Another reason for engaging in ideal theory is that what today seems like a fantasy may one day become quite realistic. It therefore makes sense to aim high. As Brennan observes, throughout most of human history, deaths due to violence were vastly more common than they are today. If someone a thousand years ago described a society like ours, they would likely have been dismissed as utopian. Perhaps similar dramatic advances, that today appear overly utopian, will be made in the future.
I share Brennan’s optimism: we will one day live much better than we do now. Nevertheless, I think utopian theorizing is largely useless.
Compare Ida’s hypothesis, in the flat tire story, that we may one day develop antigravity technology. This might be true, but this possibility has no practical bearing on Ida and Nora’s trip. Antigravity technology is not available to them presently, and they do not know how to make it available. You might think that their present behavior might nevertheless affect their prospects for attaining antigravity technology at some distant future time. But Ida and Nora have no idea whether antigravity will ever be available, nor do they know even in broad outline how it would work. In that context, the speculation that something they do today might somehow help or hinder future antigravity efforts is idle. Discussion of such a possibility does not help them solve any problem or pursue any goal that they have any rational way of pursuing.
The same is true of G. A. Cohen’s speculations about a future society in which everyone interacts like people on a friendly camping trip. We do not have such an option available to us now, we have no idea whether it will ever be available, nor do we know even in broad outline how it would come about. In that context, discussion of this possibility is idle. It does not help us solve any problem or rationally pursue any goal.
I think the future holds great promise: our distant descendants will live much better than we, due not only to technological and economic advancements, but probably to institutional and cultural advancements as well. But we have no way of predicting these developments and no rational way of trying to either help or hinder them. Imagine the position of someone in 1500 A.D., trying to plan for the world of 2016. There is no reasonable way that they could have guessed even roughly what our society would be like. As a result, if anyone in 1500 A.D. made plans for the twenty-first century, those plans are surely worthless. Because the pace of change has dramatically advanced in the past few centuries, the future is even less predictable to us than our world was to the denizens of 1500 A.D. Thus, any plans we might make for the next age are almost surely worthless. The point here is that Brennan’s general observation about the likelihood of progress — even if true — does not give us good reason for engaging in utopian theorizing.
There is no sharp dividing line between possibilities that are too remote to be usefully entertained and those that are close enough to be worthwhile. My claim that Cohen’s utopia is idle speculation is thus a judgment call: in my judgment, a society in which socialism would work would have to be so far from our society that we cannot now productively discuss that society or plan for its arrival.--Michael Huemer "Confessions of a Utopophobe." Social Philosophy and Policy (2016), 223-224. [HT Hanno Sauer]
This seeems to be Michael Huemer week in the philosophical blogosphere (see Dailynous). The quoted passage is from a larger essay, which defends the methodological use of intuitions in political philosophy. Let me stipulate here, that in this Digression, I am agnostic about the fruitfulness and soundness of methodological use of intuitions in political philosophy. The section I quote is also part of a larger argument against so-called 'ideal theory.' (In fact, the paper is quite helpful in distinguishing between "perfection theory" and strict compliance theory" within ideal theory.)
The oddity of the section is that while it purports to criticize aiming high, it never actually confronts its target. Nobody would deny that at many decision moments ideas about the distant future are "useless." But it does not follow that ideas about the remote future are inert; it never gets around to discussing how utopian ideas and words about ideals connect to the future. For example, between 1815 and 1940 (say, from Mazzini to Hayek) many different kind of authors articulated different visions for a united Europe in which independent or federated nation-states would no longer be at war with each other. This required both a willingness to imagine the disintegration of the most powerful empires in existence and a leap into speculation about how, say, future republics could be allied in (say) a republican confederation. While some of these texts took the form of a prediction, the point of even the predictions was not scientific prediction, but, rather, to change the beliefs and commitment of readers and a wider public and, thereby, change future possibilities (not the least by generating a call to action).
Now, to be sure, Huemer is going after ideal theories that themselves (often) assume without compelling argument that they are required as a "necessary fundational part of normative social theory" (219) and that normative theory "must pursue perfection." (219) Even if one thinks there is space for such foundational and perfectionist inquiry it does not follow, as Huemer correctly argues, that these are needed for all normative purposes.** But it also does not follow that it cannot serve any useful purposes (even if one grants it is pretty useless in some very concrete choice situations).
I have already suggested that ideas can connect the present to the future. And that they can do that in ways distinct from (scientific) prediction in the context of deep uncertainty about how to future will be--I fully agree with Huemer's sense that we have no access to reliable means of long range forecasting about as-of-yet-non-existent technologies (e.g., antigravity). But it does not mean we can't have access to information about its feasibility. For, another obvious way in which the present shapes future possibilities is debt (recall this post). In fact, one annoying feature of Huemer's argument is that he simply assumes that "trying to plan for the world in 2016" is a hopeless task in 1500. It's true that (as Keynes argued) one really cannot make such long range predictions in the same way that buying insurance in 1500 for an event in 2016 is silly (although some versions of portfolio theory can suggest buying some such option as a hedge). Yet, many states did sell perpetual bonds (recall my piece on Stasavage, Machiavelli and Hume). One such (slightly younger) bond is still in existence: "The oldest known bond in the world that still produces interest is the perpetual 2.5% loan worth 1200 guilders, issued in 1624, of the Lekdijk Bovendams water board....it still pays interest." Once ideas and debt start reinforcing each other the shape of the future is much constrained.
Clearly, the previous paragraph is itself no defense of (Rawlsian) ideal theory nor helpful in taking sides in the debate between Cohen and Brennan. But it is a defense of the potency of certain kinds of "speculations about a future society." While it is, perhaps, quixotic to expect that books are still the medium by which the future is shaped, these speculations (and that can include ideal theory!) may shape the generation of the future they are speculating about (or some alternatives to those speculations) in non-mysterious ways . (I have explored the nature of the genre in terms of philosophical prophecy.) We know, as a historical fact, that, for example, Bacon's imaginative speculations about how to organize a scientific society influenced the deeds of several generations of readers and, somewhat uncannily, he also foresaw many of the problematic social and political byproducts of such a society. (While it is true "there is no reasonable way that they could have guessed even roughly what our society would be like," it is surprising how many crucial fundamental relations of our society were foreseen.) We know that Hume's "Of a Perfect Commonwealth" (recall here and here) influenced an American revolution and its Constitution, etc..
Of course, it's true that no author ca 1500-1650 guessed the role of YouTube in contemporary education. But it is also true that our conceptual-social-legal-political possibility space is, in part, constituted by speculations in the past that were self-consciously written for the future we inhabit now (and determined by ordinary social forces like the institutions of debt, inheritance law, etc.). This is, in fact, the conceit behind Socratic political philosophy from the start.
Finally, it is especially peculiar to see a university professor write, "any plans we might make for the next age are almost surely worthless." By now we there are many universities that are many hundreds year old! (Even UC Boulder dates back to 1876.) There is no doubt that these corporations have changed in light of many circumstances due to local, contingent decisions. But it is also true that they have generated corporate spirits that have provided continuous stewardship and a willingness to plan for future ages (recall this post, itself a response to Jacob Levy's). This is no coincidence: the whole enterprise of learning and science has long been constituted by the thought that each of us inherits the accomplishments and insights (etc.) of the past and we will do our best to pass these on enriched and transformed by our labors without having a clue about the details to be added by later generations.***