I recently read Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. I had just finished reading Amusing Ourselves to Death (I’ll write on that one later), which referenced Huxley’s book throughout, so I decided to give it a try. Brave New World is not for the faint-hearted. It has graphic scenes throughout, and its themes are meant for a mature audience. That being said, it was truly eye-opening.
I won’t go into much detail with the plot. Suffice to say, the book serves as a fable warning against the love of comfort and happiness, especially when it supersedes truth and morality. Set in a not-too distant future, in a world oriented around Henry Ford, zippers, virtual-reality, and fun, the cast of characters play out lives full of instant, constant pleasure, total societal order, and complete peace.
This book is disturbing. Huxley had eerie foresight into what our modern world, in many ways, looks like. While perhaps we are not worshiping Ford or quite so enamored with zippers, virtual reality is gaining traction and constant distraction and amusement is the norm — how long have you or I gone without checking Facebook in the past hour?
Personally, I found one argument imbedded in Huxley’s work the most compelling. This brave, new world he describes is undeniably happy. Everything is fun. Everyone is totally content and satisfied — well, nearly everyone. But this brave, new world is also undeniably broken. The morality preached in Huxley’s world is deplorable, and reading some of the scenes (such as when two characters are talking about sex in an elevator filled with their coworkers) made me viscerally uncomfortable.
I took an ethics class a while back, and the whole thing was basically a semester-long argument for utilitarianism. The greatest good — the greatest pleasure — the greatest happiness — the greatest fun — for the greatest number. Huxley’s world executes this perfectly. The results are a genetically-engineered caste system, the total loss of art, the extermination of religion, the numbing of emotional capacity, and universal, constant, instant depravity.
But everyone is happy.
But back to my ethics class: it was hard for anyone to argue a counterpoint to utilitarianism. Who doesn’t want to be happy? And on top of that, utilitarianism also promises safety and comfort. It promises a utopia. It promises a Brave New World.
So, dear readers, I suggest you give Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World a read. It’s relatively short, not densely written, and very thought-provoking. Read it, and remember it the next time anyone promises you a solution to make the whole world happy. You might find that universal happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.