Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is collective pursuit of happiness taking us to a 'brave new world'?

‘O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't’
William Shakespeare, ‘The Tempest’ (V, i)

Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (1932) is about the potential conflict between human happiness as a goal of society and traditional virtues such as nobility and heroism.

Mustapha Mond, a controller of the new world, explains to John Savage that there is no longer any need for civilized man to bear anything seriously unpleasant. As the discussion continues, Mond claims that civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism:
‘In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise ... And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are’ (Chapter 17).

The discussion ends with Savage rejecting this new world in which happiness is paramount:
‘But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’
‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you're claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I'm claiming the right to be unhappy'.
'Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.
‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. ‘You're welcome,’ he said.

Some of the rights that Savage claims do not seem to me to be an essential part of the rich tapestry of human life. What he must be saying is that he would prefer to live in our imperfect world rather than a de-humanizing world in which happiness is paramount.

Are we heading towards Huxley’s brave new world? If so, we clearly still have some way to go before we get there. There are still a lot of noble and heroic people around, as is particularly evident at times of natural disasters such as the current floods in Queensland. There doesn’t seem to be much risk of human reproduction and child rearing being taken over by government, even though much of the technology needed to do this already exists. Sexual promiscuity has increased, but there doesn’t seem to be much risk that social mores will develop in directions opposed to monogamous relationships. The risk of totalitarianism seems to have receded.

At the same time, however, while we may never have soma, there is already widespread use of pharmaceutical products to influence emotions. Entertainment involving virtual reality is popular and technology seems to be advancing rapidly in this area. Perhaps the ‘feelies’ will soon be coming to a theatre near you.

I see no grounds to object to individuals using new technologies in pursuit of their own happiness if that is their choice. The question is whether culture and public policies in pursuit of happiness are moving systematically in directions that dehumanize people.

That question seems to be a lot like the question I started with. I hope I am not going to become locked into some kind of Groundhog’s day where I keep asking the same question over and over. If I am going to make progress, the next step might be to consider what it means to dehumanize a person. Perhaps it has to do with taking away their responsibility for making choices and bearing the consequences their actions.

1 comment:

TonyFernandez said...

"Winton Bates at Freedom and Flourishing asks if we are becoming a Brave New World."