May 29, 2024

Two sceptical prophets

Hi there, 

By one of those strange quirks of fate, John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis and all died on November 22, 1963 – 50 years ago this week. Try as I might, I was unable to wring a bioethical link out of President Kennedy’s life, although the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University owes its existence to the Kennedy family.

Huxley and Lewis, however, have clearly made their mark as sceptical seers.

No student of bioethics can escape reading Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, in which he predicted IVF clinics, cloning, genetic engineering, the separation of sex and reproduction, and the use of mood-altering drugs. Huxley had a way with words and his characters frame arguments which still echo in bioethics debates.

Here, for instance, is Mustapha Mond, one of society’s leaders in the year 632 After Ford, spruiking the benefits of the drug soma:

“There’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears–that’s what soma is.”

This sounds very much like contemporary proposals by Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu for mandatory moral enhancement with drugs or genetic engineering to avert the eventual destruction of the planet in an apocalyptic war.

C.S. Lewis has had an enormous, if indirect, influence on bioethics debates. An insightful Christian apologist and novelist, he promoted a natural law approach to ethics, defended traditional Christian sexual morality, and opposed scientism and transhumanism.

His novel That Hideous Strength is an odd combination of science fiction, Christian philosophy and mediaeval legends which he deploys to expose the dangers of scientific materialism. The plot unfolds in the sinister organisation National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. (The irony that the UK’s healthcare think tank has the same acronym has not be lost on bioethicists of a conservative bent.)

Long before Ray Kurzweil, Lewis anticipated transhumanist proposals for mind uploading to escape the limitations of having a body. Here is the villain of That Hideous Strength on the future:

“The world I look forward to is the world of perfect purity… What are the things that most offend the dignity of man? Birth and breeding and death. how if we are about to discover that man can live without any of the three?”

What influence do you think these men have had? Was it for better or worse? 

Michael Cook
Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis both died on the same day as John F. Kennedy 50 years ago.