“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 tomorrow; 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.
“…the world which Mr. Huxley portrays is such as to arouse disgust in every normal reader, and obviously in Mr. Huxley himself. I have been asking myself why, and trying hard to think that his well-regulated world would really be an improvement upon the one in which we live. At moments I can make myself think this, but I can never make myself feel it." – Bertrand Russell
If you could be guaranteed a life of leisure and perfect happiness, would you take it?
I just recently finished reading Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece, Brave New World, which I had not read since high school. The most striking thing I noticed in this novel is that it is almost universally perceived to be (and was intended to be) dystopian, and yet everyone was genuinely happy and content. There must be a reason for the visceral reaction of disgust towards the society Huxley portrays, but I’ve been struggling to put my finger on it. In this post, I hope to develop a satisfying answer.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, there are a few main aspects of its technocratic dystopia. The whole of society is divided via a caste system, from the top-of-the-food-chain Alphas in management positions, to the Epsilon Semi-Morons who do menial tasks such as operating the elevator. People are not “born" into these castes (shh! “Born," along with words like “mother" and “father" are highly inappropriate, bordering on pornographic), but rather are created out of a bottle and then given or denied nutrients based on caste. From the youngest of ages, these people are then conditioned to love their place in society (along with all sorts of other conditioning) via hypnopaedia, which is essentially brainwashing from books on tape. Promiscuity is encouraged, and it is considered highly anti-social to be in a monogamous relationship. Young children run around playing “hunt the zipper." Everyone grows up to be perfectly happy and obedient – without a thought or care in the world. And whenever someone does start getting unpleasant thoughts…no problem! A nice soma holiday will clear things up – soma being what seems to be the most fun drug in the world with no hangover whatsoever (“all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects" or, alternatively, “Christianity without tears"). In short, it is a completely controlled and designed society, ruled by “Our Ford" in perfect stability. After all, what kind of crazy person would want to change that perfect world they live in where everyone is constantly happy?
There is something incredibly unsettling about this picture – and yet, perhaps from a utilitarian perspective, it seems ideal. Essentially, the Brave New World (BNW) is a hedonic paradise, but without the negative personal consequences that come from practicing hedonism today.
Happiness And Well-Being
There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking pleasure and happiness. So what is going on here? Why is this society, teeming with people living lives filled to the brim with pleasure, so disturbing?
It is important to remember here that happiness does not equal well-being. Well-being is largely determined by how congruently one is living with respect to their personal values. But how can this really be applied in a world where values no longer exist – where they have been completely conditioned out of everyone?
Well, technically, that isn’t quite true. One value is conditioned to remain, and that is the value of maximizing subjective well-being (SWB). So long as you feel good, you are living congruently with your values. But there are philosophical problems with this: how do we know what it means to “feel good" or increase SWB? After all, there are so many different components of well-being that any attempt to design a society which aims to “optimize" well-being in general or any given component is doomed to failure.
For instance, the inhabitants of the Brave New World were experiencing lives filled with pleasure, but their lives were also completely devoid of meaning. As Margaret Atwood phrases it:
“Despite the dollops of sex-on-demand, the bodies in Brave New World are oddly disembodied, which serves to underscore one of Huxley’s points: in a world in which everything is available, nothing has any meaning."
I’ll get into this more in a moment, but first let’s take a quick detour to a thought experiment proposed by Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the famous “experience machine."
“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?"
Most people would choose not to plug themselves in. Why? Nozick offers three possible reasons:
- People want to do certain things, not merely have the experience of doing them.
- People want to be a certain kind of person.
- Plugging into the machine limits us to a man-made, artificial reality.
While I wouldn’t describe the Brave New World as equivalent to the experience machine, it is nearly identical – extreme behavioral conditioning and eugenics have created an artificial reality of hedonistic pleasure. The primary difference between Nozick’s experience machine and the artificial reality of the denizens of Huxley’s dystopia is that the life of pleasure was forced upon those in the BNW.
Can it really be said that those living in the BNW are actually doing things, rather than just having the experience of doing them? At what point does the level of conditioning and eugenics prompt one to say that the individual is no longer experiencing “real" reality? Without attempting to argue with much rigor, it seems to me that the BNW more closely resembles the Matrix than any reasonable conception of humanity and human life. As Nozick said, “There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”
This isn’t to say that some degree of conditioning ourselves to be happier is bad, or even that hedonism in general is necessarily bad. After all, our intuition to reject the experience machine could be flawed, and it is clear that, ceteris paribus, we would prefer to experience more pleasure (however that pleasure may be subjectively defined or felt by each of us). Philosophical hedonism, or the idea that what makes a given state of affairs contribute to our well-being is that it is pleasurable, cannot be refuted by Nozick’s experience machine. Even though most peoples’ preference is to not plug in to the experience machine (or to live in the BNW), who’s to say that we aren’t all idiots? It is only if you assume that satisfying our preferences is what constitutes well-being can we completely refute hedonism. People may simply not want what is ultimately “good" for them.
But, as Harriet Baber argues, most of us are preferentists – that is, most of us believe that satisfying our desires is what constitutes well-being:
“…even if the nature of choices subjects make cannot support or undermine any philosophical account of wellbeing, the fact that we believe that they do is telling. Without making fine distinctions between what makes a state of affairs contribute to wellbeing and which sorts of states have what it takes, we assume that the states informed subjects choose make them better off. And this suggests that we are all preferentists now.
Even if the Experience Machine can’t pump intuitions that would help us decide between competing philosophical accounts of wellbeing, there may be another thought experiment that can, viz. the Meta Experience Machine. Suppose there were a machine that reliably determined what sorts of states subjects would prefer if they were fully informed about all relevant facts. Would such a machine tell us what sorts of states were good for people? Most of us think it would: that is why we regard the Experience Machine thought experiment as informative. But only preferentists should regard it as informative. Therefore most of us are preferentists."
In other words, the experience machine may not prove that Huxley’s world is dystopian, but it would explain why many of us perceive it to be.
I propose that what makes the BNW not just strange and disturbing, but morally wrong, is the (subtly) coercive nature of that society. In Nozick’s thought experiment, we are given the choice of whether to “plug in" or not. But the denizens of the BNW are bred into their experience machine, and forcefully conditioned to accept it as good. These people have been robbed of the opportunity to find meaning in their lives, and conditioned to accept a meaning (or lack thereof) imposed on them by an all-powerful state. For instance, a biologist in the BNW who wrote a paper about how humans would benefit from finding meaning in their lives was exiled to an island where his ideas couldn’t subvert the rest of the population.
In a society where the only value is pleasure, something is lost, but that something can be difficult to articulate. In the BNW, happiness is truly this one-dimensional. But in real life as we know it, happiness has many components. A good example would be visiting Yad Vashem, or Israel’s huge Holocaust memorial and museum. While I wouldn’t describe that visit as something that makes me “happy" and certainly does not give me pleasure, it is something that I am happy to have done – and thus raises my subjective well-being. In his article, “The Long Slide To Happiness," Richard Smith elaborates:
“It is hard to explain why we value art—reading a demanding novel, for instance—in terms of happiness….It is one thing to read a comic novel: here there are moments of laughing out loud, and the longer pleasure of seeing a scene building up to the comic denouement and the unlovable character getting his just and entertaining deserts. But complex and often bleak novels (like those of Brian Moore, for example, some of whose titles convey the flavour: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Cold Heaven) can hardly be thought of in the same way. There is a sense of some of the darker aspects of life being observed with honesty and compassion. Even to say one enjoys such novels is misleading, yet the reader returns to them, recommends them to friends, looks forward to the writer’s next one. They are perhaps to be thought of as moving and absorbing, and we value art that has these qualities even if it does not make us happy, often valuing it more than art that does straightforwardly make us happy, such as ‘feel-good fiction’."
Typically, people have many values (courage, compassion, principle, etc.), and these values help people find meaning in their lives. They guide our impulse for self-improvement and self-actualization. We don’t solve puzzles, work long hours, rescue people, or philosophize in order to directly increase our happiness; typically, in the process of doing these things, we stumble across frustration, fear, boredom, and other negative emotions. As philosopher John Stuart Mill said:
“I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." (Mill, 1873, Chapter 5)
Those who lived in Huxley’s BNW are denied the opportunity to enjoy these “higher pleasures." To this, some might argue that we can take the various components of happiness – including that of living congruently with one’s values – combine them, distill them into a single metric, and then design society in a way that would optimize this kind of generalized happiness.
But this is far more difficult than you might think (and frankly, it doesn’t sound all that easy to me on the face of it). In Richard Smith’s piece, he describes a study that reports that a sample of women who divided their previous day into specific episodes, responded to a questionnaire assessing twelve different dimensions of happiness, and then compiled them into a single score. Comparing these one-dimensional scores, researchers found that sex was the activity that ranked highest, which might signal an endorsement for the promiscuous society in BNW. But what can we actually ascertain from this?
“Drawing on replies from nearly 1,900 people, Meston and Buss (2007) distinguished 237 categories of reasons why people have sex. They include, among the reasons we might expect, such as ‘I wanted to express my love for the person’ and ‘I was sexually aroused and wanted the release’, a great range of other reasons, for instance: ‘I wanted to feel closer to God’, ‘to get rid of a headache’, ‘help me fall asleep’, ‘make my partner feel powerful’, ‘burn calories’, ‘keep warm’, ‘hurt an enemy’, ‘It would allow me to ‘‘get sex out of my system’’ so that I could focus on other things’, ‘It was the only way my partner would spend time with me’, ‘I wanted to even the score with a cheating partner’. What this research reminds us is that we do not know what ‘having sex’ is all about, until we know what it means. When sex scored 4.7 in the Texas Happiness index it is not just that we do not know exactly what was causing the women to be ‘happy’: we do not know what their ‘happiness’ was. Was it the religious ecstasy of feeling closer to God, the comfort of keeping warm, the vindictive thrill of hurting an enemy, the relief of not enjoying sex (‘It would allow me to ‘‘get sex out of my system’’ so that I could focus on other things’), an escape from loneliness? Even where sex is the expression of love for a person, we need to understand the kind of love for the particular person involved before we can imagine we know anything about what the sexual act means, just as we need to appreciate the art work before we can understand the response."
Clearly, a societal rule of “have as much sex as possible" is not going to lead to a maximization of happiness. In the BNW, all of the context is missing.
Of course, once a person is sufficiently conditioned, most of this context may become irrelevant. With pleasure as the sole guiding principle of human action, the past and the future no longer exist. As Caitrin Nicol says:
“An unholy alliance of industrial capitalist, fascist, communist, psychoanalytic, and pseudo-scientific ideologies has brought about the end of history. The past is taboo—“History is bunk," as “Our Ford" so eloquently said—and there is no future, because history’s ends have been accomplished."
Conditioning someone to this extent would be somewhere between incredibly difficult and impossible in today’s world. John B. Watson, a prominent behaviorist psychologist, believed that we could eliminate peoples’ neuroses via conditioning, and he was correct. Not only that, but principles of conditioning can be used to help build up positive habits and generally allow people to live better lives.
But the ability to manipulate the psyche in this way opens up some strange possibilities. We have the tools to meld someone’s mind, but no specific direction as to what we should meld it into. This leads to an amusing irony in BNW, where it is the behaviorists who are tasked with melding citizens into the World State’s ideal, but their conditioning is directed by the Freudian concept that all neuroses and social chaos is caused by sexual taboo – a very unbehavioralist idea.
This demonstrates another problem for those social engineers who would presume to be able to design a utopian society in the image of BNW: what is the ideal kind of person to “create" for this society? I am immediately reminded of Friedrich Hayek and his fantastic essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society." He convincingly argues that socialism cannot work because knowledge is distributed in such a way that no central planner could gather it all in one place in order to use it effectively in their universal plan.
“The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality."
While Hayek was discussing this in terms of the economics of the price system, it would equally apply to the conditioning that must be undergone in order to design a utopia. In order to condition me to optimize my happiness, you would need to know how I wanted to be conditioned. As an extreme example, consider people who are born without a sense of smell. These individuals would not receive any extra pleasure from the delightful scents present everywhere in the BNW.
And then, of course, we come back to peoples’ values. It is clear that if you were to condition someone who is already old enough to have some kind of value system, it would be impossible for a central planner to condition them in the “right" way.
The central planner may retort that they need not condition those who are already alive – just newborns. After a generation, unconditioned humans would die out and become irrelevant. But this would require forcefully separating babies from their parents, which is a very difficult move to justify morally. And this still doesn’t resolve the other issues inherent in trying to optimize everyone’s happiness.
Freedom of Will
Ultimately, what may be the most disturbing aspect of Brave New World is the lack of free will for those living under the World State. Sure, the inhabitants are free insofar as they get to choose what they do, but they don’t get to choose what they want to do. Here is how Robert Kane describes the problem:
“…suppose we had maximal freedom to make choices…to satisfy our desires, yet the choices we actually made were in fact manipulated by others, by the powers that be. In such a world we would have a great deal of everyday freedom to do whatever we wanted, yet our freedom of will would be severely limited. We would be free to act or to choose what we willed, but we would not have the ultimate power over what it is that we willed. Other persons would be pulling the strings, not by coercing or forcing us to do things against our wishes, but by manipulating us into having the wishes they wanted us to have. One sign of how important free will is to us is that people feel revulsion at such manipulation and feel demeaned by it when they find out it has been done to them. When subjected to it, they realize they were not their own persons; and having free will is about being your own person."
In the BNW, it is clear that the citizens are not “their own persons." In fact, they are all repeatedly conditioned with the mantra that “everyone belongs to everyone else." Being alone is discouraged. People are physico-chemically identical, and often have the same few names. There is even an official position in the BNW called “Assistant Predestinator."
I have no intention of making arguments for or against free will or determinism. Even if all our actions are predetermined (by biology, culture, physics, etc.), the illusion of free will is very important to us (or, if free will does exist, our perception of this free will).
Recently, there have been numerous studies that have attempted to show the consequences of a lack of belief in free will. There are reasons to take the results of such studies with a grain of salt – it is possible that people are conflating a lack of free will with a belief in fatalism, the idea that actions are caused but have no effect (everything is predetermined). Nevertheless, the results are interesting. From Wikipedia:
“After researchers provoked volunteers to disbelieve in free will, participants lied, cheated, and stole more. Kathleen Vohs has found that those whose belief in free will had been eroded were more likely to cheat. In a study conducted by Roy Baumeister, after participants read an article arguing against free will, they were more likely to lie about their performance on a test where they would be rewarded with cash. Provoking a rejection of free will has also been associated with increased aggression and less helpful behaviour as well as mindless conformity. Disbelief in free will can even cause people to feel less guilt about transgressions against others.
Baumeister and colleagues also note that volunteers disbelieving in free will are less capable of counterfactual thinking. This is worrying because counterfactual thinking (“If I had done something different…”) is an important part of learning from one’s choices, including those that harmed others."
In addition, those who believe in free will tend to perform better on the job and have better career outlooks. Another study found that “undermining free will can degrade self-control" and thus make it harder for people to inhibit impulses for antisocial or harmful behaviors. These studies fit in broadly with the idea that it is generally preferable to have an internal locus of control than an external one.
And even more recent research shows that the belief in other people having free will is key to our feeling gratitude when others do nice things for us.
Finally, another study published this past January measured how a belief in free will is related to other aspects of personality. Here is a relevant portion of the abstract (emphasis mine):
“Four studies measured or manipulated beliefs in free will to illuminate how such beliefs are linked to other aspects of personality. Study 1 showed that stronger belief in free will was correlated with more gratitude, greater life satisfaction, lower levels of perceived life stress, a greater sense of self-efficacy, greater perceived meaning in life, higher commitment in relationships, and more willingness to forgive relationship partners. Study 2 showed that the belief in free will was a stronger predictor of life satisfaction, meaning in life, gratitude, and self-efficacy than either locus of control or implicit person theory. Study 3 showed that experimentally manipulating disbelief in free will caused a reduction in the perceived meaningfulness of life. Study 4 found that inducing a stronger belief in free will caused people to set more meaningful goals for themselves."
It is clear that a stronger belief in free will and moral responsibility has prosocial effects, and helps people self-actualize by being more effective overall and allowing people to feel as though their lives are meaningful. Some, like Richard F. Rakos, argue that a belief in free will is an evolved biological adaptation that helps humans self-regulate their behavior. In other words, we adjust to our environment and learn things better because of a biologically programmed belief in free will.
In the context of Brave New World, this leads to a strange contradiction. Through extreme conditioning, the World State has largely removed any free will that the inhabitants of the BNW may have had. And while I cannot take a survey of these individuals, it is likely that they did not believe strongly in free will either (recall the existence of Assistant Predestinators, as well as the strongly weakened sense of self). If that is the case, then it is harder to imagine that the BNW would in practice be as “stabile" as it is portrayed in the book, and there are some additional doubts that people would be as happy and content as they seem to be. Of course, if a belief in free will is largely biological, conditioning people to no longer possess it would be difficult if not impossible. In this case, Huxley’s dystopia seems far less probable of an outcome – the social engineers will have immense difficulty in subordinating peoples’ wills to the extent portrayed in the novel. Says Rakos:
“Even with the remarkable scientific advances that will surely be made in the years ahead, we are decades if not centuries from convincing people that they lack the free will they experience dozens of times a day. Neither rational argument nor empirical demonstrations are likely to modify a genetically-based and culturally supported belief in free will that is widely, intimately, and repeatedly experienced and that produces highly adaptive outcomes. In this context, Skinnerian determinism will be of little use in designing a more just world, and may even impede progressive social change by diverting discussion from the material to the metaphysical realm."
It seems to me that the strong desire to maintain the illusion of free will contributes to our perception of Brave New World as dystopian. In the words of Bertrand Russell: “In the end, what we cling to so desperately is the illusion of freedom, an illusion which is tacitly negated by all moral instruction and all propaganda. To us human life would be intolerable without this illusion. In Mr. Huxley’s Brave New World men live quite comfortably without it."
Huxley’s Brave New World stands out from other creepy dystopian systems as one in which power is attained through the use of carrots rather than sticks. While we typically associate totalitarian dictatorships with mass repression by force, the BNW is one in which people are repressed via appeals to pleasure instead of pain. Caitrin Nicol framed it like this:
“Unlike the other great dystopias, Huxley’s World State, though totalitarian in its orthodoxy, is ostensibly ordered on the wants of the governed rather than the governors. Threats are rarely used or needed. Rule by bread and circuses has proved more potent than force—and more pernicious, precisely because every means of control is a perversion of something people really want. The only people with any capacity for dissatisfaction are a handful of Alphas….It is difficult to reject the sinister when by slight distortion it masquerades as the sublime. Why feeling should be able to distinguish these things while reason cannot is an interesting question, one which could be left forever unsettled by tinkering, through biotechnology or psychological control, with what Huxley (in a later foreword to the book) called “the natural forms and expressions of life itself.""
It is in large part because this totalitarianism is far more subtle than what we are used to that makes it less overtly repulsive to many, despite the cognitive dissonance most will feel as they think about it: “I know it’s strange and repressive, but is it really so bad?"
The answer is yes. As we have seen earlier on in this essay, what strikes us as good in the BNW are wholly unattainable and even unwanted ideals – optimizing utility and destroying peoples’ perceptions of free will.
Ultimately, it boils down to a conflict between individualism and collectivism. Should we try to do what is best for “society" or allow individual people to flourish? Many people will ponder this kind of question, but ignore an even more crucial one: who is the “we" that gets to decide? In the BNW, it is “Our Ford"; in modern states, it is different iterations of whoever makes up the dominant ruling oligarchy. Is there any reason to believe that those in power will use their power selflessly for the good of the masses? Or is it more likely that whatever pleasures they help us experience are more like the “bread and circuses" that distract us while they consolidate their power and riches?
The type of collectivist society envisioned in BNW will do the most harm to the truly exceptional people, more so than directly to the common man. But by eliminating the impact that the geniuses and free thinkers can have on the world, huge damage is done to the common man as well. Exceptional individuals like Hemholtz can’t have the impact they otherwise would. In real life, it is largely these exceptional people who drive human progress. A society like that in Brave New World would be largely stagnant. It is a gigantic nursery dedicated to arrested development, where people are “allowed to mature only so far as [is] compatible" with the needs of society (aka, the needs of the ruling class). This is a society dedicated to the opposite of human fulfillment. Societies like this already exist, such as in termite or ant colonies.
Is that what you want?
“Look in the mirror: do you see Lenina Crowne looking back at you, or do you see John the Savage? Chances are, you’ll see something of both, because we’ve always wanted things both ways. We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe, with John, that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses, and that immediate gratification will never be enough." – Margaret Atwood