Huxley, Habermas and the Fear of Genetic Engineering

1. From Saving Social Order to Saving Individuals: Habermas’s Concerns

Habermas’s primary interest is in critical social theory. Since Marx, and continuing through Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurter School, critical theories expose social manipulations where they are concealed for controlling purposes. In doing so, critical theories have an emancipatory aim—what sometimes seems to be inevitable can be unmasked, depending on contingent and hidden interests. Critiques can also modify those realities that turn out to be mere constructions with controlling purposes. Habermas thinks that the main problem for critical theory, from Marx to Adorno, consists of considering subjects as separate from the intersubjective relationships in which they live. According to this view, they are subjects before entering social relationship and cultures, so that they can critique ideologies only from the outside. We can define ideologies as the illusions of legitimacy that, in order to maintain power, hide a particular interest whose appearance would erode the legitimacy that people wrongly attribute to a particular situation.1 Critical theories aim at dissolving illusions (ideologies) that, in turn, attempt to control communication. An example of how ideology functions can be found in George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother changes history in order to justify the legitimacy of his power. This is why ideologies are authoritarian; an organisation is authoritarian if it restricts free discussion, excluding a dogmatic (and legitimating) core from the realm of discussion.2

Critical theory is not only «critical» in a negative sense. After discovering and dissipating an ideology, it aims also to impose a new and legitimate social order. Here arises the problem of creating a social order (a legitimate one that is not imposed through violence but by the acceptance of the social order) from individuals who share nothing but their own desire to see their interests safeguarded. This circumstance places the social order in a critical position of instability. If it is true that interests unite individuals, it is only a temporary rapprochement because interest is the least solid basis of society.3 Interest is a binding force that is external to individuals. Habermas searches, instead, for a more stable force and finds it in the power of good reasons, which binds people together by convincing them. This agreement, reached through discourse (argumentation) and animated by the normative idea of an ideal speech (aiming at maximum inclusiveness of people and themes, and with an equal respect for varying opinions), is at the core of Habermas’s communicative critical theory—argumentation is the way to criticise illegitimate power and, simultaneously, the way to set up legitimate power. Habermas sees society as neither a steel cage imposed on individuals from above nor the mysterious output of isolated subjects. In the first case, the difficulty is explaining how social integration would be possible—that is, how interactions based on mere reciprocal influences can be consolidated into laws.4 In the second case, the difficulty is how to preserve an individual’s autonomy (the ability to determine his or her own rules—that is, self-determination, the only source of legitimacy), while acknowledging that society, woven together by «networks of linguistically mediated interactions», is not encountered only as an «external nature», accessible only to an observer and unchangeable.5 In fact, individuals can also access social phenomena «from within»; this hermeneutic perspective is complementary to the external-observative outlook typical of social scientists who approach social interactions as systems.6 The hermeneutic perspective is related to the validity of social relations, which in turn has to do with their origin as related to the ‘shared meaning’ that participants in social interactions must share in order to reach mutual understanding and before looking for an agreement.

In this way, Habermas develops a communicative theory of society, where the identity of meaning is the basis for social coordination and for social order. It comes from the union of expectations that subjects have about a phenomenon. In this way, the shared meaning arises when intersubjectivity occurs. Meaning is neither outside nor inside the mind (prior to intersubjectivity); individuals find and create them by drawing close to one another. This notion protects the autonomy of individuals to influence the process of meaningful creation. At the same time, it put constraints on individuals because they do not have infinite ways to come to an understanding, yet they have to consider another’s possible interpretation of the interaction.

If social order is to be conceived as emerging from the processes of consensus about the interpretation of reality (phenomena and needs), the problem arises regarding where people can find the resources for coming to the same interpretation of reality (understanding) as a basis for developing a consensus. This consensus is possible because the individuals who are engaged in this interactive search share the same «lifeworld», a store of meanings with which they have a «previous agreement» made of «unquestioned certainties» that provide a «backing» that, being constantly nourished by shared experiences and referred to in previous interpretations, absorbs the risk of a strong and insurmountable incommunicability and subsequent disagreement.7 In Habermas’s view, social actors are part of a «circular process» in which the actor does not appear as the initiator but as the product of: (1) traditions, (2) groups and (3) processes of socialisation and learning.8 This can be done only indirectly by changing the culture and its influences on the individual’s own identity. This is exactly what critical theory wants to preserve—the possibility for people and societies to change the cultural pressures that otherwise would be conceived of as ideological (dogmatic and immutable). Individuals are born making choices among the available models but as they grow, they can reflexively refer to their culture and social arrangements (social world) and exert a critical pressure. It is only in the public sphere, where a person is accountable for the reasons of his/her actions, that a subject can show this freedom.

2. Huxley’s «Brave New World»

«Community, Identity and Stability» is the motto of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.9 In spite of the motto, identity here is removed in order to preserve the community’s stability: «There is no civilization without social stability. There is no social stability without individual stability».10 This phrase may seem bleak, and I am going to explain what is at the core of this another motto, which contradicts the first one, to the extent that deletes one of the three elements among which the first motto sees an equilibrium.

Huxley’s society is based on the «Bokonovsky Process» of artificial insemination that creates many dozens of twins. The procedure causes the ovum to produce identical twins, which is considered to be the most effective instrument for social stability, allowing to control where society goes, by controlling everyone of its members even before their birth.11 When they are born (coming to an «independent» existence which is all but independent12), the twins are infertile and every birth is artificial so it can be controlled. This control is obtained through predestination and through conditioning, so that the twins are born ready for castes as Alfas (the highest or future Directors) or Epsilons (the lowest or the future servants).13 The class differences are created by administering more or less oxygen, which shows predestination. On the conditioning side, the workers of the «Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre» prepare the ovum for the environment for which it is predestined (e.g., future mine workers are given X-rays and once they are born, they are taught to love the heat). By controlling the individuals desires, the World State can control their happiness by making them love what must be loved and «each conditioning aims at making sure that people love their inevitable social destination».14 In this way, social stability is ensured by the fact that (for example) only from an Epsilon it could be expected a sacrifice that suits Epsilon’s attitude, to the extent that for him they are not sacrifices: «his conditioning has laid the rails along which he must march».15

Another iconic motto that explains the aim of this process is, «What man has united, nature can’t separate».16 However, the profound process of manipulation I have shown negates any ideology because the people have all they want and do not care about anything else. What they think is suggested and controlled by someone else. However, this process can sometimes produce mistakes. Helmhotz Watson and Bernardo Marx are two examples, since they are the only ones who are aware of being «individuals», and feeling something important but being unable to express it. All classes are conditioned to think they are free—free to be happy. Marx and Watson, on the contrary, look for emotion and passion, even though they have become accustomed to thinking that «When the individual feels, the community is in danger».17 No one waits too long from the appearance of a desire to its realization, so that they can’t feel real passion, which would put in danger personal and social stability. The gap between desire and its realisation would make the subject think of the obstacles for its satisfaction and become open to reflection, which is an autonomous activity that can lead to subversive thinking. Similarly, «I was» and «I will be» are words that make people feel bad in Huxley’s society because they are accustomed to associate these thoughts with something cruel. In fact, thinking of a goal (of the individual, as well as of society) is far more dangerous because it provides an opportunity for critical thinking that is potentially subversive to the status quo.18 Pavlov’s conditioning with electric shock is heavily exploited in the book: two hundred repetitions make mental associations strong enough to be inevitable.19 These kind of associations are used both to prevent subversive habits (avoiding books) but also to promote consumes, for economic reasons: loving flowers and nature is a free activity, and doesn’t increase the factories’s work.

Education too, is based on a process very close to Pavlov’s conditioning one: it is called «sleep-learning», and its utility lies in the fact that it makes possibile education without rationality, providing «words without reasoning».20 This makes the child’s mind (and then the adult’s one) nothing more than the sum of all these suggested words, and since these suggestions come from the central government, this fact makes society stable by making it coincident with the government’s will.21 However, this is a stability without individuals, to the extent that there is not the gap between society and individuality which allows them to be responsible for the future of society. It is the place for reflection what the government wants to eliminate: the past, the gap between desiring and obtaining satisfaction, religion, are all deleted, as things which suggest reflection, by opening a «deconditioning» place for meditation in a present of satisfaction.22 What is to avoid is thinking of something different: the appearance of the possiblity that things could be different can be the beginning of social criticism, which is potentially dangerous for social stability; no one should think of something which is «outside of his sight».23 In this struggle between reflection and satisfaction, the government uses a particular special drug («soma») which guarantees an immediate escape from reality, when it turns out to be unsatisfactory or worrying.24 Government’s attention to social stability is so deep to create a particular hormone which allows old people to continue living in the same way. It allows elders to have no time for meditation which, it is worth to repeat, can be dangerous.25

In particular, what is worth to be noticed, is that in Huxley’s New World lacks the space for critical thinking, and that it is deleted in the sharpest way, that is since fecondation. Operating into the ovum by means of genetic engineering, the possibilities of bringing to light differences are eradicated and, to make sure it doesn’t happen, individuals are kept under control and conditioned during life too. Differences may open a place for autonomous reflection, and preserving this space is Habermas’s main objective, since his interest in critical social theory. This kind of interest needs, then, to be sustained by preserving the same possibility of this critical space, that is the idea of individual autonomy, which is absent in Huxley’s society. It is important to save free will and the autonomous recognition of what is worth to gain or lose, so to create an open public space which is the place for the meeting of individual differences, criticisms and desires. Huxley’s New World aims at making people happy and society stable but when individuals feel unhappy, they start to judge the status quo as acceptable or not and then judge its legitimacy. By negating any possible cause of unhappiness, Huxley’s society is the exact opposite of Habermas’s ideal of a good society, in which everyone can express their ideas and feelings: democracy without autonomous individuals is not a real democracy, lacking from the same core of democracy, that is the respect for differences that are deleted, rather than reflexively and discoursively confronted.

3. Conclusion: A Habermasian discussion of Huxley’s Model

I want to focus, in particular, on the absence of autonomy in Huxley’s individuals. For Habermas, there is identity of meaning between «autonomy», «self-determination», «self-realisation» and «individuation».26 while these concepts do not appear in Huxley’s world. Free actions refer to an intention based on reason, which shows the individual’s choice. According to Habermas, the social limitations to free will have to be read as social possibilities rather than as constraints because the person who acts does not feel bound by his/her own subjective nature. There is an act of «identification» with both the body and the character because the individual can see his/her character and history only when stepping aside and looking at personal history as a natural event.27 This kind of «recognition» does not imply «agreement» but only an understanding. In fact, «what is recognised is not the rightness of what the autonomous self does or says but its willingness to accept responsibility for what it does or says».28

What happens in a society like Huxley’s one, where someone intervenes during the embryonic process and changes the possibilities for the subject? It collapses the distinction between the ‘spontaneous’ and the «artificial».29The confusion between these two categories also affects the individual’s reflection of his/her existence. To whom does the power of intervention belong? The problem is that future people will be treated as objects because of genetic engineering. An authoritarian genetic model starts from a centralized idea (similar to Huxley’s society), while the liberal model frees parents to change their children according to their values.30 Supporters of liberal genetics claim that modifying genetic characteristics is the same as a pedagogical modification of attitudes and expectations. However, it seems rather than in the latter case the subject may decide (and to what extent) to accept the teachings, while in the first case this is not possible.

What should be preserved is the difference between natural destiny and educational socialization.31 Individuals exercise freedom with reference to something «naturally unavailable».32 If a person is merely the product of educational socialization, then the self would disappear into a vortex of influences and relationships.33 Free will makes the individual autonomous and through socialization he/she can identify normal pressures and can choose the most appropriate social influences. Through socialization, each person can evaluate these natural desires (by restricting those judged as unacceptable) and can introduce new ideas into the social realm. From these new ideas the social sphere can be changed to better fit the needs of the individual.

What Huxley shows is what Habermas fears for the future of human nature, the cessation of influencing the public realm in an authentic way. This is due, but would also lead, to the disappearance of the individual self. Without one of the two extremes, the internal dialectic between the social and natural influences would lead to the destruction of individual autonomy. Without individual autonomy, the subject would fall prey to what is (in an iconic sense) external. Without an internal/external dialectic (necessary for an autonomous self), the dialectic between the individual and society would be compromised. The happiness of the society (as the happiness of Huxley’s society) would not be authentic, since there would be no individuals to feel it and to fight for it. Paradoxically, in trying to create better individuals, genetic engineering would destroy the possibility to have real individuals who would merely respond to impulses that they would never feel on their own.

  1. Habermas J. Theorie und Praxis. Sozialphilosophische Studien, Luchterland: Neuwied-Berlin; 1963: 311. ↩︎

  2. Cooke M. Avoiding Authoritarianism: On the Problem of Justification in Contemporary Critical Social Theory. International Journal of Philosophical Studies; 2005; 13 (3): 379-404. ↩︎

  3. Habermas J. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, II, Frankfurt a. M: Surhkamp; 1981: 176–177. ↩︎

  4. Habermas J. Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp; 1988: 82. ↩︎

  5. Habermas J. Vorstudien und Ergänzugen zur Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp; 1984: 11–126. ↩︎

  6. Habermas J. Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp; 1988: 84. ↩︎

  7. Habermas J. Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp; 1988: 85–86. ↩︎

  8. Habermas J. Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp; 1988: 95. ↩︎

  9. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed.: 5. ↩︎

  10. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 39. ↩︎

  11. The process of mass production applied to biology. ↩︎

  12. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 13. ↩︎

  13. Other castes are Beta, Delta and Gamma. Alfas are the most intelligent, while Epsilons are less intelligent. ↩︎

  14. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 17. ↩︎

  15. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 198. ↩︎

  16. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 21. ↩︎

  17. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 84. ↩︎

  18. See Cooke M. Re-Presenting the Good Society, Cambridge: MIT Press; 2006 for the need of a context-transcendent idea of the ‘good society’, where transcendence is never absolute (being unavoidably situated into a context whose limits affects also the idea of good) but still is transcendent (as a pulling force to move society in a direction that is neither casual nor necessary). ↩︎

  19. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 21. ↩︎

  20. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 24-25 and 27. Informations too were given differently according to the caste. ↩︎

  21. Individuals are nothing more than “a cell of the social body”, Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 81. ↩︎

  22. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 157. ↩︎

  23. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 207. ↩︎

  24. Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 50. ↩︎

  25. As Marx and Watson feel, they lack the words to express feelings which could become potentially dangerous for social stability. This fact is stressed by the experience of John, the wild brought by Marx into the civilized world from the reserve. He had the possibility to experience religion, reflection, loneliness and literature, and because of this he had the worlds to express his feelings: “only through the words of Othello he could express his contempt and hate”, Huxley A. Il mondo nuovo, Milano: Mondadori; 2001, 11th ed: 195. ↩︎

  26. Cooke M. Habermas, Autonomy and the Identity of the Self. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 1992; 18 (3–4): 269–291. ↩︎

  27. Habermas J. Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion. Philosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp; 2005: 196–197. For an overview on Habermas’s concept of free will see Italia S., Un tentativo di salvare il libero arbitrio. Il pragmatismo kantiano di Jürgen Habermas, Rivista Internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia, 2014; 5 (2): 221-239 ↩︎

  28. Cooke M. Habermas, Autonomy and the Identity of the Self, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 1992; 18 (3–4): 269–291, here p. 286. ↩︎

  29. Habermas J. Die Zukunft der Menshlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugeneitk?, Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp; 2002: 80. ↩︎

  30. Habermas J. Die Zukunft der Menshlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugeneitk?, Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp; 2002: 86–87. ↩︎

  31. Habermas J. Die Zukunft der Menshlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugeneitk?, Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp; 2002: 91. ↩︎

  32. Habermas J. Die Zukunft der Menshlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugeneitk?, Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp; 2002: 101. ↩︎

  33. Habermas J. Die Zukunft der Menshlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugeneitk?, Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp; 2002: 103. In liberal societies, every citizen has the equal right to pursue his own projects of life, also determined by capacities, qualities and genetic predispositions, Habermas J. Die Zukunft der Menshlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugeneitk?, Frankfurt a. M.: Surhkamp; 2002: 105. ↩︎