Characterising utopia

by ricraz Thinking Complete21 min read2nd Jan 20203 comments


When we consider how good the best possible future might be, it's tempting to focus on only a handful of dimensions of change. In transhumanist thinking, these dimensions tend to be characteristics of individuals: their happiness, longevity, intelligence, and so on. [1] This reflects the deeply individualistic nature of our modern societies overall, and transhumanists in particular. Yet when asked what makes their lives meaningful, most people prioritise their relationships with others. In contrast, there are strands of utopian literature which focus on social reorganisation (such as Huxley’s Island or Skinner’s Walden Two), but usually without acknowledging the potential of technology to radically improve the human condition. [2] Meanwhile, utilitarians conceive of the best future as whichever one maximises a given metric of individual welfare - but those metrics are often criticised for oversimplifying the range of goods that people actually care about. [3] In this essay I've tried to be as comprehensive as possible in cataloguing the ways that the future could be much better than the present, which I've divided into three categories: individual lives, relationships with others, and humanity overall. Each section consists of a series of bullet points, with nested elaborations and examples.

I hesitated for quite some time before making this essay public, though, because it feels a little naive. Partly that’s because the different claims don’t form a single coherent narrative. But on reflection I think I endorse that: grand narratives are more seductive but also more likely to totally miss the point. Additionally, Holden Karnofsky has found that “the mere act of describing [a utopia] makes it sound top-down and centralized” in a way which people dislike - another reason why discussing individual characteristics is probably more productive.

Another concern is that even though there’s a strong historical trend towards increases in material quality of life, the same is not necessarily true for social quality of life. Indeed, in many ways the former impedes the latter. In particular, the less time people need to spend obtaining necessities, the more individualistic they’re able to be, and the more time they can spend on negative-sum status games. I don’t know how to solve this problem, or many others which currently prevent us from building a world that's good in all the ways I describe below. But I do believe that humanity has the potential to do so. [4] And having a clearer vision of utopia will likely motivate people to work on the problems that stand, as Dickinson put it, “between the bliss and me”. So what might be amazing about our future?

Individual lives

  • Health. Perhaps the clearest and most obvious way to improve the human condition is to cure the diseases and prevent the accidents which currently reduce both the quality and the duration of many people’s lives. Mental health problems are particularly neglected right now - solving those could make many people much better off.
    • Longevity. From some moral stances, the most important of these diseases to tackle is ageing itself, which prevents us from leading fulfilling lives many times longer than what people currently expect. Rejuvenation treatments could grant unlimited youth and postpone death arbitrarily. While the ethics and pragmatics of a post-death society are complicated (as I discuss here), this does not seem sufficient reason to tolerate the moral outrage of involuntary mortality.
  • Wealth. Nobody should lack access to whatever material goods they need to lead fulfilling lives. As technology advances and we automate more and more of the economy, the need to work to subsist will diminish, and eventually vanish altogether. An extrapolation from the last few centuries of development predicts that with centuries almost everyone will be incredibly wealthy by today’s standards. Luxuries that are now available only to a few (or to none at all) will become widespread.
    • Life in simulation. In the long term, the most complete way to achieve these two goals may be for us to spend almost all of our time in virtual reality, where possessions can be generated on demand, physical inconveniences will be eliminated, and our experiences will be limited only by our imaginations. Eventually this will likely lead to us uploading our minds and permanently inhabiting vast, shared virtual worlds. The key ideas in all of the points that follow this one are applicable whether we inhabit physical or virtual realities.
  • Alleviation of suffering. Evolution has stacked the hedonic deck against us: the extremes of pain are much greater than the extremes of pleasure, and more easily accessible too. But bioengineering and neuroscience will eventually reach a point where we could move towards eradicating suffering (including mental anguish and despair) and fulfilling the goal of David Pearce's abolitionist project. Perhaps keeping something similar to physical pain or mental frustration would still be useful for adding spice or variety to our lives - but it need not be anywhere near the worst and most hopeless extremes of either.
    • Freedom from violence and coercion. As part of this project, any utopia must prevent man’s inhumanity to man, and the savagery and cruelty which blight human history. This would be the continuation of a longstanding trend towards less violent and freer societies.
    • Non-humans. The most horrific suffering which currently exists is not inflicted on humans, but on the trillions of animals with which we share the planet. While most of this essay is focused on human lives and society, preventing the suffering of conscious non-human life (whether animals or aliens or AIs) is a major priority.
  • Deep pleasure and happiness. Broadly speaking, positive emotions are much more complicated than negative ones. Physical pleasure may be simple, but under the umbrella of happiness I also include excitement, contentment, satisfaction, wonder, joy, love, gratitude, amusement, ‘flow’, aesthetic appreciation, the feeling of human connection, and many more!
    • Better living through chemistry. There’s no fundamental reason why our minds couldn’t be reconfigured to experience much more of all of the positive emotions I just listed: why the ecstasy of the greatest day of your life couldn’t be your baseline state, with most days surging much higher; why all food couldn’t taste better than the best food you’ve ever had; why everyday activities couldn’t be more exhilarating than extreme sports.
    • Positive attitudes. Our happiness is crucially shaped by our patterns of thought - whether we’re optimistic and cheerful about our lives, rather than pessimistic and cynical. While I wouldn’t want a society in which people’s expectations were totally disconnected from reality, there’s a lot of room for people to have healthier mindsets and lead more satisfied lives.
    • Self-worth. In particular, it’s important for people to believe that they are valuable and worthwhile. In today’s society it’s far too easy to be plagued by low self-esteem, which poisons our ability to enjoy what we have.
    • Peak fun. Our society is already unprecedentedly entertainment-driven. With even fewer material constraints, we will be able to produce a lot of fun activities. Over time this will involve less passive consumption of media and more participation in exciting adventures that become intertwined with the rest of our lives. [5]
    • New types of happiness. The best experiences won’t necessarily come about just by scaling up our existing emotions, but also by creating new ones. Consider that our ability to appreciate music is an evolutionary accident, but one which deeply enriches our current lives. Our future selves could have many more types of experiences deliberately designed to be as rich and powerful as possible.
  • Choice and self-determination. Humans are more than happiness machines, though. We have dreams about our lives, and we devote ourselves to achieving them. While it’s not always straightforwardly good for people to be able to fulfil their desires (in particular desires involving superiority over other people, which I’ll discuss later), these activities give us purpose and meaning, and it seems unjust when we are unable to fulfil our plans because we are helpless in the face of external circumstances. Yet neither are the best desires those which can be fulfilled with the snap of a finger, or which steer us totally clear of any hardship. Rather, we should be able to set ourselves goals that are challenging yet achievable, goals which we might struggle with - but whose completion is ultimately even more fulfilling because of that. What might they be?
    • Making a difference to others. In a utopian future, dramatically improving other people’s lives would be much more difficult than it is today. Nevertheless, we can impact others via our relationships with them, as I’ll discuss in the next section.
    • Growth. People often set goals to push themselves, grow more and learn more. In those cases the specific achievements are less relevant than the lessons we take from them.
    • Tending your garden. Continuous striving isn’t for everyone. An alternative is the pursuit of peace and contentment, mindfulness and self-knowledge.
    • Self-expression. Everyone has a rich inner life, but most of us rarely (or never) find the means to express our true selves. I envisage unlocking the writer or musician or artist inside each of us - so that we can each tell our own story, and endless other stories most beautiful.
    • Life as art. I picture a world of “human beings who are new, unique, incomparable… who create themselves!” We can think of our lives as canvases upon which we each have the opportunity to paint a masterpiece. For some, that will simply involve pursuing all the other goods I describe in this essay. Others might prioritise making their lives novel, or dramatic, or aesthetically pleasing (even if that makes them less happy).
    • Life at a larger scale. With more favourable external circumstances, individuals will be able to shape their lives on an unprecedented scale. We could spend centuries on a single project, or muster together billions for vast cooperative ventures. We could also remain the “same” continuous person as long as we wanted, rather than inevitably losing touch of the past.
  • Cultivation of virtue. Although less emphasised in modern times, living a good life has long been associated with building character and developing virtues. Doing so is not primarily about changing what happens in our lives, but rather changing how we respond to it. There’s no definitive characterisation of a virtuous person, though: we all have our own intuitions about what traits (integrity, kindness, courage, and so on) we admire most in others. And different philosophical traditions emphasise different virtues, from Aristotle's 'greatness of soul' to Confucius' 'familial piety' to Buddha's ‘loving kindness’ (and the other brahmaviharas). [6] Deciding which virtues are most valuable is a task both for individuals and for society as a whole - with the goal of creating a world of people who have deliberately cultivated the best versions of themselves. [7]
  • Intelligence. As we are, we can comprehend many complex concepts, but there are whole worlds of thought that human-level intelligences can never fully understand. If a jump from chimpanzee brain size to our brain size opened up such vast cognitive vistas, imagine what else might be possible when we augment our current brains, scale up our intelligence arbitrarily far, and lay bare the patterns that compose the universe.
    • The joy of learning. Today, learning is usually a chore. Yet humans are fundamentally curious creatures; and there can be deep satisfaction in discovery and understanding. Education should be a game, which we master through play. We might even want to reframe science as a quest for hidden truths, so that each person can experience for themselves what it’s like to push forward the frontiers of knowledge.
    • Self-understanding. In many ways, we’re inscrutable even to ourselves, with our true beliefs and motivations hidden beneath the surface of consciousness. As we become more intelligent, we will better understand how we really work, fulfilling the longstanding, elusive quest to “know thyself”.
    • Agency. Each human is a collection of modules in a constant tug of war. We want one thing one day, and another the next. We procrastinate and we contradict ourselves and we succumb to life-ruining addictions. But this needn’t be the case. Imagine yourself as a unified agent, one who is able to make good choices for yourself, and stick to them - one who’s not overwhelmed by anger, or addiction, or other desires that your reflective self doesn’t endorse. This might be achieved by brain modification, or by having a particularly good AI assistant which knows how to nudge you into being a more consistent version of yourself.
    • Memory. Today we lose most of our experiences to forgetfulness. But we could (and have already started to) outsource our memories to more permanent storage media accessible demand, so that we can stay in touch with our pasts indefinitely.
    • The extended mind. Clark and Chalmers have argued that we should consider external thinking aids to be part of our minds. Right now these aids are very primitive, and interface with our brains in very limited ways - but that will certainly improve over time, until accessing the outputs of external computation is similar to any other step in our thinking. The result will be as if we’d each internalised all of human knowledge.
  • Variety and novelty of experiences.
    • Seeing the universe. The urge to travel and explore is a deep-rooted one. Eventually we will be able to roam as far as we like, and observe the wonder and grandeur of the cosmos.
    • Explorations of the human condition. Most of us inhabit fairly limited social circles, which don’t allow us to experience different ways of life and different people’s perspectives. Given the time to do so, we could learn a lot from the sheer variety of humanity, and import those lessons into the rest of our lives.
    • Explorations of consciousness. Right now the conscious states that we’re able to experience are limited to those induced by the handful of psychoactive chemicals that we or evolution have stumbled upon. Eventually, though, we will develop totally different ways of experiencing the world that are literally inconceivable to us today.
    • Spiritual experiences. One such mental shift that people already experience is the feeling of spiritual enlightenment. Aside from its religious connotations, this can be a valuable shift of perspective which give us new insights into how to live our lives.
  • Progress on our journeys. A key part of leading a meaningful life is continual growth and transcendence of one’s past self, each moving towards becoming the person we want to be. That might mean becoming a more virtuous person, or more successful, or more fulfilled - as long as we’re able to be proud of our achievements so far, and hopeful about the future.
    • Justified expectation of pleasant surprises. One important factor in creating this sensation of progress is uncertainty about exactly what the future has in store for us. Although we should be confident that our lives will become better, this should sometimes come in the form of pleasant surprises rather than just ticking off predictable checkpoints.
    • Levelling up. One way that this growth might occur is if people’s lives consist of distinct phases, each with different opportunities and challenges. Once someone thinks they have gained all that they desire from one phase, they can choose to move on. In an extreme case, the nature and goals of a subsequent phase might be incomprehensible to those in earlier phases - in the same way that children don’t understand what it’s like to be an adult, and most people don’t understand Buddhist enlightenment. For fictional precedent, consider sublimation in Banks’ Culture, or the elves leaving Middle-Earth in Tolkein’s mythos.
    • Guardrails. Extended lives should be very hard to irreversibly screw up, since there’s so much at stake - especially if we have much greater abilities to modify ourselves than we do today.
    • Leaving a legacy. People want to be remembered after they’ve moved on. Even in a world without death, each person should have had the opportunity to make a lasting difference in their communities before they leave for their next great adventure.

Relationships with others

For most of us, our relationships (with friends, family and romantic partners) are what we find most valuable in life. By that metric, though, it’s plausible that Westerners are poorer than we’ve ever been. What would it mean for our social lives to be as rich as our material lives have and will become? Imagine living in communities and societies that didn’t just allow you to pursue your best life, but were actively on your side - that were ideally designed to enable the flourishing of their inhabitants.

  • Stronger connections. Most relationships are nowhere near as loving or as fulfilling as they might ideally be. That might be because we’re afraid of vulnerability, or we don’t know how to nurture these relationships (knowing how to be a good friend is more valuable than almost anything learned in classes, but taught almost nowhere), or we simply struggle to find and spend time with people who complement us. Imagine a society which is as successful as solving these problems as ours has been at solving scientific and engineering problems, for example by designing better social norms, giving its citizens more time and space for each other, and teaching individuals to think about their relationships in the most constructive ways.
    • Abolishing loneliness. I envisage a future where loneliness has been systematically eradicated, by helping everyone find social environments in which they can flourish, and by providing comprehensive support for people struggling with building or maintaining relationships. I imagine too a future without the social anxieties which render many of us insecure and withdrawn.
    • Love, love, love. What would utopia be without romantic love and passion? This is an obsession of modern culture - and yet it’s also something that doesn’t always come naturally. We could improve romance by reducing the barriers of fear and insecurity, allowing people to better create true intimacy. Even the prosaic solutions of better educational materials and cultural norms might go a long way towards that.
    • Commitment and trust. In my mind, the key feature of both romance and friendship is deep commitment and trust, and the common knowledge that you’re each there for the other person. Whatever the bottlenecks are to more people building up that sort of bond - inability to communicate openly and honestly; or a lack of empathy; or even the absence of shared adversity - we could focus society’s efforts towards remedying.
    • Free love. While there’s excitement in the complex dance of romance, a lot of the hangups around sex serve only to make people anxious and unhappy. Consenting adults should feel empowered to pursue each other; and of course utopia should include some great sex.
    • Ending toxic relationships. We can reduce and manage the things that make relationships toxic, like jealousy, narcissism, and abuse. This might happen via mental health treatment, better education, better knowledge of how to raise well-socialised children, or cultural norms which facilitate healthy relationships.
    • Longer connections. I think it’s worth noting the positive effect that longevity could have on personal relationships. There’s a depth and a joy to being lifelong friends - but how much stronger could it be when those lives stretch out across astronomical timescales? This is not to say that we should bind ourselves to the same people for our whole extended lives - rather, we can spend time together and separate in the knowledge that it need never be a final parting, with each reunion a thing of joy.
  • Life as a group project. In addition to one-on-one relationships, there’s a lot of value in being part of a close-knit group with deep shared bonds - a circle of lifelong friends, or soldiers who trust each other with their lives, or a large and loving family. Many people don’t have any of these, but I hope that they could.
    • Better starts to life. The quality of relationships is most important for the most vulnerable among us. In a utopian future, every child would be raised with love, and allowed to enjoy the wonder of childhood; and indeed, they would keep that same wonder long into their adult lives.
    • Less insular starts to life. Today, many children only have the opportunity to interact substantively with a handful of adults. While I’m unsure about fully-communal parenting, children who will become part of a broader community shouldn’t be shut off from that community; rather, they should have the chance to befriend and learn from a range of people. Meanwhile, spending more time with children would enrich the lives of many adults.
    • Families, extended. What is the most meaningful thing for the most people? Probably spending time with their children and grandchildren, and knowing that with their family they’ve created something unique and important. A utopian vision of family would have the same features, but with each person living to see their lineage branch out into a whole forest of descendants, with them at the root.
  • Healthy societies. In modern times our societies are too large and fragmented to be the close-knit groups I mentioned above. Yet people can also find meaning in being part of something much larger than themselves, and working together towards the common goal of building and maintaining a utopia.
    • Positive norms. The sort of behaviours that are socially encouraged and rewarded should be prosocial ones which contribute to the well-being of society as a whole.
    • (The good parts of) tribalism and patriotism. The feeling of being part of a cohesive group of people unified by a common purpose is a powerful one. At a small scale, we currently get this from watching sports, or singing in a choir. At larger scales, those same feelings often lead to harmful nationalist behaviour - yet at their best, they could give us a world in which people feel respect for and fraternity with all those around them by default, simply due to their shared humanity.
    • Tradition and continuity. Another key component of belonging to something larger than yourself is continuing a long-lived legacy. Traditions could be maintained over many millennia in a way which gives each person a sense of their place in history.
    • Political voices. Our current societies are too large for their overall directions to be meaningfully influenced by most people. But we can imagine mechanisms which allow individuals to weigh in on important questions in their local communities to a much greater extent. And people could at least know that their voice and vote have as much weight in the largest-scale decisions as anyone else’s.
  • Meetings of minds. Today, humans communicate through words and gestures and body language. These are very low-bandwidth channels, compared with what is theoretically possible. In particular, brain interfaces could allow direct communication from one person’s mind to another. That wouldn’t just be quicker talking, but a fundamentally different mode of communication, as if another person were finishing your own thoughts. And consider that our “selves” are not discrete entities, but are made up of many mental modules. If we link them in new ways, the boundaries between you and other people might become insubstantial - you might temporarily (or permanently) become one larger person.
  • Mitigating status judgements and dominance-seeking. In general we can’t hope to understand social interactions without considering status and hierarchy. We want to date the most attractive people and have the most prestigious jobs and become as wealthy as possible in large part to look better than others. The problem is that not everyone can reach the top, and so widespread competition to do so will leave many dissatisfied. In other cases, people are directly motivated to dominate and outcompete each other - such as businesspeople who want to crush their rivals. While this can be useful for driving progress, in the long term those motivations would ideally be channeled in ways which are more conducive to long-lasting fulfilment. For example, aggressive instincts could be directed towards recreational sports rather than relationships or careers.
    • Diverse scales of success. To make social dynamics more positive-sum, we should avoid sharing one single vision, which everyone is striving towards, of what a successful life looks. We can instead encourage people to tie their identities to the subcommunities they care most about, rather than measuring themselves against the whole world (though for an objection to this line of reasoning see Katja Grace’s post here).
    • More equality of status. To the extent that we still have hierarchies and negative-sum games, it should at least be the case that nobody is consistently at the bottom of all of them, and everyone can look forward to their time of recognition and respect (as in the system I outline in this blog post).

Humanity overall

When we zoom out to consider the trajectory of humanity as a whole, there are some desirable properties which we might want it to have. Although there are reasons to distrust such large-scale judgements (in particular the human tendency towards scope insensitivity) these are often strong intuitions which do matter to us.

  • Sheer size. The more people living worthwhile lives, the better - and with the astronomical resources available to us, we have the opportunity to allow our descendants to number in the uncountable trillions.
  • Solving coordination. In general, we’re bad at working together to resolve problems. This could be solved by mechanisms to make politics and governance transparent, accountable and responsive at a variety of levels. In other words, imagine humanity at one with itself and able to set its overall direction, rather than trapped in our current semi-anarchic default condition.
    • The end of war. Others have spoken of the senseless horror of war much better than I can. I will merely add that some human war will be our last war; let us hope that it gains that distinction for the right reason.
    • Avoiding races to the bottom. Under most people’s ethical intuitions, we should dislike the Malthusian scenario in which, even as our wealth grows vastly, our populations will grow even faster, so that most people end up with subsistence-level resources. To avoid this, we will need to ability to coordinate well at large scales.
  • The pursuit of knowledge. As a species we will learn and discover more and more over time. Eventually we will understand both the most fundamental building blocks of nature and also the ways in which complex systems like our minds and societies function.
  • Moral progress. In particular, we will come to a better understanding of ethics, both in theory and in ways that we can actually act upon - and then hopefully do so, to create just societies. While it’s difficult to predict exactly where moral progress will take us, one component which seems very important is building a utopia for all, with widespread access to the opportunity to pursue a good life. In particular, this should probably involve everyone having certain basic rights - such as the ability to participate in the major institutions of civil society, as Anderson describes.
  • Exploring the diversity of life. Many people value our current world’s variety of cultures and lifestyles - but over many millennia our species will be able to explore the vast frontiers of what worthwhile lives and societies could look like. The tree of humanity will branch out in ways that are unimaginable to us now.
    • Speciation. Even supposing that we are currently alone in the universe, we need not be the last intelligent species. Given sufficient time, it might become desirable to create descendant species, or split humanity into different branches which experience different facets of life. Or we might at least enjoy the companionship of animals, whether they be species that currently exist or those which we create ourselves.
  • Making our mark. The universe is vast, but we have plenty of time. Humanity could expand to colonise this galaxy, and others, in a continual wave of exploration and pursuit of the unknown. We might create projects of unimaginable scale, reengineering the cosmos as we choose, and diverting the current astronomical waste towards the well-being of ourselves and our descendants.
    • Creativity and culture. The ability to create new life, design entire worlds, and perform other large-scale feats, will allow unmatched expressions of artistry and beauty.
    • Humanity’s final flourishing. In the very very long term, under our current understanding of physics, humanity will run out of energy to sustain itself, and our civilisation will draw to an end. If we cannot avoid that, at least we can design our species’ entire trajectory, including that final outcome, with the wisdom of uncountable millennia.

Contentious changes

For all of the changes listed above, there are straightforward reasons why they would be better than the status quo or than a move in the opposite direction. However, there are some dimensions along which we might eventually want to move - but in which direction, I don’t know.

  • Privacy, or lack thereof. In many ways people have become more open over the past few centuries. But we now also place more importance on individual rights such as the right to privacy. I could see a future utopia in which there were very few secrets, and radical transparency was the norm - but also the opposite, in which everyone had full control over which aspects of themselves others could access, even up to their appearance and name (as in this excellent novel).
  • Connection with nature. Many people value this very highly. By contrast, transhumanists generally want to improve on nature, not return to it. In the long term, we might synthesise these two by creating new environments and ecosystems that are even more peaceful and beautiful and grand those which exist today - but I don’t know how well those would match people’s current conceptions of natural life.
  • New social roles. Each of us plays many social roles, and is bound by the corresponding constraints and expectations. I think such roles will be an important part of social interactions even in a utopia: we don’t want total homogeneity. However, our current roles - gender roles, family roles, job roles and so on - are certainly not optimal for everyone. I can imagine them being replaced by social roles which are just as strong, but which need to be opted into, or provide more flexibility in other ways. Yet I’m hesitant to count this as an unalloyed good, because the new roles might seem bizarre and alien to us, even if our descendants think of them as natural and normal (as illustrated in this fascinating story by Scott Alexander). Consider, for instance, how strange the hierarchical roles of historical societies seem to us today - and then imagine a future in which our version of romance is just as antiquated, in favour of totally new narratives about what makes relationships meaningful.
  • Unity versus freedom. Unity of lifestyle and purpose was a key component of many historical utopias. Some more recent utopias, like Banks’ Culture, propound the exact opposite: total freedom for individuals to live radically diverse lives. Which is better? The temperament of the time urges me towards the latter, which I think is also more intuitive at astronomical scales, but this would also make it harder to implement the other features of the utopia I’ve described, if there’s extensive disagreement about what goals to pursue, and how. Meanwhile one downside of unity is the necessity of enforcing social norms, for example by ostracising or condemning those who disobey.
  • The loss or enhancement of individuality. The current composition of our minds - having very high bandwidth between different parts of our brain, and very low bandwidth between our brains and others’ - is a relic of our evolutionary history. Above, I described the benefits of reducing the communication boundaries between different people. But I’m not sure how far to take this: would we want a future in which individuality is obsolete, with everyone merging into larger consciousnesses? Or would it be better if, despite increasing communication bandwidth, we place even greater value on long-term individuality, since our lives will be much less transient?
    • Cloning and copying. Other technologies which might affect our attitudes towards individuality are those which would allow us to create arbitrarily many people arbitrarily similar to ourselves.
  • Self-modification. The ability to change arbitrary parts of your mind is a very powerful one. At its best, we can make ourselves the people we always wanted to be, transcending human limitations. At its worst, there might be pressure to carve out the parts of ourselves that make us human, as Scott Alexander discusses here.
    • Designer people. Eventually we will be able to specify arbitrary characteristics of our children, shaping them to an unprecedented extent. However, I don’t know if that’s a power we should fully embrace, either as individuals or as societies.
  • Wireheading. I’m uncertain about the extent to which blissing out on pleasure (at the expense of pursuing more complex goals) is something we should aim for.
  • Value drift. More generally, humanity’s values will by default change significantly over time. Whether to prevent that or to allow it to happen is a tricky question. The former implies a certain type of stagnation - we are certainly glad that the Ancient Greeks did not lock in their values. The latter option could lead us to a world which looks very weird and immoral by our modern sensibilities.


[1]. See, for instance, the conspicuous absence of relationships and communities in works such as Nick Bostrom’s Transhumanist FAQ. His summary of the transhumanist perspective: “Many transhumanists wish to follow life paths which would, sooner or later, require growing into posthuman persons: they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access.” See also Yudkowsky: “It doesn't get any better than fun.” Meanwhile the foremost modern science fiction utopia, Banks’ Culture, is also very individualistic.

[2]. Some interesting quotes from Walden Two:

  • “Men build society and society builds men.”
  • “The behavior of the individual has been shaped according to revelations of ‘good conduct,’ never as the result of experimental study. But why not experiment? The questions are simple enough. What’s the best behavior for the individual so far as the group is concerned? And how can the individual be induced to behave in that way? Why not explore these questions in a scientific spirit?”
  • “We undertook to build a tolerance for annoying experiences. The sunshine of midday is extremely painful if you come from a dark room, but take it in easy stages and you can avoid pain altogether. The analogy can be misleading, but in much the same way it’s possible to build a tolerance to painful or distasteful stimuli, or to frustration, or to situations which arouse fear, anger or rage. Society and nature throw these annoyances at the individual with no regard for the development of tolerances. Some achieve tolerances, most fail. Where would the science of immunization be if it followed a schedule of accidental dosages?”

And from Island:

  • “That would distract your attention, and attention is the whole point. Attention to the experience of something given, something you haven't invented in your imagination.”
  • "We all belong to an MAC—a Mutual Adoption Club. Every MAC consists of anything from fifteen to twenty-five assorted couples. Newly elected brides and bridegrooms, old-timers with growing children, grandparents and great-grandparents—everybody in the club adopts everyone else. … An entirely different kind of family. Not exclusive, like your families, and not predestined, not compulsory. An inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary family. Twenty pairs of fathers and mothers, eight or nine ex-fathers and ex-mothers, and forty or fifty assorted children of all ages."
  • “[Large, powerful men] are just as muscular here, just as tramplingly extraverted, as they are with you. So why don’t they turn into Stalins or Dipas, or at the least into domestic tyrants? First of all, our social arrangements offer them very few opportunities for bullying their families, and our political arrangements make it practically impossible for them to domineer on any larger scale. Second, we train the Muscle Men to be aware and sensitive, we teach them to enjoy the commonplaces of everyday existence. This means that they always have an alternative—innumerable alternatives—to the pleasure of being the boss. And finally we work directly on the love of power and domination that goes with this kind of physique in almost all its variations. We canalize this love of power and we deflect it—turn it away from people and on to things. We give them all kinds of difficult tasks to perform—strenuous and violent tasks that exercise their muscles and satisfy their craving for domination—but satisfy it at nobody’s expense and in ways that are either harmless or positively useful.”

[3]. For a short introduction to this debate, see section 3 in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Consequentialism.

[4]. For stylistic purposes I wrote much of this essay in the future tense, without always hedging with “we might” and “it’s possible that”. Please don’t interpret any of my descriptions as confident predictions - rather, treat them as expressions of possibility and hope.

[5]. As Tim Ferris puts it, “excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness”.

[6]. For an analysis of the similarities between these three traditions, I recommend Shannon Vallor's Technology and the Virtues.

[7]. For a (somewhat fawning) description of such a society, see Swift’s Houynhnhnms, which are “endowed by nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature”; and which the narrator wants “for civilizing Europe, by teaching us the first principles of honour, justice, truth, temperance, public spirit, fortitude, chastity, friendship, benevolence, and fidelity.”