Universal Utopia. An Oxymoron?
A Response to David Pearce's "Brave New World?"
Charles McCormick

Pearce does not seem to be advocating some form of socialism in his "paradise-engineered" Utopia, rather he glorifies those fruits that germinate best in capitalist soil, technical advancements.

Before dismissing Huxley's dystopia as unrealistic I think that it is important to look at the actual use of these technologies (in distinction to the Utopian possibilities the author offers). Genetic engineering is available only to those that can afford it, allowing the mostly white bourgeoisie to create designer babies, immune from disease and other ailments that would hinder their long and happy lives. Similarly, drugs (legal and illegal), surgery, and other forms of "care for the body" are practiced only by those who can afford them.

Inoculations and other forms of "public medicine"?: these advances are made universal only when 1) not promoting them is costly or dangerous or 2) when they are made cheaply, and usually by then surpassed by new and better treatments.

"Behavioral conditioning, too, could have been used by the utopians to sustain, rather than undermine, a more sympathetic ethos of civilized society and a life well led. Likewise, biotechnology could have been exploited in BNW to encode life-long fulfillment and super-intellects for everyone - instead of manufacturing a rigid hierarchy of genetically-preordained castes."

Again, this would require a socialism of the best medical/technical advances.

Huxley also warns us of the consequences of "playing God" with our technology. Fetuses produced on the assembly line, manipulation of intellects to promote the status quo and vicious conditioning of newborn babies and are, as Pearce rightly points out, transcended today by more pleasant alternatives including in vitro fertilization (allowing genetic manipulation of the fetus), "designer babies" free of disease and possessing socially desirable characteristics, and drugs and forms of media which allow "escape from pain" not just through deadening sensations, but in ways that enhance experience. As Pearce argues, it is these ideal cases that must be questioned: Why shouldn't all pain (physical, psychological, spiritual) be eliminated if possible? Why shouldn't we use all means to ensure our children the best chances in the world, and to maximize our happiness? Shouldn't we strive to live with the least pain and unhappiness possible, and even eliminate discomfort if we can? What is to be preferred in the life of the technologically isolated Savage whose life is, historically "nasty, brutish and short"?

It is important to grant Pearce several logical assumptions to see if Huxley's critique of our Brave New World still has weight. If these advances were available to all (a major leap) and if they were not manipulated to uphold the social order and especially, if these advances delivered all that they promised, what remains of Huxley's warning?

After declaring that "God is dead" and that every aspect of the human condition is subject to the manipulation of the "scientific project", do we not lose something that we can justify only morally: that we feel we know that we are more than mere animals and that "manufacturing" humans cheapens us in some important way. Theologians make an interesting division between the creaturely and the divine aspect of man; as humans we bridge the gap between animal and God while retaining characteristics of both potentials, and we have the choice to strive for either alternative.

Genetics/drugs promise us a better life through chemistry, focusing on our physical or creaturely aspect of our being. Is this at the expense of moral life? Does it cheapen the divine aspects of our being that we can't quantify or logically defend? I argue that it does.

I will not argue for the virtues of suffering for its own sake (i.e. religious martyrs or penitents) but for another point that Huxley supports: that social change is often led by the unhappy, those who experience difficulties, be they those felt due to their race, class or social position within an oppressive regime. Huxley warns that soma and other forms of artificially or externally (i.e. pharmacologically) induced happiness prevent us from challenging our place in the social order, making us rather into well greased cogs in "the machine".

I argue that those who question and challenge are those who feel the injustices of the present order; empathy requires that one experience the difficulties and pain of others. Is it possible that leap to the transhuman state of happiness allows greater freedom to choose altruistic behavior, as one is freed of the unpleasant experiences of the mere human? Yes, but Pearce must disprove the possibility that actors will have no motivation to change the status quo, preferring instead to focus their attentions on further improving their own happiness. Many current trends of technology and industry promote a destruction of community and an isolation from the experience of others in preference to technically mediated experience. Pearce cannot discount this possibility, as at one point he argues "Getting turned-on by the heightened verisimilitude of drugs-plus-VR from a very young age is likely to eclipse anything else on offer" and he predicts that "one will be able to have all the material goods one wants, and any virtual world one wants - and it can all seem as "unvirtual" as one desires." While Pearce assumes that humans are essentially good, if hampered by genetic hurdles and chemical blocks, one must show that this will not be a Utopia of radial individualism, where everyone primarily enjoys this experience and works to maximize it, retreating into newly created worlds of sensory experience. There is no inherent reason to believe that the advancements that Pearce promotes will cure the blindness to other's plight that we so often have today.

Similarly, genetic engineering (even if universally available) allows parents to create "ideal children" in an important sense: children who meet the socially determined definitions of beauty. When today breast implants and collagen lip surgery are used to near the feminine ideal, and where eye and nose surgery and skin lighteners are used to near the ideal race, the possibilities of genetic engineering in actualizing this ideal (which is imposed by dominant society) is staggering. And similar to my argument against genetic/drug engineering, this moral cost cannot be justified by the language of science or logic. If we have the choice to be beautiful, shouldn't we take it?

New technology often finds public acceptance by over-exagerating its possibility to help the dispossessed, the ailing in society. Genetic engineering promises to prevent birth of infants who will be terminally ill, or who will live their life in pain . . . But is this not also a type of prenatal eugenics? Despite its "humanitarian promise", genetic tests can be used to end pregnancies where the child will be mentally retarded, or where it posses other undesirable characteristics. While Pearce argues that genetic engineering will be selected to maximize the happiness of the individual, the possibility must also be raised that institutions may also influence or control these decisions, for example "in the common good". Pearce argues that major evolutionary transition is now imminent in the future of life. This is the era when we rewrite the genome in our own interest to make ourselves happy." Happiness is not the only use that genetics (or any technology) can be put to, and in fact there is no guarantee that recent trends towards collectivism in society, the market and government will not revert to the "will to power". Who will write the map that determines our genetic makeup?

Pearce seems as blind to political and social realities as any Utopian and his promise that...

"In the future, it will be feasible technically - at the very least - for pharmacotherapy and genetic science to re-engineer us so that we can become - to take one example among billions - a cross between Jesus and Einstein. Transhumans will be endowed with a greater capacity for love, empathy and emotional depth than anything neurochemically accessible today"
This quote shows that he believes that virtues such as love or compassion are the product of ones genetic and physiological makeup. As the genetic barrier to the ideal man are lifted, she is free to realize her moral potential, so that man becomes his ideal. Thus, man becomes God in a very real sense, coexisting as both the Creator and the ideal being.

Pearce's Utopia would require a rending of the social fabric and what we consider to be human nature. It is assumed that the genetically engineered virtuous human would have no need for competition, that robots would do the "dirty work", leveling the social field. Of course, Pearce would argue that our experience of the world today is no measure of the possibilities available to genetically and pharmaceutically "freed" man with experiences beyond today's imaginings, that modern drugs are only an intimation of what is to come. As pain killers are replaced by anti-depressants and then by drugs that eliminate whole categories of pain, Pearce predicts that we will reach to landmark of "the world's last unpleasant experience." And rather than deadening experience, as is the case with tranquilizers, for example, these super drugs will enhance all categories of experience including emotional, artistic and intellectual experience. I would argue however, for another possibility based on recent tech/chemistry developments. As drugs become more sophisticated, rather than making the experience of their users clearer, they dull experience in more sophisticated ways. (Here I point to the often humorous caricature of the Prozac user who is oblivious to various misfortunes or difficulties that he faces.) If we can live in an artificially created Paradise which is "more real than real" then what motivation do we have to interact with or change the duller and messier real world?

In fact, for "transhumans" to experience reality and at the same time not experience "unpleasant experience" requires one of three possibilities: 1) that the individual cannot comprehend the unpleasantness, allowing them to dream away within a brutally oppressive society for example, 2) that the society is actually structured so that there is no unpleasant experience, through physical or verbal assault of others, pain of any type, frustration at not reaching ones goals, etc.. or a related possibility 3) that these forms of unpleasantness only exist in a weakened form, and only when necessary (as it is assumed that a virtuous "transhuman" would attempt to minimize the suffering of others whenever possible). For example, since variation would still exist in Pearce's Utopia, individuals would have differing capacities to achieve their goals and if both desired the same end they would compete. Ideally, for example in a Communist Utopia, these differences would work to the benefit of the whole, as all citizens work for the common good.

Pearce is arguing for the final possibility. For this to occur, it would be necessary that the "new humans" not intentionally make the lives of others difficult, more importantly that they have not the capacity to do so. While "transhumans" can understand oppression, and cruelty, they cannot engage in it. With this death of "free will" Pearce argues that "morality in the contemporary sense may no longer be needed when suffering has been cured." These new humans cannot strive for power over others, indeed they have no need to do so, for they already experience gratifications greater than those with a "lust for power" were striving for.

He is advocating a "perfect" existence, destroying sin through science. If this were possible, is there a cost to this choice?

"But death and suffering will be cured only by the application of bioscience. They won't be abolished by spirituality, prophetic sci-fi, or literary intellectualism."

Pearce's promotion of vegan ethics in his Utopia typifies his position: He argues that there will be global veganism, simply because no one could argue for the killing of animals when food replicators are able to perfectly reproduce the taste and texture of filet minion or other delicacies. Again technology negates today's moral difficulties, there will be abundance for all, no need to hurt others and a VR paradise available to all, to blot out any remaining unpleasantness in the real world.


Technology, genetic engineering, and drugs can be used to create a paradise for all, high intellects and a lack of social dysfunction for all members. But this would create social conflict in the sense that all would have the power to upset the social order. (If education allows individuals to gain power: both through an understanding of social machinations and through the ability to manipulate the system and influence others what type of political system would make this capacity universal?)


"This doesn't stop us today from dreaming up scenarios of blissed-out utopias which strike us as distasteful - or even nightmarish - when contemplated through the lens of our own darkened minds. This is because chemically-unenriched consciousness is a medium which corrupts anything which it seeks to express."

How were you able to transcend your own genetically/chemically darkened mind?


I am including the following not as a refutation, but because it seemed a relevant warning to any Utopian program:
"Events, by definition, are occurrences that interrupt routine processes and routine procedures; only in a world in which nothing of importance ever happens could the futurologists' dream come true. Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens. . . To call such unexpected, unpredicted, and unpredictable happenings 'random events' or 'the last gasps of the past,' condemning them to irrelevance or the famous 'dustbin of history,' is the oldest trick in the trade; the trick, no doubt, helps in clearing up the theory, but at the price of removing it further and further from reality. The danger is that these theories are not only plausible, because they take their evidence from actually discernible present trends, but that, because of their inner consistency, they have a hypnotic effect; they put to sleep our common sense, which is nothing else but our mental organ for perceiving, understanding, and dealing with reality and factuality."

Hanna Arendt,
On Violence, 8

Charles McCormick

Aldous Huxley
Huxley Hotlinks
Biomedical Ethics
The Abolitionist Project
Feeling Groovy, Forever
DP Interview in Vanity Fair
Who's Who in Brave New World
DP interview in SonntagZeitung
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Plains of Heaven by Paul Newman
Critique of Brave New World by David Pearce