From the book: The Eye of the Needle by Richard Turner
There are two kinds of "impossibility": the absolute impossibility and the "other things being equal" impossibility. It is absolutely impossible to teach a lion to become a vegetarian. "Other things being equal" it is impossible for a black person to become prime minister of South Africa.
"Given that the whites are in power in South Africa and that they will continue to want what they want now, it is impossible to have a just society in South Africa. So let us try to see what changes they can be persuaded to accept within that context. Can we perhaps persuade them at least to eat old goats instead of our prize lambs?" This has been the typical approach of South African liberal groups in general. We need to go beyond this. We need to ask whether in fact white South Africans are absolutely and inevitably carnivorous. Let us, for once, stop asking what the whites can be persuaded to do, what concessions, other things being equal, they may make, and instead explore the absolute limits of possibility by sketching an ideally just society.
There are two reasons why it is important to think in long-range "Utopian" terms. Christianity does not just condemn racism. It constitutes a challenge to all accepted values, an invitation to continuous self-examination, to a continuous attempt at transcendence. We need therefore to explore, and, if necessary, to attack, all the implicit assumptions about how to behave toward other people that underlie our daily actions in all spheres.
We may find that Christianity is incompatible not only with racism but also with many of the other norms regulating our behavior, and that in order to live in a Christian way we will need radically to restructure our society. For what is a society? We sometimes tend to speak and think of a society and of social institutions as though they were natural entities, part of the geography of the world in which we live. The geography of an area determines, with fair rigidity, the possibilities of movement open to us; we can go around a mountain, or over it, but not through it-although in a pinch we could build a tunnel through a small part of it. But we would never even dream of moving the whole mountain. Similarly, we tend to see the institutions of our society-the type of economic structure, the family, the school system, the existence of nation states, the polity, and so on-as natural entities imposing certain rigidities on our behavior. We see our area of choice in interpersonal relations as being marked out by these institutions. We can pay our employees slightly higher or lower wages, but we cannot do without a wage system. We might try three successive monogamous marriages, but we wouldn't consider polyandry. We may even tinker slightly, building a tunnel here and a bridge there, by simplifying divorce laws or legislating against trade unions. But the great core institutions remain essentially unaltered and unalterable.
However, a social institution is certainly not a solid existing thing like a mountain or an ocean. It may have certain material substrata-written rules and regulations, or a school building to house it in-but ultimately an institution is nothing but a set of behavior patterns. It is the way in which people behave toward one another. Private property as an institution is a particular way of using material things in relations with other people. If, for example, everybody took down their fences and stopped keeping people off "their" pieces of land, we would have different property institutions. That is, if everybody behaved differently, the environmental geography would remain the same, but the social geography would change.
Now this is, of course, once it has been stated, monuÂmentally obvious. Why, then, do people continue to take for granted the fixity of social institutions, and in so doing continue to act out the behavior patterns that collectively keep the institutions in being? The most obvious reason is that simply my behaving in a particular way does not create an institution; everybody behaving in the same way creates it. So to change it, it is necessary for everybody, or at least nearly everybody, to change their behavior. If I give away my property I do not thereby abolish private property as an institution; I only abolish my private property.
But there may be other reasons as well. First, it may be that we cannot in fact behave differently. It may be that, in some spheres at least, we can behave only in certain ways: e.g., that polyandry is impossible because men are naturally jealous and possessive, that private property is based on a biological drive to ownership, and so on. Factors such as these I shall refer to as "imperatives of human nature." Secondly, it may be that, in order for the coordinated action of a large number of people to be effective, certain behavior patterns have to be ruled out. For example, it may be that when more than a certain number of people are involved, group decision-making becomes impossible, so that some sort of decision-making hierarchy is required. Imperatives of this sort I shall refer to as "imperatives of organization."
In order to reflect on our values, then, we have to see which aspects of our society is the necessary result of the imperatives of human nature and of organization, and which aspects of it are changeable. We then need to make explicit the value principles embodied in our actual behavior, and to criticize these principles in the light of other possible values. Until we realize what other values, and what other social forms, are possible, we cannot judge the morality or otherwise of the existing society.
This brings me to the second reason for the importance of Utopian thinking. Unless we can see our society in the light of other possible societies we cannot even understand how and why it works as it does, let alone judge it. Let us take the example of thinking about race. It is "common sense" (to white South Africans) that black people are inferior to white people. And this common sense is not just some sort of delusion. It is based on white South Africans' experience of the objective "inferiority" of most blacks in, for example, education, income, dress and language proficiency (that is, proficiency in the only languages that whites recognize). And, moreover, nearly everyone they know treats blacks as inferior. They see black "inferiority" as one of the imperatives of human nature. They "explain" a social fact by direct reference to biology and thereby misunderstand it. If we assume the natural inferiority of a group we don't look for social causes of its actual "inferiority." If, on the other hand, we discover that there is no biological root for this "inferiority," no imperative of human nature, then we begin to ask the illuminating question: What is the social structure that creates the various objective "inferiorities" of certain groups? And only then do we understand how our society operates.
Common-sense thinking obscures reality. The example of thinking about race is obvious, but perhaps an unfortunate example just because it is so obvious. For in most cases, almost by definition, the fallacies of common-sense thinking are not obvious. The struggle of the women's liberation movement to be taken seriously, let alone to attain its goals, is an example of this. It is "common sense" that women look after children, expect their husbands to have more interesting jobs than they can have, leave discussion on important issues such as politics and business to men, play only a secondary role in public affairs-typing and envelope-licking, rather than speaking, planning, and organizing. Above all, they look "attractive" and do the cooking. They do tend to do all these things, and perhaps are even satisfied doing only these things. Yet there is no biological reason why women should make the coffee while men talk. With the invention of sterilized bottles and powdered milk, there is not even any reason why they should stay at home and mind the children. A man can make a bottle and change a diaper.
This perspective opens up important theoretical and ethical questions:
1. What are the historical reasons that women have assumed their present roles, and what are the social mechanisms used to impose the role on each woman as she grows up? How does the girl baby, the potentially free creative human being, get trained to be a contented dishwasher?
2. If a woman's role is to make coffee, then morality consists in giving her enough money to buy the coffee and asking her nicely when you want it done. If, however, a woman could play other roles, then the man has to rethink his role, has to rethink what man-woman relations mean. The man and woman together have to create a new set of values.
So unless we think in a "Utopian" way about the position of women in society we miss two important sets of problems: (1) Why does society work in the way it does?
(2) Is there any moral justification for the ethical imperatives that regulate man-woman behavior? How should men and women relate to one another, and what social institutions should we strive for in which to embody these relationships?
Similarly, unless we think in Utopian terms about South African society we will not really come to understand how it works today. We will take for granted in equalities, power relationships, and behavior patterns that need to be explained. Nor will we be able to evaluate the society adequately. We will not understand on how many different levels there are alternatives, and so the possibility of choice, and so the possibility of moral judgement.
To understand a society, to understand what it is, where it is going, and where it could go, we cannot just describe it. We need also to theorize about it. We need to refer back and forth between what we see in the society and what is essential to any society. When we look at a car we can distinguish easily between the chrome and that in the car which is essential to its functioning. This is an example of simple theorizing, to be able to do the same thing about society. Theory itself is not difficult. What is often difficult is to shift oneself into a theoretical attitude, that is, to things in one's experience cannot be taken for granted. In the case of cars the problem is simplified by more difficult. First, most people experience only one society in depth. Second, a society changes relatively slowly. The present nearly always seems to be at least fairly permanent. In order to theorize about society perhaps the first step (psychologically) we have to make is to grasp the present as history. History is not something that has just come to end and certainly not something that came to an end fifty years ago. Societies, including our own society, have been changing in many ways, great and small, throughout time, and there is no reason to believe that they have stopped now. History is not a process leading up to perfection in the flowering of our present "civilization"-which is the ordinary unreflecting attitude to it. There is still so much that is irrational in human behavior that, even if we see the progress of "civilization" as a linear upward march, it is unlikely to stop here. And if we don't see it this way it is even less likely to stop here!
So it is probable that many of our social institutions and personal ways of behaving will change. The fact that something exists is no guarantee that it will continue to exist or that it should exist. A glance at some of the institutions that other societies have taken unquestioningly for granted-cannibalism, slavery, polygamy, communal property ownership, non-competitiveness, nudity, vegetarianism, male supremacy, matriarchy, promiscuity, Puritanism, the rule of divine emperors or the rule of hereditary aristocracies, and even, on occasion, democracy-should make us a little more hesitant in taking absolutely for granted such institutions as private ownership of the means of production, social inequality, monogamy, the school system, "national growth," war, and racial oligarchy in South Africa.