I wrote a post a while back talking about utilitarianism. I was taken back to the fond memories of being in school, where I majored in Philosophy. This stimulated my mind and caused me to dust off some of my old textbooks and skim over a few select readings. I came across a book Robert Nozick wrote back in 1974 “Anarchy, State and Utopia.” In small part of this book (most material argues the only good government is a minimal government) he attempts to give a counterexample to John Stuart Mills utilitarianism. He paints us a broad picture of a machine we could hook up to giving us a lifetime of the greatest pleasures knowable to man. His theory was people would reject this machine; instead choosing to live a life of happiness along with sadness just to know they were alive and their experiences good and bad were real. He tells us this rejection of the machine shows people value something other than happiness and pleasure. In his example the people who chose to plug into this machine are slobs and are committing a form of suicide. He believes the loss of truly living at the expense of endless happiness is one few would choose.
Nozick seems to proclaim this to be universal to all mankind. He does not go into detail on what some may choose and others may not. He proclaims the masses would choose life over the machine, because of this the moral theory of utilitarianism is debunked. This is simply not true; there are many people who according to their own personal moral decision making would choose the machine, while others would choose reality. He proclaims the many would choose to live the real life and the few who choose the machine are degraded to blobs who have committed a form of suicide. In essence the individual would exist yet cease to exist in the material world; instead choosing to live in a fantasy world. They would still be alive on one hand but dead in the other. There lives would be a farce with no real human interaction. I ask you this; how this is any different then the millions of people who play World of War Craft, or the many other reality shifting MMORPG’s out there? I can guarantee you with the amount of people who choose to slip out of reality and focus their lives on a video game; would without a thought choose the machine so they could actually become a dwarf or elf and live out their life this way.
I wonder if his theory is correct. I don’t doubt people would choose to not be hooked up to this machine, but just as many would choose the machine over the ups and downs of reality. I do not think we can use this example as proof against utilitarianism based on whether people would hook up or not, because the end decision can be made through utilitarianism. I think Nozick theory is flawed because utilitarianism states actions are right when they promote happiness and wrong when they promote the opposite of happiness. Choosing to go or not to go inside of this machine could very well be made in a utilitarian fashion. Let’s say there is a man who is a husband and father. In making his decision to go or not to go into the machine; he would need to take into account his families feelings and weigh in on if his happiness will create the opposite of happiness to his wife and kids. In this example Nozick was trying to debunk utilitarianism but indeed proved this decision can be made by practicing utilitarianism or for that matter any other moral theory.
I do however think Nozick should get props for coming up with an idea that would be used in a movie 36 years later.