The currency of utilitarianism as a philosophy is often founded upon the idea that ethical judgments should be rendered according expediency. As such, it is frequently valorized by its proponents for reducing moral judgment down to pseudo-empirical valuations that remove the uncertainty that usually accompanies such decisions. As outlined by its chief progenitor, Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism espouses emphasizes the principle of utility, in which the value of any action is measured by the extent it promotes happiness. In effect, Bentham endorses a form of sociable hedonism.
His concern towards happiness is not so much defined by the individual pursuit of pleasure as it is defined by the equitable distribution of happiness, which is why he believes that the utility of acts, measures and deeds must take into account the net pleasure of all individuals that may be affected and not solely the direct recipient or initiator of the act, measure or deed in question. Simply put, he rejects the egoist notion that the individual pursuit of pleasure will maximize the well-being of society as a whole, as promoted by Adam Smith style economists among others.
Furthermore, Bentham argued that it is not the ability to reason which should be the measure by which we treat other beings, but their ability to suffer, and that means animals should be accorded the same level of respect that we would to babies and the handicapped. To suggest otherwise, would be morally inconsistent and the only way to resolve that inconsistency is to either treat animals with respect, or give the same indifference to babies and disabled people that is casually given to animals.
That said, Bentham’s utilitarian framework is founded not so much on a dehumanization of acts – as mistakenly assumed by some armchair utilitarians – as it is about an existential approach to evaluating the morality and ethicality of acts, measures and deeds, where suffering and pleasure are the most efficient means of evaluating the collective value of these acts, measures and deeds. However, regardless of a humanist re-evaluation of utilitarianism, Robert Nozick’s The Experience Machine indirectly asserts that an existential approach to valuing the utility of any act, measure and deed, as Bentham does, is fundamentally flawed.
In the essay, Nozick engages in a thought experiment by imagining an experience machine that, as its name suggest, enables individuals to experience any experience they can imagine. Such a device, under the principle of utilitarianism, would be valued highly because it enables pleasure and happiness, however virtual it may be. However, this is where the utilitarian model breaks down, because Nozick maintains that the value of any experience whether pleasurable or not, comes less from the euphoric or anti-euphoric sensation of it, but from the act which permits this experience to happen.
Ultimately his argument is that an experience machine, or a result machine or a transformation machine, no matter how miraculous would be ghetto-ized upon the realization that it robs individuals of the value of achieving an experiencing, attaining results or transforming oneself. Nozick implicitly argues then that pain and pleasure are poor barometers by which we can weigh acts, measures and deeds, let alone magical devices that allow us to live out our transhumanist fantasies of high-tech transformation, virtual experience and engineered paradises.
I would have no interest in such a device, as it only reinforces the hedonistic imperative, which states that the only higher goal of humanity is to achieve pleasure, and do so to extreme ends.
Bentham, Jeremy. “The Principle of Utility. ” An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, New York: Hafner, 1948, 1-4, 29-32. Nozick, Robert. “The Experience Machine. ” In Anarchy, State and Utopia, New York, New York: Basic Books, 1977.