The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State
by Aaron Kheriaty
Regnery Publishing, 2022; xxv + 278 pp.
Aaron Kheriaty is a medical doctor who taught for many years at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine and headed the school’s medical ethics program. Though highly regarded as a teacher, he became a “nonperson” when he challenged the university’s compulsory covid vaccination policy and was fired from his position: “In 2021 I found myself in the teeth of the unfolding biomedical security regime. . . . I sacrificed my career as an academic physician to challenge the constitutionality of vaccine mandates.”
As an expert in medical ethics, Kheriaty soon came to question compulsory vaccination. The vaccine had not been adequately tested, and evidence that it often had severe, and sometimes fatal, side effects quickly surfaced. Didn’t compulsion violate the Nuremberg Code, established after World War II, which forbade administering potentially dangerous medical procedures to people without their free consent? Consent was hardly free in this instance, as those who refused the vaccine would lose their jobs or their student status.
Kheriaty was especially interested in “natural immunity”; i.e., the phenomenon that people who had contracted covid, as he had, acquired a lessened susceptibility to dangerous effects from reinfection. Though substantial evidence indicated that natural immunity far exceeded the vaccine in beneficial effects, Kheriaty’s university turned a deaf ear when he pressed this point and soon suspended him. Vaccination was to be compulsory, with no exemption for those naturally immune; and when Kheriaty refused, he was fired.
Kheriaty’s misfortune led him to investigate the background assumptions of those instigating compulsory vaccination, and the results of his inquiry have resulted in a number of points of philosophical interest, one of which I’d like to write about in this week’s column. Because some people, despite the assurances of the medical establishment, refused to take the vaccine, the notion quickly developed of placing students and faculty under continuous surveillance so that their vaccination status and compliance with all covid regulations could be determined and, if necessary, appropriate sanctions imposed. Proposals were soon in the works to extend this surveillance to other social institutions. Because we faced a “medical emergency,” we were to become subject to an all-powerful medical bureaucracy. It is this notion of continuous observation on which, if you will allow the pun, I’d like to focus.
As Kheriaty notes, Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon,” a machine that consisted of cells that could always be monitored, lies at the origin of this method of social surveillance and control:
Bentham maintained that the panopticon was “a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection.” Besides prisons, he also suggested its use in quarantine stations, poorhouses, houses of industry, factories, hospitals, workhouses, and, alas, schools. The panopticon’s principle of radical transparency promised to rationalize the discipline of otherwise unruly populations. . . . Through constant fear of punishment, prisoners would learn to patrol themselves. George Orwell captured this in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with his description of Big Brother’s ubiquitous television screens with built-in cameras, always on and always watching you.
Kheriaty adds to Bentham the insight that universal surveillance does not only become the prerogative of the observer who sits at the center of the panopticon:
With the advent of technologies of mass surveillance, we now live in a kind of worldwide digital panopticon, where each citizen is simultaneously guard and fellow prisoner. In totalitarian societies one does not just fear the censure of the ruler, one fears everyone else, for every neighbor is a potential informant. Today every potential informant is armed with a smartphone camera in his pocket. . . . Recall how university administrators encouraged students to act as informants during covid to enforce strict compliance with the minutiae of their covid protocols.
You might at this point object, “This is a frightening development, and Kheriaty deserves great credit for bringing it to our attention and for his efforts to combat it; but why is it of philosophical interest?” The answer lies in another extension of Bentham’s argument that Kheriaty makes. Greatly influenced by C.S. Lewis and the Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce, he suggests that our new biomedical overlords wish to replace biological humans with mechanical substitutes, to the extent that they can do so. Real people disturb the ideal of perfect regularity that those devoted to technological control wish to attain.
He holds Lewis’s The Abolition of Man “to be among the most important and prescient works of the twentieth century.” He quotes Lewis to this effect: “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall . . . be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.”
Del Noce, who will probably not be as familiar to most of my readers as Lewis, was a twentieth-century Catholic philosopher of great learning and wisdom. In his opinion, modern technological society is dominated by the view that reason is purely instrumental. Knowledge is confined to the physical sciences, and transcendent values have no place. “Human reason, on this view, is unable to grasp ideas that go beyond brute empirical facts; we are incapable of discovering transcendent truths. Reason is merely a pragmatic tool, a useful instrument for accomplishing our purposes, but nothing more.” Thus, if, like Kheriaty, you object that forced vaccinations and universal surveillance violate human dignity, your objections will not be answered. You will rather be told that you are inconsistent with “science.”
Is this analysis correct? In order properly to assess it, we would need to be told more about the transcendent values to which Kheriaty appeals; but he seems to me to be suggestive and insightful. (I expect to be instructed by a frequent commenter on my articles that he has failed to ground his appeal to values in the philosophy of “She Who Must Be Obeyed”). Kheriaty’s thoughtful book deserves our attention, and its message brings to mind some familiar words from Percy Shelley’s Queen Mab: “Obedience / Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth / Makes slaves of men and of the human frame / A mechanized automaton.”