At the foundation of the totalitarian enterprise is the belief that everything is possible—that is, the conviction that there are no limits to what human beings can do here on earth. We can remake both the world and ourselves. We can trace this vision of hyper-autonomy back to the founders of the modern scientific project, Bacon and Descartes, who first suggested human beings could attain the exalted position of masters and possessors of nature. We all live amidst the enormous material benefits of their revolution in thought, but we must also wonder whether this understanding of the natural world and man’s place in it is sufficient. This denial of natural limits is something that totalitarian regimes have in common with many currents of contemporary political thought.
These thoughts are prompted by member Robert Lux’s comments to Eric Ames' post on marriage and by an article from the Guardian on twins and abortion. In embracing this vision of man’s radical separation from nature, we are also inclined to a kind of reductionism where we treat human nature as if it were no different from everything else in the world. The biotechnical revolution continues to dramatically change the way we understand ourselves. Consider this remarkably honest statement from a woman who chose to abort one of her 14 week old twins:
"If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn't have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there's a natural order, then you don't want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner – in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me – and somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control."
Leon Kass has pointed to the dangers of moving “the mysterious and intimate processes of generation” from the “darkness of the womb to the bright artificial light of the laboratory.” I don’t think he could have imagined a more concise and telling statement that bears out his fears.
I’ve spent and continue to spend a great deal of time thinking about totalitarianism. In what guise will it appear next? What if we don’t need some dramatic revolutionary change in government, some new political ideology, but only an ever-gradual, barely noticeable change in our sense of ourselves? In other words, don’t worry so much about Orwell’s 1984 but about Huxley’s Brave New World. The great dissidents knew that they were struggling against more than a deeply unjust political order—they struggled against (in the phrase of Chantal Delsol) the “systematic destruction of man’s reality.” As Václav Havel put it, “The natural world, in virtue of its very being, bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect. Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with something else, appears... as an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price.” Aristotle famously argued we are strange in-between beings—higher than beasts but lower than the gods. When we play God, do we not become even lower than the beasts?