How brave a new world?

This is a commencement speech made by Dr Leon Kass at St John's College, in Annapolis, Maryland, earlier this year. Dr Kass, a physician and philosopher, was the chairman of the President's Council for Bioethics from 2002 to 2005. He teaches at the University of Chicago.

President Nelson, Members of the Board of Visitors and Governors, Tutors of the College, families and friends of the graduates, and, most especially, members of the Class of 2007, St. John’s College. Today we take time from our several labours to gather together in celebration and thanksgiving. In this rite of passage, both mindful of the past and anticipating the future, we honour and take pride in your present accomplishments as graduates of this remarkable College. We give thanks for the blessings of family and friends without whom these achievements would not have been possible. We rejoice in the attainments of the human mind, heart, and spirit.

Today is also for me an occasion of joy and gratitude. I am deeply grateful for the honour of addressing you this morning; for I love and greatly esteem this place and the idea and practice of liberal education that it champions. I regard my few years here as a Tutor in the early 1970s to be among the most intellectually and humanly rewarding experiences of my professional life. It was here that I first began to teach. It was here that I first began really to learn. It was here that I made the acquaintance of a few great books that have been my steady companions ever since. In the years ahead, I trust that you, like me, will increasingly appreciate what a wonderful privilege it has been to live and learn in this rare community. And I trust that you, like me, will find the education you have begun here to be an invaluable guide for understanding and grappling with the enormous challenges that lie ahead.

Surveying the world you graduates are about to enter, I am reminded of the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." My own time has been interesting to a fault, but yours will almost certainly be more so. For the world has rolled itself into a new millennium amidst signs of great promise but also of great peril, calling for great courage and still greater wisdom. I have in mind not only the need, post-9/11, to stand-up against terror and fanaticism in defence of life, liberty, and the rule of law, a need that is likely to continue for your entire lives. I am thinking also of the need, in Winston Churchill’s words, to "Deserve Victory," and especially to keep human life human in the dawning new age of biotechnology.

The greatest moral challenges headed our way do not in fact come from hate-filled fanatics threatening death and destruction. They come rather from well meaning scientists and technologists offering life, pleasure, and enhancement. They are the by-products of modernity’s noble and humanitarian quest to conquer nature for the relief of man’s estate. They are, in a word, the challenges of bioethics, challenges to our humanity arising from burgeoning new technological powers to intervene in the bodies and minds of human beings.

These powers are justly celebrated for their contributions to human welfare. We are deeply grateful to modern medicine for its many successes in the battle against disease, decay, and premature death. We look forward hopefully to cures for the devastations of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and depression, cancer and AIDS. No friend of humanity today can be the enemy of science and medicine.

Yet contemplating present and projected advances in genetic and reproductive technologies, in neuroscience and psychopharmacology, and in the development of artificial organs and computer-chip implants for human brains, we now clearly recognise new uses for biotechnical power that soar beyond the traditional medical goals of healing disease and relieving suffering.

Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic "enhancement," for wholesale redesign. In leading laboratories new creators are confidently amassing their powers and quietly honing their skills, while on the street their evangelists are zealously prophesying a post-human future. For anyone who cares about preserving our humanity, the time has come to pay attention.

Some transforming powers are already here. The Pill. In vitro fertilisation. Bottled embryos. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic screening. Genetic manipulation. Organ harvesting. Mechanical spare parts. Chimeras. Brain implants. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, Prozac for everyone. And, to leave this vale of tears, a little extra morphine accompanied by Muzak.

Aldous Huxley's far-sighted novel

Aldous Huxley saw it coming three generations ago. In his charming but disturbing novel, Brave New World (published in 1932, exactly 75 years ago), Huxley made its meaning strikingly visible for all to see. Brave New World is not a great book; in purely literary terms, even the author found it seriously flawed. Yet, in my experience, its relevance and power increase with each rereading, and coming generations of readers should -- and I hope will -- find it still more compelling.

Unlike other frightening futuristic novels of the past century, such as George Orwell’s outdated Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley portrays a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain. Indeed, it is animated by our most humane and progressive aspirations. Following those aspirations to their ultimate realisation, Huxley enables us to recognise those less obvious but often more pernicious evils that are inextricably linked to successful attainment of partial goods.

Huxley depicts human life seven centuries hence, living under the gentle hand of humanitarianism rendered fully competent by genetic manipulation, psychoactive drugs, hypnopeaedia and high-tech amusements. At long last, humankind has succeeded in eliminating disease, aggression, and war, anxiety, suffering, and guilt, hatred, envy, and grief.

But this victory comes at the heavy price of homogenisation, mediocrity, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debased tastes, spurious contentment, and souls without loves or longings. The Brave New World has achieved prosperity, community, stability, and near-universal contentment, only to be inhabited by creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity. They consume, fornicate, take "soma," enjoy "centrifugal bumble-puppy," and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passé. What matters most are bodily health and immediate gratification. No one aspires to anything higher. Brave New Man is so dehumanised that he does not even realise what has been lost.

A comfortable slide into Huxley's vision

Of course, Brave New World is science fiction. Our Prozac is not yet Huxley’s "soma"; cloning by nuclear transfer is not exactly "Bokanovskification"; MTV and virtual-reality parlours are not quite the "feelies"; and our current safe and consequenceless sexual practices are not universally as loveless or as empty as in the novel. But the likenesses between Huxley’s fictional world and ours are increasingly disquieting, especially since our technologies of bio-psycho-engineering are still in their infancy, yet vividly reveal what they might look like in their full maturity. Moreover, the cultural changes technology has already wrought among us should make us worry even more than Huxley would have had us do.

In Huxley’s novel, everything proceeds under the direction of an omnipotent, albeit benevolent, world state. Yet the dehumanisation that he depicts does not really require despotism or external control. To the contrary, precisely because the society of the future will deliver exactly what we most want -- health, safety, comfort, plenty, pleasure, peace of mind and length of days -- we can reach the same humanly debased condition solely by free human choice. No need for World Controllers. Just give us the technological imperative, liberal democratic society, compassionate humanitarianism, moral pluralism, and free markets, and we can take ourselves to Brave New World all by ourselves -- without even deliberately trying to go, and, what is worse, without even noticing what is happening to us.

Towards a dehumanised world

Defensible step by defensible step, we are getting used to our own transformation. To conquer infertility or to improve the genetic make-up of our children, we are becoming comfortable with turning procreation into manufacture, looking upon our children less as gifts to be treasured, more as products to be perfected. To conquer disease, we are becoming comfortable treating human embryos as a natural resource or allowing commerce in human tissues and organs, looking upon embodied life not as a mystery to be respected but as a mere instrument of our will.

To augment our achievements, we are becoming comfortable with drug-enhanced athletic or academic performance, accepting the divorce of deed from doer and achievement from human effort. To acquire endless lives with ageless bodies for ourselves, we are becoming comfortable ignoring the risks to our souls and the need to give way to the next generation. To the extent that we come to accept as normal what is in fact perverse, we shall have lost the ability to see how we have been diminished. Dehumanised thought paves the way for a dehumanised world.

Dehumanised thinking is encouraged not only by technological transformations of our humanity but also and more fundamentally by scientific efforts to explain it away. An increasingly unified approach to human biology -- evolutionist, materialist, determinist, mechanistic, and objectified -- combining powerful ideas from genetics, developmental biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, is deliberately attempting a revolution in human self-understanding.

The danger of materialist explanations of life

Evolutionary theory denies our special standing among the animals: since all animals are finally in the same business -- individual survival, for the sake of perpetuating their genes -- we are said to be simply a more complicated model for getting the job done. Materialist explanations of vital, even psychic, events leave no room for soul, life’s animating principle.

Deterministic and mechanistic accounts of brain function banish speech about human freedom and purposiveness. A fully objectified and exterior account of our behaviour diminishes the significance of our felt inwardness. Feeling, passion, awareness, imagination, desire, love, and thought are, scientifically speaking, equally and merely "brain events".

Never mind "created in the image of God": what elevated humanistic view of human life or human goodness is defensible against the belief, trumpeted by biology’s most public and prophetic voices, that man is just a collection of molecules, an accident on the stage of evolution, a freakish speck of mind in a mindless universe, fundamentally no different from other living -- or even non-living -- things?

What chance have our treasured ideas of freedom and dignity against the reductive notion of "the selfish gene," the belief that DNA is the essence of life, or the teaching that all human behaviour and our rich inner life are rendered intelligible only in terms of neurochemistry or their contributions to species survival and reproductive success?

Will we be able to respond to the practical dangers of the Brave New World and the theoretical challenges of the Bold New Biology? Everything depends on whether we can, first of all, recognise the dangers they pose and then discover the errors of their ways.

Escaping degradation through great books

Fortunately, we Americans are not yet so degraded as to fail to notice what is wrong with the Brave New World. With Huxley’s help, we are made to see that there is nothing "brave" or beautiful about the biotechnised world or its inhabitants, and we are also shown how we know this. In the novel, the phrase "brave new world" is used by its protagonist, John the Savage, not -- as the book title might suggest -- to describe the degraded society Huxley depicts but to envision a world more free, more beautiful, and more dignified than the sterile and dehumanised world around him. Rebelling against the soul-deadening culture of loveless and drug-induced contentment, John exclaims as a challenge and a command, "O brave new world!" as he tries (alas, unsuccessfully) to lead the people out of their degradation.

And what enables John to see the difference? From where does he gain insight and take inspiration? Mainly from old books, books capable of teaching him the meaning of human experience. John is the only person in the society (other than the World Controller) familiar with the great works of the human spirit. It is Shakespeare who opens his eyes and lifts his soul. His motto, "O Brave New World," he finds in Shakespeare’s Tempest, a play about, among other things, the tension between mastering nature and living humanly.

Prospero, Duke of Milan, was so obsessed by his secret studies -- science and magic -- that he lost his dukedom and was exiled with his infant daughter with whom, now years later, he lives on a desert island, which he rules through his magical arts. Why Prospero turned to his secret arts we are never told. I myself suspect that, like Francis Bacon and René Descartes who made the goal explicit, Prospero was seeking the cure for mortality: I conjecture that Mrs Prospero, never mentioned in the play, must have died while giving birth to Miranda, and the grief-stricken Prospero promptly abandoned all affairs of state to take up his alchemical studies.

Human flourishing without techo-wizardry

Be this as it may, when the action of the play begins, Miranda is on the cusp of womanhood, and the ageing Prospero, now contemplating his own death, uses his magical powers over nature one last time, but this time to restore his daughter to a human world. He engineers a tempest that brings his former enemies to the island, and with them, the noble young Ferdinand, a prospective husband for his daughter Miranda. For Ferdinand and Miranda, it is love at first sight. And for the others, their deliverance from almost certain death at sea produces a softening of the heart that soon leads to their repentance, Prospero’s forgiveness, and all-around reconciliation and understanding.

Precisely at this moment, seeing human beings graced and ennobled by love and forgiveness, the innocent, wide-eyed, and open-hearted Miranda exclaims:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Not her father’s magical control of nature, but limited humankind’s reaching for understanding and association, precisely in response to our natural limitations, is -- for Miranda and for us -- the truly wondrous human achievement. Recognition of our finitude becomes the source of aspiration, and mindfulness of mortality becomes our spur to love and transcendence.

Miranda’s innocent lack of cynicism permits her to see mankind’s beauteous possibilities -- possibilities always present wherever human beings are to be found, always realisable without need of technological wizardry. The brave new world is in fact our fragile yet enduring human world, whose wonders are ever renewable whenever they are newly and truly seen.

Such insights about life are, of course, available from honest reflection on the experience of being human. But in an age in which we are so easily seduced by utopian promises of perfection through technology (our more reliable substitute for magic), we need to be reminded of the deep connection between our natural limitations and our highest human possibilities.

And in an age in which we are constantly encouraged to distract ourselves with trivial pursuits and to chase after false gods, we must cleave to the works bequeathed us by the greatest hearts and minds, whose books still illuminate for us a path to live richly and fully as finite creatures, yet made in the image of God.

The great books education offered by this College is second to none in furnishing minds and hearts with the wherewithal for living such a thoughtful and richly human life, in defiance of the temptation to settle for the degrading satisfactions of biotechnological happiness. Unique among all institutions of higher learning, a St. John’s education provides the best defence also against the dehumanising teachings of soulless scientism—especially because of its remarkable curriculum in mathematics and laboratory science, which enables students to understand science as a human activity and which exposes its philosophical presuppositions to critical examination.

Only at this college do students and faculty still talk wholeheartedly and without embarrassment about the human soul. For all these reasons, to stand here with you today is to celebrate this fountain of hope for a human future that will preserve and sustain our precious humanity, come what may.

To the graduates of St John’s College class of 2007, permit me to answer the ancient Chinese curse with this enduring human blessing: Be strong, be brave, stand up against fear and despair and cynicism, dare to love, treasure your heritage, and keep alive and feed the flame of humanity that your education has kindled in you and that is your richest inheritance.

The world needs you, St John’s graduates, whether it knows it or not. Go forth and Godspeed.


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