What is Utopia? The Meta-Utopian Argument

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.

They often imagine some squalid commune — like B.F. Skinner in Walden 2 — in which conformity is bred into citizens through perfected social engineering.

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.

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.

For Nozick, a utopia is the best of all possible worlds. But what does that mean?

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.

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.

Utopia: A world W is utopian just in case it is stable.

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.

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.

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.

(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.

It is an overarching institutional framework that allows people to create and join associations that are governed by their own preferred values.

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.

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.

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 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 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.