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In 'The Matrix', Morpheus frees individuals from a simulated reality. Some of them become unhappy - Cypher wants to go back and forget everything. Neo at first isn't very happy either.

From a utilitarian perspective, one might argue that if an individual is happy in their ignorance, disrupting their peace for the sake of 'reality' could create unnecessary suffering, and hence, would be unethical. From a deontological viewpoint, however, one could argue that individuals have a right to the truth, irrespective of the consequences.

Is it morally right to disrupt someone's happiness to offer them the truth, even if it might cause distress?

Also Morpheus doesn't fully disclose that once someone chooses the Red Pill, there's no possibility of returning to the Matrix.This raises another question:

Was Morpheus morally justified in not completely informing individuals about the irreversible consequences of their choice?

From an ethical standpoint, how critical is the principle of full disclosure in the process of informed consent? Could Morpheus' actions be seen as a violation of this principle, or can his actions be justified in any way?

How might different ethical theories approach and interpret Morpheus' decisions?

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    Since Mill, utilitarians distinguish "higher pleasures" that no bliss in ignorance can beat, and those are only available under full capacity. It is trickier if the incapacity is voluntarily chosen while in full capacity, or, as with the red pill, the choice is irreversibly taken away. The answer will depend on comparing "pleasures" of different "quality", but Morpheus may well take ignorant bliss to be so low "quality" and corrupting for the chooser that his actions are still justified.
    – Conifold
    Aug 8, 2023 at 1:01
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    Neo sought out Morpheus and the knowledge of the Matrix, it wasn't just inflicted on him. Sure, Neo was upset when he realized the extent of how deluded he had been, you couldn't expect him to just go, "Huh." Learning is always irreversible. Also, I am pretty sure that Morpheus did explain, as best he could, that the red pill was irreversible, by saying that the blue pill was the route back to Neo's known life. But Neo had already almost gotten out of the car on the way there. He had opportunities to change his mind. Also, Neo was not just himself, he was able to change life for billions.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 8, 2023 at 1:45
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    I think there's a good question here, but at the moment this seems a bit too heavily focused on cinematic analysis for this site. Morpheus and Neo both performed a very specific set of actions, within a very specific world, with specific consequences for those actions. All of that would apply to Morpheus' decisions, which is what you're asking about, rather than asking about the general idea of disturbing an illusion with the truth.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 8, 2023 at 11:00
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    It's a subjective decision. Should an atheist disturb a happy religious person? It might depend on context, and whether the receiver welcomes the new info.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Aug 8, 2023 at 17:42
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    All that feels important is that though the light is faint and diminshing with each passing second ... language and truth converge ... one last dance, one ... last ... dance, mademoiselle. Aug 10, 2023 at 10:43

6 Answers 6

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I will argue from a utilitarian point of view - though this won't address the entire question.  

The Heaven Box Thought Experiment

I will present a situation that is simpler (but much more extreme) than The Matrix.

Suppose that someone offers a "Heaven Box," - A chamber where your mind is induced into a state perfect bliss for the rest of your life, which will be artificially sustained for far longer than you could otherwise live. No one who enters the Heaven Box ever chooses to leave it.

Suppose that the people being offered this experience are selfish, rational, and seeking to maximize their own happiness. None of them care that choosing to enter the box would remove them from the lives of their friends and family (or at least, they consider that a trifling concern compared to what the Heaven Box offers). They also do not have any bias toward one kind of happiness over another - so the fact that the bliss created by the Heaven Box is induced artificially is not a concern.

In this situation, I would expect some of these people to reject the Heaven Box because they distrust the person offering it.

If the Heaven Box works as advertised, their gain is enormous. On the other hand, if the Heaven Box gets unplugged early, then they lose any time they spent in the box, anything that they paid to enter the box, anything that was taken from them while they were in the box, etc. - And if the Heaven Box does not work as advertised at all (for example, maybe the operator just kills people), their loss is potentially even larger.

Depending on how these people evaluate the probability of these three outcomes, choosing to avoid the Heaven Box is a rational choice.

The Matrix

I'll now compare the Heaven Box to the Matrix, based on what Morpheus and his crew believe to be true (ignoring any fan theories, discoveries they make in the later movies, etc.).

The Matrix is a similar position to the Heaven Box in some ways:

  • Life expectancy is longer inside the Matrix than outside of it.
  • Extrinsic happiness is easier to find inside the Matrix than outside of it.

But different in others:

  • Most people are already in the Matrix and were put into it without their consent.
  • The operators of the Matrix are known to be hostile and have no obligation to keep the Matrix running. If the machines motivations are taken at face value, then should they ever find a more efficient source of power than humans, the Matrix would likely be decommissioned. The machines are unlikely to benefit from a bunch of free humans running around, so they would most likely kill everyone connected to it.
  • Agents can, at any moment, kill anyone who is connected to the Matrix in order to take their place.

Friends Don't Let Friends Take the Blue Pill

In this situation, I would argue that it would be irrational to choose to remain in the Matrix. Furthermore, similar to intervening into a close friend's drug addiction, I believe that those who know about the Matrix have an ethical justification (if not an ethical demand) to awaken as many people as possible, because it is a ticking time bomb that will kill everyone inside when it goes off.

From this perspective, I see Morpheus offering the Blue Pill at all as a practical compromise: pulling someone unwilling out of the Matrix would be a burden on his resources and a danger to the other survivors.

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Is it morally right to disrupt someone's happiness to offer them the truth, even if it might cause distress?

This depends on one's moral philosophy. There are many moral philosophies, so from a canonical standpoint, there is no "right" answer. I can point you in the direction of Voltaire's The Good Brahmin which discusses a very similiar theme, which is Would A Thinker Want a Happy Illusion for the Sake of Reality?

This is definitely in the neighborhood of subjectivity as user mcraeinich mentions in the comments:

It's a subjective decision. Should an atheist disturb a happy religious person? It might depend on context, and whether the receiver welcomes the new info.

Perhaps an example. There are times when we morally intentionally cause distress to create resilience. For instance, in preparing a marine for combat, the US Marine Corps spends months intentionally distressing recruits. They scream and yell at them, deprive them of personal time, and often tell them the truth about the realities of war to disabuse enlistees of Hollywood's glorification.

Is it moral to cause distress for the sake of reality in this case? It would be immoral not to prepare a fighting force for the reality of combat which involves violence, death, and suffering, and the need to persist in the face of it. By refusing to cause distress and knowingly withholding reality from combat forces increases their odds of death. How would it possibly be moral to send sailors, soldiers, and marines to their death without adequate preparation?

So, the only factual answer possible here is it depends.

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This is a complex ethical dilemma with reasonable arguments on both sides. Here is a summary of how different ethical perspectives may approach it:

Utilitarianism: Focused on maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering. Disturbing the illusion may not be justified if it decreases overall happiness. But the truth may lead to more authentic happiness for some. Situation-dependent.

Deontology: Focused on moral duties and rights. People have a right to the truth. Morpheus has a duty to inform, regardless of consequences. Lack of full disclosure violates informed consent.

Virtue ethics: Focused on character and ethical wisdom. Was Morpheus acting virtuously and with good intent? Does withholding full context reflect poor character/judgment? Case-by-case.

Existentialism: Focused on individual choice and responsibility. Morpheus respects agency by offering the truth/choice. But consent requires full context. Individuals must exercise freedom responsibly.

Pragmatism: Focused on what works best. Which decision leads to better outcomes? Truth has intrinsic and instrumental value but consequences matter. Balance is needed.

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The answers to your questions depend on so many different variables relating to any specific situations being focused on. This would appear to vary the stance that may be taken, even across the different philosophical perspectives. Therefore, I think it is difficult to give one answer that will satisfy a moral response in all situations. There will always be exceptions.

However, one problem that seems to arise is that this situation involves one person making a decision for another. This puts a significant responsibility on the shoulders of the person considering revealing the 'illusion'. The question then arises whether they 'should' make such a decision, or whether they are qualified to do so. Firstly, I would question how they know for sure if the other person is currently happy or not, and generally, if they know what makes the other person 'happy' at all. It seems difficult for people to truly know this about others.

Another consideration would be how aware the person is of all the consequences their actions could have on the person concerned. While dispelling the illusion may seem to be the most beneficial course of action, it could have dire consequences. How far can we push the value of knowing the truth? What happens if knowing the truth would cost them their life, for example? Furthermore, what if the person would not WANT to know the truth? Should it be forced on them? Does anyone have the right to make the decision about whether or not the other person should know the truth?

This brings me to the idea of attempting to pass the decision making back to the person concerned, as Morpheus did. Firstly, I would question if it is possible to actually do this at all because it seems as if you can only partially 'warn' them. If you give them all the information, then you have reveled everything, and again, taken away their decision making.

Some may say that partial information/warning may make the situation even worse because, in a way, it almost forces the person to ask for the illusion to be broken. This is because, in my view, it is near on impossible for someone to know that there is some significant truth out there that has a bearing on their life, but that they are unaware of, and to make a decision not to know what that is. For most, it would be like torture not knowing.

Firstly, one cannot simply 'unknow' that they know there is a truth that they do not know. Since the mind is so powerful, the person would find it incredibly hard not to wonder about all the different never-ending scenarios that this unknown truth could be. Are they to live for the rest of their lives wondering? Or even a few days/hours? Would it be realistic to imagine them saying to themselves, "Oh never mind what that unknown thing is that is significant to my life. I'll just forget about it and carry on as before."?

In fact, one could say that attempting to pass on the decision making is simply a way of avoiding the weight of responsibility, whilst at the same time, to all intents and purposes, it does the opposite of what it claims to be doing by rendering the person helpless to decline knowing the thing that is so significant to their life. This seems to be quite a selfish course of action.

Therefore, on the whole, I would say that the person really shouldn't get involved, as it is unlikely that they are qualified to make the decision for the other person. However, as I mentioned before, there will likely be exceptions to this, depending on the specific circumstances.

One last thought that sprang to my mind: how does the person thinking of dispelling the illusion know for sure that they are not also living an illusion?

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Is it morally right to disrupt someone's happiness to offer them the truth, even if it might cause distress?

One can find many people who lead immoral means for their happiness. If you can stop this injustice it is immoral to watch it without trying to stop it. Sometimes when one is happy others may need to reveal the truth (eg: information about an accident) because if the truth is not revealed it may lead others to a sad state. So, in many cases it depends on circumstances.

Is It Ethical to Disturb a Happy Illusion for the Sake of Reality?

Some may not be able to bear the truth/reality when they know it too late. Such people need others' help. So disturbing them is not unethical. Otherwise advising stopping liquor consumption would also need to be considered as unethical. In many cases one's happy illusion may make others unhappy. Imagine the life of the family of an alcoholic house holder.

But disturbing one's happy illusion becomes unethical if there is no problem if someone is ignorant about the reality (Eg: lf the person who disturbs knows that the sad reality is going to exist only for a short period). In this case sometimes even the age of the person being disturbed will affect the decision (whether to treat it as ethical or unethical).

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I have been wrestling with this question for a couple of years, and the best I can came up with is...

ANSWER: Humans should have the right to informed intellectual autonomy of choice

Credit: OpenAI's LLM ChatGPT v3.5, with some poking and prodding and laying of groundwork by myself. It is how I think. My AI character put it into the best words.

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