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.