help create better people.

Living with people like that? That’s my idea of a utopia.

And put that way, it does sound utopian.

Yet communities profoundly shape who we are. Culture is the lathe of character. In the right community, most of us could/would be much better people. And while no community will ever create a whole population of exemplars, surely the right kind of community could do better than what we have.

Nor is what I envision some centralized character factory stamping out interesting people. We all know that wouldn’t work. But in an exploratory community, the creators are the culture. A great deal could be done with surprisingly modest changes; changes that, if embraced in the culture of an experimental community, would help people freely lead better lives.

Better is possible, and it maybe that if we started from the right place (what kind of people we want to be), we might find ways to change society that don’t seem so impossible.

That, at least, is the real utopian dream. And if I have re-cast utopia not as an agrarian cooperative, but as community of interesting people treating their work as a serious craft, I hope you can see why that vision is far more compelling for our times.

[1] A Marxist might, at this point, retort that this is precisely what the elimination of wealth inequality and ownership will accomplish. That seems optimistic. Social media communities like Twitter lack any ownership or currency yet manage to be cesspools of performative cruelty. It isn’t obvious that the elimination of markets and private property did much to change people in the communities Neima describes or in any other community where it has been tried. Nor do people seem to have been much different in any pre-capitalist epoch. Culture, not economics, shapes people. And if economics undeniably shapes culture, it can be controlled without being cauterized.

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