Introduction to Ethics - Utilitarianism
TA: Jonatan Sennai Larsson
Utilitarianism is the view that actions are morally right if and only if they maximize utility, where utility is defined as the balance of pleasure to pain. In this sense, utilitarianism is hedonistic – it considers pleasure to be the singular good, and pain the singular bad. Pleasures and pains are episodic, and the magnitude of their effect on utility is dependent on both duration and intensity. Utilitarianism is universalistic, so the pleasures and pains of all beings capable of sensation are considered and weighted equally. Finally, utilitarianism is consequentialist. In other words, ...view middle of the document...
Humans ought to have higher aspirations than a simple maximization of pleasure. To further illustrate this objection, Nozick presents the idea of an experience machine – a device that is able to simulate experiences that are indistinguishable from reality. This machine has knobs which regulate the intensity and duration of the pleasure they generate. Nozick then supposes that a dictator is given the option of connecting his subjects to experience machines with the pleasure intensity and duration turned to the maximum. According to Nozick, the dictator is obligated to connect his subjects to the experience machines under a utilitarian framework, as this would maximize pleasure (and therefore utility). Nozick claims that this result is intuitively wrong, as being connected to the machines would rob subjects of the things that make life worth living. He concludes that utilitarianism is therefore ‘the doctrine of swine’. In fact, Nozick’s experience machine argument is poorly formulated.
If we take the experience machine as Nozick constructs it (as a device delivering raw pleasure), its use does not in fact maximize utility. The experience of pleasure results from an increase in the level of particular neurotransmitters in the brain. A constant influx of these chemicals (as would be delivered by the experience machine) would disturb homeostasis, and neurons would respond by desensitizing. That is, the individual receiving the machine’s raw pleasure would become less and less responsive to the point of satiation. This process is equivalent to the development of drug tolerance or the experience of an unpleasant odor slowly fading after prolonged exposure – as the brain becomes accustomed to a continued stimulus, its response diminishes. At this point of satiation, ‘maximum pleasure’ becomes the new norm for the subject, and utility drops to zero. Put simply, pleasure cannot exist without a less pleasurable point of reference. Some degree of pain may actually be necessary to maximize utility. Connecting individuals to this type of machine would be immoral under utilitarianism.
One might respond by introducing modifications to the machine – say we allow the individual to select their experiences (or vary them in a manner which maximizes utility). Rather than producing a constant euphoria, the machine might generate more authentic and rewarding experiences. Individuals could experience the same sensory and intellectual pleasures they would have in the real world, only inside the machines. The machines might enable the users to live the same life they would have normally lived – perhaps this is the path that generates the greatest utility anyway. A complaint that even these perfect simulations limit users to a ‘man-made’ reality which lacks depth is simply a mischaracterization. A perfect simulation is undetectable to the subject – he misses nothing by being connected to the machine, and the dictator is right to connect his subjects (or at the very...