Ethics In “Frankenstein” And “Brave New World” Essay, Research Paper
Ethics in “Frankenstein” and “Brave New World”
For most of human history, the ethical considerations of scientific inquiry would have been a moot point. Outside of the Bible and mythology, there was no thought of creating life from inert matter because scientists would not have felt it was possible to do so. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, in the wake of landmark discoveries in the fields of chemistry, biology, and genetics, the possibility of scientific tampering with the human body and mind broached the ethical question of whether or not humankind would actually benefit, in the long run, from such a move. This dilemma is explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Mary Shelley wrote in a period when the “hard sciences” were still considered a branch of philosophy, but were rapidly developing into a discipline of their own, with new discoveries occurring at a rate that foreshadows the explosion of knowledge of our own day. Yet in Frankenstein Mary Shelley shows her concern that scientific exploration was exceeding its ethical boundaries; her novel is a blatant warning about the results of playing God, exemplified by the act of creating a human being without a woman.
Mary was very cautionary about science, particularly in terms of the ethical ramifications of scientific experimentation. She granted that while scientists had granted man seemingly Promethean powers, they had not dealt with the moral and ethical responsibilities generated by these powers, as the Being himself points out. “Oh Frankenstein,” the Being implores, “be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” . This, Mary warns, is the true danger of the unimpeded rush toward scientific progress; the scientist cannot tell where the fruits of his experiments may fall.
But most importantly, Mary clearly feels that Frankenstein’s experiment is doomed to failure because, in a nutshell, men were never intended to make babies.
Frankenstein had created his being with every expectation that his creature would be fertile. In fact, he hoped that as a result of his experiments, “a new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me”. It is thus not terribly surprising that he agrees to create for the Being a bride; he clearly had this at least in the back of his mind all along. However, after he has the female half-completed, he realizes that a pair of monsters such as he has created would bear others like them (clearly, this is before the development of the science of genetics), and this race might exterminate mankind. Thus, he destroys the incomplete female to prevent this. In the creation of his Monster, Victor Frankenstein got everything wrong; but in preventing it from perpetuating itself, he finally did something right.
Shelley’s question was not whether the creation — or at least reanimation — of a human being from inert matter was possible. Her tale was a reaction against what she saw as a paternalistic attempt on the part of male scientists to usurp creative power for themselves. Women might be shut out of politics, the sciences and to a large extent the arts (as in her day they were), but in Mary’s view they could not be shut out of the procreation of the species. The result, as she shows, would be disaster.
However, as the nineteenth and then the twentieth centuries rolled on, people began to become more and more enamored with scientific progress — and less and less interested in the ethical questions this progress raised. In 1932, when Aldous Huxley was writing Brave New World, the civilized world had boost in scientific and technological advances. These advances were hailed not only as evidence of man’s progress but also as the basis for all human hope. Huxley felt that the hope for mankind lay not in technology but in man himself. He feared that unbridled research in science and technology was inherently dangerous, and that the misuse of knowledge can have dire consequences. He also feared that people would become so content to have all their diseases cured and their problems eliminated that they would allow their basic freedoms eliminated as well. Brave New World offers a picture of the world as it might become if man allows science to rule him rather than man ruling science.
The beginning of the novel describes life in the new World State through the eyes of a group of students, who are touring the “Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre,” to see infants and children — something they would normally
never encounter during the normal course of their lives. In the midst of their tour, one of the ten World Controllers happens to drop into the Hatching and Conditioning Centre. His name is Mustapha Mond, and he is regarded with some alarm by the Director of Hatching and Conditioning because he has read all the forbidden books; he assures the D.H.C. that “I won’t corrupt them” by telling the students the history of what life was like in the unenlightened past — the times in which Huxley’s readers actually live. This allows us, the readers, to see how far science has taken the citizens of the World State from our own values, hopes and dreams.
Mustapha Mond is an intelligent, competent, nice man, like many recently seen a tremendous people we meet in our own lives. He tells the young students about many barbaric practices of the past: actually living in a squalid home with one’s birth parents and their other offspring; suckling milk from a mother’s breast “like a cat”; lifetime monogamy. The torturous emotional rollercoasters such lifestyles involve! The students shudder; none of these dreadful concepts are even imaginable to them, and fortunately, Mond assures them, they need never know such traumas. “No pains have been spared to make your lives emotionally easy,” he tells them, “– to preserve you, so far as that is possible, from having any emotions at all”. The greatest good in the Brave New World is not to be virtuous but happy.
Why is happiness so important? Because, Mond explains, it produces stability. “People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. they’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave”. And in the new World State, stability is everything.
Mond explains further that religion and ethics had to be eliminated because “God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness.” The metaphor for the World State is the assembly line, where everything is automated, and science and technology have replaced God as a source of value and meaning in life.
The only way it is possible to produce a system like that is to eliminate free will entirely. In Brave New W several levels. Humanity has been genetically engineered to produce a variety of different castes — from Alphas, who are capable of abstract thought, all the way down to Epsilons, who can do nothing but the most repetitive factory work. After “decanting” (birth), each individual is conditioned to respond appropriately at his level but to desire nothing more. And each individual is encouraged to take soma (apparently a relaxing, hallucinogenic drug) to fill up his leisure hours and prevent him from undertaking any independent thought whatsoever. The result is a happy population that works its factories like a well-oiled machine.
To some extent Huxley’s disillusionment with society is understandable; people of his time were very carried away with “scientific” theory and technological innovation. And yet many things have happened in the sixty-five years since this book was written that might give him cause for hope. Yes, we are closer than ever to the genetic engineering he so feared. Certainly we have abdicated much of the human touch in favor of low cost and convenience; there can be no other excuse for such annoyances as the replacement of a human receptionist at the telephone company with voice mail.
But whereas in the thirties science was considered the sure road to salvation, we now regard it with the caution it deserves. Genetic testing goes on, but the cloning of a human being — for now, at any rate — is forbidden. Atomic power plants are regarded with grave caution. And every schoolchild is taught to recognize the seduction in the advertising messages heard on TV. Science is at least somewhat tempered by public perceptions of ethics, as it should be.
But in other respects, Huxley’s warning is as timely as it was in 1932, and this is largely in the area of happiness versus the authentic world, this has been done on life. We are still far too concerned with being happy at all costs. Of course this is understandable; any thinking person would rather have things go well than badly. Mustapha Mond presents a number of strong arguments in favor of a happy population. Happy citizens do not rebel; they do not dissent; they do not lust after power; and hence they do not go to war and die under horrifying conditions. Consequently, the World Controllers have done their best — through genetic engineering, psychological conditioning, and drugs, all proper scientific approaches still used today — to ensure that no chink appears in the armor of the citizen’s contentment. But at what cost? Can one really be said to be happy if one has never been sad? Can life be said to have any purpose at all if it has no meaning? And is not the authentic life always better than the life anaesthetized against itself?
Both Frankenstein and Brave New World demonstrate that ethics are simply not negotiable. Science and technology should serve man, not the other way around, and ethics and morality should always present a higher priority than the on-going quest of scientific discovery. Just because one can do something, Shelley and Huxley warn, doesn’t mean one should.