I was browsing some of the blogs over at Experimental Philosophy the other day, and it got me thinking about something weird that has happened in every ethics course I have taught to date. The class will be discussing hedonism (about welfare), and I present Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment in an argument against this view.
For the uninitiated, hedonism about welfare claims (roughly) that the only intrinsically valuable thing is pleasure, and the only intrinsically disvaluable thing is pain; a person’s life, therefore, goes better for her the greater the balance of pleaure over pain there is in that life. Robert Nozick argued against such a view in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia by asking us to imagine The Experience Machine (EM). This is a machine, created by super-duper scientists, that can give a person any experiences she desires. These experiences are indistinguishable from veridical experiences (i.e. experiences that are obtained by interacting in the real world in the normal way rather than triggered in our brains by a machine). Imagine that you were looking for a way to get the best possible life for yourself (the life with the most welfare value for you). Would you hook into the machine?
If hedonism were correct, the answer should be yes. However, almost all of my students say they would not hook into the machine. I am sure that anyone who has taught a course on ethics has had a similar experience. But this is where things start to get weird.
In every class I had some students who thought that the experience machine does promise the best possible life for them in terms of welfare value. So I tried to develop another case that I thought would be even more convincing than the Experience Machine. I presented them with The Duplicitous Significant Other (DSO):
Compare the following two possible worlds:
In world1, you are in love with a person, A, and A loves you back. You have a variety of experiences with A, and these experiences make you extremely pleased.
In world2, you are in love with A, but A only pretends to love you back. In this world, however, A hates you. A puts up with you only because you buy A things. A cheats on you on a regular basis, but you never catch on to this. In fact, the experiences you have in this world are identical to the experiences you have in world1.
To my shock and dismay, every time I present this case to the class, I find that the majority of students believe that world1 and world2 are identical with respect to the welfare value for you contained in them.
Admittedly, these results are anecdotal and not very scientific. However, the trend has always been the same: most students would not hook into the EM, and yet most students think that world1 and world2 are equally good for me.
When presented with the DSO, students always respond, “But what you don’t know cannot hurt you”. I then ask them why the EM will not provide them with the best possible life: certainly, the fact that they are in the EM is something they will not know and so should not affect their welfare. It is tempting to explain these results by pointing out that our students are not always consistent, and may not be able to see that there is a tension in their responses. But I am not sure that this explanation is correct anymore. I have come to the conclusion that the EM is not a good test of what people actually believe about value, and that the DSO is.
The problem with the EM is, I think, its strangeness. For those of us who entertain thought experiements that may be even weirder than this on a day-to-day basis, it is easy to forget just how unusual is the question we are asking our students. When confronted with the choice of hooking into the machine or not, they may not be able to keep certain thoughts out of their minds: for example, what if the machine breaks? What if there is a power failure? What if the program I choose is really bad? We are able to bracket these concerns and focus on the point of the question: if the machine were perfect, and power failures never happened, and the scientisits could match the program with your current desires, etc., then would the EM be best for you? I believe that non-philosophers cannot do this bracketing. They may try, but they fail. So when confronted with the choice, students opt not to hook into the machine, but this is not because they think something other than pleasure is valuable. It is because they are allowing distorting influences to affect their answer. [It is not just students who claim that the question is too strange to be helpful. L. W. Sumner argues that it is in “Welfare, Happiness, and Pleasure” Utilitas 4 (1992).]
But in the DSO, the question being asked is not so strange. In effect, it is a question any person who has ever been in a relationship asks themselves: am I harmed if my SO cheats on me and I never find out about the infidelity (or, most likely for some of my students, the question they ask is: am I harming my SO when I cheat on him/her)? The DSO just takes this question to the extreme: what if your SO always cheated on you, did not love you, etc? There is some bracketing required here (e.g. can someone who hates me really act towards me in the exact same way as someone who loves me?) but it is less severe, less strange.
I still present students with both scenarios, but I am contemplating dropping the EM from my classes. The EM is distracting for students and has them focus on things other than their views about value. Furthermore, the DSO has an added advantage: those students who claim that “what you do not know cannot hurt you” believe that if you were to find out about the cheating, you would be harmed. I can ask them to explain why it is a harm to learn of this fact. Many students begin to see that the best explanation is that the cheating was harmful even before they knew about it, which is, of course, the point I wanted to make.
I am curious to see what you think: is the EM a worthwhile thought experiement for our students, or is it too weired to be of help? Which example allows people better to reveal their true beliefs about value? Is it worth keeping in our classes?