Competition year: 2001
About William Sidney Harper
When Thomas More wrote his famous book in 1515, he was driven by a sense of irrationality in high places. His fictional work Utopia was an attempt to portray how a logical society might order its affairs. Thomas had ample experience in the three main institutions- religion, government and law.
Placed as a boy in the household of Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, he was exposed to religion (indeed, in his time especially, it would be difficult not to be). At the age of twenty-one he entered Parliament and saw how things were done in the halls of government. If he needed any more material to write his book, that was provided when he was called to the bar and became Under-Sheriff of London.
Thomas found all three institutions lacking in rationality thus providing the inspiration for Utopia. Of course, Thomas himself indulged in a bit of irrationality on occasion, such as wearing a hair shirt, using a log for a pillow, and whipping himself on Fridays, while he was studying law. But then, being exposed to all three institutions can do things like that to a man.
Through the eyes of his hero Raphael Hythloday, Thomas gave his vision of how a perfect society might do things. Utopia portrayed a much simpler world than ours, yet several hundred years later the basic causes of society's ills remain the same, and so do our institutions.
How, then, to better order things? Despite the system of logic portrayed in Utopia, there is a dreariness and a loss of individuality and personal freedom that is disturbing, if not chilling, in some aspects of this perfect society. Anyone who proposes the next Utopia must avoid the trap of trying to turn us all into well-oiled machine parts, dutifully fitting into our roles within the state. The state, after all, should exist to benefit the people, not the other way around.
Reform of our major institutions is the keystone to a happier, healthy society, yet this cannot happen under the prevailing ethical muddle. Problems cannot be solved unless they are recognised in the first place. The primary hurdle then, is to realise the need for a change in ethics. Rational societies can only be formed by rational citizens, so to put reform of our institutions as a priority is to put the cart before the horse in a very real sense. You cannot build a healthy machine from dysfunctional parts.
The building blocks of a perfect society are its citizens, and this places a major priority on the adoption of a logical personal ethic. To expect that to happen on a global scale is to ask the nearly impossible, yet if only one small country was to achieve such a feat, it would serve as a model for the world.
An ethic based on logic would also recognise the need to channel or deflect harmful instinctive reactions such as greed and prejudice, which are byproducts of our evolutionary heritage. It might look something like this:
A short essay on a Utopian state is not the place for a full description of an ethic system or the reasons behind it. That is contained in a book I'm trying to get published, The Atheist's Guide To Religion. Yet a society, be it Utopia or any other, is only a reflection of the citizens within it. To build a new Utopia the majority of its people would have to adopt a logical ethic. A short description of what such a society might believe in, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any discussion of a theoretical Utopian state.