The Costs of Utopian Delusions
Approximate Read Time: 24 minutes
There has not been a kidnapping in 5 years.
Politicians no longer lie.
Online trolling and stolen identities are eradicated.
And murder, assault, theft, vandalization, and crime at every level virtually ceases.
Sounds perfect. Who could bat an eyelash at any of that? Well, me, of course.
The crime free utopia described is the world of David Eggers’ book, The Circle, which is named after the progressive tech company at the center of its plot. After inventing TruYou, a system that eliminates any need for passwords and makes it impossible to steal identities or troll anonymously, The Circle, grows to dominate the entire technology industry from social media and messaging to security. Early on things aren’t much different from our own screen-dominated world. However, when The Circle develops barely visible cameras that can be stuck anywhere and then linked to a searchable database, they begin focusing on expanding the possibilities of what can be known.
Before long live footage of the entire world is accessible with a few keyboard strokes. You can see anything, search anyone, and catch every crime… mistake… potentially insensitive moment… or nuanced opinion. Transparency becomes its own dogma as The Circle adopts the position that privacy is a theft of knowledge. All should be known. After all, you only hide the bad parts of yourself, right?
Public pressure begins to demand for politicians to wear cameras all day, but of course this only dumbs their work down further as they seek to behave so inoffensively as to appease everyone. Each person obsessively curates an agreeable image “participating” neurotically as they follow the herd. Life becomes a performance. Eggers impressive book, which was regrettably turned into an awful movie, conveys an essential lesson in this age of incomprehensible technological scope: oversimplified good intentions are likely to be far more dangerous than bad intentions.
What we think we want is rarely in our best interest and, even when it is, the path there is usually full of unintended consequences that dwarf the intended good. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek collective progress. Of course we should. Yet, progress has to be a function of human growth and our utopian-driven culture incentivizes just the opposite.
Wanting Like Children
When I was 21, I bought a $200 bar and another $200 worth of gin, vodka, tequila, and bourbon for decoration. I had car payments, insurance, a cell-phone bill, living expenses, impending student loan debt, and no long term savings. Yet, I decided to invest my limited funds on trophy liquor, just so I could signal to my peers that I was a sophisticated man. I bought everything except the red, silk pajamas. A 21-year-old “adult,” I was still trying to look cool.
As silly as I appear looking back, this is normal and not just for a college kid. Most people rarely want what would actually make them happier. We want to always be right, always be liked, and never experience temperatures outside the 68 to 73 degree range. We want Netflix binges, YouTube autoplay, five-social media platforms, celebrity politicians, porn, expanded fast-food options, “healthy” whole grain Pop-Tarts, a pill to fix every problem, perfect grades without the inconvenience of studying, lucrative careers that come “naturally,” and that brand new four-door truck that costs $45k ($60k with interest by the end of all those payments). You never know when you’ll need to get mulch, after all.
We want like children, because we often think like children. Thus, our conception of Utopia is polluted by an immature lens. But even more, our wants are distorted by the self-delusional illusion that the world could be or should be made perfect.
You see we want “good” things too. We want everyone to have high self-esteem, respect, an equal playing field, maximal safety, and free access to the most valuable commodities. The problem is these “good” wants are often tainted by a disconnect from reality.
Just because we want something to be true, doesn’t make it so. This understanding is basic to maturity. I earnestly want there to be no children starving in Africa, yet they starve still. I’d love to believe human activity wasn’t harming the environment, modern schools were adequately preparing youth for the future, and that you could be healthy while having ice cream and margaritas every day. In college, I would have loved to delude myself into believing I could fix my O.C.D. by simply taking a pill. Ignoring uncomfortable realities may make us feel better in the short term, but it precludes growth and makes solutions less likely.
Just because we want a world where no one dies young and everyone is “woke,” doesn’t mean that this is possible without incurring far greater costs. I’d love for all people to wake up absent of prejudice and cognitive bias, yet this ignores the reality of human nature an any broad prescriptions that refuse to confront reality are certain to create far more harm than good.
The Flawed Model of Progress
“The Truth will set you free, but first it is going to piss you off.” -Unknown
Many of our more “woke” public concerns fall into the trap of obsessing on problems that are both impossible to fully solve and disproportionately undeserving of the amount of energy that is being invested in them. Issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and even terrorism tend to dominate the public sphere only because of the emotion they elicit. This isn’t to say that racism and sexism have not been tremendous problems in the past, or even that they are “solved,” but the current dogmas surrounding mainstream opinions on these issues tend to actually exacerbate the problems by blurring reality and seeking friction. In actuality, the inequalities obsessively focused on today are marginal, exaggerated, and largely inconsequential when transposed against the costs of fighting them.
I will focus on race because it is the most contentious and personally troubling for me, a white man trying to best understand how to raise my two black children. Coleman Hughes, a brilliant young black man, offers the best analysis I’ve seen on the flawed reasoning that undermines current identity politics. He points to two principle flaws in the progressive narrative that apply to all of our utopian-driven policy initiatives.
First, there is a complete disproportionality in the energy put into an issue compared to the suffering it elicits. For example, Hughes reports finding stories about lynchings in the New York Times a couple times per month. While this crime is heinous, it is not a modern threat. In fact, according to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, the U.S. averaged three lynchings a week in the year 1900, but today, there is anywhere from zero to one racially motivated murders of black people each year.
In contrast to the frequent lynching stories, there are never any columns about black on black homicide which continues to be the number one cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 34. If you want to help black people, why not focus proportionally on the issues that create the most suffering. If a house is falling apart on top of its shifted foundation and termite ridden bones, I’m not going to start the renovation by painting. Yet the homicide rate tends to not be interesting, because the perpetrators race doesn’t fit the outrage-inducing narrative. As Hughes explains:
“While mainstream media outlets know how to talk about anti-black racism, as of yet, most of them haven’t figured out how to talk about less comfortable race-related topics…. Can we speak honestly, for instance, about the fact that blacks make up 14 percent of the population but commit 52 percent of the homicides? Or to state the problem in reverse, can we speak honestly about the fact that the same percentage of America’s murder victims are black? Will purveyors of the idea that culture is irrelevant ever explain why blacks living in the same Los Angeles neighborhoods as Hispanics are nevertheless murdered at two to four times the rate? Do proponents of the idea that high-crime black neighborhoods are over-policed have a realistic solution to the epidemic of unsolved murders in such neighborhoods that does not involve more policing? And if they do have such a solution, will we ever be able to marshal the bipartisan coalition necessary to implement it when so many… cannot even bring themselves to mention the statistics needed to describe the problem? Can we speak honestly about the social and psychological consequences of living in a community where known murderers roam free? Can we speak honestly about the economic externalities of high crime rates—the capital that is scared away; the higher prices businesses must charge to compensate for the increased risk of robbery? Or does the ever-present specter of white supremacy—and the attendant risk of trafficking in old stereotypes—really loom so large as to render frank discussion of these issues and their policy implications anathema?”
The second flaw in the progressive narrative is the most damning and most pertinent to our understanding of how destructive it is to pursue Utopia. Hughes argues that we are looking at racism like smallpox. There is an exact date and time when smallpox was completely eradicated and humanity’s efforts to protect people from this terrible disease were complete. Yet racism is much more like murder, theft, or any human behavioral phenomena. These can be reduced but never eradicated. Humanity is not perfectible.
Between 1990 and 1999, New York City’s homicide rate dropped 73% in one of the greatest crime reduction initiatives in history. Homicide is now exceptionally low in New York City, but it does still exist. If we became so deluded as to demand an absolute eradication of all violent crime, no matter what the costs, then the government would have to turn to totalitarian measures. We’d have to be caged. At a certain point, social problems are improved enough that any increased intensity in policing efforts will yield diminishing returns and incur excessive opportunity costs while creating even larger issues. How do you go about trying to eradicate all bigotry? What are the costs of searching for this bigotry everywhere and detecting it in the most innocent and harmless of places?
The demands of individuals are often short-sighted and devoid of any understanding of their own human psychology and inherent propensity for bias. Say you are having a wonderful day full of nourishing, supportive human interaction, but while driving home you get cut off and flipped off by a rich kid driving a BMW. Suddenly your rose colored glasses have been smeared in tar. Now imagine a black man living in New York City. He loves it. People seem open-minded, intelligent, and accepting. Then one day, a white man drives by and leans his head out the window to yell racial slurs. This one interaction will burn itself disproportionately into the memory and belief structure of the young man. He’s had thousands of interactions, but the drive by racist is weighed far more heavily than any other.
This racist is not the rule, but actually just one angry idiot. Unfortunately thanks to social media, the one angry idiot is given an inordinately loud voice. In a world of noise, only the most outrageous behavior gets noticed. Thus, this rare, disturbed outlier appears to be a common archetype. Before you wade into the waters of Twitter, its best to understand the rules of the game. Twitter is not reality and obsessing on the concerns of the Twitter world tends to distort what issues are actually most pressing. Our age of distraction, distracts us from the larger issues. Amid smartphone dependency, a physical and mental health crisis, environmental fragility, nuclear tensions, and the impending economic disruption of automation, perhaps a few sad bigots aren’t the greatest threat.
The existence of isolated narratives do not warrant an all-out war on bigotry just as the existence of kidnapping does not warrant incessantly supervising every child until they are 30, (even though the rare victims of kidnappings might advocate such a policy). It is human nature to obsessively point to whatever unfairness once ailed you. That is going to be particularly cogent in your mind. But the reality is problems and inequality are inherent parts of life. It is awful that racism still exists in 2019. Yet, of course it does. So do offenses that actually warrant prosecution, like murder and rape.
The costs of creating a world where bad things can never happen are going to be far greater than the benefits. There is always a trade-off we have to account for. As the brilliant Eric Weinstein frames it, when looking at any appealing social idea you should ask, “what is the absolute minimal amount of violence and coercion that would be necessary to accomplish that idea?” There is always a cost.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
“Alarmed by something in the present we grab for a solution without thinking about the context, the roots of the problem, and the possible unintended consequences.” –Robert Greene
Every large decision has unintended consequences that extend far beyond what we can imagine. Who could have predicted how much our physical, social, and political behavior would change with the invention of smartphones? We now see bone spurs in many people’s necks from all that looking down. Likewise, each law has far-reaching ripple effects. When we try to create an environment where children can’t get hurt on the playgrounds we get one where children are overweight, uncoordinated, and over 50% more likely to have a distal forearm fracture than in 1950. Kids today aren’t experiencing more injuries because they jump, climb, and run more, they are experiencing more injuries because they have no experience doing natural human activities. When we try to legislate away every small, short-term challenge we not only strip our citizens of the freedom to act and adapt, we invite the certainty of unintended consequences that are currently running amok.
In my last article, I mentioned how modern lawsuit culture was born in the 1960’s as an attempt to remove the possibility of any victim finding themselves without recourse. Unfortunately, we instead created a system where everyone was highly incentivized to perceive themselves as victims and seek retribution against a growing number of shocked “offenders.” We distorted our natural understanding of what is right and wrong by repeatedly subjecting good people to punishment for attempts to do good. In the process, we fractured any concept of personal responsibility or common sense.
Legal systems cannot possibly be nimble and nuanced enough to mitigate most unfairness. They cannot stand in the place of ethical growth and maturity. Any attempts in that direction tend to create dependency on third-party mediators and disincentivize the formation of a personal sense of ethics. Even when progress comes, it is at the expense of freedom and societal maturity.
Most often, culture is the best means to fix societal issues, not the law. In fact, it's been culture that has allowed the necessary legal changes that created more freedom. For example, when socially liberal Barack Obama became president in 2009, he publicly professed the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. This was still the mainstream belief for conservatives and liberals alike. Yet, by June of 2015, before he left office, Gay Marriage had become supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans, Obama included, and, to little opposition, it was legalized across the land. Culture helped remove an obstacle to freedom. In direct contrast, many laws limit freedom by adding constraints, rather than taking them away. They attempt to guarantee something (usually safety), but can only do so at the expense of collective freedom and, often, the greater good.
The dogmatic pursuit of safety creates many barriers to positive behavior. We, again, see the principle flaws of modern progressive thinking: disproportional effort and the delusion of eradication. Our risk averse culture treats every freak accident as if it warrants another layer of bubble wrap or the elimination of another worthwhile activity. As philosopher, Tamler Sommers, writes in his book, Why Honor Matters:
This epidemic of risk aversion is pervasive throughout our culture. Consider how we raise our children. We teach them to fear strangers when the likelihood of being kidnapped by a non relative is vanishingly small. We ban playground equipment for being too dangerous, strap our children into car seats more suitable to Hannibal Lector during a prison transfer, and hover over them like jealous spouses, never giving them unsupervised time to learn how to handle threats themselves.
We’re so certain that any minuscule advance in safety is worth it that we never consider the costs. It is not the world’s responsibility to correctly solve every problem and right every wrong. Not only would that invite a host of unintended consequences, but it incentivizes individuals to remain a lesser version. To return to my original point, it incentivizes us to want the wrong things. So the question is, how do we structure society so that we want better?
When Dignity Goes Too Far
Traditionally, we look at societies as being either honor cultures or dignity cultures. Until the enlightenment, all cultures were honor cultures. These tended to offer little freedom of interpretation about how to live your life. In an honor culture, loyalty, duty, obligation, and societal role are weighed heavily and the failure to meet standards came with significant social costs. As an Ancient Spartan male, losing your shield in battle meant disgrace or even death and any hint of cowardice would elicit brutal mockery. Honor cultures demand courage and are often rife with duels, turf wars, and Hatfield and McCoy style feuds. Today honor subcultures still thrive in gangs, the military, and sports, but are typically seen as barbaric and the antithesis of wokeness.
Dignity cultures, on the other hand, believe in the rule of law and universal human dignity. There is no avalanche of shame for behavior deemed “disgraceful” and no vigilante justice. Crimes aren’t seen as affronts to an individual person, but to all humanity. Thus, justice is handled by impartial third parties. In a dignity culture, the law is absent of emotion and people are seen as inherently equal. As legal scholar, Orit Kamir, explains, “dignity follows no norms of conduct and is measured against no standards of achievement. It involves no competition and no rivalry. Nothing a person does or refrains from doing can enhance or endanger his or her human dignity.”
I’d argue we need a balance between both value systems. Dignity cultures are good in the macro and bad in the micro. They provide great guiding principles for broader government institutions to protect human rights and can offer necessary confines for honor cultures to work within, yet they are completely insufficient when not balanced by the good of honor culture.
“Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” –Theodore Roosevelt
At its worst honor is terrible. It is excessively violent, misogynistic, cruel, and destructively resistant to new ways of thinking or any criticism of its dogmas. The worst of honor culture is obviously bad, yet our binary decision that honor culture is archaic has incentivized selfishness, shamelessness, unhappiness and forms of dogma every bit as extreme as any honor culture. Unchecked, dignity culture leads to a world of participation trophies, five-hour sports banquets, and children who are outraged when they graduate college without high-profile job offers. Absent of the essential elements of honor culture, our dignity cultures become nihilistic breeding grounds for moral relativism, cowardice, and purposelessness. They promote a warped kindness that is truly a veiled form of cruelty, distorting reality and discouraging maturation.
We are often led to believe that all of our issues would be solved if everyone would only be kind. It’s so simple. Yet, the popular dignity-inspired view of kindness is incomplete. It isn’t kind for me to contribute to a child’s irresponsibility by allowing them to call their Mom to bring homework they forgot and it isn’t kind for their mother to substantiate the child’s narcissism by dropping everything every time they forget something. It isn’t kind for me to make a test easier because you don’t want to study. It isn’t kind to allow kids to sit all day, avoid physical exertion, and exist in a vacuum of sugar and fried convenience food. It isn’t kind to insulate them from consequences and allow them to maintain privileges after they’ve failed to meet expectations. Most of all, it isn’t kind to help preserve people’s narrow world views by suspending reality so that they can maintain their Santa’s wish list conception of happiness.
The great lesson of childhood is that you don’t always get what you want and that tends to be a really good thing. Childish wants are built on a very limited understanding of human fulfillment and the realities of our complex world. Each desire is immediate and completely ignorant of the larger ramifications. No five-year-old stops to think about the long term effects of subsisting on Frosted Flakes, Coke, and Pizza Rolls, or playing video games without limits, or having adults solve all their problems for them. The children whose parents concede to their every want will suffer most. Each wish is granted and, consequently, they grow less likely to be healthy, creative, resilient, or admirable.
Increasingly our environment substitutes diversions for the experiences that actually cultivate growth. Rites of Passage have shifted from intensely challenging transformative experiences that rally the community towards a mutually conceived notion of virtue and competency, to entitlements based on age. When we’re in Middle School Mom and Dad give us a cell phone, at age 16 a car, and regardless of our personal level of competency, we expect a job and respect at 22, or 24, or like, whenever we are ready, ya know?
“King Agis was shown a new catapult, which could shoot a killing dart 200 yards. When he saw this, he wept. ‘Alas,’ he said. ‘Valor is no more.’” -Steven Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos
In a very real sense, the developments of our time are allowing us to remain perpetual children by giving us what we want. We want an end to all discomfort and the expansion of every pleasure. This is the dream of utopia and our market does its best to capitulate, pulling us further into a vortex of entertainments and avoidance. We want everything that inhibits us from becoming a greater, more interesting, more capable version of ourselves. But to be a happy adult, we must first become adults. The headlong pursuit for utopia discourages most from exploring the necessary ingredients of maturity and that is why we need honor.
There is nothing in modern society helping us understand how empty many of our wants are. The only forces trying to influence public behavior are the companies within our economy of excessive pleasure and mass diversion. Our data is tracked and sold. Bio-chemical dependencies and evermore sophisticated marketing funnel us towards pleasure and away from the challenges that foster purpose and growth. As modern schools opt for the standardless appeasement of dignity culture, no communal force is working to pull us up.
Today, there is no shame in spending hours each day sprawled across the couch, tongue hanging out of your mouth, scrolling social media while Teen Mom plays in the background. There is no shame in being an adult who doesn’t know that there are three branches of the U.S. government. There is no shame in giving a 16-year-old a $40,000 BMW and no shame in continuing to let your parents pay your bills long after college. The health epidemic grows and there is still no shame in living on fast food and Coke. In fact, it’s normal behavior.
I truly empathize with people who fall down these paths. I’ve seen how addiction to sugar and an expectation of ease has trapped people I love in spirals of depression. And that is why I so badly wish we lived in a world that made these routes less likely. The inherent honor values of society have evaporated so that all that is left are the extremes of dignity culture.
As bizarre as it sounds we value our own lives and dignity too much while undervaluing virtue. Few ask the most fundamental philosophical question: what makes life worth living? What constitutes a good life? It hasn’t always been this way. Aristotle argued that happiness is the primary drive of human existence, but that it comes from self-development and virtue, not increasing net pleasure. Ironically, with greater self-absorption we find less reason to live. The consequences of extreme risk aversion and excessive impulse are depression and suicide which have now risen to all time highs.
If there is anything driving the current mental and physical health epidemics it is a culture where maturity is disincentivized- where it is normal to incessantly seek more comfort, convenience, pleasure, and pain avoidance. We lack the ability to follow through- to act as we’d objectively want to act and be who we’d want to be if all courses of action were equally uncomfortable. Discomfort is the primary variable. People trade behaving as they’d like to for feeling less short-term discomfort and more immediate gratification.
Dignity cultures discourage shame, but shame is a necessary and natural social function. While it is often built upon over-simplifications and brings short term pain, shame helps a community clarify and converse about values so they can establish productive norms. For example, we tend to not drink alone and rarely drink in the morning because these behaviors are broadly seen as symptomatic of a problem. This standard is flexible to local customs and offers wiggle room for a bloody Mary at Mother’s Day brunch. Unlike a law, people can digress as they desire. The cultural benefit comes with fewer unintended consequences.
There is a balance, of course. We’d, ideally, discern between productive and destructive actions without judging people. Keeping our focus on behavior will promote the most good. Even more, just as we should praise effort and not outcome, in congruence with the Carol Dweck studies, we should shame effort and not outcomes. People can only work from where they already are. This nuanced approach won’t always be followed, however. Nuance does not scale. Thus, we must accept some hurt feelings because it is better to have a culture with shame than a shameless one.
Shame may be a painful behavioral modifier, but it is also a very adaptable and sophisticated one. As society changes, notions of shame can change accordingly. They can mature as we do. Furthermore, cultures of shame also tend to have a reciprocal notion of honor. You can achieve honor by displaying admirable behavior. As philosopher Tamler Sommers explains:
“Honor frameworks recognize that it’s not easy to be virtuous, to take risks and act with integrity and solidarity. We need motivation - what evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists have called commitment devices - to overcome our natural impulse towards comfort and safety.”
Thus, honor cultures offer both carrots and sticks, while dignity cultures only have the stick (law). To promote any values, dignity cultures have to squelch personal freedoms and create policies that almost certainly fall victim to the rule of unintended consequences. Conversely, honor cultures provide powerful incentives for people to strive towards greater ideals. For example, a dogmatic reverence for security has bred a society of people who are comfortable but completely lacking for courage, both physical and moral. We may be safe, but we are spineless and this works its way into every institution.
Without honor, dignity culture devolves into the newest social value system: victimhood culture. In an honor culture, daily conflicts are more often the responsibility of the involved parties. They learn to mediate issues themselves. Dignity cultures value rising above emotion and learning to tolerate differences. Combined these two value structures promote emotionally intelligent people with the tools to take care of themselves, but the restraint to pick battles and negotiate intelligently. When honor exits the room, however, the utopian ideals of dignity are also sacrificed because they are hard to uphold. The bulk of society begins glorifying being a helpless victim. They find prestige in outrage and power in promoting their offense to incite the mob.
The extremes of dignity prove selfish, tyrannical, and undignified. Likewise, extreme honor abandons honor in pursuit of self-promotion through terror. Balance only comes when we value discourse, logic, and freedom of thought. For honor and dignity to productively coexist we need to have clear, well selected boundaries (like a constitution and bill of rights) along with an understanding that utopia is not possible.
Honor cultures seek better not ideal and are thus are capable of making actual improvements- they respect what is human and are thus in communication with the realities of human psychology. As Tamler Sommers puts it, “Honor is constantly building and repairing a boat that is already out at sea.” But, that is the struggle of working in reality rather than in the clouds of the theoretically ideal. What honor gets is that utopia is not possible, or preferable. We need to be able to stand for ourselves and we need social pressures pulling us towards the discomforts that make us capable of flourishing. Honor understands that there are risks that come with granting fuller personal responsibility and freedom, but dependency and a life without honor are greater costs still.
Society needs a healthy dialogue between honor and dignity values. We see the friction between these value structures in the movie, A Few Good Men, particularly in the famous interrogation seen with Colonel Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson).
If you’ve seen the movie it is clear that Jessup is a slimy and dishonorable character who is willing to sell his subordinates down the river, yet the points he makes in his rant cannot be fully dismissed. While the death of Private Santiago and the dishonorable discharges of the marines Dawson and Downey was tragic, it is good for society to feel conflicted and have debates surrounding this verdict. Did Dawson and Downey do anything wrong by following an order? Was this just a freak accident - collateral damage that we sometimes just have to accept? It is hard to say. Yet, what is clear is that marines like Dawson and Downey live a better life because of the virtues they learned to strive towards in the marines. That honor culture brought the best out in them and their lives are better for it.
Ironically, if there is any sort of utopia that is possible in our lifetime it won’t be built through greater ease and convenience, but by a culture that demands effort, growth, personal responsibility, and an understanding of the essential role of discomfort in building a fulfilling life. Instead of asking the world to eliminate all pain and expand pleasure infinitely, we should be asking what societal structure pulls us to be better humans?
Be a Savage Philosoph
Aldus Huxley’s classic dystopian novel, A Brave New World, envisions a future where there is absolutely no pain or suffering. A unified world has figured out how to perfectly structure society so that every want is satisfied and order reigns. There is no violence, no guilt, no pain, and no dissatisfaction. While reading you can’t help feeling that something is wrong, but it is difficult to argue for a world of more pain. This tension plays out in the story’s climax when John the Savage, who has lived on an Indian Reservation absent of the comforts of the new world order, discusses the problems of this utopian World State with its leader, Mustapha Mond:
"My dear young friend," said Mustapha Mond, "civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended–there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense.
But there aren't any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma (the pharmaceutical of choice) to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle...."
"But the tears are necessary…. There's a story one of the old Indians used to tell us, about the Girl of Mátaski. The young men who wanted to marry her had to do a morning's hoeing in her garden. It seemed easy; but there were flies and mosquitoes, magic ones. Most of the young men simply couldn't stand the biting and stinging. But the one that could–he got the girl."
"Charming! But in civilized countries," said the Controller, "you can have girls without hoeing for them, and there aren't any flies or mosquitoes to sting you. We got rid of them all centuries ago."
The Savage nodded, frowning. "You got rid of them. Yes, that's just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether 'tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don't do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It's too easy…. Isn't there something in living dangerously?"
"There's a great deal in it," the Controller replied. "Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time."
"What?" questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
"It's one of the conditions of perfect health. That's why we've made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory."
"Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It's the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences."
"But I like the inconveniences."
"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."
"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
"All right then," said the Savage defiantly, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."
"Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind." There was a long silence.
"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.
The world described is currently far beyond our reach, but it highlights both the trajectory of our current wants and the cost of incessant comfort. So, I guess that is what we must decide. Do we want to remain human or sacrifice the human spirit to the deification of comfort and security. And even if all pain was extinguished through soma and our minds were socially conditioned to feel “happy,” is that real happiness or lobotomy?
I, for one, choose pain. I’d rather live in a world with kidnappings, bullies, broken bones, and heated debates. I wish to remain a savage.
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