From Plato’s Republic to Callenbach’s Ecotopia: political and philosophical thinkers on utopias
‘No century before ours began with such lofty ideals, and no century saw its expectations end in so much bloodshed. These things are inextricably bound by a grim logic,’ writes the philosopher Hans Achterhuis at the end of De erfenis van de utopie. In this broadly conceived book, he mounts an impressive argument showing why these two things are so closely related. He discusses countless utopias and dystopias, from Plato’s Republic to Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and enlists a wide range of political and philosophical thinkers to guide him in his search for the catastrophic secret behind these systems.
Finally, he concludes that social utopia leads almost inevitably to enslavement and totalitarianism, but that technical utopia - to a certain degree already realised in our society - is highly compatible with freedom and human dignity.
This remarkable conclusion, which Achterhuis reaches together with environmental philosophers, leads to a ‘philosophy of things’ and a plea for ‘a morality of machines’. Rather than being morally neutral, things guide our behaviour (barriers in the subway forcing us to buy a ticket). This is why they are capable of exerting moral pressure that is much more effective than imposing sanctions or trying to reform the way people think. Utopia has been superseded but the world can still be improved, if we take seriously our moral ties to the machines and devices that surround us.
Achterhuis takes a refreshing standpoint within the ongoing discussion of technology and its moral consequences and he reveals it slowly but surely in this gripping book. Occupying a middle ground between technophobia and technocracy, he sketches an appealing alternative future that is based on faith in human capabilities and the determination to learn from the defeat of the utopian tradition.