Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 51-52.
The urgency of the great political struggles of the twentieth century, successfully waged against totalitarianisms first right and then left, seems to have blinded many people to a deeper truth about the present age: all contemporary societies, the open ones no less than the closed, are traveling briskly in the same utopian direction. All are wedded to the modern technological project; all march eagerly to the drums of progress and fly proudly the banner of modern science; all sing loudly the Baconian anthem, "Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate."
Leading the triumphal procession is modern medicine, the epitome of compassionate humanitarianism, becoming every day ever more powerful in its battle against disease, decay, and death, thanks especially to the astonishing achievements in biomedical science and technology—achievements for which we must surely be grateful. Yet contemplating present and projected advances in genetic and reproductive technologies, in neuroscience and psychopharmacology, and in the development of artificial organs and computer–chip implants for human brains, we now clearly recognize new uses for biotechnical power that soar beyond the traditional medical goals of healing disease and relieving suffering. Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, "enhancement," and wholesale redesign.
Some transforming powers are already here. The pill. In vitro fertilization. Bottled embryos. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic screening. Organ harvests. Mechanical spare parts. Chimeras. Brain implants. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, and Prozac for everyone. And, to leave this vale of tears, a little extra morphine accompanied by Muzak. What? You still have troubles? Not to worry. As the vaudevillians used to say, "You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!"
Years ago Aldous Huxley saw it coming. More important, he knew what it meant and, in his charming but disturbing novel, Brave New World, Huxley made it strikingly visible for all to see. Brave New World is not a great book, and, in purely literary terms, even the author found it seriously flawed. Yet, in my experience, its power increases with each rereading, and coming generations of readers should—and I hope will—find it still more compelling. For unlike other frightening futuristic novels of the past century, such as Orwell’s already dated Nineteen Eighty–four, Huxley shows us a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain—indeed, it is animated by modernity’s most humane and progressive aspirations. Following those aspirations to their ultimate realization, Huxley enables us to recognize those less obvious but often more pernicious evils that are inextricably linked to successful attainment of partial goods. And he strongly suggests that we must choose: either our misery–ridden but still richly human world, or the squalid happiness of the biotechnical world to come.
In this satirical novel, Huxley paints human life seven centuries hence, living under the gentle hand of a compassionate humanitarianism that has been rendered fully competent by genetic manipulation, psychopharmacology, hypnopeaedia, and high–tech amusements. At long last, mankind has succeeded in eliminating disease, aggression, war, pain, anxiety, suffering, hatred, guilt, envy, and grief. But this victory comes at a heavy price: homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, spurious contentment, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debasement of tastes, and souls without loves or longings.
The Brave New World has achieved prosperity, community, stability, and nigh–universal contentment, only to be peopled by creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity. They consume, fornicate, take "soma" and "violent passion surrogate," enjoy "Riemann–surface tennis" and "centrifugal bumble–puppy," and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Creativity and curiosity, reason and passion, exist only in a rudimentary and mutilated form. Art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passé. What matters most is present satisfaction: "Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today." Like Midas, brave new man will be cursed to acquire precisely what he wished for only to discover—painfully and too late—that what he wished for is not exactly what he wanted. Or, Huxley implies, worse than Midas, he may be so dehumanized that he will not even recognize that in aspiring to be perfect he is no longer even human.
Huxley’s novel is, of course, science fiction. But yesterday’s science fiction is rapidly becoming today’s fact. Prozac is not yet Huxley’s soma; cloning by nuclear transfer or splitting embryos is not exactly Bokanovskification; MTV and virtual–reality parlors are not quite the "feelies"; and our current safe–and–consequenceless sexual practices are not universally as loveless or as empty as in the novel. But the kinships are disquieting, all the more so since our technologies of bio–psycho–engineering are still in their infancy—and it is all too clear what they might look like in their full maturity. Indeed, the cultural changes technology has already wrought among us should make us even more worried than Huxley would have us be.
In Huxley’s novel, everyone without exception is genetically programmed and psychologically conditioned, beginning even before birth, under the direction of an omnipotent—albeit benevolent—world state. Accordingly, for Huxley, it is lack of freedom that will be the major price of engineered "perfection," including the freedom to be unhappy. But the dehumanization he portrays does not really require despotism or external control. To the contrary, precisely because the society of the future will deliver exactly what people most want—health, safety, comfort, plenty, pleasure, peace of mind, and length of days—mankind can reach the same humanly debased condition solely on the basis of free human choice. No need for World Controllers. Just give us the technological imperative, liberal democratic society, compassionate humanitarianism, moral pluralism, and free markets, and we can take ourselves to Brave New World all by ourselves. If you require evidence, just look around.
In our age of cultural unraveling and dissolving moral agreement, it is heartening that readers are still revolted by Huxley’s picture of the life to which, absent some moral and religious reawakening, our cherished prejudices will take us. While philosophical essays and moral exhortation are today largely impotent, good literature can—at least for now—capture our impoverished imaginations and thus keep the human flame aflicker.
Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.