Monday, September 21, 2009

The experience machine objection as a wrong order problem

This is the first of a planned series of posts wherein I try to place attacks on utilitarianism within a more general framework I'm developing, the wrong order problem: properties that could work to aggregate all our morally relevant concerns, like happiness or desire satisfaction, are too high an order of property to count as good-making features, and can instead only indicate goodness.

There is a long-standing and enticing tradition of considering happiness as the most valuable good that a human life can attain. It can hardly be denied that a life containing happiness seems better than one without. There have been no shortage of people who try to build an ethical viewpoint from this foundation in one way or the other. One popular and influential approach is to consider happiness to be the only good, from which everything else draws its value, and therefore what we should do is to maximise the amount of happiness in the world. This is hedonism in a straight-forward and non-perjorative sense.

Against hedonism, Robert Nozick asks us to consider the possibility of an 'experience machine', to which a person could be connected and then live through exact and entirely convincing replicas of whatever experience they like. The question is whether these ersatz experiences, which perfectly recreate all the sensations you would have had if it really happened, make somebody as well-off as the real counterparts would. They would if hedonism is true. If that is the case, the experience machine would be a key to a perfect life, seeing as how you could undergo any experience you like, believing all the time that these things are really happening to you. But, as Nozick presses us to admit, plugging up to such a machine for life would be uncomfortably close to suicide: the pleasures might be real, but the events they relate to aren't, and by plugging into the experience machine you give up engaging with the world.

The problem that the experience machine objection latches on to is that happiness stands in the wrong relationship to the facts of someone's life to be identical with well-being. A judgement of how well someone's life is going is a judgement on the state of affairs that person finds themselves in. But happiness isn't a part of that state of affairs, it's what I call a *reflective stance* towards it, and like any reflection you can have towards something, it can be misled, as the experience machine tries to show. The problem is that any reflective stance property, like 'brings happiness', is a higher order property of what is being judged, the condition of someone's life, that is, it's the wrong order of property to count as what is being judged. There is a relationship between the two, but it's not an identity relationship. This means that we should consider reflective stance properties like happiness as part of the epistemology of good-making features, rather than the ontology. That is, happiness indicates a good life, it's not what makes a life good life. This doesn't mean we should discount happiness – it can be a good indication, perhaps even a perfect one (but were that the case, there must be something wrong with the experience machine case) – but it means that we must look for the good-making features elsewhere.

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