Slavery in Utopia, Hythloday explains, is a punishment for those Utopians who have committed “heinous offenses.” Utopia also pays cities in other lands for their criminals, but only those already condemned to death: these prisoners are then brought back to Utopia to labor in bondage. Poor (free) laborers from other countries sometimes volunteer to become bondmen in Utopia, but these are treated “almost as gently as [Utopia’s] own free citizens” and are at liberty to depart at any time, though they seldom do. The Utopians do not make prisoners of war into bondmen, except those captured in battle. Slaves who are originally from Utopia are forced to work the hardest, because they fell into crime despite being brought up in such a virtuous and excellent commonwealth.
Utopia pragmatically turns crime, death, and misery into productivity—or so runs Hythloday’s account. For our part, we might wonder whether a society that relies on slave labor can be anything but morally corrupt, deep down. Bondage may be more humane than the death penalty, but that doesn’t mean that it is humane, much less that it should feature in a supposedly perfect society.
The Utopians care for their sick very affectionately, providing both the proper diet and medical attention. The people comfort those with incurable diseases by visiting and helping them. For people who have diseases that are not only incurable but also cause continual pain, the priests and magistrates urge them to consider euthanasia, or voluntary death (by starvation, for example). This is because such invalids cannot do the duty of life and are a burden to themselves and others. However, the Utopians don’t force anyone to die against their will. People who kill themselves before the priests and council have allowed it are considered unworthy to be buried or burned; their bodies are thrown into “some stinking marsh” or other.
The Utopians’ conception of the public good is not one of ruthless productivity and efficiency—rather, it is one of general welfare and happiness. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Utopians’ health care system, which is centered on availability and excellence of care as well as compassion. Note that the Catholic Church, of which the man Thomas More was a part, strictly prohibits euthanasia as a crime against God’s gift of life. Again, the question arises: to what extent does the author of Utopia really approve of Utopian policy?
A woman must be eighteen years old or older to get married in Utopia; a man must be at least twenty-two. If it is proven that a man or woman has had sex before their marriage, he or she is sharply punished, and both partners to the act are forbidden from marriage unless pardoned by the Prince. The heads of the family in which such offenses occur risk infamy for being negligent in their duties. The Utopians punish free love so strictly because they fear that if they don’t, few people will get married.
The Utopians are so severe in punishing adulterers because ruptured marriages disrupt the peace and operations of the commonwealth. That being said, Hythloday never gives a reason as to why the Utopians believe that marriage is the ideal relation between man and woman. It might not be ideal of pleasure, but it is at least a system that society and the government and regulate.
The Utopians have one custom that Hythloday finds foolish: they show prospective husbands and wives their potential spouses before marriage. Who would buy a horse, they argue, without inspecting it thoroughly? The Utopians understand that not all men and women are so enlightened as to be pleased only by their spouse's virtue, but also by their physical appearance. This practice prevents spouses from being alienated from each other later if they discover a previously hidden “deformity.”
Hythloday proves himself either more moral or more irrationally prudish than the Utopians in disapproving of their pragmatic premarital customs. Still, the comparison of selecting a mate to buying a horse does seem inarguably dehumanizing.
Matrimony is never broken in Utopia except by death, adultery, or intolerable behavior on the part of one of the spouses; in the latter case, the council may license a person to divorce their present spouse and wed another. However, the spouse who misbehaved lives in infamy, and is forbidden from remarrying. If a husband and wife can’t get along, and they find others they can get along with better (and agree to do so), the council can also grant them a divorce, although this is rarely done, to discourage people from seeking easy ways out of marriage.
Not being able to marry after committing adultery might seem like a punishment that is disproportionate to the crime—after all, sex is natural, promotes pleasure, and no reason is given for why having multiple partners should be considered a punishable offense. Nonetheless, Utopia’s policies concerning divorce are much more liberal than those of More’s England. Indeed, More himself infuriated King Henry VIII when he refused to condone the King’s divorce—a moral stance that ultimately led to More being executed.
People who commit adultery are punished with bondage, and if both offenders were married, their former spouses can get married to each other (if they want), or else to whomever they desire. If a person still wishes to be married to the partner who cheated on them, they are allowed, but on the condition that they must follow their partner into labor and drudgery. Often the Prince is so moved by the adulterer’s repentance and their spouse’s fidelity that he grants the adulterer their freedom. If someone commits adultery twice, they are sentenced to death.
To the modern sensibility, it is perhaps shocking that adulterers are sentenced to the same punishment as murderers. Softening the blow, however, is the Prince’s mercy in granting adulterers their freedom. Still, the Utopians seem skeptical that adulterers can be rehabilitated. Why else would they prohibit them from remarrying, or go so far as to put them to death? All this suggests a view of sexuality and romantic love that seems utterly foreign to modern ideas.
For all other crimes, there is no prescribed sentence in the law. The council judges each offender on a case-by-case basis. Husbands chastise their wives, and parents chastise their children, unless they’ve done something so heinous that the example of public punishment would encourage better behavior in others. The most common punishment for heinous crimes is slavery, which causes the offender grief while also profiting the commonwealth. If a bondman rebels, however, they are killed like a desperate wild beast. People who are patient in bondage and who repent of their crimes live in hope of having their punishment mitigated or lifted. People who intend to commit adultery or any other crime are subject to the same punishments as those who actually commit them. In Utopia, the intent is considered as evil as the act.
To its credit, Utopian justice treats offenders in most instances as individual people, not as cases to be processed by a mechanical, inhumane system. Note, however, that punishment is not designed to rehabilitate offenders or make them more virtuous, but rather to cause them grief, which is perhaps not so admirable. As in every other feature of Utopian society, hard work guarantees society’s sympathy. We might wonder how Utopians discover whether or not someone has had criminal thoughts—and should thinking about committing a crime really merit the same punishment as actually committing it? At the same time, this reflects a certain idea expressed by Jesus in the Bible—that lusting after a woman is the same as actually committing adultery with her.
The Utopians take especial pleasure in fools (by which the author means either witty and intelligent professional clowns, or, in what is the likelier case here, the mentally disabled). It is deeply shameful to hurt one of these fools in Utopia, but the Utopians believe that it profits the fools themselves to be objects of pleasure. To mock a person for a deformity or missing limb is also a deeply shameful act, for the Utopians think that it’s unwise to mock someone for what they cannot change.
Utopia cares for all of its citizens, which reflects a general respect for human life that transcends ruthless practicality (although ruthless practicality certainly governs many aspects of their society). They hold people accountable only for what they can control, and they don’t exploit anyone, much less those who are vulnerable.
The Utopians think it’s good to take pleasure in natural beauty, but they condemn as vain and prideful those who prefer women in make-up. Honesty and humility are what a good Utopian husband really values in his wife.
Make-up is a sign of pride to the Utopians, and so is as useless as gold is to them. Husbands more practically value those qualities which make for a happy marriage.
The Utopians punish sin, as we have seen, but they also reward virtue. Sculptures of good men, especially great benefactors, are set up in the marketplaces to remind people of their good acts and to encourage virtue. Those who desire honors inordinately, however, can be sure that they will never be honored in Utopia.
Utopian society does not just discourage bad behavior, for this would lower morale. They also incentivize good behavior by honoring the ideal. That being said, the Utopians know that those who do good only for honor tend not to be “good” at all, but merely vain.
Utopians live together lovingly. Their magistrates are neither proud nor severe, but are like good fathers whom the citizens honor willingly. The Prince is not distinguished by gaudy clothes, but only by a sheaf of corn he carries; likewise, the bishop carries a candle.
Leadership in Utopia is not a cause for pride; even the Prince is but a humble servant of the people. Note the recurring motif of patriarchal rule.
There are few laws in Utopia, no more than a well-organized society requires. The Utopians disapprove of other nations’ innumerable books of convoluted laws more than anything else, because they believe that a citizen should be able to read and understand all the laws to which he or she is bound. Lawyers are banned from Utopia for being too cunning in their interpretations of the law; every person represents him- or herself in legal matters, which brings truth to light sooner in the mind of a wise judge. The Utopians favor the plainest interpretation of a law as being the most just.
Complicated laws arise when societies are elaborately stratified into social classes and when people have the license to pursue bad luxuries and false pleasures. The simplicity of Utopia’s structure is reflected in the simplicity of its laws. The practical Utopians appreciate plain readings of law as opposed to cunning misreadings designed to serve private interests. Ironically, Thomas More the author was himself a lawyer.
Because the Utopians are so virtuous, neighboring countries (many of which the Utopians have liberated from tyranny) invite Utopians to serve as their magistrates. People who are so invited are allowed to go and serve, some for a year, some for five years, and they are welcomed home with honor and praise.
Hythloday begins Utopia by arguing that good counselors can’t do good in the service of princes. The Utopians must disagree, however—why else would Utopians go abroad to provide counsel to foreign governments?
That being said, the Utopians do not make political alliances with other nations, because such alliances are so often broken as part of deceitful stratagems, as is the case in Europe. Also, the idea of alliances presupposes natural enmity between nations, which the Utopians reject. They think no one is an enemy who has not done them injury, and that people are naturally allied to one another in love and goodwill, which are stronger than mere words can ever be.
While Utopia first and foremost takes care of its own citizens, we have also seen that the Utopian concept of the “public good” often extends to the people of the world at large. This is both ideal in promoting universal friendship, and also practical—people you treat well are less likely to do you harm.