When I was in high school, I – just like the rest of the country at that age – was tasked with reading Huxley’s Brave New World. BNW was published in ’32 and often draws comparisons to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four since they’re both dystopian visions of a grim future. Though Eighty-Four seems to get a bit more attention, BNW was always more interesting to me. I was growing up in the era of supersize fries and plasma screen TVs1, wherein the mindless pursuit of pleasure seemed much more salient to the quiet desperation of my fellow man than did authoritarianism. Even years later in our time of #Resistance, it still does. So that’s that. Two books we’ve all read, one possibly more prophetic than the other, but both present a vision of the future that we can agree is pretty bad.
That’s at least how I thought about them until quite recently, when I got into a debate with a friend about the merits of our culture’s veneration of promiscuity.2 Arguing caution towards cultural radicalism (and as an erudite sophisticate equipped with an American high school education), I immediately reached for the example of BNW to illustrate my point that perhaps our contemporary take on Free Love can lead us to places we don’t want to go. However, rather than using the novel’s example to illustrate a mechanism by which society might degenerate, I realized what I was actually doing was simply appealing to the authority of Huxley. Not even Huxley, but instead, a more indefinite appeal to the authority of our nation’s high school teachers and college adjuncts who would gladly classify BNW’s future as an example of dystopia. As anyone in a YouTube comment section would gladly tell you, what I had done was generate an example of a logical fallacy.
So here we are, with this book that is meant to disgust us, to warn against the potential excesses of society, but what if we are not disgusted? The casual sex, the easy relationship with drugs, the freedom from want – what exactly is supposed to be disgusting about these things? As far as I can tell, even if we make an argument that these things are bad, the outrage is not self-evident. Here I was, treating BNW’s warning as scripture due to its position in the canon, when in truth there is no reason to assume that a sense of moral disgust is timeless. History is littered with examples of actions that to modern sensibilities seem anodyne, but were once thought to be self-evidently immoral. Indeed, if I had in Massachusetts in 1688 written a flawless logical proof that say, fishing led to blasphemy, you can sure as shit believe fishing would have been outlawed in the Bay Colony. Were I to present the same proof to the authorities in Massachusetts today, regardless of the strength of the demonstrated causation, I’d get a series of raised eyebrows from authority figures wondering why the hell this guy seems to care so much about taking the Lord’s name in vain. We don’t care about blasphemy in 2017. And that’s fine. I really don’t want to live in a world where we do, because as far as I can tell, nobody gets hurt when you blaspheme, so you should be free to do it at your leisure, so long as you’re not forcing it upon me.
That attitude of mutual tolerance is commonly held, and likely represents the ethical foundation of a good slice of my peers. Keeping that in mind, I now encourage you to think about the moral intuitions and resultant prohibitions you do hold. Some of mine certainly seem likely to hold up to the tides of changing culture; prohibitions on most forms of violence, theft (despite what the socialists say), etc. seem necessary for the stability of a society. I don’t think it wise to get into exactly where human moral intuition originates, since I’m not well enough versed in either neuroscience or ethics to save myself from looking like a jackass. It is at least apparent however, that looking at history we see plenty of strongly held moral beliefs change or relax as time goes on. There are a number of beliefs that were commonly held when I was born that are no longer acceptable in polite society. Mostly these prohibitions have to do with homosexuality, and our culture commonly congratulates itself on the speed with which we removed them once we “discovered” they were problematic. Thus, if Huxley doesn’t like a world in which nobody bears emotional attachment to any other, why should we even take pause? Obviously Huxley was a pretty smart guy, but in his era you weren’t allowed to marry someone who was a different race than you, so maybe guiding our ethics using the things that would offend an individual in 1932 is a bad system for making judgments today.
I used to make a joke about the Greatest Generation. It was structured as a rant by one of our grandparents regarding the fact that they suffered and died and bled to defeat fascism and save democracy, but we’ve since used their hard fought freedom to indulge in activities that gravely offend them. “I fought the god damn Nazis and saw my friends die, so what? So that you can fuck each other in the ass?” grandpa would say. This was all a big laugh at the stodgy old timers, but when I really think about it, a pervasive sense of sadness is now all that I can muster from this joke. Not to make a sweeping, ahistorical generalization, but back in the day, you had something to hang your hat on in terms of the purpose and destiny of mankind. I speak mostly of religion, though during the Enlightenment and other periods it could have been progress or something else. Now, what do we have? If we accept that the intellectual and progressive class of the nineteen thirties held disgusting moral beliefs we’ve since demolished, then why would society eighty years hence not do the same to our moral certainties? What are we even working for, if our grandchildren can come up with a way to tear it all down in the most offensive possible way? We have no religion any longer, so there’s certainly no sense of building a Kingdom of God or notion that an eternal morality can guide us. We killed that long ago. Some might make the old Whig counterargument that our new ideology of equality is a step on the “right side of history” leading to greater future equalities, but I don’t buy it. No, we’re going to follow our moral intuitions, and our children are going to develop new moral intuitions, and their children after them. No matter how extreme you think your cultural liberalism is, I encourage you to imagine a medieval scholar holding any of the cultural beliefs we currently do. I don’t care how smart and progressive that scholar was, this is impossible. I don’t care who you are. Whether or not humanity’s future resembles BNW, it will surely horrify you.
1 Incidentally, neither of these products is any longer available. Weird how these things go.
2 Whether this is a real thing or not I feel has little bearing on what follows, but it’s an interesting thought.