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Two visions for the future

by Mike Mercer


The Montreal Review, May, 2010



The Question of Human Nature

Any social structure must be founded on an idea of what people are like. Classic thinkers have asked: Are humans mostly good or evil? If people are good then laws and controls can be few. If people are evil then the state must work hard to keep peace and order. Modern thinkers have rejected such simple terms in favor of more descriptive psychological character analysis. However the basic premise remains. The type of people you have will influence the fundamental structure of society. Both Camps A and B have an outlook on humanity based on the same model, but their understanding is quite opposite to each other.


Camp-A sees people as rationalizing selfish actors. This is not a good thing. Although selfish behavior can produce beneficial results, on the average its effects are detrimental for society. Thus the state should act to limit or compensate for the negative natural traits in humanity. The term "rationalizing individual" refers to people's tendency to make a choice based on desire then to construct a set of reasons as to why their choice is good or necessary. The intellectuals of Camp-A reject the claim that people act logically. They point to the advertising industry and the consumer economy as evidence that people follow desire more than reason or that they are easily manipulated.

Camp-B sees people as rational self-interested actors. This is a good thing because it is a natural thing. The desire for self preservation and improvement drives all advances, although it may cause inconveniences to some, its net effects are beneficial to society. Thus the state should, for the most part, not interfere in the activities of people. The intellectuals of Camp-B continue to hold to the notion that people do make rational choices, more critically they do not see conflict as a bad thing. They agree with Kant that the unsociable qualities of humanity actually drive progress.

The Four Categories of Virtue

The debate on Human Nature quickly dragged ancient philosophers out into the light of day. One of the most popular frameworks for understanding the issue was the neo-Platonic scale of virtue:

Gold - help others. Do for them as you wish they would do for you.

Silver - do not harm others. Do not do to one, what you do not wish to suffer.

Bronze - use people but treat them fairly. Give equal pay for equal work.

Iron - use people as disposable tools. Get as much as you can for as little as necessary.

Both gold and silver ranks are considered personal ethics. The gold rank is most noble, but lest common. Both bronze and iron are considered public-workplace ethics. The iron rank is most efficient but lest humane.

Camp-A argued that the state can not legislate personal ethics; it can not make people helpful. But it can and should regulate public conduct; restricting the harm people do each other and requiring fairness in official relations. The state can not stop people from being greedy but it can act to limit the harmful effects of greed.

Camp-B argued that the entire matter of ethics was a privet one. The state should not make laws according to any preferences of virtue, which were purely subjective. The state must provide freedom. No one should be forced into an unfair situation, but if they voluntarily enter into one, it is their own business.

Crime and Punishment

Whatever one thinks of human nature, the empiric evidence of history tells us that people commit crimes. If an official system of law and order does not exist to deal with the offences, a privet system of vendetta violence will emerge. Foucault offers us a good account of this subject in his book Discipline and Punish . A major point that he brings up is the aim of punishment. He claims that the socially useful function of any punishment should be to dissuade repetition by the individual and imitation by others. This view is generally accepted by both Camps, but each has a slightly different view of how to deal with the issue best.

Camp-A supports the idea that criminals should be punished not reformed. Although circumstances can be a contributing factor to crime, in the end it is a choice made by an individual to take an action that is explicitly prohibited. This view is based on the understanding of Human Nature as rationalizing and selfish. Thus if he is found guilty of willfully committing a crime, his sentence must be a harsh example for himself and for others. Helping him fit back into society after the punishment should be considered as an important but separate issue.

Of great concern to Camp-A is the question of exactly what punishments are best. The current prison system is argued to be ineffective and costly. Prisoners should not simply be guests of the state waiting for release back into society. If they are to be confined for any extensive period, they must be made to serve some social use. Anyhow a single punishment for all crimes is not appropriate. As Foucault suggested, we need an efficient penalty that leaves a lasting impression in the mind of the criminal and with the public. It would be best if the punishment was poetically fitting for the crime, so that one could not help but think of the penalty as one thought of committing the crime.

Camp-B supports the idea that criminals should be reformed not tormented.

This position is based on the data that shows most crime to be the result of psychological problems, often combined with circumstances that offer the person little choice but to commit an offence. Thus to a certain degree the criminals are victims, who need counseling not punishment.

The prison system should not be understood as punishment by incarceration. The current model is rejected by Camp-B as expensive and ineffective. Criminals will be held so they do not pose a danger to society, but that is not the main function of a new-prison. Reforming the criminal is the goal. Thus they are released in accordance with their performance in the reform process, not according to a set amount of time served. When a criminal is convicted, no one can say for sure how long he will be in prison for. If a criminal is found to be beyond reformation, then swift execution is the sentence.

Is Big Brother watching?

This question is directly related to the issue of crime. Modern experience proves that surveillance does not stop crime, but it does make catching and prosecuting the criminal easier. The use of surveillance systems will almost certainly increase in both Utopia models, the question is: How much should the state watch us? Clearly no one likes the idea presented by Orwell in his book 1984 . Nevertheless public safety is a critical issue, especially in times of real or perceived danger.

Camp-A security experts claim that the state should have efficient and effective means of watching all public places. To avoid the Orwellian fear of Big Brother, no surveillance will be required in privet homes. Also police patrols will be made visible and as friendly as possible. It will be a civic responsibility to cooperate fully with any lawful requests made by a police officer. The privilege of privacy is protected, but it should not serve as a shield for criminals. Thus the police will have the power to access any recording device or conduct a search, if they suspect a crime is taking place.

Camp-B members maintain that privacy is a right not merely a privilege. They strongly believe that the state should not have any integrated surveillance systems and that the police must use formal warrants to access private sources of data or to conduct searches. The state must not have the authority or even the ability to commit arbitrary surveillance on its people. The key role of recording devices is for privet security and insurance validation in the event of a crime.




Genealogy of Utopias A & B

The Question of Human Nature

Addressing Marx's claim about social structure

Who should rule Utopia?

Urban Planning & On the doorstep of Utopia


Bibliography for Utopia A or B


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