Unit Overview

In our last week, we turn to thinking about the prospects for creating a utopia. Is a world free of war, violence, and scarcity possible? We consider the actual state of extreme poverty relative to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We consider whether it is possible or likely that humanity can leave in a state of peace in which state violence and interpersonal violence is a thing of the past. And lastly, we consider an article advocating for a universal basic income as a way of reclaiming the future in which people live a life of comfort while only work 15 hours a week that was predicted over a hundred years ago.

Lastly, we consider a short excerpt from Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons where he suggests that human history may just be beginning and the role that moral philosophy may play in the future of humanity.


Kant’s Perpetual Peace

Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace examines what it might take to bring about a world in which war is a thing of the past.

“In Toward Perpetual Peace, Kant argues that stable peace can come only when all the nations of the earth are such republics, governed by citizens who see the security of their property obtaining only under the universal rule of law rather than by proprietary rulers who can always see a neighboring state as a potential addition to their own personal property. But in Kant’s view even a worldwide federation of republics cannot guarantee world peace: such a federation provides the necessary conditions for peace, but peace can only be realized and maintained by the free choice of all those politicians governing the republics—the “moral politicians”—to do so.”

Step 1: Preliminary Articles

“Kant presents his scheme for the necessary conditions of perpetual peace as if it were a treaty. Its first part comprises “preliminary articles for perpetual peace among states” which would reduce the probability of warfare even among states that are not yet true republics. These preliminary articles preclude peace treaties with secret reservations, acquisition of states as if they were private property, standing armies, the incurrence of national debt for purposes of foreign adventures, interference with the constitution or politics of other states, and in general all acts of hostility that would “make mutual trust impossible.”

Step 2: An Actual Federation of Republican Governments

“The “definitive articles” for perpetual peace, however, require not just the avoidance of provocations but the permanent institution of a federation of republican governments, whose citizens always have the right to hospitality from foreign governments but not the right to colonize or dominate other states.”

Federation vs. One World Government

Kant’s insistence upon republican governments throughout the world may be an expression of his idealism, but his insistence upon a federation of such governments rather than a single world-government is a sign of his realism: he thinks a single world-government would just be too big to govern by republican means and would inevitably degenerate into a tyranny. He argues that we may think of differences of language and religion as providential provisions of nature to make a single-world government impossible, while the spread of trade and its need for respect for rights of property and exchange across national borders should inevitably encourage internationalism.

The Importance of Moral Politicians

“But, Kant insists, even a “race of devils” could figure out the necessity of both the preliminary and definitive articles for world peace, and then feign compliance with them while secretly attempting to subvert them when they think that is in their own interest. Only moral politicians will decide always to observe these articles, not merely when seeming to do so is in their own short-term interest but when really doing so is in the long-term interest of everyone throughout the world.”

Assessing Kant in view of Current Events:

“Political scientists sometimes argue that Kant’s scheme for perpetual peace has been undermined by the subsequent course of history, which apparently offers numerous examples of republics making war upon one another. But to this objection, two replies should be made. First, it is far from clear whether even in modem times there has ever been a war between two polities that do not merely call themselves republics but really do satisfy Kant’s own highly stringent definition of a republic. Certainly the existence of a legislature did not make the Germany of 1914 a true republic (while the continued existence of a monarchy might not have prevented the Britain of the same period from more fully approximating the ideal of a true republic). Second, it must always be remembered that Kant never argues that even a worldwide federation of republics makes permanent peace necessary; his view is rather that only such a federation makes permanent peace even possible. Kant’s final word, after all, is that human beings have free will, and no matter what remain free to choose to do what is right, but equally free, alas, to choose evil over good.”

“A state of peace among men living together is not the same as the state of nature, which is rather a state of war. For even if it does not involve active hostilities, it involves a constant threat of their breaking out. Thus the state of peace must be formally instituted, for a suspension of hostilities is not in itself a guarantee of peace. And unless one neighbour gives a guarantee to the other at his request (which can happen only in a lawful state), the latter may treat him as an enemy.”

The path to achieving perpetual peace is analogous to how we go from a state of nature to a social contract. Right now we are in a state of nature regarding international relations because there is no international social contract.

First Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace: The Civil Constitution of Every State shall be Republican

“A republican constitution is founded upon three principles: firstly, the principle of freedom for all members of a society (as men); secondly, the principle of the dependence of everyone upon a single common legislation (as subjects); and thirdly, the principle of legal equality for everyone (as citizens). It is the only constitution which can be derived from the idea of an original contract, upon which all rightful legislation of a people must be founded. Thus as far as right is concerned, republicanism is in itself the original basis of every kind of civil constitution”

Why a Republican Government will lead to peace

The republican constitution . . . offers a prospect of attaining the desired result, i.e. a perpetual peace, and the reason for this is as follows. —If, as is inevitably the case under this constitution, the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war is to be declared, it is very natural that they will have great hesitation in embarking on so dangerous an enterprise. For this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war, such as doing the fighting themselves, supplying the costs of the war from their own resources, painfully making good the ensuing devastation, and, as the crowning evil, having to take upon themselves a burden of debt which will embitter peace itself and which can never be paid off on account of the constant threat of new wars. But under a constitution where the subject is not a citizen, and which is therefore not republican, it is the simplest thing in the world to go to war. For the head of state is not a fellow citizen, but the owner of the state, and a war will not force him to make the slightest sacrifice so far as his banquets, hunts, pleasure palaces and court festivals are concerned. He can thus decide on war, without any significant reason, as a kind of amusement, and unconcernedly leave it to the diplomatic corps (who are always ready for such purposes) to justify the war for the sake of propriety.

Repubican vs. Democratic

Democracy is a kind of despotic form of government because one single entity has all the power. IN a republican system of government there is a separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers.

“We can therefore say that the smaller the number of ruling persons in a state and the greater their powers of representation, the more the constitution will approximate to its republican potentiality, which it may hope to realise eventually by gradual reforms. . . if the mode of government is to accord with the concept of right, it must be based on the representative system. This system alone makes possible a republican state, and without it, despotism and violence will result no matter what kind of constitution is in force.”

Second Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace: The Right of Nations shall be based on a Federation of Free States

“Peoples who have grouped themselves into nation states may be judged in the same way as individual men living in a state of nature, independent of external laws; for they are a standing offence to one another by the very fact that they are neighbours. Each nation, for the sake of its own security, can and ought to demand of the others that they should enter along with it into a constitution, similar to the civil one, within which the rights of each could be secured. This would mean establishing a federation of peoples.”

“We look with profound contempt upon the way in which savages cling to their lawless freedom. They would rather engage in incessant strife than submit to a legal constraint which they might impose upon themselves, for they prefer the freedom of folly to the freedom of reason. We regard this as barbarism, coarseness, and brutish debasement of humanity. We might thus expect that civilised peoples, each united within itself as a state, would hasten to abandon so degrading a condition as soon as possible. But instead of doing so, each state sees its own majesty (for it would be absurd to speak of the majesty of a people) precisely in not having to submit to any external legal constraint, and the glory of its ruler consists in his power to order thousands of people to immolate themselves for a cause which does not truly concern them, while he need not himself incur any danger whatsoever.”

“Although it is largely concealed by governmental constraints in law-governed civil society, the depravity of human nature is displayed without disguise in the unrestricted relations which obtain between the various nations.”

“The way in which states seek their rights can only be by war, since there is no external tribunal to put their claims to trial. But rights cannot be decided by military victory, and a peace treaty may put an end to the current war, but not to that general warlike condition within which pretexts can always be found for a new war. And indeed, such a state of affairs cannot be pronounced completely unjust, since it allows each party to act as judge in its own cause.”

“Yet while natural right allows us to say of men living in a lawless condition that they ought to abandon it, the right of nations does not allow us to say the same of states. For as states, they already have a lawful internal constitution, and have thus outgrown the coercive right of others to subject them to a wider legal constitution in accordance with their conception of right. On the other hand, reason, as the highest legislative moral power, absolutely condemns war as a test of rights and sets up peace as an immediate duty. But peace can neither be inaugurated nor secured without a general agreement between the nations; thus a particular kind of league, which we might call pacific federation (foedus pacificum), is required. It would differ from a peace treaty (pactum pacis) in that the latter terminates one war, whereas the former would seek to end all wars for good. This federation does not aim to acquire any power like that of a state, but merely to preserve and secure the freedom of each state in itself, along with that of the other confederated states, although this does not mean that they need to submit to public laws and to a coercive power which enforces them, as do men in a state of nature. It can be shown that this idea of federalism, extending gradually to encompass all states and thus leading to perpetual peace, is practicable and has objective reality. For if by good fortune one powerful and enlightened nation can form a republic (which is by its nature inclined to seek perpetual peace), this will provide a focal point for federal association among other states. These will join up with the first one, thus securing the freedom of each state in accordance with the idea of international right, and the whole will gradually spread further and further by a series of alliances of this kind.”

The UN Goals and Where we are At

There are two charts that help show were we are at in terms of the levels of poverty and what has been happening in recent history. Here is the first:

What this chart shows is that at the start of the industrial revolution almost everyone in the world lived in extreme poverty. At the start of the 1900s that number was over 80%, but over the past 100 or so years that number is now down all the way below 10%. The decline has been particulary rapid in the past 30 or so years going from around 35% to just under 10% in 2015, which is absolutely staggering.

Here is one more that might explain why it doesn’t feel like extreme poverty decreasing rapidly:

This chart shows whose income has increased and by what percentage from 1988-2008. What you can see is that most people’s income has actually gone up in this period. Although the bottom 10% of the world’s population didn’t really see their income go up and the people in the top 80-90% didn’t really see their income go up. Those people in the top 80-90% are the “middle class” in the US and Europe. In this period their income did not increase. So while income is going up for most people around the world, the MIddle class in the developed world hasn’t gone up.

The United Nations has set a goal as part of their Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. It is hard to overstate how amazing that is. Within a few short years extreme poverty may literally be a thing of the past. Thus far it looks like we may only get down to about 5% by 2030, but even if that is true, extreme poverty will almost certainly be eliminated sometime shortly after 2030.

That being said, eliminating extreme poverty is not the same as eliminating poverty. Poverty rates in the US are extremely high yet very few of those poeple are living in extreme poverty as defined by less than 1 or 2 dollars a day. Now let’s consider what it would take to completely eliminate poverty, not just extreme poverty.

John Quiggan “The Golden Age”

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.

He predicted

  • a future of leisure for all
  • a separation of work from survival
  • a golden age

Malthus predicted that as prosperity increased populations would also increase which would keep the majority of people in poverty

  • He was against contraception for moral reasons

The 19th century saw an increase in production, an increase in work, estimated at 60 hrs per week, but mass poverty.

Most economists in the 19th century agreed with Malthus, except Marx.

By the late 19th century Malthus was being proven wrong. People were having smaller families and the middle class was growing.

“The relatively novel idea of progress — that the natural tendency of human affairs was to get better rather than worse — rapidly became part of ‘common sense’.”

Then things started to really change:

“The working class had more compelling reasons to hope for better things. Over decades of struggle, workers clawed back the ground they had lost and then some. The Factory Acts outlawed child labour in Britain, and by 1870 all children in England and Wales were entitled to at least an elementary education. The hours of work were limited by legislation and union action. The eight-hour day, a norm that is still under challenge 150 years later, was first achieved by Melbourne stonemasons in 1855, though it was not established more generally, even in Australia, until the early 20th century. The weekend, making Saturday as well as Sunday a day of leisure, came even later, around the middle of the 20th century in most developed countries.”

“The idea that a combination of technological progress and political reform could produce a genuine utopia became an appealing alternative to the ‘pie in the sky’ of an afterlife.”

Numerous books were written about this future golden age:

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888)

Oscar Wilde’s The Sould of Man Under Socialism (1891)

Marx and Engels’ The German Idealogy (1846)

But they didn’t have an economic theory to support their ideas.

Keynes did:

“He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century. Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less.”

Throughout the middle of the 20th century it seemed that Keynes was right. The rise of the social democratic welfare state had begun to make extreme poverty and destitution a distant memory for most. People expected to retire at 65. Etc. Most people felt they could change their job if they found it too unsatisfactory .

But progress was halted.

“How did this reversal come about, and is there any possibility that Keynes’s vision will be realised?”

“The first of these questions is easily answered. The economic turmoil of the ’70s put an end to the utopianism of the ’60s, and resulted in the resurgence of a hard-edged version of capitalism, variously referred to as neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus. I have used the more neutral term ‘market liberalism’ to describe this set of ideas.”

“The central theoretical tenet of market liberalism is the efficient (financial) markets hypothesis. In the strong form that is most relevant to policy decisions, the hypothesis states that the prices determined in markets for financial assets such as shares, bonds and their various derivatives are the best possible estimates of the value of those assets.

In the core ideology of market liberalism, the efficient markets hypothesis is combined with the claim that the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer. This claim is rarely spelt out explicitly by its advocates, so it is best known by its derisive label, the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis.

Taken together, the efficient markets hypothesis and the trickle down hypothesis lead us in the opposite direction to the one envisaged by Keynes. If these hypotheses are true, the mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets are not merely justified: they are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us. The investments that generate technological progress will, on this view, only be made if they are guided by financial markets driven by the desire to make unimaginable fortunes.”

“This experience makes it clear that, if Keynesian social democracy is to regain the dominant position it held from the end of Keynes’s own lifetime until the ’70s, it must offer more than a technocratic lever to stabilise the economy. We need a vision of a genuinely better society. For this reason, the time is right to re-examine Keynes’s vision of a future where economic scarcity, real or perceived, no longer dominates life as it does today.”

Keynes didn’t consider the whole world:

“So, taking the entire world into account only defers the estimated end of scarcity by 30 years, to 2060 — within the expected lifetime of my children.”

He didn’t consider housework and children.


The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

A Universal Basic Income:

There remains the question of how to move from a revitalised social democracy to the kind of utopia envisaged by Keynes. It would be absurd to spell out a detailed transitional program, but it’s useful to think about one of the central elements of such a society — a guaranteed minimum income.

In one sense, a guaranteed minimum income involves little more than a re-labelling of the existing benefits provided by all modern welfare states (with the US, as always, a notable exception). In most modern welfare states, everyone is eligible for income support which should be sufficient to prevent them from falling into poverty. Those who cannot work because of age or disability are automatically entitled to such support, while unemployed workers receive either insurance benefits related to their previous wages or some basic allowance conditional on job search.

In a post-scarcity society, everyone would be guaranteed an income that yielded a standard of living significantly better than poverty, and this guarantee would be unconditional. The move from a near-poverty benefit subject to eligibility conditions to a liveable, guaranteed minimum income would require both an increase in productivity, such that a smaller number of workers could produce an adequate income for all, and some fairly radical changes in social attitudes.

It seems clear enough that technological progress can generate the necessary productivity gains, so what is needed most is a change in attitudes to work that would make a guaranteed minimum income socially sustainable

The Future:

This brings us to the final, really big question. Supposing a Keynesian utopia is feasible, will we want it? Or will we prefer to keep chasing after money to buy more and better things?

An escape from what Keynes called ‘the tunnel of economic necessity’ is still open to us. Yet it will require radical changes in the economic structures that drive the chase for money and in the attitudes shaped by a culture of consumption. After decades of finance-driven capitalism, it takes an effort to recall that such changes ever seemed possible. . . Popular anger has boiled over in a string of electoral defeats for the advocates of austerity. But, unlike the right-wing tribalism that has formed part of that backlash, progressive politics cannot, in the end, rely on anger. It must offer the hope of a better life. That means reclaiming utopian visions such as that of Keynes.

Universal Basic Income


Automation and Universal Basic Income

Andrew Yang is a democratic candidate for president running in 2020 on the platform of providing a universal basic income of 1000 dollars to all US citizens.

He believes that automation is changing our economy making a universal basic income necessary. Below is a video that is several years old showing how automation is going to change the economy creating massive unemployment.

The first UBI experiment in the United States will being soon:

Post Scarcity Economy and Fully Automated Luxury Communism

As the John Quiggan article suggests many people believe that automation presents the opportunity to create a golden age, and some people have referred to this as fuly automated luxury communism:

Robert Wright on Human Progress

Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature

Human Nature and Intelligence

When we think about a future in which there is no violence we can’t separate the environment from questions about human nature. Pinker argued that the post-enlightenment environment allowed the “better angels of our nature” to predominate over our baser instincts. Contemporary research in the psychology of morality would support that assertion. Below is an interesting video showing how much more intelligent humans have become in the last 100 years ago. The average person 100 years ago would be considered to have a severe mental disability now, and a person of average intelligence in our current time would be considered gifted 100 years ago. In 100 years from now will everyone be a genious with an 1Q well over 130, by current standards? If so how would that change the world? It is reasonable to assume that would make the world a vastly different place. And that doesn’t even consider the possibility for radically changing human nature via gene editing. 

Derek Parfit – How Both Human History, and the History of Ethics, May Just Be Beginning

“Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has already been said. I believe the opposite. How many people have made non-religious ethics their life’s work? Before the very recent past, very few. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. A large minority were in fact Atheists, whatever they pretended. But before the recent past, very few Atheists  made Ethics their life’s work. Buddha may be among this few, as may be Confucious, and a few Ancient Greeks and Romans. After more than a thousand years there were a few more between the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Hume was an atheist who made ethics part of his life’s work. Sidgwick was another. After Sidgwick, there were several Atheists who were professional moral philosophers. But most of  these did not do ethics. They did meta-ethics. They did not ask which outcomes would be good or bad, or which acts would be right or wrong. They asked, and wrote about, only the meaning of language, the question of objectivity. Non-religious ethics has been systematically studied, by many people, only since about 1960. Compared with the other sciences, non-religious ethics is the youngest and the least advanced. . . Belief in God, or in my gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, non-religious ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.”

[excerpt from reasons and Persons: Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1984), 453-4]

The above quite might seem unrealistic but consider this idea in the context of a world in which poverty is a thing of the past. Interestingly the division in run parallel to the divisions in social class. The poor of the world tend to be less educated and share a similar world view, that includes morality but extends into deeper questions about the universe and human nature, while the world’s more affluent populations share a world view oriented around the possibilities for creating a new world free from poverty and other forms of oppression. Right now division might seem like a natural fact of life but context shapes our psychology in profound ways. Think back to Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. In a future without poverty it is reasonable to assume people will share views on the fundamental nature of reality, human nature, and therefore a wide range of moral issues.

I believe that as long as we don’t completely destroy human society via nuclear war, an outbreak of an incurable contagious disease, or climate change, a utopia is not only possible but seems likely given the progress we have made over the last 500 years or so.


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