Judith Shklar argued that the foundation of liberalism ought not to be seen in a metaphysical concept of human dignity, but in the sense that cruelty is the worst thing that humans do to one another. She called this reading of liberalism the “Liberalism of Fear.” On this reading of liberalism we allow each individual as much freedom as is compatible with like freedom for others due to the fact that this is the best way to avoid cruelty. Furthermore, there are others who have picked up this reading of liberalism such as Richard Rorty. This reading of liberalism is particularly attractiveness because it seems to lays liberalism on a seemingly uncontroversial foundation, rather than speculative metaphysical abstractions. This uncontroversial notion is that cruelty is one kind of evil that we cannot accept. Surely, any person who did not accept this notion would seem to be deeply confused. But, Huxley’s Brave New World gives us reason doubt Shklar’s attempt to rest liberalism on the foundation of the prevention and avoidance of cruelty, as cruelty has been abolished in the futuristic society presented in Brave New World, and yet for many liberal people, like myself, the society presented in Brave New World is deeply disturbing.
The society presented in Brave New World is a non-democratic one in which humans no longer reproduce naturally, but rather are developed in test tubes by a central governmental body. This body creates a variety of types of humans (Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, Epsilons) to perform different tasks within the social body. The differing varieties of humans are produced through technological means such as conditioning, and chemical treatment. For example, the lower castes, such as the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, are made to be physically, and mentally less than Alphas and Betas through chemical treatments that are deployed early in the development of the embryo. Similarly, this governmental body conditions members of each caste to enjoy living as a part of their caste within this society. This conditioning process is presented as broadly effective with a few minor exceptions. So, people are generally very happy with their place within society and with the work they perform.
Similarly, people’s free time is easygoing, effortless and pleasant. Sex has been completely detached from reproduction such that within this society it is viewed as moral to enjoy sex with others, and a wide variety of others at that. Developing a singular passion for only one other person would tend to lead to unhappiness for when people care deeply for a single other, the loss of that other can destroy them, but if sex is just as impersonal as the transaction between me and the grocer, then the loss of that other has little effect on me. People merely enjoy the momentary sensations of sex, but without any real attachment to the person they are having sex with. In fact, the society has the motto “everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Furthermore, the happiness of this society is enhanced by a drug called “Soma.” The use of this drug is encouraged as it allows people to take a momentary holiday, but without any of the ill effects of alcohol. If anyone begins to feel a genuine emotion of sadness, anger, anxiety or longing they merely take a few grams of Soma to escape from these feelings.
The society that is presented in Brave New World seems to be contemptible for its superficiality, inequality, and easy going hedonism, but it would be hard to say that this society is cruel. On the typical understanding of cruelty, cruelty involves the infliction of pain or suffering (whether physical or emotional) on another person or sentient being, and yet if anything the society presented within Brave New World is less cruel than the one that we members of liberal democratic societies live in. In fact the entire society of Brave New World is set up so as to discourage the possibility of people being cruel to one another. So the Liberalism of Fear has little recourse to a critique of the seemingly troubled and problematic society of Brave New World, as this society has done a fine job of preventing cruelty even though this society is illiberal in many ways. Thus, the Liberalism of Fear does not seem to provide us with a set of theoretical resources that enables us to critique every society that we find disturbing and contemptible, and consequently we have reason to doubt this reading of liberalism.
Given the preceding what reasons do liberals have to find the society presented in Brave New World problematic? There are a couple of different sets of reasons within the liberal tradition that come to mind as resources for criticism of the society of Brave New World. The first is the notion that persons ought to be respected because they have some inherent dignity. While we do socialize children to have particular values, it seems very disrespectful, of the future adult that a child will become, to manufacture a child such that they will grow up to be an adult of a certain kind with particular likes and dislikes. Respecting human beings requires us to treat children in a way that allows them to become free, autonomous human beings, rather than treating children in a way that will determine that they will become a plumber, or an engineer. Similarly, another set of reasons suggests that humans have a certain set of capacities and repressing these capacities is wrong, because humans are fully developed when these capacities are actualized, and stunted when these capacities are repressed. The issue with the society in Brave New World is that it actively represses some capacities of humans that are necessary for full development such as the capacity for self-restraint, autonomy, and meaningful romantic love. Unlike, the liberalism of fear both sets of reasons offer grounds for criticism of the society of Brave New World. Furthermore, while these reasons may seem more dubious because they appeal to abstract metaphysical notions that may give rise to controversy and skepticism it seems necessary to speak in these terms in order to critique everything that we find deeply disturbing, such as the society of Brave New World.
It should be noted that the analysis posited above does not suggest that the Liberalism of Fear is not without insight. It is clear that any decent liberal society will be committed to preventing cruelty, and thus the Liberalism of Fear is surely right to think that cruelty is terrible, but what consideration of Brave New World teaches us is that cruelty is not the only evil that liberals ought to be concerned with.