I have been looking at and researching dystopian fiction in hopes of writing my own story based in one. I know the kinds of factors that can all contribute to a dystopia, be it rigid governmental control, loss of human rights, demonisation of minorities, forced consumerism, memetic brainwashing campaigns, etc.

I have looked at movies like Children of Men for inspiration among others. But I was hoping someone could give me some pointers on specific factors.

What are 3 environmental or societal factors that contribute to a loss of humanity?

To be clear I mean mentally, not physically.

Also to explain,I am referring to humanity by the literal definition when used as a noun.

Humanity is synonymous with empathy and benevolence. Whereas inhumanity (a lack of humanity) is the lack of those qualities; exhibiting apathy or coldness towards others and cruelty.

Thus I am asking what 3 factors in the environment or society could cause a loss in these traits normally viewed positively.

The Criteria shall be as follows:

  1. Each point must numbered and presented in an orderly fashion. Specific examples are very much welcome but not needed. Keep in mind you don't need to draw from a dystopian work for these factors; just examples of them that have occurred.

  2. Rather than philosophical the answers must deal with direct causes. Examples given have included poverty, severely disproportionate distribution of wealth and resource scarcity. In fact I think focusing on these three factors and explaining why they cause loss of humanity will be the main focus.

    1. Lastly I want the writer of the question to posit why society would let these things happen or how they could happen?
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What is your definition of humanity? and how would you identify someone who has lost their humanity? $\endgroup$
    – Shadowzee
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ If you haven' consulted it yet, you could start from this wikipedia page (look at the reference section for instance): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dehumanization $\endgroup$
    – McTroopers
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 6:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Agrajag, not to put words in the OP's mouth, but the "company stores" of the U.S. coal mines in the early 1900s is a good example of dystopic forced consumerism. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 6:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @JBH "... another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don't ya call me 'cos I can't go, I owe my soul to the company store." Hadn't made the association, thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ Jeremy, I'm content. Thanks for the edit. +1. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 6:30

5 Answers 5


Let's have a quick look at your request in a historical context

  • rigid governmental control - Historically normal
  • loss of human rights - Human rights are a modern, post WWII invention, prior to that a government could do what it liked to its own population. To a large extent it still can, national sovereignty takes precedence.
  • demonization of minorities - Historically normal, assimilate or be persecuted.
  • forced consumerism - Historically interesting, see sumptuary laws, the company store
  • memetic brainwashing campaigns - This one is new, unless you're willing to compare it to religion, in which case it's as old as civilisation itself.

Dehumanising others, especially outsiders, is a general theme of history. The principle of "Us and Them" is a key part of population control in the later stages of the imperial and industrial age.

However to make a true dystopia, it's not about dehumanising people deliberately, a true dystopia has to be formed out of an attempt to make a utopia.

The rights of the individual must necessarily take second place to the needs of the group. In a true utopia the individual will willingly give up some aspects of freedom to make the world a better place for everyone. In a dystopia that is subverted, the rights given up are too many and too broad, the gain for everyone isn't sufficient to make up the difference.

Perhaps the population is too high and to have anything people must give up nearly everything. Perhaps it's post apocalyptic and again there's very little to go round. The intent has to fundamentally be to make the best for everyone, but it becomes a system under which the individual loses their identity, becomes a cog in a machine, a number in a system.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Very well put,especially with the analysis of how a dystopia comes from an attempt at utopia. It is indeed true that most attempts to create one man's paradise creates hell for many others;for the exact reasons you mentioned. $\endgroup$
    – Obelisk
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ "Human rights are a modern, post WWII invention" As a french, I'm slightly bothered by that. Human rights are globally accepted since WWII. But they're far older (if not in their actual form) $\endgroup$
    – Nyakouai
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Nyakouai, we had certain rights in the UK before that as well, but the concept that "anything the government does is legal" theoretically ended after WWII, in practice it still holds. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix In France, it theoretically ended in 1789, when was drafted the first Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of Humans Rights and Citizens). Just nitpicking, I agree with you, in practice governments are mostly free to do as they please. (I mostly disagree with the wording, since Human rights were a thing before 1945) $\endgroup$
    – Nyakouai
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 12:56

I would suggest a combination of Poverty, Scarcity of resources and Concentrated Wealth.

Scarcity of Resources is a great way to induce violence and create a Dog eat Dog environment. You need food and water to survive. If you split your food and water, then you won't be strong enough to get more food and water, which leaves you weaker and weaker. Only a few people or groups can scrounge up a decent living, but it requires them to step over those weaker than them.

Poverty is combined with this to prevent people from properly sharing, distributing and managing the food and water required to live. In a community, you could just as easily feed 1 person well, or keep several people alive, but hungry. You want to create a situation with little empathy, so making sure that a large amount of people live on the border of life and death will help enforce this mind set of putting yourself first.

Finally, Concentrated wealth. I'm pretty sure I'm just describing Russia at this point in time, but concentrating the wealth so that the rich and powerful and live comfortably will allow you to dehumanize the poor in the eyes of the rich and dehumanize the rich in the eyes of the poor. The poor will think they are monsters because they don't share their abundant wealth while the Rich won't distribute their wealth because they know they can't save everyone and it would be a pointless endeavor.

As a bonus, to keep more people alive, you can have a large amount of food waste that gets thrown out. Its not enough to feed everyone regularly, but the short injections keep people barely alive until you throw out the next batch. Also make sure it rots quickly, so the area is highly competitive and food can't be stored in great abundance by grouping up and working together.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sure it’s just Russia you’re describing? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 11:40

Some ideas:

  1. Inequality: It makes people jealous and in a completely legitimate way. Positive feedback loops are great here. Rich people can afford genetic treatment, making them even better at everything, poor people cannot. The world is increasingly unfair.

  2. Factions: Factions have been shown in experiments to be sufficient for making people hate each other. As soon as factions employ some sort of lore or propaganda that declares other factions inferior there are reasons to treat them worse. This is also great for people who are actually in power because it keeps the poor from banding together.

  3. Distance: It's a lot easier to keep up stereotypes and prejudice about people when you are not actually in contact with them. It's a lot easier to hate moochers and homeless people and lazy rich people and careless powerful people if you have no contact with them to understand what their problems are, what might motivate them or to even see them as humans.

  4. Chemistry: Strange brain chemistry or disease reducing empathy.

  5. Mutations, cybernetics: Actually making people less human will definitely get the job done. Skin color was sufficient to dehumanize people as monkeys. Anybody with implants can easily be a robot, everybody with some sort of mutation is a monster.

  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't even require skin colour, religion or tribe will do. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix True, I was trying to cover that with (2.) while (5.) is more about how outer appearance might affect it. $\endgroup$
    – genesis
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 7:58

Now, given that the answers can be broad, I will give it a philosophical/libertarian approach (implying the lack of its values in that given world). How and why the dystopia emerges, which renders humans to be devoid of their "humanity".


Nihilism: Meaninglessness of life, no transcendent beliefs, forgottenness, disregard for human life, lack of empathy, materialist and collectivist world views, a mix of isolationism and hedonism, life as a cynical parody of a non-existing god.

While the improvements in technology continue to catapult humanity beyond imaginable prosperity and living standards, the sheer lack of purpose and the sense of nihilism is an issue which renders humans growingly (self-)destructive. In their attempts to find something of value, they are willing to abandon their liberties and ethics to promote state power and therefore coercion and violence to exert their will upon others by force. Some seek a sense of belonging by Nationalism and Tribalism, some seek a sense of uniting the world by Globalism.

Both of these groups agree to one thing however - that the economy must be controlled and that wealth must be redistributed, because there is more than enough for everyone to go around. Not only that, natural self-interest is deemed unethical and harmful, in need of being reined. One option is to create jobs with the power of the state, just to give people purpose again, which they lost due to high automation.

This process goes on for decades, until it reaches a point where individualism is dead. As liberties have been continually stripped, and free speech was deemed too dangerous to the integrity of the system, and technology allowed for a near perfect mass surveillance system along with a point system which rewards obedience and punishes dissidence, the value of the individual decreased, and the "higher good of humanity" or the "nation" was the highest priority. If it meant that the exploitation, dispossession or death of a few (or more) served the well-being of the many, it was done. Not only that, the sacrifice was even expected like a virtue.

With collectivism and the diminishing of individualism the sense of equality (see my answer to "Why is equality assumed to be good") increased as well.

However, the economy inevitably declined and suffered severe inefficiencies, as we already know from history, which could no longer be compensated by the also stagnating and even receding the level of technology.


Now we are here, in the future dystopia, where:

  • Human life and liberties are worth little to nothing and is considered expendable if it serves the abstract "higher good of society".
  • The state controls every aspect of human life, including the flow of information.
  • Obedience to the system is obligatory, but also thoroughly indoctrinated from young age.
  • Free speech is non-existent. Dissidence is met with aggressive action, ranging from warnings, re-education to death. Only state approved opinions exist, everything else is irrational, hate-speech or subversive to the system. Every piece of information you encounter are tailored to invoke emotions and ideas which are state approved.
  • The goal of equity is dominating in the mind of people. It is not advisable to stick out in any shape or form from the masses, because not only will you draw resentment from others, but also suffer consequences from the state. In order to pursue that goal, such individuals can be set up to fail - "You happen to be a genius? Fine. Work in the sewers and keep everything clean - by hand!"
  • Hunger remains wiped out, but so is also luxury beyond what the state deems appropriate. Everything else could promote "bad behavior" or invoke harmful ideas and thoughts.
  • Advanced artificial intelligences rule the market and automatically assign tasks and jobs to people. While it can't work towards innovation (or never was meant to do so), it micro-manages people to maintain the economy and the system. It can also be used to yield statistical information to those in charge, so that larger scale adjustments can be done, which need human decision making.
  • Property rights do not exist. You own what the state has assigned to you, which can change at any time. You work because otherwise you suffer punishment and lose privileges. If you work well, you get rewarded. This punishment/reward system is tailored to you individually by artificial intelligences, knowing your highest and lowest performances. This is deemed effective and necessary to motivate workers.

The description may resemble Orwell's 1984. But I think that is indeed a probable dystopia.

Loss of humanity

Empathy in such a world is impossible: Everybody is equal (or meant to be) and having excessive emotions towards some people, but not others, can be seen as inappropriate and discriminatory. You cannot trust anybody with secrets and sensitive information. Anyone can turn on you and get rewarded for it, in case it is deemed inappropriate or harmful to the system.

Benevolence went overboard at the point when individualism (liberties, value of life) was abandoned by society. The dominating idea is a combination of "there is no good and evil" and threat to the integrity of the system must be eliminated.

Every friend can turn into a foe at any given time. The system has a monopoly to loyalty. Trusting others with sensitive information and thoughts (in case you even have any) can and will turn on you, so keep your emotions in check, express as little as possible.

Now, the final step of losing your "humanity" is to be a replaceable, identical cog in a gigantic system, and that idea being widely supported and promoted, where your destiny from the beginning to the end is already planned out and taken care of.


Let's take a different approach from what everyone else has suggested. (Although all are very good suggestions.)

What gives us "humanity", in the first place?

Hypothesys: Humanity is what happens when we keep a balance between all three of the following factors:

  • Empathy
  • Individuality
  • Intellect

… and propose that true humanity comes from keeping a balance between those three, then we can easily create a dystopia by basing a society that favours/admonishes one of the three in the disfavour of the other two.

A society that favours Empathy too much would be a society full of mindless drones/clones. A society that favours Individuality would be a barbaric kill-or-be-killed society. And a society that favours Intellect would be a society of smart robots.

A society that admonishes Empathy would be a militaristic empire where cutthroat ladder-climbers would reign supreme. A society that admonishes Individuality would be a communist-type brainwashing cult. A society that admonishes Intellect would be a pastoral cult.

In any case, this hypothesis states that the lack of balance in the order of things either by too much or too less on an integral part will lead to a loss of humanity, and forward to a dystopia.


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