Issue #48 January 2022

Is a Better World Possible? – John Stuart Mill, Manatees, and the Social Utopia

Honoré Daumier - Le Wagon de troisième classe (c. 1863-1865)

InCurrent Affairs article, Nathan J. Robinson raises the question of whether manatees do not represent living proof that the utopia of a pacifist society is possible:

“In a way, it is sad that human beings became the dominant species on Earth. 6,000 manatees is a tiny number. If the ratios were inverted, and there were 6,000 humans and billions of manatees, it would be a more peaceable world. A “Planet of the Manatees” would not go to war, because the manatee’s pacifism is absolute. Frankly, a “Planet of the Apes” would also be superior—the gorilla, too, subsists mostly on plants and commits few murders. Gorillas have not invented police or militaries. They are muscular vegans (or mostly vegans), intelligent without being sadistic. They are far more entitled to rule. In the manatee, we can see a model for how life can be conducted without brutality or cruelty. A social utopia is clearly possible, because a species with vastly less intelligence and ability already lives in one.”

Robinson refers to something that initially seems understandable, especially against the backdrop of ever-increasing catastrophes such as climate change or the widening gap between the rich and the poor. In the spirit of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robinson points out the ambivalences that social progress inevitably entails. After all, Rousseau pointed out in all clarity that although human beings were originally born in a free and peaceful co-existence, they were dominated by increasing aggression in their interpersonal relations as they left the state of nature. Rousseau attributes the negative aspects brought about by the increasing process of civilization – quite in a Marxist fashion – primarily to the institution of private property.

Nevertheless, Rousseau went a decisive step further than Marx when he emphasizes that it is not exclusively the institution of private property that drives people into a relentless competition. Rousseau points out that only the combination of private property with the human capacity for self-love (amour propre) ensures that social relations are characterized by an increasing degree of conflict and inequality. In the state of nature, people live in peaceful coexistence and possess only the capacity for a specific form of self-love (amour de soi), by which Rousseau understands a completely unproblematic form of egoism, which merely describes the human urge for self-preservation. The increasing process of civilization ensures that the unproblematic quality of amour de soi transforms into amour propre. According to Rousseau, the latter denotes a form of egoism, which is characterized in particular by the fact that human beings are increasingly guided in their actions by striving for recognition. Hence, amour propre in combination with private property represents the origin of the increasing social injustices.

If one analyzes Robinson’s commentary from Rousseau’s point of view, the central statement seems relatively clear at first: In contrast to the pacifist manatee, human beings lead an existence characterized by inconsideration and egoism. To live in a more peaceful world, it would be far more beneficial if the world were populated by billions of manatees and only 6000 humans. Nevertheless, Robinson’s thoughts should also be viewed critically. When Robinson points out that a social utopia is quite possible because a species with lower intellectual capacities already lives in one, he commits a similar mistake as Rousseau, since the high cognitive and intellectual capacities of human beings are only the prerequisites for us to fill the concept of a social utopia with the necessary semantic content. Or to put it differently: It is only through the high cognitive capacities that we can categorize the conditions of living among manatees as a social utopia. Rousseau, too, was only able to categorize the state of nature as preferable to the social state he found himself in through his cognitive capacities as a human being.

However, questions arise at this point concerning the nature of social utopias themselves. It seems indisputable that human and – inextricably linked to it – social progress has always been characterized by clearly recognizable ambivalences. The Age of Enlightenment, for example, alongside an increase in education, has equally been able to instrumentalize its ideals as a justificatory basis for the worst forms of despotic coercion. Industrialization, in addition to increasing prosperity, has also produced an ever-increasing degree of impoverishment and is, not least, partly responsible for our changing climate. It seems important, however, to go beyond these considerations and ask: why do we, as human beings, design utopias?

First of all, it is important to point out that utopias themselves are always characterized by a discrepancy between the current (real) actual state and the future (ideal) target state, whereby the actual state is usually characterized by negative elements (lack of peace, economic exploitation, wars, climate change, etc.), which are no longer present in the imagined future state – i.e. the utopia. When Rousseau imagines a state of nature among the free and the equal, this is a clear indicator of the increase of unfreedom and inequality that Rousseau notes in the social developments of his time. At this point, it might be beneficial to consult another thinker.


John Stuart Mill: Socialism and Progress

John Stuart Mill, who is often mistakenly perceived as a paradigmatic representative of classical liberalism, dealt very intensively with utopian visions of the future which were characterized by socialist forms of social and economic organization. Mill was fully aware that socialism was not possible under the current social conditions he found during his lifetime. Nevertheless, it was an open question for Mill whether socialism, after people have reached a certain stage of moral and intellectual development, might not represent a system of social organization preferable to capitalism – not least because for Mill the negative aspects of capitalism were becoming increasingly apparent. In his essay On Socialism, published in 1879, Mill points out the following:

“From these various considerations I do not seek to draw any inference against the possibility that Communistic production is capable of being at some future time the form of society best adapted to the wants and circumstances of mankind. I think that this is, and will long be, an open question, upon which fresh light will continually be obtained, both by trial of the Communistic principle under favourable circumstances, and by the improvements which will be gradually effected in the working of the existing system, that of private ownership. The one certainty is, that Communism, to be successful, requires a high standard of both moral and intellectual education in all the members of the community – moral, to qualify them for doing their part honestly and energetically in the labour of life under no inducement but their share in the general interest of the association, and their feelings of duty and sympathy towards it; intellectual, to make them capable of estimating distant interests and entering into complex considerations, sufficiently at least to be able to discriminate, in these matters, good counsel from bad“ (Mill 1967: 746).

Here, Mill explicitly affirms that socialist forms of economic organization presuppose a high degree of intellectual and moral education, which is why he sees its practical feasibility in the future. Likewise, Mill rejects revolutionary forms of socialism. According to Mill, a revolutionary overthrow often leads to a deterioration of social conditions instead of improving them. Mill argues this not least against the background of the fact that the consequences of revolutions can never be really known in advance. Or, to put it another way: one simply cannot anticipate what will happen after the revolutionary overthrow. Instead, Mill advocates moderate reforms, rather than revolutions, to see the social utopia he imagines realized. From a strictly Marxist perspective, of course, one can then counter Mill for falling prey to the naive liberal belief that a better state of society can be reached through small adjusting reforms. Nevertheless, this criticism seems to fall short in many respects. If Mill has pointed out anything quite clearly, it is that individual reforms can sometimes be more revolutionary than the revolution itself.


The Utopia as a Journey to the North star

In his Essay Fontana and Prati’s Saint-Simonism in London, Mill makes this point very impressively employing a metaphorical comparison with the journey to the North Star:

“It is the true ideal of a perfect human society; the spirit of which will more and more pervade even the existing social institutions, as human beings become wiser and better; and which, like any other model of unattainable perfection, everybody is the better for aspiring to, although it be impossible to reach it. We may never get to the north star, but there is much use in turning our faces towards it if we are journeying northward“ (Mill 1986: 679).

Here Mill aptly draws attention to something that is of great importance when thinking about utopian thoughts – and their practical feasibility. The dream of a utopia, and likewise the approach to its practical realization, is always dependent on that previously mentioned discrepancy between the present and the future, which gradually – through progress and social reforms – becomes smaller and smaller. But it should also be emphasized at this point that it is not about a typical liberal invalidation of leftist demands which is based on the assumption that we approach a social utopia more meaningfully if we stick to small adjusting reforms. One of the most valuable insights that can be drawn from Mill’s philosophical work is the fact that reforms can sometimes be more revolutionary and lasting than the revolution itself – it just depends on the spirit from which the particular reforms spring.

Like the North Star, which guides the navigation of a ship’s route (even if it may never reach it), every new reform, according to Mill, should be characterized by the aspiration to move ever closer to the ideal of a more just, cooperative socialist society. With this, Mill draws attention to a quite important point: Perhaps the element of factual unattainability, which is constitutive for utopias, is one of the most important conditions for our real conditions to improve. With these thoughts in mind, we may be able to move closer and closer to the social utopia of a better world.

At this point, of course, the question arises how to deal with this (apparent) contradiction of factual unattainability and utopian visions of a better and more just society. Or to put it differently: For what reason should reform be more revolutionary than the revolution itself?

Honoré Daumier - Le Wagon de seconde classe (1864)

Human Nature and Civilization

In his essay Nature, Mill inverts the assumption mentioned earlier by Robinson and Rousseau that the state of nature, in which humankind still lives out an existence in harmony, is superior to the civilizational state. For Mill, civilizational progress and the accompanying alienation from nature are the basic conditions for moral and civilized coexistence. To use nature as a basis of justification for human action is questionable for Mill insofar as nature itself is amoral. From these considerations, Mill draws the consistent conclusion that the artificial –  understood as the improvement of natural conditions intentionally exercised by humankind – is in any case preferable to the natural. Mill feeds the necessity of cultivating the state of nature not least from the assumption that nature is evil from an anthropological point of view. According to Mill, poetic romanticizations that would like to see in nature some form of immanent order, which is to serve as an example for the moral coexistence of human beings, must be strictly rejected. The strengths of civilizational progress – or in other words: the cultivation of nature – can be traced back to the very fact that people were able to cultivate the contingent chaos that is inherent in the state of nature itself. If one reads Rousseau’s and Robinson’s views on a morally desirable state of nature – i.e. “the natural state is the (morally) good state” –  through Mill’s lens, it becomes clear that this perception – and therein lies the paradox – of the natural as the morally superior is itself a direct product of the mental and moral cultivation which humankind has only attained with civilizational progress. Mill aptly sums up this aspect when he writes:

“It is only in a highly artificialised condition of human nature that the notion grew up, or, I believe, ever could have grown up, that goodness was natural: because only after a long course of artificial education did good sentiments become so habitual, and so predominant over bad, as to arise unprompted when occasion called for them. In the times when mankind were nearer to their natural state, cultivated observers regarded the natural man as a sort of wild animal, distinguished chiefly by being craftier than the other beasts of the field; and all worth of character was deemed the result of a sort of taming; a phrase often applied by the ancient philosophers to the appropriate discipline of human beings. The truth is that there is hardly a single point of excellence belonging to human character which is not decidedly repugnant to the untutored feelings of human nature“ (Mill 1904: 18-19).

In the moral and intellectual education, which produces an artificialization of the natural, Mill locates the necessary prerequisite for the overall social progress and thus also for the approach to utopian ideas of social and economic organization. For Mill, in line with the empiricism he advocates, only through experience can human beings be capable of higher insights and develop the institutions that are conducive to the moral and intellectual progress of individuals in particular and society in general. In contrast to Rousseau, Mill assumes that the state of nature is characterized by boundless egoism, while civilization forces humans to learn cooperation and cultured behavior:

“Veracity might seem, of all virtues, to have the most plausible claim to being natural, since in the absence of motives to the contrary, speech usually conforms to, or at least does not intentionally deviate from, fact. Accordingly, this is the virtue with which writers like Rousseau delight in decorating savage life, and setting it in advantageous contrast with the treachery and trickery of civilisation. Unfortunately this is a mere fancy picture, contradicted by all the realities of savage life. Savages are always liars. They have not the faintest notion of not betraying to their hurt, as of not hurting in any other way, persons to whom they are bound by some special tie of obligation; their chief, their guest, perhaps, or their friend: these feelings of obligation being the taught morality of the savage state, growing out of its characteristic circumstances” (ibid. 21).

The truthfulness postulated by Rousseau, which is often associated with the state of nature – since humankind has not yet been corrupted by civilization – is negated by Mill against the background of the assumption that it first requires social progress to contribute to an improvement of interpersonal relations.

How do all these considerations which Mill cites concerning the morality (or amorality) of nature relate to the assumption that the factual unattainability of social utopias is constitutive of an improvement in social conditions? To find an answer to this question, it is important to note that Mill starts from a very specific anthropological assumption about human nature. To put it more concretely, Mill assumes that human beings are to be regarded as living beings who at least possess the potential for progressivity.


The Potentiality of Progress

Mill’s conception of human nature becomes particularly clear when, in his Remark’s on Bentham’s Philosophy, Mill subjects Bentham’s utilitarian doctrine to a critique in which he points out that Bentham represents an over-simplified view concerning human nature, in which he conceives of human beings as radically ahistorical subjects detached from any social framework:

“Mr. Bentham’s speculations on politics in the narrow sense, that is, on the theory of government, are distinguished by his usual characteristic, that of beginning at the beginning. He places before himself man in society without a government, and, considering what sort of government would be advisable to construct, finds that the most expedient would be a representative democracy. Whatever may be the value of this conclusion, the mode in which it is arrived at appears to me fallacious; for it assumes that mankind are alike in all times and all places, that they have the same wants and are exposed to the same evils, and that if the same institutions do not suit them, it is only because in the more backward stages of improvement they have not wisdom to see what institutions are most for their good. […] As the degree of civilization already attained varies, so does the kind of social influence necessary for carrying the community forward to the next stage of its progress” (Mill 1969: 16).

According to Mill, Bentham’s theoretical misconception is based precisely on the fact that he assumes an essentialist (i.e. unchangeable) view of human nature. These false premises, according to Mill, ultimately lead Bentham to reach the wrong conclusions concerning the question of how social institutions should be constituted to make social progress possible. To put it another way: Bentham’s assumption that representative democracy is the form of government most conducive to human nature seems flawed in that it is an oversimplification to think human beings into a hypothetical state of nature in which political institutions are not yet in place. According to Mill, it is not possible to assume that all human beings have a universal – and thus temporally and spatially independent – nature, since human nature must first be cultivated to make social progress possible. This critique of Bentham’s thoughts emphasizes Mill’s conception of history once again by pointing out that social progress constantly requires new institutions that are conducive to this progress. Accordingly, each age requires new institutions that meet the prevailing needs that characterize the people of a particular age and curb the particular dangers that confront people and societies under certain circumstances.

If one would like to try to attest Mill a specific conception about human nature, this conception could be characterized (in the form of a minimal definition) by the fact that human nature at least carries the potentiality for progress. Whether (and especially how) this potentiality is used depends, according to Mill, on the prevailing social conditions – a point to which Mill explicitly draws attention in his monumental work A System of Logic:

“For every individual is surrounded by circumstances different from those of every other individual; every nation or generation of mankind from every other nation or generation: and none of these differences are without their influence in forming a different type of character. There is, indeed, also a certain general resemblance; but peculiarities of circumstances are continually constituting exceptions even to the propositions which are true in the great majority of cases” (Mill 1974: 16).

The thoughts expressed by Mill can not only be understood as a negation of Bentham’s view of human beings as historically and culturally detached individuals but furthermore draw attention to the fact that social and historical progress can always be traced back to the interdependence between individual and society. This interdependence alone already serves to explain why the normative nature (as in Bentham’s case) cannot be derived from a universal (and thus essentialist and immutable) conception of human nature. It is in the nature of social progress and thus in the cultivation of the natural, that the question of which social conditions and institutions will have the most beneficial effect on humankind’s existence must always be renegotiated. Thus, the progress of society as a whole is always due to the reciprocity between the influence that the social framework conditions exert on the individual and, conversely, the influence of the individual on the prevailing social framework conditions.

This interaction between individual and society, which is constitutive for social progress and – inseparably connected to it – for the approach to the utopian vision of a more just society, is, according to Mill, decisively facilitated by two aspects, of which humankind, due to its potentiality for progress, is capable: education and experience. Only through education, based on experience, can the right reforms and, along with them, a lasting change in social conditions be brought about. This also explains why Mill does not believe in the immediate possibility of realizing a socialist or communist society but locates its enabling conditions in the future, and thus in a clear distance from the present (cf. Mill: 1967:746). What is undeniably true and correct, however, is the fact that – from a purely utilitarian perspective – freedom and a plurality of ways of life are indispensable for the individual in particular and social progress in general. When Mill writes in On Liberty that there is a need for a variety of ways of living, he draws attention to the very fact that education and an accompanying measure of experience are to be regarded as indispensable for human progress:

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress” (Mill 1977: 266).

Mill assumes that a plurality of ways of life is inseparably linked to overall social progress – and conformism consequently to social stagnation. Based on a similar motivation, Mill also advocates the establishment of socialist experiments of living in On Socialism:

“It is for Communism, then, to prove, by practical experiment, its power of giving this training. Experiments alone can show whether there is as yet in any portion of the population a sufficiently high level of moral cultivation to make Communism succeed, and to give to the next generation among themselves the education necessary to keep up that high level permanently. If Communist associations show that they can be durable and prosperous, they will multiply, and will probably be adopted by successive portions of the population of the more advanced countries as they become morally fitted for that mode of life. But to force unprepared populations into Communist societies, even if a political revolution gave the power to make such an attempt, would end in disappointment” (Mill 1967: 269).

Similar to the experiments of living and an accompanying plurality of experiences, as Mill describes them in On Liberty, the practicability of communist and/or socialist social systems can only be determined through experience. Through the experience gained, knowledge can in turn be gained about the institutional reforms necessary in each case, which are to contribute to social progress – and thus to the approximation of the respective social utopia.


No historical endpoint?

At this point, the question of why the factual unattainability of utopian visions is necessary for an improvement of social conditions can also be answered more clearly: By tying the human potentiality for progress directly to the openness of human action to experience (and to the future development of social relations), Mill simultaneously leaves open the end of this progress – and its practical manifestation in the respective social relations. Unlike thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama, Mill doubts that a definable historical endpoint has the last word. The approximation to that potentially unreachable historical endpoint – which also possibly never takes place similar to the journey to the North Star – should nevertheless be formative for our actions and ultimately also constitutive for social progress. For Mill, however, it is also clear that the alienation from social conditions cannot be answered by a return to the state of nature, but only by further cultivation and a concomitant turning away from natural conditions.

And this may also be one of the core aspects to be considered if we want to approach the realization of a social utopia. It is not the manatees or other life forms from the animal kingdom on which we should orient ourselves. Reforms – or even revolutions – are ultimately always something constructed and invented by human beings. Therefore, especially because of impending (or already existing) catastrophes such as climate change, we must not conclude that we must take a step back because our behavior has led to these developments in the first place. Rather, it is now more important than ever to think anthropocentrically – but in the right way! This should be accompanied by the realization that we are both the cause and the solution to most of the problems we face in the 21st century. Moreover, this should be accompanied by the realization that it is ultimately only we who can design and – inextricably linked to this – realize social utopias. And if it doesn’t work today, it will tomorrow.

Florian Maiwald is a PhD student at the University of Bonn. His thesis examines John Stuart Mill in order to explore the connection between liberalism and socialism. In 2021, his book Das Konzept des individuellen Selbst bei John Stuart Mill und Erich Fromm (engl.: The Concept of the Individual Self in the works of John Stuart Mill and Erich Fromm) has been published in German.  In addition to his doctoral thesis and his work at the university, he regularly deals with philosophical and social issues in various articles (published in Epoché Magazine and ABC Australia, among others). Florian Maiwald is an honorary editorial member of the Austrian political online magazine Unsere Zeitung – Die Demokratische and runs the podcast Bezüglich Bildung (engl.: Concerning education) with Sebastian Lenze. You can reach him at


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