Two days ago, I finished Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s a dystopian novel, written back in 1931. But it’s a dystopia with one big difference.
You see, most dystopias are all about suffering. Orwell’s 1984 shows a vision of “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” The Hunger Games has children slaughtering children for amusement.
Brave New World is different. It’s a dystopia without suffering, a world where everyone is happy.
In this world, babies are pre-programmed genetically, chemically, and psychologically to belong to a particular caste, and to be happy in that caste. The menial laborers are made to love their work, to be grateful they aren’t burdened with the high expectations and onerous thoughts of the upper castes. The Alphas, meanwhile, are made to shudder at the thought of doing such base and “stupid” work.
Regardless of caste, everyone is taught to revere society above any individual good, to hate solitude and strangeness. If they ever do feel bad, they take a little drug called soma that supplies the pleasant buzz of alcohol without the side effects or the guilt.
An entire world of people without art, science, courage, curiosity, religion, philosophy, literature. Without hunger, fear, torture, suffering. Total stability, no freedom.
Such a world is horrific to me, as it was to Huxley, as it is (hopefully) to you. But the horror of that world implies something very interesting.
Happiness is not the goal.
Of course we know that our own happiness is not the supreme good. That would just be selfishness. But we’re taught to balance our happiness with the happiness of others: our children, our parents, our friends, our co-workers, society. We’re told money can’t buy happiness and follow your bliss. If a law or a program makes people happy, it’s seen as successful. John Stuart Mill’s whole philosophy of utilitarianism is based on maximizing happiness and reducing suffering.
Yet the counterexample of Brave New World shows the kind of hell that happiness can build. And so I conclude that happiness – in oneself, in others – is a goal, but not the goal.
In some ways, this is liberating. We spend so much of our lives being unhappy (and surrounded by unhappy people). If happiness is the supreme goal, then all this is a failure, an enemy, an object of struggle. But if, as I’ve shown, the real purpose is something higher, then it’s much easier to be at peace with the unhappiness we find. Which, oddly enough, leads to greater happiness.
But this little revelation of mine still leaves two big questions unanswered.
1. Are you sure? The Brave New World society seems monstrous. But is it really? It’s easy for me to shudder at a completely ordered society: I’m well-fed, fairly comfortable, safe, an armchair revolutionary. For someone facing torture, famine, endless war, is Huxley’s hell really so awful? What’s the use of courage, anyway, if there are no more dangers? Is art so precious that I’m willing to watch children starve to death for its preservation?
2. If not happiness, then what? Many of my friends would answer “God,” which is fair enough. For me, the answer is something like truth or beauty, understood in a broad way that includes love, doing the right thing, and searching for meaning. But that’s awfully imprecise, and I’d like something stronger.
To these two questions, I have no answer yet.
To be honest, I don’t see the problem. For me, truth and beauty and all that is only worth the happiness I or others get from it. My instinctual response is to hate the idea, but when I think about it, the only issues I have with it can be reduced to “I just don’t like it”. Which I wouldn’t think if I were perfectly happy, making both ideas equality valid in my opinion. And while the theme of a “deeper” happiness caused by knowledge of suffering is interesting, I don’t quite believe in it, at least not to the degree it’s usually portrayed as.
Though I don’t pursue happiness specifically, I think that all the things I do are done (consciously or not) for it. Allowing for the errors of our brains, happiness is what it’s after.
‘Course, I love my books and music and philosophical debates, and I don’t think getting rid of them is the best way to make people happy, But I still think of it as my goal- and the unconscious goal of humanity.
What you’re saying makes sense, and I agree with most of it from a logical point of view. But would you really be willing to sacrifice books and philosophy on the altar of warm fuzzies, if it could make everyone happy? I’m not prepared to say yes.
Pingback: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley « Rafferty's Rules
Happiness is an indicator not an end in itself. It’s like a heuristic for how you are doing as a whole.
Making yourself happy by artificially lowering your standards/expectations is like fixing your car by putting duct tape over the oil light.
That’s an interesting image. My instincts agree with yours, and with the thesis of my post: happiness is not the goal. But my two questions remain.
1. Yes, I’m sure. Because accepting anything as an alternative to starvation, genocide, etc. is just to accept the lesser evil, not to work on the root problem. Once you accept that something is worse than starvation, the threat of hunger can always be used to subdue you. It can’t be about just avoiding this or that type of suffering or injustice. We need to completely change our beliefs and priorities.
2. Kindness and Peace. These two things are not seen as virtues or active goals in our society. We pursue money and power, territory and influence with a shocking ruthlessness, then seem unable to connect the dots between a Wall Street junk bond trader’s Ferrari and the women currently starving to death every day in Uganda. If we could actually reframe the cultural expectation to one of improvement through cooperation and kindness rather than winning, dominating, and deriving ‘happiness’ through the enforcing of one individual’s will, the entire world could change.
It should be telling that you can’t go to a grocery store without having all types of price-stickered, monetized *things* promise you happiness, satisfaction, freedom, bliss, etc. Our culture has been changed to believe that happiness comes from a shampoo bottle or an individually packaged protein bar or a pink plastic disposable razor. Cars and watches don’t make you important, and they certainly don’t make you unique. No woman really becomes sexually available to a man that drinks the right beer. These are lies, and they advertise a falsehood that people label as happiness. Being attractive doesn’t make you happy. Being rich doesn’t make you happy. Being ugly and poor can both be profound sources of unhappiness, but no more so than the beautiful woman that can no longer trust men or the lonely billionaire who knows that they have no actual friends, only dependents and associates.
The concept of happiness being attainable is a fallacy, and it encourages people to commit alienating and antisocial acts to acquire the things and status that will surely make them ‘happy’. We need to learn as a society that true happiness comes from personal esteem and solid relationships with other people. It comes from knowing your parents are proud of you. It comes from helping your community. It comes from laying down each night next to an ally you love and trust completely. It comes from so many more things, but none of them can be paid for.
The people in Brave New World had their needs satisfied, but were they truly happy? In a dystopian future where people are genetically engineered to only have certain desires, perhaps they were. However, the desire to be free and autonomous is still strong in the human race in our reality, and I doubt any of us would have a child genetically ‘augmented’ to be perpetually satisfied by doing what they are told. The essence of humanity is dissatisfaction, but it can change direction and be used as a tool for the betterment of us all. When we are mobilized to work and act against injustice and oppression as effectively as we work and act in ruthless pursuit of the latest iphone, we won’t have to worry about starvation and genocide because we will be solving these problems, and we will be solving these problems because it will make us happy.