Utopias Lead to Violence
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Karl Popper, from Conjectures and Refutations
Kem Stone - 30 May 2008
I suspect that anyone who spends a great deal of time engaged in thought and who takes an interest in political
philosophy has at least some mental picture of what he or she would consider an ideal or perfect society. Since I
was very young I’ve had an idea for a Utopia in mind, but because I do not actively seek power I know that I will
never have the means by which to begin making my idea a reality. And according to Karl Popper, this is probably
a good thing, as he believes all attempts to establish a Utopia—to start with a blueprint of an ideal society and
then use whatever means available to bring it about—will invariably lead to violence and more human suffering.
His arguments are extremely compelling and I have been almost completely convinced by them, however for the
sake of making this entry more interesting I will try to defend my own Utopia against his claims and show how it is
at least theoretically possible to bring about a peaceful transition to a global society in which violence is eradicated
and freedom universal.
Popper does believe that violence can be eradicated, and he is a strong advocate of the struggle against it, but he
does not believe that constructing a Utopian world is the right way to go about it. It is Utopian thinking in the first
place, under the brand of Nazism or Fascism, that with the two world wars (which had concluded just shortly
before the publication of this text) has made the elimination of barbarism and brutality an even more difficult
objective. The hateful ideas of Hitler and other brutal dictators have achieved a kind of victory in defeat, leaving a
legacy that has not only set a horrific example for all subsequent violent regimes but threatens our entire
civilisation, should we use the weapons that we developed to combat the threat of Nazism. But in spite of these
major setbacks, Popper remains optimistic that violence can be brought under the control of reason.
The alternative to violence is something that Popper calls the “attitude of reasonableness” which is the only sane
approach to conflict resolution. All conflicts between two parties result from either a clash of opinions or a clash
of interests. “How can a decision be reached? There are, in the main, only two possible ways: argument
(including arguments submitted to arbitration, for example to some international court of justice) and violence. Or,
if it is interests that clash, the two alternatives are a reasonable compromise or an attempt to destroy the opposing
interest” (502). To approach a conflict from an attitude of reasonableness means to favour argument or
compromise rather than violence. The essence of reasonableness lies in the difference between argument and
propaganda, which Popper sees as a form of violence. Argument is different from propaganda because it is
characterised by an attitude of give and take; of not merely a desire to convince the other side but a willingness to
be convinced. Thus the attitude of reasonableness requires a degree of intellectual humility, to know that one is
occasionally wrong and to avoid habitually forgetting one’s mistakes. According to Popper, this is the only
attitude that does not lead to violence.
There are many obstacles which impede the spread of reasonableness. “One of the main difficulties is that it
always takes two to make a decision reasonable. Each of the parties must be ready to learn from the other. You
cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you” (503). There
are limits to the power of reason; just as we should not tolerate those who are intolerant, we cannot reason with
those who are unreasonable. The consequence of this is that we can never allow ourselves to blur the line
between attack and defence, never to be the aggressor but to always resist aggression. There are those who will
never renounce violence, so we must be prepared to fight them, but never by adopting their own brutal means.
Popper admits that his preference for rationalism over violence is not itself rational, but is based merely on his
own personal hatred of violence. Nor is his rationalism dogmatic, the foundation of an ethical system with reason
as the chief value. “Or to put it another way, my rationalism is not self-contained, but rests on an irrational faith in
the attitude of reasonableness. I do not see that we can go beyond this. One could say, perhaps, that my
irrational faith in equal and reciprocal rights to convince others and be convinced by them is a faith in human
reason; or simply, that I believe in man” (503). He clarifies this statement by saying that he believes in man as he
is, without regard to the question of whether man is a predominantly rational animal. Just as he does not insist
upon a firm foundation for his ethical claims, he does not insist upon any claims regarding whether man is more
rational than emotional or vice versa, as he believes that no such claim can be proven scientifically. Whatever one
believes about man’s faculty of reason, or whatever ethical foundation one approaches the issue from, one need
only agree with Popper’s initial premise that violence ought to be avoided in order to be open to considering his
subsequent propositions. Popper understands that anyone who believes that violence is natural to mankind or a
necessary means to the attainment of honour or some other desirable abstract good will reject his argument from
the beginning. But he also wishes to make clear that one need not consider the attainment of reasonableness to be
the dominant aim of our lives in order to follow his reasoning either. Popper only wishes to stress that this attitude
should never be completely absent, even in relationships where emotion is the dominant force.
After laying out what he describes as his fundamental attitude towards the problem of reason and violence,
Popper launches into his explanation of how Utopianism is a form of rationalism that invariably leads to violence.
Utopian thinking is rational because it has a logical foundation: that the rationality of an action can only be
determined relative to a certain end. The action is rational if it makes the best use of available means in order to
achieve that end, but without a specific end in mind no judgment can be made as to how rational the action is.
Applying this argument to politics, the ends a politician has in mind may be to merely increase his own power or
wealth, or perhaps to bring about a genuine improvement in the laws of the state. “In the latter case political
action will be rational only if we first determine the final ends of the political changes which we intend to bring
about….Thus it appears that as a preliminary to any rational political action we must first attempt to become as
clear as possible about our ultimate political ends; for example the kind of state which we should consider the
best; and only afterwards can we begin to determine the means which may best help us to realise this state, or to
move slowly towards it, taking it as the aim of a historical process which we may to some extent influence and
steer towards the goal selected” (504).
Popper wants to show that this approach, which is admittedly quite attractive to a rational mind, is ultimately self-
defeating and leads to violence. It must be self-defeating because it is impossible to scientifically determine what
kind of political ends are the most desirable. People who venerate violence will certainly come to different
conclusions about the ideal state that those who despise it. The lover of violence would sooner shoot you than
listen to your arguments—though Popper wishes to make it clear that he does not believe trying to argue with such
people is always useless. If he is willing to listen to you in the first place, he may be infected with at least a shred
of rationalism and you therefore have a chance of convincing him and should make the attempt. But you cannot
convince a person suspicious of argument to listen to argument by arguing. By this reasoning, Popper shows that
it is impossible to attain universal agreement regarding political ends.
Popper has shown that science and reason cannot solve the problem of constructing a Utopian blueprint. The
problem goes beyond the scope of science, just as it goes beyond the scope of physics to determine whether it is
the right thing to do to construct a plough, an aeroplane, or an atomic bomb. And “since we cannot determine the
ultimate ends of political actions scientifically, or by purely rational methods, differences of opinion concerning
what the ideal state should be like cannot always be smoothed out by the method of argument. They will at least
partly have the character of religious differences….Thus the Utopianist must win over, or else crush, his Utopianist
competitors who do not share his own Utopian aims and who do not profess his own Utopianist religion” (505).
According to Popper, no matter how peaceful a society the Utopianist envisions, in order to bring it to fruition he
will have no choice but to eliminate all heretical competing views.
To make matters even more difficult, the period of Utopian construction is bound to be one of great social change,
and while the shape of society is changing so might ideas about the ultimate end the Utopian engineers have in
mind. “The whole method of first establishing an ultimate political aim and then preparing to move towards it must
be futile if the aim may be changed during the process of its realisation. It may easily turn out that the steps so far
taken lead in fact away from the new aim” (506). The only way to prevent others from altering course is through
violence, either propaganda or the suppression of all criticism. The original Utopian plan must take on a divine
character, as must the Utopian engineers who designed it. They must be seen practically as Gods—omnipotent,
omniscient, and infallible—if they wish to maintain support for their actions throughout the chaotic period of
transition to their brave new world. What begins as a rational project to make the ideal state a reality and thus
bring about universal happiness inevitably becomes an irrational quasi-religious struggle which brings only more
tyranny and misery. This is why Utopian rationalism is self-defeating.
Popper wishes to make it clear that it is only the Utopian approach that he is criticising and not necessarily the
political ideals that Utopianists have in the past tried to implement. Nor is he suggesting that such ideals are
impossible to realise, citing the example of an untyrannical institution for securing peace within a state. The idea of
an international judicature and police force to secure peace internationally may seem like the distant dream of a
Utopian thinker, but Popper not only believes the creation of such an organisation is possible, but he actually
recommends it. He must now reconcile his criticism of Utopian rationalism with his support for global political
reforms that some may consider “Utopian” in nature.
Popper provides a basic formula for distinguishing between admissible plans for social reform and inadmissible
Utopian blueprints: “Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realisation of abstract goods.
Do no aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries” (506).
In order to avoid the pitfalls of Utopian thinking, we must go about our reforms by direct means only. We must
determine what we consider the most urgent evils of our society and begin by patiently trying to convince people
that it is possible to overcome them. We must not try to go about achieving these goals indirectly by first
designing an ideal society and working towards its establishment. The essence of the distinction is to focus on
eliminating suffering rather than creating happiness. When it comes to the realm of public policy, the most urgent
issue is to root out human misery. Attaining happiness should be a personal matter, left up to individuals to pursue
The proposition that happiness should be left out of public policy while suffering should be its main focus is
appealing enough on its own, but it is well-supported by Popper. It is not difficult to reach agreement through
rational discussion as to what the most intolerable evils of society are. These are with us here and now, and we
can profit from the attitude of reasonableness when we go about discussing how to put a stop to them. But what
goes for concrete evils does not go for ideal goods. “These we know only from our dreams and from the dreams
of our poets and prophets. They cannot be discussed, only proclaimed from the housetops. They do not call for
the rational attitude of the impartial judge, but for the emotional attitude of the impassioned preacher. The
Utopianist attitude, therefore, is opposed to the attitude of reasonableness” (507).
Realising that some readers may perceive an inconsistency between this statement and the rational argument he
previously outlined for the Utopianist case, Popper offers further clarification. Though it is true that the rationality
of an action can only be judged relative to specific ends, it need not be judged solely in relation to a historical
end, which is what most Utopian plans are based on. We must not judge our actions based solely on their
possible contributions to human happiness in the distant future, but on the effects these actions have immediately.
No tumultuous social situation brought on by our actions can be justified with a claim that it is merely a transient
historical period, because all historical periods are transient. Nor can the misery of one generation be justified by
claiming this misery is merely the means to the end of securing the happiness of later generations, because all
generations are transient as well. Finally, we must agree with this reasoning if we believe in the simple maxim that
we should never balance one person’s misery against another’s happiness.
After concluding his argument, Popper includes some final thoughts about the appeal of Utopianism in the
intellectual landscape of the post-WWII era. The idea that we can make heaven on earth is especially attractive
immediately following a period of intense horror, but Popper warns against trying to build an ideal world and
instead insists that we merely try to make life a little less terrible with each generation. If we are to defeat violence
and unreason, we must believe in man as he is rather than what we believe he ought to be, and demand that each
of us be given the right to arrange our lives as we see fit, as long as we respect the rights of others.
Popper sees the rise of ‘false rationalisms’ as part of a larger problem. “Ultimately it is the problem of a sane
attitude towards our own existence and limitations—that very problem of which so much is made now by those
who call themselves ‘Existentialists’, the expounders of a new theology without God. There is, I believe, a
neurotic and even an hysterical element in this exaggerated emphasis upon the fundamental loneliness of man in a
godless world, and upon the resulting tension between the self and the world. I have little doubt that this hysteria
is closely akin to Utopian romanticism, and also to the ethic of hero-worship, to an ethic that can comprehend life
only in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’” (508). There is little doubt in my mind that Popper has
Nietzsche, and possible Sartre and his contemporaries in mind when he levels this critique against existentialism.
Whether or not it is a fair one is a point I will return to shortly, but Popper also expresses the same grievance
against contemporary Christian thinkers who also introduce the ethic of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’ in the
relationship between man and God. Popper believes that the emphasis these thinkers place on this tension results
from an unbalanced attitude towards the problem of power.
The problem of power as such is not merely how man relates to God or other men, but to his natural environment
as well. These thinkers are obsessed with God’s power to create a world, and from this fascination arises the
belief that we too ought to create our own Utopian social world. Common to all Utopian thinking is the
‘knowledge is power’ axiom that justifies authority based on one’s superior intellectual abilities. “The true
rationalist, by contrast, will always know how little he knows, and he will be aware of the simple fact that
whatever critical faculty or reason he may possess he owes to intellectual intercourse with others. He will be
inclined, therefore, to consider men as fundamentally equal, and human reason as a bond which unites them.
Reason for him is the precise opposite of an instrument of power and violence: he sees it as a means whereby
these may be tamed” (509).
I almost agree completely with every point that Popper makes within his main arguments, though I disagree with a
few of the points he adds at the end. As for his argument for an ethic based on an attitude of reasonableness, I
find it extremely compelling, and even more so for his full admission that the foundation of this ethic is nothing
more than a particular subjective attitude towards violence. In previous entries I have stated that I reject any solid
foundation for judging an action to be right or wrong, but that all normative claims must be conditional in nature: If
you believe that human life has value, you ought not kill. If you believe we have a duty to future generations, you
ought to support environmental protection measures. Popper’s claim is conditional as well: If you believe that
violence is wrong, you ought to reject Utopian thinking, because of the following argument:
1. Utopian thinking requires a rational idea of a wholly good society.
2. It is impossible to rationally determine ideal goods.
3. What is good for man is purely a matter of emotional preference.
4. There will therefore inevitably be disagreement as to the proper shape of the Utopian society.
5. The only way to establish the Utopia is to root out all disagreement.
6. The only way to root out disagreement is through violence.
7. Therefore, Utopian thinking always leads to violence.
This is an extremely compelling argument, and I am inclined to agree with it, though objections can be raised
against the fifth and sixth propositions. My own Utopian blueprint may have a way of bypassing these pitfalls,
allowing for disagreement as well as providing for the possibility of non-violent resolutions to the disagreements
that do inevitably arise.
I will not go into great detail, but the Utopian world I envision is essentially a global democracy in which a certain
degree of sovereignty is given to each nation, city, neighbourhood, and family. A nation is free to determine its
own laws regarding things of national interest only, while cities are free to determine their own laws regarding
things of local interest only, and neighbourhoods are free to make their own rules regarding things of interest to the
community only. The only international laws that must be adhered to universally on all levels of law-making are 1-
a prohibition on laws that violate Mill’s liberty principle, i.e. any laws that restrict a person’s freedom to harm
himself such as laws against drug-use (unless there is unanimous consent within a community, in which case there
would be no need for such laws in the first place) and 2- prohibition on any form of violent aggression against a
rival nation, city, or community. An international police force and judicature with representatives from every
nation must be assembled, but only for the purpose of maintaining international peace. Such a world would allow
for the greatest degree of human freedom with the least degree of violence.
Does this Utopia stand up to Popper’s objections? According to proposition 5 in my outline above, the only way
to accomplish the building of a Utopia is to root out all disagreement. Yet my Utopia leaves plenty of room for
disagreement, as the making and enforcing of laws is left up to each territory within the scope of the proper
authority that ought to fall under the control of each territory. Two neighbouring towns which disagree on what
percentage of their residents’ income should go to the local government can live side by side in peace, each with
their own level of income tax determined by popular majority. The towns can not vote on how much income
should go to the federal government because that goes beyond the scope of their sovereignty, but the laws
governing federal income tax are also determined by a majority, though national rather than local. This kind of
hierarchical system is nearly identical to the political systems that already exist, so making the transition would not
require any bloodshed or human misery. The reforms would not require one generation to suffer for the sake of
the next, but things would begin improving immediately.
Which bring us to proposition 6, that the only way to root out disagreement when constructing a Utopia is through
violence. In the system I have described above, there is no need to “stamp out heretical views” as Popper claims
would be necessary. Should a person believe that he should not have to pay taxes at all, rather than violently rise
up against his local or national government, he can simply move to a nation or city where a majority feels the same
way, and no taxes are collected (until the infrastructure begins to collapse and the majority changes its mind—but
this is only an example). Should a group of people believe that they ought to be allowed multiple spouses while
polygamy is against local laws, they can simply move to a community where polygamy is allowed, or start their
own. Essentially, there is plenty of room for disagreement in this ideal world and plenty of non-violent, perfectly
feasible courses of action to resolve the issues of those who do disagree.
So at least in principle, Popper’s argument is not irrefutable. However, I will readily admit that in practice, even
an attempt to set up such a peaceful, democratic world such as this could probably not be accomplished without a
certain degree of violence. Many nations would undoubtedly refuse to give up any shred of sovereignty to an
international judicature, and would be willing to fight to remain outside the global Utopia. Such issues could be
resolved by allowing them their total sovereignty, yet insisting that the international army continues to stand ready
in case they decide to aggressively attack any nation within the Utopia. Still, there are bound to be some
individuals or groups of individuals who refuse to abide by their local laws and refuse to move to a place with a
more agreeable social structure. Yet such people will always exist, and the elimination of all crime and violence is
too much to expect from any society, no matter how well-structured it may be to prevent it. But despite the fact
that I believe my Utopian world overcomes most of the objections raised by Popper, I am willing to admit that if
any attempt were ever actually made to implement such a blueprint, it would probably result in some degree of
violence. And once we start asking whether the ends justify the means, we begin to lose the justification for our
The above sentiment is one expressed by Albert Camus in The Rebel¸ and one I agree with wholeheartedly. This
is why Popper’s objection to existentialism surprises me, as it seems to me that Sartre and Camus must have
agreed with much of Popper’s sentiments. The refusal to find one’s basis for ethics in dogma, the basic attitude of
mistrust towards any strict belief system, and a belief in the intrinsic value of human life, are common to all three
philosophers. I can understand why Popper might object to a thinker such as Nietzsche, who advocated the
coming of a more perfect humanity and who believed in the will to power as the fundamental metaphysical force
behind the universe, but Nietzsche lived in the previous century and it seems that Popper is objecting to the
emphasis on man’s forlornness without God that arose following the two world wars in Europe. Popper seems to
believe that this sense of the anguish of mankind in a godless world is greatly exaggerated, and not as important as
the existentialists make it out to be. Yet I would turn this challenge around and ask whether the existentialists take
“God’s death” too seriously, or whether Popper does not take it seriously enough. As to whether their attitude
towards the problem of power is imbalanced, I would ask on what basis one could possibly make such a
I’d be interested to read more about Popper’s views on existentialism, but from what little I find here it seems to
me that his objections are not rational at all, but purely emotional. Perhaps Popper does not feel that it is right for
humanity to dwell on the questions of its place in a Godless universe, but I for one believe that it is not only
appropriate but necessary for us to do just that. If we are to make progress towards a better world, be it through
advancing towards a Utopian ideal or simply reforming our societies one step at a time as Popper recommends,
we must acknowledge that there is no great benevolent deity with an interest in our success, and that whether we
succeed or self-destruct depends on our decisions alone. But thanks to Popper’s arguments, we have some very
good reasons to reject the Utopian approach and focus instead on the incremental elimination of concrete miseries
rather than the attainment of an abstract, universal happiness.