Living the Ideal Dream

For those who aren’t exactly au fait with the concept of Utopia- the term was coined by Thomas More, and portrayed in his 1516 satire of the same name, and roughly translates into ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’. The underlying idea is that perfectibility, though it doesn’t suggest, is as pre-eminent as failure itself is. Simply put, the notion is that of the existence of this dichotomy in our lives. Let’s see it through.

Recalling an extract from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein:

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, … No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should claim theirs.

It is at this very point of the novel, the narrative takes a turn, and we get to see the protagonist so caught up in his pursuit, that he feels invincible, and does not think about the consequences — given the primacy of the situation he has brought himself into. The major conflict in the novel revolves around his inability to understand that actions have repercussions. In fact, its central plot is all about how important it is to act responsibly for one’s own actions, ie. accountability. The term has further evolved beyond its implied definition, into more of a value that would determine the viability of life.

Accountability is often associated with self-control. This reminds me of Mischel’s decades-old Marshmallow Experiment, which has pointed out the ability of ‘delayed gratification’ — or simply, the resistance to an immediate reward, in favour of greater, long-lasting gains in the distant future. This attribute revolves around the aspect of regulating and establishing control over one’s mind. But it’s also worth stating its diametric opposite — instant gratification. No matter how developed we may become, there are some tendencies that are just hard-wired into our minds; the human brain responds by releasing dopamine, a pleasure hormone that’s supposed to make us ‘feel good’ upon satisfying each of the short term cravings. Hence, there exist situations where we might just give ourselves in for something less sustainable in the long term. It has been proven that the ability to consider the involved delay as a major motivational tendency will enable one to have better life outcomes over time, as well as in developing more proactive ways to handle situations.

Another aspect that defines our view of the ‘ideal world’ is Integrity. I believe this isn’t discussed as much as it should be — mostly because we happen to live inside a world where consequences form the ultimate basis for judgement, irrespective of the fact that the path chosen is morally right or wrong. For most of us, it is the tendency to cater to our emotional needs, which usually comes with a price of ignoring the moral pull involved in the process. An ideal world will mostly be derived from the utilitarian perspective, which dictates that the most appropriate action is the one that maximises the collective good and well being. Unfortunately, utilitarianism and integrity don’t always get along together. Consequently, the underlying question is of wider import — When does the ends justify the means? The reality is that there is no perfect answer to this question, simply because of the wide range of interpretations, and how people adapt to their version of ideals.

There’s even more to discuss — but let’s answer the question by considering a variation of the trolley problem. The original version of this thought experiment goes like this: A runaway tram is rushing towards five unsuspecting workers. Do you pull a switch to divert the trolley onto another track, where only one man works alone? Or do you do nothing? As per the utilitarian view, one would be obliged to pull the switch, rather than not doing anything at all. Now to make the dilemma profound, imagine the original problem, now with the only difference that in order to save that five, you will have to intervene, by jumping onto the track before it can hit the other five, thereby sacrificing your own life. Would anyone wish to live in such a society in which they might want to be that one?

An ideal world is no place for cognitive biases. Let’s assure this by talking about something that often finds application in how people and organisations operate — rationality in thought processes. However, we have seen situations where assumptions about the way things are supposed to work have turned out to be false, even sending the ‘hyper-rational’ world of financial markets tottering on the brink of collapse. Let’s reduce this into an even general case. We have seen cases where real decisions made by people are negatively influenced by personal beliefs — like a false sense of their skill, talent, self-belief, or incorrectly judging a situation. This is called the ‘curse of knowledge’. It’s better to understand this by taking another thought experiment called the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. The ‘dilemma‘ here is that, regardless of what the other prisoner does, each is better off confessing than remaining silent. However, the outcome is less optimal when both confess compared to what they would have obtained if they had both remained silent. This puzzle tries to illustrate a conflict between individual and group rationality. Since a ‘perfect world’ would be designed to facilitate mutually beneficial exchanges through cooperation, it would need to overcome this dilemma or avoid it.

The belief that we are perfectible leads, inevitably, to mistakes when ‘a perfect society‘ is designed for an imperfect species. There’s no best society, only multiple variations on a handful of themes dictated by our nature. It’s all about understanding your limits; nevertheless, not settling for smaller ‘rewards’, and striving to move forward, knowing that you’ll still have the possibility of living a life of higher subjective value. One should follow their dream, more in hope, than in any expectation they will actually succeed. A Utopia doesn’t exist, but it’s this ‘ideal dream’ that takes us forward, and hopefully towards a future driven by innovation and prosperity.

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