The Happiness Machine

As any regular reader of Daylight Atheism knows, the topic of morality is a major concern of mine. In essays on Ebon Musings, I’ve sketched out a secular moral theory I call universal utilitarianism. Here on this site, In the past, I’ve written about the roots of this morality and the virtues that can be derived from it, as well as musings on what UU has to say about some controversial moral topics. In 2009, I plan on taking these explorations in a new direction.

This year, I intend to write some posts further detailing universal utilitarianism and how it can respond to difficult ethical dilemmas – not the practical dilemmas that we encounter in daily life, but thought experiments specifically dreamed up to stretch moral philosophies to the breaking point. If UU can survive being tested in this way, then I think we’ll have greater reason for confidence that it can cope with everyday issues. I’ve already written about one such problem, the “trolley problem”, in “The Doctrine of Double Effect“. Today I’ll confront a different one.

Today’s post concerns the Happiness Machine, a hypothetical invention that produces pure pleasure for the user in unlimited quantities – say, an electrical implant that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers, producing a feeling of bliss at the push of a button. It’s undeniable that universal utilitarianism counsels us to seek happiness as the highest good. If we follow UU, then if this machine is invented, should our highest goal be to hook ourselves up to it for the rest of our lives?

Lynet, of Elliptica, has an answer in Challenging the Paramounce of Happiness:

I wouldn’t. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don’t want to die.

I suspect many of my readers share this intuition, as I do myself. Intuitively, there’s something deeply repellent about this scenario, but what is it, and can UU justify this intuition despite its promotion of happiness as the highest good?

The first thing to note is that the Happiness Machine is not an entirely hypothetical scenario. It strongly resembles a real-world phenomenon: the use of narcotic drugs for pleasure. And, if such a machine were ever invented, we can be fairly confident that users would end up in much the same way as addicts of these drugs.

First of all, what would keep users of this machine alive? If the Happiness Machine works as advertised – if it truly replaces all suffering with total contentment – then it will make you oblivious to your need for the necessities of life. We satisfy our bodily needs, in the end, because it causes suffering if we do not. If they cannot feel this suffering, users of the Happiness Machine will soon die of starvation and dehydration and miss out on all the further happiness they might have had in a longer life. Clearly, this is not a good outcome.

But if that problem could be solved, another would rapidly follow. Pure sensory pleasure will soon become insipid and unsatisfying. The human mind habituates: if you constantly experience a high level of pleasure, it does not remain equally pleasurable indefinitely. Rather, it soon becomes the base level against which new experiences are judged. The same stimulus produces a steadily diminishing reward. If you use the Happiness Machine often, soon it won’t be a source of bliss, but something you’ll need to use constantly just to function, and ordinary activities without it will become unbearable. Like any other drug addict, you’ll experience a brief period of pleasure, but it will be followed by a much longer period of misery and dependency. In the long run, it will cause far more suffering than happiness, and might even permanently impair the brain’s capacity to take pleasure in anything else.

And what about the potential loss of independence? If someone controls the master switch for all the Happiness Machines, or if they hold the patent and are the only ones who can repair it, they will have a population of slaves. The addiction which such a machine would produce would render its users utterly dependent on whoever can supply that continued jolt of pleasure. To anyone who values freedom and autonomy, the thought of being controlled by another in this way ought to be intolerable, and again, a sure pathway to a life of misery and servitude.

The only way to avoid habituation and dependency is to live a life with not just one source of pleasure, but a variety of meaningful pursuits. The most enduring and fulfilling kind of happiness is the kind that has this rich texture of knowledge and experience, the kind that only comes from interacting with the world. (If nothing else, the more you know about what’s out there, the better a position you’re in to appreciate the things you really like.) Running a wire into the pleasure neurons of the brain is a poor substitute.

Finally, excessive use of the Happiness Machine undermines the development of empathy that UU holds as the highest moral virtue. After all, UU does not counsel us to only seek pleasure for ourselves, but to live in the world and be the source of happiness for others, to work to defeat suffering and improve the lives of our fellow humans. Someone who is anesthetized by this machine, cocooned in a blissful coma and deaf to the cares of other people, is not acting in accord with the principles of UU but against them. Like a greedy millionaire who hoards his wealth and refuses to give to charity, addicts of the Happiness Machine are not doing good but merely indulging their own selfishness.

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