I love pondering thought experiments. As I strolled through the rice fields in Central Bali today, I wondered what a perfect society would look like.
From a contrarian perspective, it is essential to consider how society treats those who are most vulnerable, particularly animals and criminals.
The animals’ statement may not be shocking, but why I consider it a foundation for a utopia is surprising. I envision a utopia where a randomly assigned role wouldn’t be dreadful. So even if you ended up with a life sentence in prison, you would not be too disappointed given the circumstances. Unfortunately, in the early 21st century, the way we treat criminals in many countries is appalling.
We may imprison people for years or even decades for various reasons, including protecting society and retribution. But what exactly constitutes retribution? Is it simply the deprivation of freedom, or is it the conditions within the prison itself?
I believe that the removal of freedom is enough — there is no need to make the situation worse by making people spend that time in concrete boxes. When released, they become almost impossible to fit back into society.
I’m not saying that prisons should be luxurious. But they should be dignified and safe for inmates. There should be a plan in place to help prisoners become better people than when they first arrived.
The reason why I would judge a utopia by the way they treat convicted criminals is that these are the most vulnerable people in society. We have captured them; they stay in boxes and cannot go anywhere without being shackled. The state has as much control over these individuals as possible, and they have very little say in the matter. In most democracies, prisoners do not even have the right to vote.
A utopia would likely have a prison system that looks different from those in developing countries, the US, and the UK. It would likely resemble the systems in the Scandinavian countries. This focuses on restorative justice and rehabilitation rather than punishment. This system would likely include more focus on education, job training, and other forms of rehabilitation, as well as more humane conditions for prisoners. It would also likely include more focus on mental health and addiction treatment and more emphasis on community-based programs and services to help those who have been released from prison reintegrate into society.
In some Nordic countries, prisoners are not given life sentences. They are only given mandatory sentences of up to 25 years. Hence, it is essential to ensure that these prisoners are prepared for reintegration into society.
I like the concept of second chances. Everyone should be allowed to redeem themselves. However, there must be exceptions for those with mental illnesses which pose a clear danger to society regardless of the time that they spend in an institution.
This lack of life sentences would act as a forcing function to ensure that the prison system focuses on rehabilitation instead of just retribution. Locking them away and throwing the key wouldn’t work in this scenario.
So what would a utopian prison system look like? well, I think it would look more like a large university campus set somewhere in nature, far away from the city. Obviously, this would still have to have significant protection and potentially walls to stop prisoners from escaping, it would not necessarily need to feel like a prison in a traditional sense.
I would suggest that cameras would be everywhere to ensure the safety of prisoners and to also enable prisoners to live in some type of apartments instead of prison cells. this would include the use of kitchens where they can cook food and also they can engage in meaningful work where they can earn money to buy small luxuries and benefits, as well as upskill themselves.
It is essential to consider the use of internet access for prisoners, as it would provide psychological benefits and allow for video calls with family and friends. However, such a system must be closely monitored, with all calls recorded and any external parties calling in being held legally accountable for any criminal activity organized by the prisoner.
I can envision different levels of prisons based on the severity of the crimes. If inmates display good behaviour, they can be upgraded with more benefits and freedoms within the prison system. In other words, they can choose to behave responsibly and gain certain privileges or misbehave and remain confined.
I believe that the use of solitary confinement for extended periods can be considered a form of psychological torture.
However, that does not mean that it can never be used.
In certain instances, prisoners may present a danger to themselves or others, necessitating solitary confinement. Additionally, if their misbehaviour is persistent, solitary confinement may be an effective form of punishment to allow them to cool off.
But this would have to be used sparingly, and also, it could not be over a certain amount of duration.
I think more important is the ability to add or remove small benefits such as the quality of food, the amount of time that you can spend outside, the type of entertainment available, internet access and things like that. These are the things that prisoners likely care about, and we can incentivize them in the right direction.
So enough on prisoners; let’s now move on to treating animals.
Obviously, the way the industrial farming system is run today is horrific and will be looked back on in future generations as an atrocity comparable to slavery or perhaps even the Holocaust.
Because when we look at the actual numbers, it is incredible. it is billions of animals being tortured from birth and then killed so that we can enjoy their flesh and byproducts.
And there is an argument to be made that you cannot compare the Holocaust to industrial farming because the Holocaust dealt with the deaths and experiments on human beings, while factory farming is just using animals. In fact, it could be seen as demeaning the horrific events in the holocaust by comparing it to factory farming.
Still, perhaps the overall suffering has been more tremendous with factory farming — it depends on the equation you use to weigh up animal suffering compared to human suffering.
Most people agree that animals can experience suffering. This suffering can be compared to the suffering of a human being. But perhaps animal suffering is not as important from the human perspective, and so it is discounted by a particular percentage.
So the question is, how much does a cow suffer in the environment of a factory farm? And — what is the equivalent to that for human suffering? So, for instance, do 100 cows equal one human? Would it be okay to sacrifice 100 cows to save one human?
Probably — but we wouldn’t be okay to sacrifice all the cows on the planet to save one person. So clearly, there is a number where we would start to choose cows over an individual human, and we can then do the exact maths for chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs, etc.
But apart from that, it’s the idea that might is right that somehow doesn’t sit well for me concerning a utopia. I can’t imagine that a wise form of government would consider it acceptable to do what we do to animals now just because we are more intelligent, stronger, and more organized.
We can imagine the terror ensuing if an advanced alien species arrived on Earth and began harvesting humans for meals, clothing, or anything else.
We consider this equivalent to a colossal holocaust and unacceptable. However, from their perspective, they view us as lesser beings, lower on the evolutionary scale. They might even think we are not conscious because they possess a higher level of consciousness than us. Therefore, they find killing and using us as a resource acceptable.
If we acted this way, we would not have a valid moral argument to oppose them. They could point to our treatment of other species and argue that if it is morally acceptable for us, their behaviour towards us is also acceptable.
I think a utopian society in the future would strive to minimize suffering worldwide for all species. Human suffering would be prioritized, but the goal would be to reduce suffering for all creatures.
We may be close to solving this problem with the development of synthetic meats. They are cheaper and healthier than factory farms. We will likely look back on the factory farm model with shame, similar to how we view the North Atlantic slave trade.
So that’s some initial thoughts on a utopian society, and the other interesting thing is how decisions could be made in a utopia.
I have a problem with dictatorships. Decisions can be made swiftly and efficiently. But — it all depends on one person. This person can become corrupted or die, leaving us uncertain about who will take over. It also consistently attracts narcissistic and selfish people — we haven’t had many Marcus Aureliuses lately.
Despite the advantages of democracy, decision-making can be lengthy, with debates over minor points and a lack of tangible progress.
I wonder if we can somehow marry these two systems where we keep the democratic element intact so we do not allow a single human being to become a dictatorship.
Yet, we could have something like a dictatorship of good ideas.
Democracy favours those who promise the most to the crowd. Consider this example: a shopkeeper and a doctor are running for election. The shopkeeper promises everyone sweets, while the doctor promises to give medicine, albeit unpleasant, that society needs to improve. In this case, the shopkeeper is likely to win.
But that shouldn’t be the case.
If the shopkeeper has a bad idea, they should fail. Conversely, if the doctor has a great idea, they should succeed, regardless of the majority opinion.
For democracy to flourish, a large portion of the population must be highly educated and aware of current affairs. They must also resist the temptation of falling into biases and groupthink. And also not to be reactive but to understand and plan for the long term.
But we’ve seen again and again that the wisdom of crowds can often lead everybody astray and that being centres of politicians in a democracy can sometimes be self-serving.
I envision an AI system that can listen to politicians’ arguments as they are made and assess them. It can detect common biases and fallacies and verify the statistics they cite.
We only accept unbiased arguments, free from personal opinion, and supported by verifiable statistics.
We can ensure the best ideas come to the surface, no matter who suggests them. Do we need a political party, or can people represent their communities as individuals?
I wonder what type of politicians this kind of system would attract and if we would get closer to Plato’s ideal sort of philosopher kings that would be experts and look after society instead of any self-serving politicians that we have today.
It’s also interesting to consider how a utopia would restrict the freedom that politicians have with regard to investing, consuming luxuries, and so on — during political office or even before and especially afterwards.
This would restrict politicians to a spartan lifestyle they must follow. Only those genuinely interested in improving society, not personal gain, would enter politics.
Utopia would excel in blending the entrepreneurial drive of capitalism with the compassionate outlook of socialism.
Making the right trade-offs between individual freedom and social responsibility is essential. We should not overly restrict individuals or neglect the common good.
I’ll continue with some further thoughts another time!