Our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty! Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy! (p. 149)
I recently wrote about the choice between freedom and happiness. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Brave New World, the complete text of which may be found online. The novel features an intriguing investigation of the choice between liberty and pleasure.
If you haven’t read Brave New World, I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to, then at least read the summary on SparkNotes or Wikipedia so that you may better understand this essay.
Brave New World appears to be, if nothing else, an explication of the difference between pleasure and freedom. It illustrates a world of maximized pleasure but limited freedom, and this prospect is made to look frighteningly unpleasant. Although this is ostensibly true, reality is to the contrary: pleasure, despite what Huxley may have us believe, is liberty’s master.
In this fantastical world, higher pleasures have been eradicated. Shakespeare is banned because people could not understand it, because they are conditioned not to be able to understand it. People’s freedoms are restricted in the most absolute sense when they are conditioned to want certain things. The problem here is not the idea of conditioning itself. In fact, everyone is conditioned, all the time, and this is completely unavoidable. What makes the conditioning in Brave New World so abject is that it conditions people not to like higher pleasures. On the surface, it appears that liberty is sacrificed for happiness; but in truth, higher pleasure is sacrificed for lower.
This sacrifice is made in the name of stability. One character told a story of a social experiment in which a group of Alphas, the most intelligent and highest-class members of society, were placed on an island to govern themselves. What was the result?
The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn’t properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen. (p. 151)
The sacrifice here is not liberty for pleasure, but rather higher pleasure for stability. This quotation is one of the best pieces of evidence for the superiority of Huxley’s world; notwithstanding, it still relies on a few fallacious premises. The most obvious flaw here is that this is a work of fiction; although the quotation paints an interesting picture, we cannot know that an island of Alphas would find their situation to be hopeless and petition to rejoin the “normal” government. More importantly, we must ask what peoples of a different caste would do were they in a similar situation. Alphas serve to benefit more than any other caste by rejoining society, as they have the best prospects for experiencing higher pleasures. Castes lower than Alpha never get a chance at leadership or even remotely intellectual pursuits, so they do not know if they would like them. If people of the lower castes were given a choice between stability and the opportunity to experience higher pleasures, we do not know what they would choose. But their choice is far more important than the choice of the Alphas, who are already on top by default and whose statures are only lessened by the removal of the lower castes from society. If you created a world full of kings and ask them if they would rather have that or a feudal society, of course they would choose the latter. But create a world full of peasants and ask them the same question, and the answer will be quite different.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the society in question is a problem that is never consciously admitted by anyone in the book, although it is alluded to in a few places. It appears from all sides that the trouble with this society is its emphasis of happiness over freedom — or, after deeper analysis, its choosing lower over higher pleasures. But why does it prefer lower pleasures to higher ones? This society does not desire lower pleasures simply because they are pleasurable; rather, pleasure is only a means to an end. The ultimate ideal of civilization is stability. This is repeatedly mentioned in the book, although it appears that stability is meant to serve happiness. On the contrary: happiness is meant to serve stability. Why?
If you think about it, a society with stability as the ultimate goal will eventually win out over any society that emphasizes liberty, pleasure, or anything else. The truth of this becomes obvious after a moment’s thought. No society will be as stable as one that holds stability as the ultimate goal; all other societies will change, and will eventually reach an equilibrium in which stability is the greatest virtue. This is unfortunate when ethics demands that happiness be the highest goal.
David Pearce, a modern Utilitarian philosopher, wrote a critique of Brave New World. He argues that Huxley’s world fails as a satire of modern society and of the desire for happiness because the people in it are not truly happy. He makes a particularly strong case against soma:
As perfect pleasure-drugs go, soma underwhelms. It’s not really a utopian wonderdrug at all. It does make you high. Yet it’s more akin to a hangoverless tranquilliser or an opiate – or a psychic anaesthetising SSRI like Prozac – than a truly life-transforming elixir. Third-millennium neuropharmacology, by contrast, will deliver a vastly richer product-range of designer-drugs to order.
For a start, soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. John the Savage commits suicide soon after taking soma [guilt and despair born of serotonin depletion!?]. The drug is said to be better than (promiscuous) sex – the only sex brave new worlders practise. But a regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. It doesn’t catalyse any mystical epiphanies, intellectual breakthroughs or life-defining insights. It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, soma provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness” – a vacuous escapism which makes people comfortable with their lack of freedom. The drug heightens suggestibility, leaving its users vulnerable to government propaganda. Soma is a narcotic that raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”
Huxley’s novel depicts a world that values not happiness but stability. Liberty is restricted in exchange for stability, and the higher pleasures in life have been stripped away. Huxley’s world is a dystopia, there is no doubt about that. But it fails to effectively show that a world based on happiness is a dystopian one. Not only does this world favor less desirable pleasures over more sophisticated ones, but its ultimate goal is not even pleasure but stability. This striving for stability over all else is what inevitably corrupts mankind.
Perhaps I am not giving Huxley enough credit. Perhaps his novel was meant to show that the happiness from liberty is greater than the happiness from stability. If so, then Huxley’s novel only reinforces my point: that maximizing pleasure is the greatest virtue, and that higher pleasures should be emphasized over lower ones. One may not necessarily draw this conclusion from Brave New World, but it is the best conclusion to be had.
Despite that reality may appear to be to the contrary, a world in which happiness is the highest virtue would be the best of all possible worlds. Although liberty can provide great pleasure and is thus valuable, it is not more important than pleasure itself. Furthermore, stability is hardly an ideal goal. At times it can be pleasurable, but causes myriad problems when taken to its natural conclusion. It is imperative that our eyes not stray from society’s pinnacle desires, or the higher pleasures will inevitably come tumbling down.
Quotations from Brave New World come from the edition published by Bantam Books, 1968.