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August 6, 2012 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]


Welcome to pleasure town

Happiness is dope. We all seem to spend much of our lives in pursuit of it, and relish the experiences which produce it. But this doesn’t have to mean that we are selfish, as many people also value producing happy experiences for other people too. A life aimed at maximising pleasure and miminimising pain has been held up as an ideal ever since some epic dudebros in Ancient Greece decided to think about the meaning of life. Often this perspective is called hedonism. Though this might evoke thoughts of debauchery it is better thought of as very basic ethical perspective, which emphasises that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and so the best world is one where there is as much pleasure as possible. This might sound bleak, but is actually probably a pretty good way to live.

But Robert Nozick, whom we have already encountered in these pages, has a bone to pick with hedonism. He asks us to imagine an ‘Experience Machine’, constructed by a superduper neuropsychologist. Much like those weird vats in the Matrix, this machine can perfectly simulate whatever life we want it to. So you could program the machine to give yourself the experience of the much happier life, one where you had all the money, friends, sex, job satisfaction, and unlimited datacaps you wanted; or whatever makes you happy. Nozick thinks that if hedonism is true, then everyone should have an overwhelming reason to plug themselves into the experience machine.

But he reckons that most people wouldn’t want to do this. He says that we want to actually do certain things, and not just have the ‘experience’ of doing them—we want to be certain kinds of people, and not just some parasite floating in a tank. His position is that we actually value more than just good experiences, because the reality of our lives is important to us and so we wouldn’t knowingly consent to a virtual reality. If this is true, then we have a reason to reject the hedonistic way of life. Would you plug in to the machine?


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