Printed: 2020-07-15

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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The Problem with Utopian Engineering

Jules Hamilton


Ethical Technology


http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/IEETBlog

April 07, 2016

To present a frame, there are two ways to go about engineering a society through government. One is through utopian engineering. This means the government has an ideal “perfect” state it wants to achieve, and so does whatever necessary to reach the goal. In this example, one may say the ends justify the means.

The other way to approach constructing government is by piecemeal engineering. This method presupposes we can’t imagine an ideal perfect state (one that can never be improved), so it operates with no end goal in mind. Instead, the government focuses on solving immediate problems.

Karl Popper wrote:

“The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.”

By examining problems at hand, government can’t afford to disregard the outcome effects of its actions. This is the scientific method applied to government, prioritizing error detection and self correction. The distinction between the utopian engineer and the piecemeal engineer is distinct.

“It is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which, if really tried, may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering. It is the difference between a method which can be applied at any moment, and a method whose advocacy may easily become a means of continually postponing action until a later date, when conditions are more favorable. And it is also the difference between the only method of improving matters which has so far been really successful, at any time, and in any place, and a method which, wherever it has been tried, has led only to the use of violence in place of reason, and if not to its own abandonment, at any rate to that of its original blueprint.”

- Karl Popper

Accompanying our 2016 presidential election, a conversation is recrystallizing, one about socialism, our regulated economy, and the role of government in facilitating the best environments for human flourishing. It is important to remember that good intentions are not good enough. Government should not strive to do good. Government should strive not to do evil.

Like a scientist, or a fallibilist, we should scrutinize government, prioritizing error detection and self correction. Government is the slowest moving part of society, and we can only make progress if we learn from our mistakes, by having the courage to not only recognize government’s errors, but to seek them out in order to utilize its errors critically, instead of persevering dogmatically.

Image #1: The Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder.


Jules Hamilton is a Popperian fallibilist, skeptic, libertarian, polyamorous, transhumanist. A renaissance man, Jules launched himself on Kickstarter after graduating from NYU with a sci-fi film about neuroplastic surgery, the ability to customize minds. Then he became social media director of Siegelvision, working closely under branding legend Alan Siegel. Jules transitioned building his first company producing videos for Siegelvision, Tinder, Suitcase Magazine, Cornell University School of Engineering, and SXSW. He participated in the BAFTRA award winning UK reality show Made in Chelsea to spread information, co-founding culture & lifestyle blog Polyglamorous. Under his umbrella company Innomatic Studios he hosts a monthly panel The Futurist Sessions at NYC's SoHo House, speaking alongside entrepreneurs and philosophers, with alumni Zoltan Istvan and Gray Scott. Jules is a proud ambassador for A Generation Empowered and Lifespan.io.

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