A Daily Utopia: Creating Our Moral Values Every Day

Everyday Ethics and Social Change: The Education of Desire
by Anna Peterson
(Columbia U. Press, 2009)

What inspired you to write Everyday Ethics and Social Change? What sparked your interest?

I was inspired, or motivated, by a desire to bring utopianism—a theme that I have been interested in for a long time—close to home. My previous book Seeds of the Kingdom (Oxford, 2005) compared two different kinds of intentional agrarian communities: those of the Amish in the Midwestern United States, and of progressive Catholic refugees in rural El Salvador.

While writing that book, I thought a lot about the relevance of those intensely Christian, explicitly utopian groups for “mainstream” people in the U.S.—who are much more religiously diverse, urban, and consumerist than the Amish or the Salvadorans I studied. I do think that those people have a lot to teach us, but I wanted to explore the possibility of a utopianism with clearer connections to the everyday life of “ordinary” North Americans.

What I find fascinating about utopianism, especially as a theme in social ethics and social movements, is its intrinsic radicalness. But utopianism seems, by definition, to be disconnected from everyday life. Putting those two themes together—utopias and everyday life—seemed a way to talk about the potentially radical dimensions of our ordinary practices and values.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That ethics is not disconnected from ordinary activities. This means a couple of things. First, almost nothing we do is “value neutral.” We can’t separate out the times we are acting “morally,” and the rest of our lives. Second, it means that ethics are not something constructed or articulated in the abstract and then applied, in a top-down fashion, to concrete circumstances. Rather, ethics are created in and through ordinary practices. This means we ought to think more carefully, perhaps, about the ethics we enact (or don’t) on a daily basis. In the end, I think, movements for social change seek to transform everyday life so it becomes safer, less oppressive, and more joyful for more people (and other creatures). So it makes sense that the roots of a radical ethic for social change can be found in the best parts of our everyday lives.

This relates to the social role of religion. Religion has often provided this “second language,” as Robert Bellah and his colleagues call it, as an alternative way of thinking about big questions. In a society that is both religiously pluralistic and secular, it is important to look for alternative sources of this second language.

Does ethics necessitate religion?

I don’t think it does. Religion doesn’t come up much in my new book about ethics, so I have to say that. At the same time, however, I think that religious ethics are often especially powerful, for a variety of reasons. They are rooted in concrete social relations among people, which provide moral and logistical support and accountability. And religious ethics have a transcendent source of legitimation, which can make them harder to ignore. I am interested not just in ethical ideas, but in ethics that are enacted, consciously or unconsciously. We do enact “secular” values all the time, or at least that’s my argument, but it may be harder to see the moral dimensions of our actions when religion isn’t explicitly involved.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I left out lots of detail about most of the specific kinds of “utopian” experiences I addressed, including marriage, friendship, parenting, relations with nonhuman animals, and encounters with nature. Each of those could easily have been much longer chapters in this book, or entire books in themselves.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That utopianism is some sort of science fiction, irrelevant to real life. That ethics can be compartmentalized.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I hope for what we call a “well-educated general audience,” meaning that I have tried to write for people who do not have Ph.D.s in ethics. I think, in particular, of my friends who are not academics but who are struggling with the questions I am wrestling with about the ethical and social dimensions of our domestic lives, our friendships, our roles as parents, and our relations with nature. In some ways this book is a continuation of a decades-long conversation with them about the relations between our moral and political commitments on the one hand, and our personal lives on the other. Of course, I hope that people with Ph.D.s in ethics will read the book too!

Are you hoping just to inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I hope to make them think differently about ethics and ordinary life. Hopefully that can be both pleasurable and informative. Who would it piss off? I talk about Marx a lot, so that might bother some people. They probably wouldn’t read it, anyway. I also talk about Paul Tillich a lot, which might piss off just as many people.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I’m happy with the title, which my editor thought of. Originally the order of the title and subtitle were reversed, so the title was “The Education of Desire.” That probably seemed a little obscure. It’s a phrase from E. P. Thompson’s biography of William Morris, where Thompson is quoting a Spanish writer, Miguel Abensour. The idea of the “education of desire” comes from Morris’ belief that people can be “educated,” in a variety of ordinary, everyday ways, to want something more from their lives—not “more” in a consumerist sense, but more of goods that Morris saw as truly valuable.

Is there another book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Perhaps because we’ve been talking about E. P. Thompson, the first one that comes to mind is The Making of the English Working Class. That has to be one of the most perfect books ever written. 832 pages of fascinating stories, brilliant analysis, and unwavering radical commitment. I guess it’s pretty revealing that I know how many pages are in that book. I reread it at least every couple of years.

What’s your next book?

I’m thinking about expanding on the discussion of relations with nonhuman animals in this book. I’m especially interested in relations with domestic animals, who have been largely ignored by environmental and social ethicists. Historically, and still today, people’s relations with domestic animals have been among the most important dimensions of our lives.

The history of different species and their roles in various cultures have received a lot of attention, and there are some great histories out there. There are also some very interesting “popular” works on relations with animals, many of which have great insights and material. However, for the most part the ethical dimensions of human relations with domestic animals have been discussed only in relation to animal rights and welfare. That’s very important, and I’m very interested in those issues, but I think there’s a lot more to be said. I’m just starting to read around in that literature. It’s great fun.

Bonus Question: With a diversity of religion in the United States, what common ground is there for a common or universal ethic?

This is an enduring dilemma for ethicists. Habits of the Heart suggests that our culture has a deeply rooted “expressive individualism” that can be an alternative to the utilitarian individualism which they find both widespread and destructive. I think they’re right, but I also think our culture and our practices give us some other resources, equally deeply rooted and even more deeply hidden, which can be sources of non-individualistic values. At least that’s my argument.


Anna Peterson is professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. Her most recent book is Everyday Ethics and Social Change: The Education of Desire (Columbia, 2009).