October 2007By Christopher Beiting
Christopher Beiting is Ci-devant Chairman of the Department of History, Politics, and Economics at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls. By Peter Augustine Lawler. ISI Books. 298 pages. $24.95.
Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future. By Peter Augustine Lawler. ISI Books. 262 pages. $24.95.
Alienation. It seems to have been the defining feature of first-world nations during the past century, and shows no signs of diminishing. We enjoy safety, comfort, and prosperity unprecedented in human history -- functionally, we are living in the utopias dreamed of by 19th-century thinkers. Yet the great heresy, the question that cannot be asked, is why, in the midst of all this, are so many people so unhappy? Political scientist Peter Lawler treats this question in Aliens in America through a careful sampling of various authors on the political spectrum. The responses he comes up with are informative, though not always comforting.
Modern alienation is best visible among the current dominant generation whom popular journalist David Brooks defined as "bohemian bourgeois," or "bobos." Lawler generally supports Brooks's ideas, and notes that these people have many good traits: hard work, responsibility, opposition to cruelty, and so on, but a few fatal flaws stemming from the radically democratic culture in which they live. The bobos are atomized, radical individuals with few interests beyond their own comfort, and few social contacts beyond their narrow circles. They lack courage, civic duty, and compassion toward those who do not work as hard as they do. They are full of "spirituality," but hostile to religion -- particularly the notion that God might place any restrictions or restraints on their much-loved freedom and comfort. In particular, they are militantly "non-judgmental" on any moral actions (beyond some selected health-related ones -- smoking is a grievous fault, though sodomy is not), and deeply suspicious of people who are. The problem is that such behavior, with its roots in 1960s-era selfishness, shorn of its communitarian ideas, does seem to be able to produce social stability and economic prosperity. Yet the bobos are alienated and haunted by death, though they have lost the ability to admit it.
Lawler first examines those authors who would abolish man's problem of alienation by abolishing man. Social engineering of the past was brutal, and only succeeded in mobilizing opposition. The new tyrants are seductive, and manage to persuade the unwitting to accept what they offer as freedom. One such despot is controversial historian Francis Fukayama, who celebrates the coming biotechnological transformation of man, which he believes will do what the social engineers of the past could not: "We will have definitely finished Human History because we will have abolished human beings as such. And then, a new, posthuman history will begin."
How will these posthumans deal with the problems of anxiety and death? Through the advancement of the therapeutic state, as linguist and philosopher Richard Rorty submits. Biotechnology will produce far more effective drugs to regulate depression and produce artificial human happiness that will no doubt make Brave New World's soma pale by comparison. With these drugs will come a deadly choice: Is it best to treat the problems of consciousness via the chemical destruction of consciousness? Plenty of the authors Lawler examines think so, actually or implicitly, and the end result will be a combination of genetic, linguistic, chemical, and social transformations of man into little more than a technological animal -- apparently happy, but animalistic, unmotivated by love and death. And it will all come about freely, since the bobos, Lawler notes, "do not have the spirit to resist the rapidly approaching biotechnological threat to the very existence of human liberty."
Lawler resists this abolition of man, and celebrates a number of authors who do likewise. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a particular hero, almost alone among the great dissident writers today to speak out in defense of the reality of the human soul and its needs. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn is courageous enough to point out the great anathema of the modern world: the fact that people are unhappy, and are so far gone that they are unable even to understand their condition and ask the questions that would help them.
Perhaps the greatest author to understand the modern problems of mankind, though, is the late Catholic novelist Walker Percy, who was agonizingly aware of the problems of modern alienation. Percy repeatedly restates the tragic vision of man, noting that we are indeed alienated from nature and the other animals through our language and the development of our neocortex. Attempts to reduce man to the state of animals are abhorrent, as are attempts to treat the problem of the self through chemical means.
Lawler rightly lauds Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome, wherein therapeutic-minded individuals try to remedy the problems of a community by doping its water supply with heavy sodium -- a novel that was both prophetic and ahead of its time. We have a right to be unhappy, Percy notes, because in so many cases only the unhappy realize the true order of the world and find the right solution to the problem of alienation: God.
Lawler's Stuck With Virtue picks up many of the themes of Aliens in America. Most notably, Lawler further explores the many questions Aliens raises about the new biotechnology. To many people it appears that biotechnology might be a success in the way that social engineering (or sociobiology) could never be: the latter sought to change human beings by changing their societies or their upbringing, but biotechnology will be able to change human beings by making actual changes to them, genetically or somatically.
Lawler treats the biotechnological questions of the "improvement" of humanity, the prospect of human longevity, and the creation of designer "mood" drugs that will make Prozac look as primitive as aspirin. Will applied biotechnology of these sorts bring about the Brave New World scenario so many have been fearing?
Surprisingly, Lawler says no, believing both that human nature is constant and ineradicable, and that such biotechnological efforts will have a number of unintended consequences. The problem with human genetic improvements, either in utero or postnatal, is that they will likely be so irresistible that modern libertarian-minded individuals will have to make some hard choices about how much control they allow society to have over their bodies and their offspring.
Furthermore, our meritocratic society will refuse to allow a genetically modified elite to attain a position of dominance, making genetic improvements an all-or-nothing proposition for society.
However, given the fact that such enhancements will likely have to be made in utero, and given how few children the radical individualists are having, the problem may not turn out to be as grave as we fear.
A similar situation prevails with regard to biotechnological longevity: wouldn't people want to live for decades, even centuries longer? Not necessarily. There are great problems with elder care even now; will a society of radical individualists be willing to care for an elderly population that may never die, except by accident? More to the point, longevity techniques are being touted as the ultimate solution to the ultimate human fear -- the fear of death. Surely, if we can halt the aging process, we need no longer fear death, right? The absolute opposite is likely to be true, notes Lawler: If death can only come about by accident, human society will actually fear it more than anything else, and respond to the fear of death by becoming pathologically risk-averse. The most trivial of activities will be labeled "unhealthy" and "dangerous," and punished with the kind of censorious disapproval that will make our contemporary treatment of smokers pale by comparison.
As for the biotechnological creation of designer mood drugs, Lawler notes that no matter how good they are, they can never produce true happiness or satisfaction, merely the simulation of them. As a result, they will never be able to cure the problem of human alienation, an alienation that will grow far, far worse in a biotech future. As Lawler notes, "The good news is that technology may finally make us so unhappy we will begin to effectively criticize its consequences with the whole human good in mind." The celebrated writer Alexis de Tocqueville painted a grim future for the American republic, implying that it would at some point have to make a choice between prosperity and misery. Lawler believes that Tocqueville is wrong -- the biotech future means that we will have equal amounts of both.
Lawler's conclusions are consoling ones, though he is enough of a realist to admit that there will be much human suffering before the biotechnology project loses its allure. There will likely be human consequences even for the best of us, as Lawler observes: "Biotechnology will not make our lives less morally demanding, but it will make virtue and the spiritual life more difficult to acquire." Nevertheless, as fallen beings, we will have to make the effort to acquire them, in a future dominated by a technology that doesn't make us any happier or less alienated, proving Blaise Pascal and Walker Percy right all along. And although the choice for virtue will be harder to make, our only real path to true happiness will be the one that Pascal and Percy recommended. As Lawler concludes, "The biotechnological failure to eradicate human misery or the mystery of self consciousness will make the case for God stronger and more attractive than ever."