The problem with utopia

In the third subsection of Chapter 10 of ASU (pp. 309-312), Nozick provides two additional reasons why a universal utopia for everyone is an impossible fantasy. The first reason is “the fact that people are different” and have different values (p. 309). (And even when our values overlap, we assign different weightings to the values we may share!) The other reason is the ubiquity of trade offs. Unless we postulate a magic wand that allows us to summon manna from heaven, not all goods can be realized simultaneously, so trade-offs will have to be made, even in utopia! Moreover, as Nozick correctly notes (p. 312), “there is little reason to believe that one unique system of trade-offs will command universal assent. Different communities, each with a slightly different mix, will provide a range from which each individual can choose that community which best approximates his balance among competing values.”

Although the idea of one best society for everyone to live in is a delusion, Nozick does not abandon his search for utopia. Instead, he draws the following original conclusion (pp. 311-312, emphasis in original):

“The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.”

This is Nozick at his finest. A universal one-size-fits-all utopia is a fantasy; a meta-utopia is not. Alas, this meta-utopian vision reraises an old question: how will conflict among these utopias be resolved, and who will resolve them? Also, why doesn’t the logic of trade offs apply to the choice of our utopian values as well? For example, what other goods–such as bodily safety and the keeping of peace, cf. Hobbes–do we have to give up if we want to maximize liberty, as Nozick does? We will proceed with our review of the remainder of Chapter 10 of ASU in our next post.

Image result for trade offs
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2 Responses to The problem with utopia

  1. Kathy H says:

    Interesting analysis but I think the outcome was obvious from the beginning.

    • True, but notice there is a also a “non-obvious” part of Nozick’s theory of utopia: the possibility of multiple utopias with free exit rights in each one. I will elaborate on this part of Nozick’s theory in my next post later this evening.

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