Utilitarianism in Huxley’s Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a seminal text which continues to challenge its readers eighty years since being first published. The novel plunges its audience into an extraordinary future dominated by a World State which practices eugenics, industrialised artificial reproduction, psychological conditioning, sponsors drug use, enforces promiscuity and a tightly controls all aspects of social life. It is therefore not surprising that a large proportion of the literary critique surrounding this text focuses on these  outrageous practices, due to their shock factor and ability to polarise debates. However, to fully understand the implications of this text and its relevance to contemporary society, it is essential to explore the core principles of this fictional society.

Huxley dives into the ideas at the core of his ‘brave new world’ in chapters sixteen and seventeen. Helmholtz, Marx and John the Savage, figureheads of dissent throughout the text, are captured and interviewed by Mond, a ‘World Controller’. Through a rigorous and surprisingly candid dialogue between the characters, the author highlights the world view which the World State promotes. This consumerist society is in fact based on John Steward Mill’s Utilitarian principles. As Mond explains, happiness is the sovereign good which dictates all World State policies. This ‘happiness’ is in essence the Utilitarian principle of maximising pleasure and minimising pain for the greatest number of people (Mill). This is depicted in the text through the use of Soma and other forms of instant gratification such as promiscuity. The psychological conditioning depicted early in the novel, which is based on reinforcement learning, teaches people to respond to pleasure and pain as cues for acceptable behaviour. Indeed, John’s rebellion is described by Mond as “claiming the right to be unhappy” (Huxley). Even punishments and repression in this society is carried out with minimal violence, unlike Orwell’s 1984.

The Utilitarian ideology at play in Brave New World is the driving force behind the extreme social practices of the World State. The power of this novel lies in the fact that it takes utilitarianism, a widely promoted ideology in contemporary Western society, to its logical social conclusions. This also explains why certain interpretations of the novel fail to define the World State as a dystopian society despite its immoral and extreme social practices.

Originally Published on The University of Canterbury Blog.

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