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? These are big questions that we can’t consider fully, but I’d like to leave you with a few resources that can help you think about them in an informed way.

First, 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. Then, 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. This is a beautiful piece of philosophical work as here we find Kant, in the 1700s seriously thinking and dreaming about a world without war. And on top of that, he actually managed to get a lot right. His basic argument is that peace is possible if all the governments of the world become democracies, although he uses the word “republic” to mean democracy. His argument is that war is bad for the most people and if we give the power to declare war to the people, they will not send themselves off to war. Interestingly, Kant was writing at a time when there were hardly any democracies in the world. Britain and the US were fledgling democracies and the French revolution was underway, but the spirit of the enlightenment allowed him to dream of a future in which all the countries of the world were democracies. So, was he right? Well, it certainly seems that as democracy has spread around the world, wars have decreased in frequency. The largest wars of the 20th century, World War I and World War II, involved non-democratic governments invading other countries. So, that seems to support his claim. On the other hand, the united states has invaded a number of counties in the 20th century, most notably Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What does that say about Kant’s theory? The two logical possibilities are that (1) the United States is not a fully functioning democracy in that it does not represent the will of the people or (2) Kant’s theory is wrong. 

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, income for 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 people are living in extreme poverty as defined by less than 1.90 dollars a day.

However, the above numbers are not as great as they may seem. Looking at the first chart we can see that the percentage of the world’s population that lives on 1.90 a day has gone from 44.0% to 9.6% in the past forty years or so. There are two issues. The first is that 1.90 is too low of a number, even if we are talking about extreme poverty. The second is that pretty much all of that decline in poverty has happened in one country: China. In other words, poverty hasn’t really gone down anywhere in the past 40 years, except for China, and it has increased in the developed world!

Below Jason Hickel, author of Divide speaks about poverty and the history of poverty in the developed world. He proposes some simple solutions, like a global minimum wage for tackling this problem. Some of the highlights of his talk include the following facts:

  • The richest 5% capture half of all the global wealth that is generated.
  • It would cost 6 trillion to end global poverty, calculated at 7/day not 1.90 which is not realistic, and the worlds richest 1% have an income of 19 trillion dollars. So, it we just took half of the income of the world’s richest 1%, in taxes, and redistributed that wealth to the rest of the world, we could actually end extreme poverty. 
  • At the current rate, it would take 200 years to eliminate extreme poverty. 

Now let’s consider a policy that could completely abolish poverty, not just extreme poverty: universal basic income.

John Quiggan “The Golden Age”

Quiggan begins his essay by discussing an essay written by the famous economist John Maynard Kenyes. In 1930 Keynes wrote an essay titled Economic Possebilities for our Grandchildren in which he predicted:

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

This prediction was based on the simple math of a 2% increase in productivity per year. With this modest increase in productivity, due to technological progress, he deduced that by the end of the century people would only need to work 15 hours a week to earn a good living. 

So, what happened? Obviously we are not working 15 hours a week. The average American is working harder for less money. Did we not get the technological progress of 2% per year or did something else happen? Something else happened. We got our technological progress, as Keynes predicted but all that increase in productivity went to the top 1% or so. In other words, the benefits of increased productivity due to technological progress did not go to the workers but to the the rich. This was done and justified in the name of capitalism. (A recent study actually showed that if that extra money had not gone to the richest in society the average American would be making 42,000 more per year!)

Quiggan proposes that we re-orient ourselves to a different kind of society, one that can provide a good life to all. And specifically he argues for a universal basic income, which is no-strings attached money given to every single citizen. (The videos below will explain more about this idea.)

He ends by saying, “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

Rutger Bregman is the author of the book Utopia for Realists. Here he makes the argument for a universal basic income. 


Automation and Universal Basic Income

Andrew Yang was a democratic candidate for president running in 2020 on the platform of providing a universal basic income of 1,000 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:

Here is an interesting (optional) long read on UBI. 

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 fully automated luxury communism:

Human Nature and Intelligence

Switching gears a little let’s consider the future of humanity from another perspective. IN this course we have been trying to come up with rational answers to moral questions. However, humans aren’t particularly great at being rational. What if we can get better though? 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 genius 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

In a related vein, let’s consider where moral philosophy is at, as a discipline and as a social practice. Derek Parfit argued that moral philosophy is just in its infancy and that in the future humanity may very well come to mostly agree on moral issues. 

“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 moral and political beliefs 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 educated 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. Also consider that many issues that were previously seen as controversial are no longer controversial. Slavery is one example. It was accepted as normal, then segregation was considered normal. It was consider normal for women to have no rights. Gay marriage was illegal only a few years ago. Public education only became considered a right in the last 100 years or so. So, while society seems polarized now and it is impossible to imagine a world without fundamental moral disagreements and division, where might we be in the year 2,100, 2,200 or even the year 3,000. Where might we be 1,000 years from now. How smart will be? Poverty will be a distant memory. Through medical advances and genetic engineering people will likely be living for incredible lengths of time, if not forever. 

To many it seems that we are heading towards a utopia in which violence and poverty are a thing of the past but there are powerful social forces and environmental factors that threaten to derail human progress. We have made incredible progress as a species in the past 500 years. Where we will be 500 years from now is up to us. 

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