What is Freedom? Thoughts on Brave New World

Are the inhabitants of the society in Brave New World free?

I want to say ‘no’. They are very thoroughly enslaved. But saying how is tricky.

Is it a matter of having a choice, per se, about how to live? Well, that can’t be the whole story. In a police state, we have complete choice about what to do – it’s just that many courses of action end in the same, unpleasant, place. We nevertheless get to choose between them. So the issue must involve how good the different options are. That is, in some sense freedom is about being able to make the world respond not just to my choice but to my desires.

But this seems to make the inhabitants of BNWS ‘free’. They do exactly what they want. Every one of their desires are satisfied, because they are constructed so as to ensure that only desires which can be easily satisfied appear.

What I think we want is a conception of “my” and “desires” that satisfies three conditions:

1) It includes my immediate actual desires, however silly they might be, so that when someone stops me doing what I say and think I want to do, my freedom is compromised (even if justifiably); but

2) It goes beyond these, to involve some sense of a ‘higher nature’, of knowledge and experience and so forth, so if I am conditioned from birth to love my servitude, it nevertheless remains servitude; and

3) It recognises the conditioned nature of the human being, its dependence on physical causes, and so will not be undermined by progress in neurology and psychology.

Now it’s trivially possible to define desire/freedom in a way that will satisfy conditions 1. and 2. but violate 3. We just say that I am a magical being who produces desires by magic, with no need for genetics, conditioning, socialisation, etc. We then say that freedom consists in being able to act on these desires – but that if a desire is created in me by artificial means (as happens in BNWS, principally by sleep-teaching) then it is not a ‘real’ desire, and I am not ‘free’ when I act on it, because my ‘real’ desires come from a magic place, not from my conditioning.

It’s also trivially possible to define desire/freedom in a way that will satisfy 2. and 3., but not 1. We just say that the only ‘real’ desires are the desire for X, where X is something suitably noble and high-falutin’. We then say that freedom consists in acting on a desire for X. This could remain true, even if we are largely constructed by evolution and society to desire something other than X (or think we do). And this would condemn BNWS because in that society, nobody ever does anything noble, they just sit around getting high and having sex. Unfortunately, this would have the result that preventing people from acting on their actual, stupid, desires, doesn’t count as compromising their freedom, and would thus justify all sorts of tyranny.

And finally, the simplest and most obvious answer is one that satisfies 1. and 3., but not 2. This is to say that whatever desires we have, and however we have got them, ‘freedom’ means being able to act on them. This however implies that if we have been conditioned to love our servitude, it is no longer servitude: this implies that the people in BNW are totally free.

So none of those seem any good. How do we get out of this trilemma?

I am going to suggest a possible solution, but it will not be entirely clear, and may not be very persuasive. I believe however that it satisfies the three conditions listed, which is reason enough to consider it. It is essentially an ontological position (a position regarding types of existence) about individuals – those things which have this much-vaunted freedom.

It is this: we are not automatically, and are never completely, individuals.

Individuality is not the sort of thing that we either have or do not have. It is a project, an aspiration, an endeavour, a striving. It is a concept that is intermediate between actuality and possibility.

Maybe it will help if I invent new grammar (that’s how the internets work).  It’s not that we are individuals now, nor that we could be individuals in the future, but rather that we now, and as long as remain alive, are-could-be individuals.

What exactly then is an individual? I sadly am not going to give a clear or coherent or complete account of this concept, as much as some suggestive phrases. An individual never believes a contradiction. An individual is more than the sum of its parts – its parts being desires and impulses and perceptions and thoughts. It is the dynamic, integrated unity of these parts. It is the constant striving to incorporate new elements, to learn and understand new thngs. It is rational, but not in any narrow or rigid way.

This ‘in-dividual’, I would suggest, is what we are-could-be, what we are trying to become, what we are building ourselves towards. What would it look like if ever completely satisfied? Perhaps divine – perhaps that is one of the things we mean by ‘God’. But we never get anywhere that – though some people more than others may acheive this sort of individuality, this sort of wholeness. The paradigm case of a relative failure is, perhaps, schizophrenia.

As we drift off to sleep, become insensible from alcohol, are overwhelmed by confusion, we become less  of individuals, and ‘revert’ back to being as-much-as-the-sum-of-our-parts, back to being a random collection of bits of matter, a heap of thoughts. As we move in the opposite direction (what is that direction?) on the same axis (axes?) we become more individuals.

Finally, and crucially for the current discussion, this ‘individual’ is built up and supported by certain sorts of experiences. Broadly speaking, the  experience of making a difficult choice and dealing with the the result; the experience of encountering something new; the experience of enduring a difficult ordeal for a personally chosen goal; most of all, the experience of understanding.

So those are my suggestive remarks. How does this approach solve our trilemma? Well, it allows us to satisfy both 1. and 2. because the hypothetical perfect individual-I-could-be is partially but not wholly identical with the actual concrete heap-of-stuff-I-am. To some extent I am that very individual; but to some extent I am not (I fully accept that this seems to violate logic – but I think often, the truth does that, and logic has to put up with it).

So because I to some extent am identical with this individual, I deserve respect for my choices – my actual choices, my actual desires, including the stupid ones. This satisfies condition 1.

But at the same time, because I to some extent am not identical with that individual, their choices, their not-yet-real desires, deserve respect too. And while we cannot know what those choices and desires would actually be, we can know that certain things will help that unreal individual to become more identical with us – noble things like seeking out new experiences, learning from others, trying to understand ourselves and question authority and so forth.

Consequently, ‘we’ are unfree when we live in a situation that deprives us of, or prevents us from exercising, this things, which keeps us ignorant and narrow-minded and stupid. Hence the people in BNW are not free, which satisfies condition 2

And finally, individuality is not something beyond the world, spit off from the real and physical, but a form of organisation (an ideal of organisation?).

Hence it is both a natural causal product of evolution, and also one which can have by-products unrelated to evolutionary imperatives (for example, we can do maths, which is a byproduct of reasoning processes that, in the millions of years prior to explicit maths, presumably served some other role). This satisfies condition 3.

In conclusion, Brave New World helps to show us the inadequacy of our normal conception of freedom. To properly deal with freedom, we need an idea of what a person is that can understand how they intimately combine actuality with possibility, what they are, with what they could be.

We need, in fact, to grasp their ‘dialectical unity’, to put it in Hegelian bullshit terms.

4 Responses to “What is Freedom? Thoughts on Brave New World”

  1. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    I dunno, Alderson. When you start torturing English grammar to make a point, you should suspect you’re on the wrong track. Either that or write some poetry and forget about trying to explain.

    Personally, the lesson I take from BNW in this regard is that “freedom” is an unacceptably vague concept; to the extent that it’s well-defined, the denizens of BNW are as free as anyone — but freedom isn’t the be-all end-all of human existence.

    I think BNWS is stagnant. Huxley tries to paint it as “stable”, but there is no such thing as stability: there is only growth and decline.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “When you start torturing English grammar to make a point”
    I’m going to hazard a guess that we maybe have different opinions of such writers as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre?

    “there is no such thing as stability: there is only growth and decline.”
    I’m intrigued by what counts as growth – just change, or increase in technology, or population, or what?

  3. Sophia Marsden Says:

    I think you touch on something very interesting in this post. Very interesting to me at least.
    The question of what freedom actually is, is one of the things I keep turning around in my mind. When someone talks about freedom they are tapping into an almost primordial concept, at least it seems to me.
    I don’t think freedom has much if anything to do with choice. If I have a choice between a million varieties that do not interest me, I am exactly as free as I am with only one variety that does not interest me. It is only the variety that interests me that makes me free.

    I have been very interested in freedom’s relation to tradition.
    It sort of ties in with the brave new world analogy – it has been said (but people you would not doubt find horrifically reactionary) that freedom is the ability to live out ones traditional way of life unimpeded by outside forces. On the one hand, this is sort of true, people are conditioned to want to live their traditional way of life, interference with that, even under the name of “liberation”, even when it gives them more options than they ever had traditionally, seems almost like oppression. On the other hand, those people are just responding to their conditioning, the next generation finds the novelty liberating, the generation after that sees the new order as just normal (until you get to the sort of disconcerting perpetual upheaval of modernity that sort of changes the dynamic).

    I have thought for a while freedom is basically the opportunity to set up home, have children, educate them without outside interference, make some kind of a living for yourself, have some degree of status or self respect, some community to both give to and recieve from (or more abstractly, a sense of integration into a community), etc.

    Yet that seems quite limited. It is certainly not the freedom of the enlightenment, its not the freedom of “free thought” etc.
    But if it’s not, to me it seems like freedom doesn’t matter much.

    But Brave New World still horrifies. And it does not because it’s people are not free in the sense of able to fulfill what they are, but because it’s people were consiously made what they are by man for a purpose. It’s mankind’s interference in their being that makes me uneasy. That is what horrifies me, the manipulation, not the limitation. I am limited by nature so that I cannot jump upon a current of wind and soar at will, but it does not bother me, I am limited by nature to not have telekinetic abilities, this I accept without a second thought. But had someone genetically engineered my ancestors to not have those abilities though we once had, or were someone to take me and make it so my offspring were both unable to appreciate and uninterested in music (just picking a random ability at random) I would be horrified.

    Freedom cannot be made abstract I think, it is so tied up in cultural norms, in tradition, that to take it and try and treat it as something above culture is to actually destroy real freedom. To try and liberate people from their past is like trying to liberate people from their bodies. It is true if we were just disembodied minds (were such a thing possible) it would make for an interesting, and perhaps “freer” in some sense life. But in reality so much of what it is to be what we are is bodily that the concept of a disembodied human mind is absurd and nonsensical. Likewise a de-culturised freedom is absurd.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Freedom cannot be made abstract I think, it is so tied up in cultural norms”
    I think there’s some truth to this, but at the same time some abstract element must be present if the different things called ‘freedom’ are in any meaningful way related – even if that common element is only being perceived or experienced in a certain way. It may be that freedom has no common content, but only a common form. Or something like that. It may even be that the abstract and the concret aspects of freedom are actually or potentially in conflict – i.e. that freedom, and humans as beings who care about freedom, are self-contradictory. But at the same time I think that contradiction is a fertile, ‘Hegelian’ one – it can generate new developments and syntheses.

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