What are we going to talk about tonight?
We're going to talk about utop– the Paradox of Utopia.
The paradox of Utopia. This is the perfect paradox that you go to Utopia and
you discover the best of all possible paradoxes.
And we're going to discover that – were would you discover that we wouldn't
So I thought we could start by talking about an example that William James
gives in this paper of his, What Makes a Life Significant?, where he talks
about this trip that he took to, like, some kind of planned community near
Chautauqua and he says, “I went there for a day but I stayed for a week.” And
it was this, like, ideal world of you know, various kinds of athletics,
society and, you know, perfectly run kindergarten, religious services,
perpetually running soda-water fountains, intellectual lectures, no poverty,
no drunkenness, no crime, no police, culture, kindness, cheapness, equality.
He writes, I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week held spell-bound
by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a
sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear. And yet, what was my
own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again to catch
myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! What a relief! Now
for something primordial and savage even though it were as bad as an Armenian
massacre to set the balance straight again.” OK. So…
All right. So…
He discovers a Utopia and then he finds it sickening, and he starts longing
for a massacre.
OK. So now, he's not the first person to maybe not be sure what he wanted,
that is to try something and thought it wasn't exactly what he wanted. So, but
we think there's something bigger at stake here than this one example. I mean,
you might think you like fish, and then you try some fish, and you don't like
that fish, right? But that's not a problem from our usual world view. So why
is it this particular example a bigger problem?
Right. So I mean, one thing is it's not just him, right? It's like a whole
bunch of people got together to make what seems like it would have to be the
perfect sort of community. And it's not that he didn't like it, right? He got
there and he liked it. He was going to stay for a day, he stayed for a week.
He enjoyed it. He found it, you know, pleasant in all the ways you would
predict someone would find something of that sort to be pleasant. And yet,
when he left, he felt this incredible relief.
So it wasn't complete in the sense that, you know, that's a nice part of the
world to have but like, often we go on vacation to places that we wouldn't
want to live. And that's not so puzzling. I might say, the problem here is
that if the idea of Utopia is hard to realize or even incoherent, that
suggests that we know a lot less than we might think we do about what we want.
It's not just some one person who found that one thing wasn't exactly what
they wanted and they also wanted something else. If in general, when we humans
try to imagine at least what we want, and then we find that imagining in more
detail tells us it isn't what we want, and we keep getting stuck that way, we
can't find a thing that we can imagine and say, “Yes, that's what I want.”
That suggests we have some deeper troubles with knowing what we want. We are
just in some sense wrong about what we want and deeply confused.
I mean, I wonder whether it isn't even worse than that. And I’m feeling one
step worse than that, which is that even if somebody who’s not a human being,
let's say, were to look at us and to study us, right, really objectively and
figure out what we actually do want, and then create a situation that
perfectly creates that for us and puts us in it, we probably wouldn't be happy
with that either.
OK. So, I mean, one theory is to say, well, we're not the sort of creatures
who can be happy with anything. Our lack of happiness isn't a lack of the
perfect situation. It's a lack of this being the sort of creature who could be
happy. That's just not who we are. We are just these creatures who will find
something to be complaining about everywhere, and we can't be satisfied.
Well, the sort of paradox of Utopia runs a little deeper than that though,
because you might think that then we can just get closer or farther from it,
right? And that James would be like, “You know, this is pretty awesome. It's
not as perfect as I thought it would be but I'd like to live in Chautauqua.”
But in fact, I mean, here's what sort of puzzling about it. Like, I think you
could imagine, you know, one thing he complains about is that there isn't
enough struggle, right? And like, you could imagine that they would just – the
people, the planners will be like, “Oh, I'm sorry, you know, we forgot to
include struggle in our perfect world. I mean, we had the soda-water fountains
and the intellectual lectures and the boating but we forgot the struggle. So
we'll include at least one hour of struggle per day for everyone, everyone
gets thrown into a pit for one hour a day, you got to struggle to get out or
whatever it is different kinds of struggle, right?” And they invite him back
and be like, “Look, now we added the struggling. Now, are you happy?” And I
think he would not be happy, even with the struggle added in. And I don’t
All right. So…
So why can't there be just a disconnect between what we want and what we
complain about? Why can't – it might just be that there is no world that we
wouldn't complain about, even if it's the best possible world. We just – we
like to complain and we do. And we're really, in some sense, happier when we
can complain, and we do feel justified.
But like, I guess I think that there's this weird way in which the way James
describes it that he was quite surprised by his reaction. Like, it wasn't as
though he wanted to complain to anyone, right? It was just he had this
reaction, almost like a physical reaction of just relief, where it's hard for
me not to believe that in having that reaction, he was responding veridically
in some sense to what he actually wanted. Namely, he actually wanted to be out
Right. So it is possible to know what you want. He learned what he wanted
through this reaction of being relieved that he was getting out of there. I
think it is sometimes possible to know what we want. What doesn't seem
possible is to construct a world that caters to every possible want. But it's
not just that it's impossible to do that. It's that those worlds are
positively distasteful to us. They're worse than the worlds. I mean, he was
comparing to like, a massacre. Massacre is really, really terrible, right?
That I think driven to the thought of a massacre, having been in this world,
suggests that when we try to construct – even though we do have some sense of
what we want, when we try to construct a world that perfectly caters to it, we
find that world abhorrent, not just imperfect, but abhorrent.
So let me suggest this somewhat supports the concept of hidden motives, that
is, our real motives are different from the motives we think we have. And we
often don't notice that because our stated motives are not achieved and we can
explain our unhappiness with our situation by saying, “Look, this is what I
want, and I'm not getting it. And that's why I'm unhappy.” And then sometimes
rarely, we do achieve and we do get what we say we want, and then we find that
we're not happy that, when that's the key data point that real life reveals to
us that we were wrong about what we wanted. And we are in that moment more
aware of what we really want. But it's a fleeting moment. And it'll go away as
quickly as we allow ourselves to distract ourselves from it. And then we will
be back to the situation of just being wrong about what we want. Might not
this all show that the plausibility of hidden motives, that we have an idea in
our head of what we want, we are – notice we’re unhappy and we attribute that
to not getting what we think we want. But perhaps in fact, we want something
different. And then a Utopia shows us more the conflict because it tries to
give us what we say we want, and we find that we're unhappy with it. And then
at that moment, we are more aware of what we really want. And in that moment,
we can then more pursue what we really want. But this awareness of what we
really want is ephemeral and quickly goes away. And so we can quickly return
to the usual world where we can complain about the usual things and blame them
for why we're unhappy.
So, that would suggest that we could construct a Utopia. It would just have to
be, as I said earlier, the scientist who studied hidden motives, who would be
in a position to construct the Utopia.
But we might not…
So you should be able to tell us whether Utopia…
But we might not be able to agree that that's an utopian until we are actually
willing to be exposed to and accept that we have hidden motives.
Why would we have to accept them? I mean, suppose I secretly desire X, right?
If I really do desire it, then if you give it to me, that will make me happy,
and then maybe I never need to notice that I even desired it or that my desire
No, I meant for you to admit that it is a Utopia, you might need to be aware
of your hidden motives. You might, in fact, be the most status satisfied in
that world, but you might not admit that or accept that fact, if you are in
denial about your actual motives. And it might be that in your favorite world,
in your favorite state, you complain a lot. And you loudly complain about how
this world isn't the best. And because that's in fact, part of what you like
about a world is your ability to do that. So more context for this whole
discussion, is the fact that we are now crazy rich compared to our ancestors
from a few centuries ago. And there's a sense in which from their point of
view, we are kind of close to Utopia. And then there's the fact that we are
not very satisfied with it, and that we complain a lot about it. And a
question is, maybe, how close are we to Utopia at the moment, compared to how
most people have ever – what most people have ever wanted? We'd have
relatively peace and prosperity and free time and health. And yet, we say it's
a terrible world and things are crashing, and all is terrible. And they
elected the wrong politician and so now everything will go to hell.
So I think that – I think that you're right that the unappealing nature of
Utopias, and of course, this isn't just James, right? It's like Plato tries to
construct the Utopia in the Republic, and nobody really likes it, even though
he tried to make it ideal. He's doing his best, you know, the Milton's
Paradise, but people like have famously not found descriptions of Utopias to
actually be that appealing. And I do think that that suggests that we don't
know what we want. I'm not sure it follows that we have hidden motives, I
mean, it may be that we just haven't figured out what we want yet. But that is
the – the idea of hidden motives suggests that there's a determinate fact of
the matter already about what we want, and it's just hidden from us. And the
other possibility is just we, you know, we're incoherent and we haven't like,
worked our way towards really wanting anything.
We're at least overconfident, right? So there is at least a surprise factor.
People have been surprised about how little we want to what we – the ideals
we've constructed. So at least suggests we thought we knew more than we did.
Right. Right. So I said, it's just that we don't know we want.
And not just that we don't know, that we thought we knew more than we do.
Yeah, I agree. But there's another thing that I like, I feel like that James
captures well, which is where I actually do think his experience gives you
some data about what you want and why it might not be able to be fulfilled in
a Utopia. So one thing is that a Utopia feels fake. Getting everything you
want feels like you're not living in the real world somehow. I think a lot of
you will have that response. And they don't want to live in Utopia. They don't
want to live in heaven. You know, there's the – what's that TV show where
they're all in heaven, but it's actually hell? The Good Place.
The Good Place. Right. There's something – it's hard for us to believe when
we're in a Utopia that we're in reality. We're inclined to infer from the fact
that everything is perfectly suited to us that we're in some kind of fake or
constructed or simulated world.
And these are about purported Utopias not necessarily actually Utopias, right?
These might not be true Utopias. They might not be actually giving us what we
Right. But one thing is these are – there are things – we don't have this,
it's a simulation feel about any environment we're in. We have it about
environments that seem like they're catering to our every desire.
Right. Although most of the simulated environments we can find in fiction are
usually designed to have even more conflict and drama than our usual life
…if we… that's the opposite kind of simulation that we usually encounter.
Well, it may be that the simulations are constantly striving for realism in
exactly that way. That like, if you think of like, video games or something,
there's often monsters in the video game world but the background is often
like flowers and you know, mountains, and waterfalls and stuff. And, like, I
remember somebody on Twitter had posted about The Lord of the Rings TV series,
you know, the new one? What was it called?
Rings of Power
Rings of Power. That there were waterfalls everywhere.
Which is like, they had invested in the tech to produce waterfalls, and they
were just going to throw them in everywhere.
So I think that there is, there is something where we can call it utopian or
something. We can recognize when a world has a utopian character, which is
it's the sort of world that would be catering to our every desire if we were
right about our desires, let's say, or something like that. And that those
worlds seem unreal to us.
So what about the hypothesis that the struggle is what we want, and that a
world where we've achieved things is not very appealing, because what we most
want to do is achieve things through struggle, and – but we need both of those
elements in the world to be what we want. And we're not willing so much to
admit that we really like the struggle, we like to pretend that we just are
trying to get the outcome.
So, I mean, James was very willing to admit that what was missing was the
struggle, right? So he wasn't like…
…self-deceived about that. He's like, the problem with this world is that it's
missing the struggle. But as I say, I think if I added struggle in, right,
well, you have to struggle for an hour a day, that would just, “Because we
added it in, in order to give you what you wanted, it would feel like fake
It would be fake struggle. That is, if what we want is to achieve – to get
what we want by struggle, that is not enough just to have get what we want and
struggle together, we need the connection between them, right? It has to be
that we got what we want due to the struggle.
Good. Right. So like…
That being in the pit for an hour doesn’t do it, right?
So let's say, you know, you don't get to go boating unless you wait on a long
line, so we can have a thing. It used to be you just got to go boating, but
now, you have to struggle first before you get to go boating. I think the
knowledge that that system was instituted in order to provide some needed
struggle achievement combo for people, would it completely undermine the, you
The fulfillment of that desire.
Well, because I think people would want both individual and collective
struggle to be effective. So here, you have the individual struggle, but you
have the opposite collective struggle that is somehow collectively we’re doing
the opposite of struggling to achieve things whereas struggling to prevent
things. And that would seem especially perverse that in one scale, we are
struggling to achieve things only because at another scale we had struggled to
prevent us from achieving things.
Well, at the other scale, we were struggling as planners of utopia to bring
about happiness, right? And we're like, “Look, these humans apparently they
don't like it if you just give them the happiness, they have to achieve the
happiness. So let's make them do that.” We're beneficent gods.
Right. But we would all know that we could have just achieved the happiness
more directly without adding the struggle so the struggle would seem fake.
We couldn’t – apparently we wouldn't be happy then. It wouldn’t be happiness.
We tried that, right? And we were unhappy. So like, that didn't work. But it
also doesn't work the other way, right? And it – But see, the thing is, I
think I mean your diagnosis, which is like, “Oh, we have these hidden
motives.” The reason why that doesn't strike me as giving a complete
explanation here is just actually we can make all this stuff pretty
transparent, and we still can't do it. Like even when we know about the hidden
motives, and even people will accept, “Yeah, I like struggling. I like
achieving things by means of struggling.” You make that happen in the Utopia
and people are like, “No, I don't like it anymore. I want it to happen outside
Well, but you're thinking of a kind of hidden motive where upon understanding
the true motives, you're OK with accepting that exposure, and then getting
what you now realize you want. But if what you want is to hide the motives,
you're just not happy in a world where you admit your actual motives, and then
actually achieve them in a direct and public way. If you wait – what you
really want is to have hidden motives and to keep them hidden, then you're not
happy in the world where your motives have been exposed and catered to.
OK. But like, I guess I think it's not the exposing, it’s the catering that's
the problem. That is if somehow there were just billboards everywhere in our
world, saying people like to achieve things by means of struggle or whatever
so we couldn't forget about that. Ah, I think people will be fine with that.
But it's the knowledge that these beneficent overlords have set up these
little pits for you to fall into so you can climb out of them, or these lines
for you to wait on, that the problem there isn't that you're being exposed or
that you're having to see something about yourself. The problem is that you
feel like that's not reality.
So it's worth noticing that a standard Christian theology is that, in fact,
God did make our world full of obstacles and struggles exactly to achieve his
perfect ends. And people are supposedly okay with that in Christian theology
that if God does it, it's OK. But if we do it, it's much more of a problem.
A lot of times, kids will get really angry at you when something they thought
was fortuitous, you actually planned it that way. To the point where my kids
will like, sometimes accuse me of planning stuff that I didn't plan. It really
was fortuitous but they’re so paranoid about the possibility that you planned
it that way. That they are, yeah, they're like on the lookout for it. And I
think kids are very sensitive to the possibility that they're living in a
constructed reality and the reality constructed by their parents. And this is
part of why they don't trust their parent’s praise, their parent’s approval,
they just think that's all bunch of lies. Like, “Oh, you did a great drawing,
Timmy, or something.” And he’s like, “Yeah, right. Of course, you always say
that.” So, and that's why it's so important to them, like what their peers say
or what their teachers say, so to speak, the people who aren't paid to approve
Like the parents, right?
But if God does this, it's OK.
It’s OK for God to construct your world to produce various struggles that you
then overcome and show you virtues of when things go wrong.
I think it's pretty important to that, I mean, you know, I'm not Christian so
I could be getting this really wrong. But I think it's pretty important to the
acceptability of that, that God is seen as being fundamentally inscrutable.
Right. So we talked about the sacred on a recent podcast, at least in the last
10 podcasts. And one of the principles of the sacred, or one of the correlates
of the sacredness and attitude is this idea that you don't choose or control
or construct the sacred. It is outside of your control, and you are
accommodating to it. And it more constructs you. And you might think that's
the norm we're invoking here. It's OK if our highest ideals are achieved by
struggle, as long as we don't construct the struggles, and they are
constructed by this outside sacred force that is inscrutable to us. But if we
are choosing it and constructing it, then we have made that profane and it's
no longer these sacred struggles. To be safe struggle, sacred struggles, the
struggles have to be created from outside of us, struggles that we encounter,
and created by perhaps an inscrutable God, but not by us.
It's a little hard, because I think the part of this story that is sacred is
more like the ideals that are in fact realized in the utopia. And it's somehow
the fact that they're realized too easily is what bothers us. I'm not sure we
do see struggle as sacred.
Well, let me add an argument to that, which is that a standard correlate of
many sacred things is the expectation a lot of sacrifice for them. And often,
the validation of people's, you know, connection to the sacred by their
sacrifice, that is, sacrifice is actually a pretty big part of the sacred.
Good, right. So I think the problem here is like we have these ideals, you
know, intellectual ideals, egalitarian ideals, ideals of like pleasure and
joy, et cetera, that are religious ideals, that are achieved in this world
Chautauqua in this, you know, planned community. We have all of that. But
people don't have to sacrifice in order to achieve the ideals. They don't have
to make sacrifices. And somehow, the fact that they don't have to make
sacrifices to achieve the ideals makes us think that they're not really
achieving them. So, yeah, I think that when we talk about struggle, I actually
think that that's really what it boils down to is sacrifice. It's a world
Right. It's not just a sacrifice, but that you were willing to make the
sacrifice. So an involuntary sacrifice doesn't count nearly as much. I think
it's important that you chose to make the sacrifice. And that's part of what
Right. And so one question would be, well, why can't we build sacrifice into
our Utopia? Right? Why is that – is that unthinkable that you would say to
people, “Look, in this Utopia, there's like, it's like Disney World, but there
are regions, right? And if you want to enter the religious region, you're
going to get whipped for a little while. And if you want to enter the
philosophy region, you're going to have to, you know, run a race or something.
And if you want to enter the boating region, you have to wait on a line. And
so we include sacrifice as part of the payment for entry into the various
It occurs to me that the usual debate over immortality is pretty close to this
discussion we're having now. That is, death seems terrible. And it would seem
wonderful to overcome death, except for the fact that we then imagine a world
where you live forever, and you're guaranteed to live forever and don't have
to struggle for it. And then we ask, what's the meaning of life that goes on
forever? And many people claim that a life that goes on forever couldn't
really be meaningful, because it's death that gives meaning.
Right, exactly. I think that is really similar. I think the idea that death
gives meaning is just a partner to the idea that Utopia is impossible. So
maybe that like one of the…
Or that sacrifice is essential to give the other kinds of achievements value.
Exactly. Right. And see that seems – that does seem to me to be different from
the hidden motives explanation, and much more plausible. That the issue here –
because I don't think we are so shy about our attraction to sacrifice.
But the people who made these idealistic communities, they didn't as a habit
design sacrifice and struggle into them.
So there's something hidden to some degree in utopian designers about that
element. It's not fully visible to them.
Good. And so maybe it's like, maybe there's something where there's a
characteristic mistake that you're going to make, right, as a designer.
Because like, on some level, what it is, is just designing this is just a
matter of getting all the relevant ideals into view, right? What is the ideal
society? Well, it's going to have boating and intellectual activity and soda
fountains. And… so that's going to be the ideal society, right? And then, of
course, because those ideals are so important to you, you'd be willing to
sacrifice all sorts of things in order to have them. In fact, the planners of
the city may have made really big sacrifices in order to bring that about,
right? Because they would recognize that, that it's worth it. But they're not
thinking about the fact that the inhabitants of the city also need to
sacrifice. They need to – it's like the inhabitants of the city won't feel
like they're pursuing the ideals unless they're sacrificing.
So if we’re confronting this directly, if we are now living in a utopia, to a
large degree without actually sacrificing that much for it, to what extent are
our lives actually impoverished compared to the ancients who sacrificed much
more to achieve the more modest world they had? But was their life more
meaningful? Were their victories more valid? Are we impoverished by our easy
Hmm. I think we definitely, like feel a little bit that when we raise, like
with raising kids, like we want them to struggle and suffer for their
successes, and when they do, in the cases where they're do, we really like,
lavish praise upon them. Right now, they've really earned it. So there's this
idea that you earned through suffering, good results. And we want children to
have – we want to teach children that lesson. So…
So, maybe, to a large extent, most of the actual ways in which we pay effort
in our world are needless attempts to show that we deserve our world by adding
extra suffering. That is, we go to school longer than we need to, and we
exercise more than we need to, and we, you know, pay for more medicine than we
need to. And maybe we suffer under wasteful bureaucracies with make-work more
than we need to and all in order to convince ourselves we deserve somewhat
this Utopia we live in.
Right, which it would all be worth it, right? I mean, we should add all that
extra suffering, if that's what it takes for us to enjoy the benefits because
otherwise the benefits are totally wasted on us. Right? So we may have to pay
some cost. The problem here is that it seems to me, like with a Utopia, we
wouldn't accept, we still wouldn't accept the utopia that I described where
there's like an entrance fee, right, for you know, a certain amount of torture
before you can get into the religious place and a certain amount of exertion
before you get into the philosophy place. Like if we modified it to include
sacrifice, it wouldn't – that wouldn't help. And so there's a question, why
does it help when we, in our world, if we modify it to add sacrifice?
Because we pretend we didn't add it. We pretend it's natural. And that's how
by hiding some things we can like our world better. We pretend you need to go
to all those years of school. And otherwise, you wouldn't actually be useful
later, when in fact, you would be useful later without all those years of
school, but you feel more justified having put all the years of school in and
by hiding the fact that it was constructed, we can avoid this irritation at a
simulated world. We are living in a simulated world, but we are hiding its
Hmm. But like what, I mean, if, in fact, we are not able to enjoy, you know,
all these various good things without sacrifice, and is if it really is a hard
limit on our ability to appreciate or enjoy life that we need to sacrifice.
And if we don't accept constructed sacrifice, that is we need the sacrifice to
somehow be externally imposed, which I'm actually I'm just wondering why
that's true. But OK, we should follow up on that. If all of that, then what
are we supposed to do once we get rich? What's the alternative to what we've
Well, you might think once we realize that, as we get rich, we won't let
ourselves enjoy our wealth, because we'll make sure we suffer to feel that we
justified than you might think there's less of a point to having fewer rich
people, as opposed to more poor people. We should just go wild making more
people, because they won't be that much less happy than the rich people we
would have made instead because, you know, we're not actually able to take
advantage of what it is to be happier. But we tell the opposite story about
our children, that we would feel terrible to have more kids that we could
lavish less attention on and put them through fewer years of school.
Right. So the idea would be we would have, you know, just as happy people, or
close to as happy people, if they were, you know, just barely surviving,
because they would be getting a lot of meaning out of their little triumphs of
staying alive another day or something.
And so a world of those people, you know, of many of those people would be
better than a smaller world of very rich people.
Right. So let's call it the anti-repugnant conclusion.
Right. So I guess I think, you know, in taking seriously James's reaction to
this Utopia, and in sort of imagining, intuitively imagining what it would be
like if we've, I'm imagining myself as in this Utopia, I'm imagining that I
would have a similar response to him. What I'm doing is taking my own
intuition seriously about what kind of a world I want to live in. And I just,
when I think about the world of the mass numbers of extremely poor people who
are just barely surviving, I just have a similar repugnance as I do to the
other world. So I'm not sure why I should take my repugnant seriously in the
one case and not in the other.
Right. So one standard explanation for a wide range of intuitions is that we
just think that all world substantially different from ours are repugnant. We
just grew up in one world and we're comfortable with that world and everything
else at least seen from a distance seems wrong. And we really only can like a
world if we live in it for a while and see it up close and described
abstractly, even our world will repel us except we don't think about it
abstractly, we see it concretely. And therefore, we hardly know anything about
what different worlds we would like, until we go live in them.
Yeah, a great example of that is just a thought experiment in a philosophy
paper in which the person imagines, you know, imagines a group of people who
don't mourn. Like when their loved one dies, they just move on and they find
someone else like they, literally the next minute, they're just completely
happy. They have no persisting sadness over any kind of loss, including loss
of an arm or leg, loss of their livelihood, they feel nothing, right? And most
people, when you think about that world, you think like, that's terrible.
Like, I don't want to live in that world, I don't want to live in the world
where if I die, my spouse or my parents would just be completely fine the next
day, right? But then you say, OK, what about the, you know, in the world we
actually live in, people mourn for about three months, right?
That's the average for most loved ones, like spouses, et cetera. And it – but
it's also true for like, missing limbs or stuff like that, like people are
upset for about three months, and then they get over it. And so now imagine a
world where instead of three months, it's like, 30 years, right? And there's
just if you, you know, if your loved one dies, like…
When a brother or a sister dies, for 30 years, you're an abject misery over
that. And we're also like, “No, I don't want that, that seems terrible. 30
years, that's way too long, right?” And so somehow, we've set our amount as
like the perfectly correct amount, and everything else would be would be
horrible. And that does suggest maybe on some level, we think we are living in
So in my book, The Age of Em, when these issues come up, I introduce that
chapter with a quote from Herodotus, basically, to the effect that even he
noticed, you know, thousands of years ago that basically every society he came
across thought that their customs and practices were the best, and that other
societies were wrong and just had the wrong customs, right? That that's just a
wide, a long observed thing, right? Most cultures think their way is the best.
And this is true, not just about whole societies, but even subcultures, like
within academia, you know, philosophy has different habits than economists or
physicists, and probably each one of them think that their habits are the
best, and the other disciplines are doing it wrong.
Right. I mean, I thought – so I'm probably, I can't remember because it's been
a long time. But I thought that that was the passage of Herodotus, where he
talks about the different practices about the dead. Like, some people bury
their dead, and some people burn their dead, and you know, some people eat
their dead. But the, you know, the sort of striking thing about the passage is
that every group does something with their dead. That is, so all of these
beings are different from the ones I was imagining where they just, like,
throw them in the trash, like, they don't care at all.
So yeah, I think there are these cultural differences and then we live in a
world where we're so immersed in alternative cultures that we are quite
tolerant, we tend to be quite tolerant of them, actually, I think. And think,
oh, yeah, it's fine that, you know, some people take their shoes off when they
come in house, some well don't take their shoes off, whatever. But…
So this is an even more striking puzzle of our whole question here. If people
are usually so confident that their culture is different, is better than the
other ones that do it different, how is it that they can't imagine that they
live in Utopia? Why don't they see themselves as living in Utopia?
Maybe everybody sees themselves as living in a near Utopia. Like, if just a
few things would be fixed or something, you know, how, like everybody always
wants to be a little bit richer?
Right. With say, a factor two, factor two for anybody would be enough.
Yeah, exactly. Right. And so that suggests that they think that would be
Utopia, right, if they had twice as much well. And so for everybody, a Utopia–
maybe it's important to us to think that a utopia is within reach. Like, we
would have the perfect life, if only these five changes were made. I often get
through the week that way, like I think, what do I have to get done this week?
What has to happen, you know, and it's like, if only, if only I can read
through all these files and if only I can do this, and if only I can do this,
then my life will be perfect. Right?
Right. It's certainly true that on a daily scale, we pick achievable goals,
and we tell ourselves, “I'll be happy at the end of the day, if I get these
goals achieved, and that'll be enough, I don't have to fix everything in the
world or in my life, I just have to make a couple changes.”
Right. So there's something kind of threatening about the idea of an
unachievable utopia, right? Where it's like, forget it, your life's going to
suck, you know, because this – the really good life would be in this other
world that you.
Well, one that will take thousands of years to achieve, right? If Utopia will
only be achieved thousands of years ago by our descendants, but between now
and then we'll have to suffer a lot.
Right. Right. So maybe the concept of Utopia is doing some kind of local
motivating work for everybody, so that it's like a carrot or something that we
dangle in front of ourselves, like this week's Utopia or something. And that's
why it doesn't work to just be like, “Well, let's construct it in the abstract
and then imagine living in it.” That's very jarring, it's like taking a
concept that you have a certain practical use for and then, you know, doing
something else with it.
And I want to follow this on because I think it's related. So, another topic
we may do as a podcast is the different planning versus sort of adaptation
topic. And so we might say that many of our high level goals are actually more
being used functionally as sort of local adaptation metrics, or heuristics
rather than actually things we'd want to achieve. And that's related to one of
my observations about my story of the sacred end values. And so just to
elaborate for a minute, I said that basically, in this physical space, if you
see two objects close to you in space, it's relatively easy to tell which one
is closer and which one's farther and which one's bigger and which one's
smaller. But when you see two objects very far away, it's harder to tell the
relative sizes, distances. And that, that may also be true in some sort of a
value space, that is, for modest, achievable goals, we are better able to, you
know, rank them and compare them and sort of integrate them into a plan for
the day. But when we talk about these big grand goals about democracy, and you
know, understanding everything, they are at such a distance from our immediate
plans and experiences that we find it hard to really compare them or rank them
or weigh them together into an integrated plan. We just don't really know how
to think about our big goals, because we're not in the habit of actually
making plans, useful plans with them. They're just more a projection of our
shorter scale goals. And what we really know how to do is to motivate
ourselves each day to get stuff done. And we don't really know that much how
to plan a whole civilization or even a whole lifetime, we hardly ever do that
and we're not very good at it. And you shouldn't trust our – things we say
about such things very much.
Yeah, but it also may be that when we imagine ourselves in such a world, or
even, in fact, find ourselves in such a world as James did, that there's a
kind of sickening feeling of being unable to motivate yourself, right? Because
we're used to using the concept of Utopia to motivate ourselves. And maybe
that's some of the work that's being done by the idea of the struggle is
absent. Some of what we mean by struggle is like, planning for how to make the
future better than the present. And if you don't need to do that in that
world, then it's kind of like we don't know how to think about how to get
through our day.
Right. So a hypothesis here maybe to consider is that we have these two
concepts. One is how we plan, or strategize, or decide, and the other is what
our goals are. So we usually think that goals are primary and planning or
strategizing, or deciding is secondary. That is, we think about different ways
to decide, or plan, or to strategize as a heuristic way to calculate whose
justification is because it will let us achieve these goals we have. But you
might flip that around and say, “No, what we mainly have is ways to decide or
plan or choose. And what we're most confident in is, is our practices and
habits of planning and choosing. And within that we have a way to talk about
our goals, but that's secondary. In fact, we only really can plan and choose
with relatively near concrete versions of our goals. Those are the things that
show up in our choices, in our plans, typically. And when we talk about, you
know, the grand goals of, you know, immortality or peace and prosperity or
whatever, we're projecting these near things we understand to a much longer
distance away where we don't really understand them very well and don't have
very, you know, well thought out thoughts about them.
Right. And so that, I mean, I guess that could explain something like why
something like cryonics would not have many customers. Because it would
require like, you know, the thought, do we actually want immortality? Do we
want to live past our deaths? It may be that a lot of the like, so to speak,
long-term planning that we do about our goals, that what looks like long-term
planning about our goals, is actually really more short-term planning that…
…has a kind of habitual or cultural form that will lead to long term success.
Right. So if we look at things in our society that look like long term
planning on people's parts, like choosing to have children, or choosing to go
to college, or say, getting a mortgage in the house, those are often justified
and explained in terms of long-term plans. But I think for each of them, you
can say, “Well, what's really going on as people are executing a short-term
strategy.” People don't go to college, because they make a long life plan
about college. They go to college, because everybody else is going to college
when it's time to go to college. And their parents would tell him to go to
college. So they just execute the near term plan, right? Or even having
children. People don't necessarily plan for what the kids will be like in 20
years. They right now feel like they'd like to have some kids right now. And
they have the kids right now in order to experience the childhood right now.
Right. So what I'm interested in is what are the things where you would need
to do long-term planning in order to achieve them, right, within your life?
And it seems to me, cryonics is one example, right?
That is, it would be I mean, maybe…
And investment is another one, like…
… the people who signed up for it, did it because their friends did or
Right. I think that's actually true. I mean, another classic example might be
saving for retirement.
You might say, well, we just wouldn't be in the habit of saving for
retirement, retirement is decades away. And it would just be habits of saving
at all, that would be saving you, that would be achieving things. So you might
just say, “Look, this habit of buying a house instead of renting is a habit
that induces people to have more money at retirement.” And, you know, we can
praise it for that purpose, we might say, “The reason people buy a house
instead of renting is not usually to save for retirement, it's because that
seems to put them in more control and it seems to be higher status, and you
can get in better neighborhoods that way or something.” And, again, we're not
actually planning for retirement, we are doing things that make sense in the
So let's say that there's like certain things where they're very good, but
they only exist as a result of long-term planning of some kind, or they're
essentially long-term by their nature, like universities, right?
They're long lasting long-term institutions. How… how do we…
How did that happen?
I mean, the story would have to be it was an accidental side effect of other
things, right? That are anything that lasts a long time in the world would
happen to exist, because, you know, people created lots of things, some were
short-lived, some were long-lived. They created them for other reasons. But
then the long-lived things lasted longer. And that's what we see.
So it would make sense, if that's right. And so if there are, then these just
these good accidental byproducts of short-term thinking, right, that we're
left with, that we would feel like very invested in preserving those things,
that we'd have a certain kind of, it's like, “Look, if we're not going to, if
we're not going to be able to think ahead, at least we can preserve the good
things that we've landed with, right? So like, for instance, the preservation
of historical districts or historical buildings, or the preservation of
universities, not increasing them too big, with the worry that they would be
destroyed if they were increased too big, like to protect these things from
these pressures, from economic pressures too.
I mean in some sense this was the traditional conservative world view. That
is, traditional conservatives said, “Look, we've inherited marriage and
religion and sort of a limited state.” And, you know, they were wary of
changing that. And in some sense, the people on the other side says, “Look, we
have these arguments why– and we'd rather like, you know, have divorce
instead, and maybe deficit spending, and maybe less investment in the military
and less religion.” And they said, “Look, these things seemed like good ideas
now, and you're just giving us some mystical story about how what we see is
some great things due to reasons we don't understand.” And they said, “We
don't believe that. Let's do get the things we can see we want.”
Right. So this would be an argument against long-termism and against futurism.
The thought would be, “Look, we're just not good at thinking about the
long-term future. That's just something our brains are not designed to do. We
will screw it up for sure.” One thing we can do is recognize good things when
they're right in front of us. And so what we should be and we should have
extreme like status quo bias, we should be like, “If there's any good stuff
around you, sacrifice a lot to preserve it and keep it, and just hope that
accidentally good stuff will arise in the future and then we'll sort of keep
that stuff too. But don't try to think too far ahead.”
Well, you might more say let's keep the stuff that's lasted, so you wouldn't
necessarily want to keep everything, if some of it was ephemeral and short
term. This would be more heuristic about like, giving a priority to stuff
that's lasted a long time.
Right. So you'd be like Paris or something. You know, Paris has lasted a city,
I mean, it's been pretty long lasting. And so you might be like, don't put
high rises in Paris, or something. Take Harvard, that's lasted a pretty long
Don't expand it too much, because you might ruin it. Right? So this would be
like a conservative impulse. And so the thought would be that, this insight
about our defect when it comes to Utopianism could constitute a kind of
argument against the attempt to do long-term thinking.
But it's not just long-termism. It's mostly the entire sort of modern liberal
order, basically, which is feels relatively free to old things when they think
they have an argument for something new. Like, again, you know, allowing
divorce to be easier, getting rid of state religion, having a larger state…
Right. I agree.
…get – settling, not having war, even like, one of the most, strongest modern
projects in which many people agree is that there was too much war in the
past. And we should be happy that we have cut way back on war. And then you
can make arguments, “No, look at all the bene– war was giving the world a lot
of benefits. And you've thrown that all away.”
That was the first thing that James went to was like some nice, juicy
massacre, right? So that's like, that's the feeling of living in reality is
like a political turmoil and war. So I think that that's right. I think that
there's kind of physical conservatism. It's interesting that these things
don't tend to go together, right? So physical conservatism and moral
conservatism, like so you could be conserving buildings and institutions,
which would often be a matter of making sure they don't grow too big, making
sure they don't change too much, making sure the city basically changes, stays
like the same size. So have like a lot of building regulation and stuff to
make sure that it doesn't change too quickly. That will be like on the one
hand. And then there's the moral conservativism of here's the way that we've
done things for a long time, we've had marriage, we've had, you know,
traditional gender roles, we've had war. And then we should like basically
continue with those things because they've worked.
If we care about the long-term future, but now I mean, you will need some form
of long-termism to underlie this overall argument, right? Some people may well
say, I don't care about the long-term future, it looks like I'll be happier
today if we get rid of, you know, if we let divorce be easier, if we stop
having war, at least for the next 50 years it'll be great. Let's just do that.
It's somehow, it's paradoxical, right? That the person who cares about the
long-term future is going to be the one who says we have to conserve and keep
things the way they have been in the past. It's certainly not the way that
long-termists nowadays mostly talked, right. So there would be this weird
character– we've been we've created a new weird character, right? The
traditional long-termist, who thinks for the sake of the long-term future, we
have to be like hardcore conservatives about physical space and about moral
They weren't called long-termists, but this was a classic conservative
position over the last century. This idea that we've lasted this long because
of things we've inherited, and we should be careful about changing.
Chesterton's fence, for example. I mean, Chesterton's fence argument is an
implicitly long-term argument. It says, there's a fence here, and you don't
know why it's here, you should leave it because eventually you'll need it.
That eventually is part of the argument. If you said, “Well, I don't care
about the future, the fence is in my way right now I want the fence out of the
way, let's just do that.” And the counter argument has to say, “But you care
about the future.”
Yeah, yeah, that's right. That makes sense. Yeah, I mean, I guess I had never,
I haven't understood that conservative argument to be a kind of
future-directed argument. But I guess it's not – it hasn't, it hasn't ever
been pitched to me that way. But I can see that it could be pitched that way.
Because I think that a lot of conservatives, the way they tend to pitch it is
something like a kind of romance, a kind of romantic – it's like Hesiod, you
know, Hesiod has this idea of these generations where there was the golden
heroes, and then the next there was like the silver ones, and every generation
it gets worse. And we've now degraded and we need to go back. And so that's
not quite the same as we have to preserve the things that have worked because,
like I think the problem with divorce and war and traditional gender roles,
like a lot of those ships have kind of sailed and that we've already lost
those things. We just already too many of us don't care about them. And so
those norms are no longer the norms that are governing people. It's like
trying to rebuild the castle that we've destroyed rather than save the castle.
So it might be that it's too late. So, there’s this…
Yeah, like I've often heard conservatives as more just like complaining
constantly that it's too late, actually, more than wanting to preserve
So there's this all four-line story of history, which starts out like, you
know, strong men make good times, good times make weak men, weak men make bad
times, bad times make strong men, strong men make good times sort of, you
know, cycle of decadence story, right? And according to that story, we're
partly through, right? We're already in the weak times, and the weak men. And
we're going to suffer the costs of our previous lack of conservatism.
Right. And according to that story, there's no need to be a conservative
because it's built in to the cycle, right? So we're all set. We can't fail,
because failure is part of the success, right?
Although, I mean, the implication is that you could slow it down a bit maybe.
Maybe at the moment when the strong men are being replaced by weak men in the
good times you should slow down that replacement so that you will not go as
fast into the bad times.
Yeah, maybe. I mean, I wonder what are the effects of the slow downers on the
process, right? Maybe it will accelerate because people are trying to slow
down and other people are rebelling against this. OK, we've gone for an hour.
We have. And I think we've – I think we found some insight. So thanks for