Utopia?

‘Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
It retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward,
It swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go,
I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.’

Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan poet

Sometimes humanists are accused of being utopian, of believing that human beings can build a perfect world. However, that is rarely the case.

Humanism is forward-looking. It denies human salvation in some other world or life. If we are going to improve human wellbeing, we need to do it in the here and now. Humanists acknowledge that we will never solve all humanity’s problems, but they claim we can solve some of them. They will typically believe we can be both realistic and optimistic. We will never build a perfect world, but we can certainly build a better one. That, for humanists, is the challenge.

‘There was an old controversy between the perfectibilists and the meliorists. The perfectibilists were those who said they wanted to make the world a perfect place; well, that’s going to be very difficult to do. But meliorists are people who think that we can make things better, and that we should, and I think that part of the humanist outlook on life is that we should definitely be meliorists.’

AC Grayling, humanist philosopher

Utopian goals and grand visions can be dangerous. They can give rise to the kinds of totalitarian ideologies that humanism stands firmly opposed to. However, utopian thinking can also give us something to aspire to. It can be a valuable tool that can enable us to focus on what is unsatisfactory about the status quo and therefore what needs to change to make things better.

Humanists will also often disagree. There is unlikely to be one single humanist utopia, no one-size-fit-all perfect way of life for everyone. That is why dialogue and debate are at the heart of humanism. Progress, for humanists, requires negotiation and constant evaluation. More often than not, it is made not through revolutionary transformation, but via small and persistent steps, and through taking the time, and making the effort, to carry others along with you.

Question: Is utopia a helpful or a dangerous ideas?

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives

Humanists UK