Similar to the question of Do experiences need to be “real” to be worthwhile or desireable?

Robert Nozick has argued against pure hedonism as a means to happiness based on the fact that a person wouldn't want to plug themselves into a machine that makes him experience constant pleasure/happiness without requiring the natural physical stimuli for such emotions. Personally, I have never really understood the argument (and it has generated a good deal of literature), but let's say that it's true that a person would refuse the pleasure machine. However, once he is actually in the pleasure machine, he would certainly rather stay there forever and would experience his life as much better than if he wouldn't be in such a machine. Thus, would it be unethical for me to force him into such a machine, knowing that he'd be happier in there, despite his present refusal?

Before you answer 'no, that's horrible', imagine the opposite case: my friend has a psychiatric disorder or an unhealthily intense feeling of guilt that causes him to feel the need to constantly cause himself pain, but I know of a psychiatric treatment that would be able to help him get over those feelings and live a genuinely happy life. Right now, of course, he insists that undergoing such a therapy would be horrible, and he refuses to do so - but he's suffering from a psychiatric disorder. Can I help him anyway, against his wishes?

Is there a fundamental difference between these two cases, merely because in one case I'd cause someone to stop experiencing 'reality'? Does my own opinion matter (meaning, let's say I'm in the same position as the man in the first case myself, but I wouldn't refuse the opportunity to plug in to the experience machine)

  • 1
    obviously not equivalents.
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 20:22

3 Answers 3


In your first paragraph, you state that one would "certainly rather stay there forever" in regards to the pleasure machine. This seems to be an erroneous assumption. Or rather it is one that assumes that feelings of happiness are the only goods that matter to a self. I think this assumption is wrong and that our intuition that it is wrong to force someone into the pleasure machine is based on this. Or to put it another way, our sense is that such a machine would cause one to feel pleasure when one should not.

That people would not want to leave once there is a point made by Plato in the Republic -- as a corollary of the cave.

Nozick who I haven't read on this point might be making an essentially Aristotelian point about pleasure and when we should experience it in rejecting the pleasure machine. i.e., that the feeling apart from the accompanying things that inspire it is a kind of disingenuous form of the pleasure.

Your mirror case with a disordered friend who refuses to initiate therapy is not the same, because the mirrored case involves an inability to feel pleasure when one should.

Merging both cases together, what it seems like is that we have an idea of flourishing that includes but is not merely driven by happiness. In other words, we have Aristotle's view that happiness signals something but only for the rightly ordered person. The guy who laughs his head off while murdering people or while watching others get murdered is disordered in a sickening way. The person who cannot experience happiness is disordered as well but in a saddening way. Why? because the ability to experience happiness and other positive emotions individually and in community is among the goods that make up human life, but it by itself is not the entire good.

Looking at your questions at the end, (1) Yes, there is a fundamental difference in the two cases: to feel pleasure at the wrong things / times / places is not a perfect opposite of to feel no happiness or pleasure at the right times / things / places. (2) It really depends on the school of philosophy one subscribes to, but I think there is some merit in what we think on moral problems. To give a specific example, Bernard Williams' critique of utilitarianism. Viz., he points out that the way we check our philosophical theories about ethics is to ensure they come up with certain sensible conclusion -- and by this demonstrate that there are certain principles outside of pleasure that matter to us.

  • "our sense is that such a machine would cause one to feel pleasure when one should not": doesn't the idea of the experience machine include the fact that, once inside, the pleasure doesn't seem to the subject to be illicit in any way?
    – That Guy
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 20:46
  • @Matt not to me it doesn't nor do I take the perception of the person in the machine to be dispositive. We hesitate to accept the machine, because we don't think that's how feelings should work (or possibly even could work).
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 22:27
  • that's what makes it a thought experiment. I'll accept that you deny its possibility, though (I can point to a few articles that might make it more believable if you'd like)
    – That Guy
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 22:52
  • My sense on this one is that either you think it's intuitively possible or you don't. If you're some sort of naive utilitarian, you do. If you're an Aristotelian, you don't.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 23:04
  • Well, since you don't want an article... smbc-comics.com/?id=3427#comic
    – That Guy
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 23:05

I agree with virmaior 100%. However, let me provide a utilitarian viewpoint to your two questions...

Mill, while a utilitarian, strongly advocates for individual autonomy. His harm principle states that a person X can only restrict the liberty of a person Y if Y is harming X and/or another person Z. If Y is only harming himself, then X has no right to restrict his liberty.

Because of this, under both of your scenarios, it is unethical for you to force your friend to undergo treatment/use the pleasure machine, even if it increases the overall pleasure of the system (consisting of you and your friend).


There are several problems with your question. The idea of the experience machine doesn't make sense. If you are being given some sensation the only thing that makes the sensation pleasant is your interpretation of it. And your interpretations will change as you create knowledge. So the machine would have to be able to predict the growth of knowledge to anticipate what you're going to want. But that's impossible. If you could know today what knowledge you will have tomorrow you would already have it. As the machine creates new knowledge about how to pleasure people people will respond to that by learning about how the machine has adjusted itself. Since the machine can't predict its own future knowledge, it can't predict the knowledge that people will develop in response and it can't give them pleasure. So the experience machine can't work.

Is it wrong to force somebody to do something against his will that you imagine he would find pleasant or useful or whatever? Yes, for several reasons.

(1) The refutation of the idea of the pleasure machine applies just as much to you as to some imaginary machine. You can't predict what somebody else will enjoy.

(2) Whatever theory you have about what somebody will find pleasant the use of force makes testing it impossible. The only real test of whether somebody finds an activity worth doing is whether he does it when he is not forced to do it. If he is forced to do it he will do it regardless of whether he finds it worthwhile. So you are not only trying to do something impossible you are trying to do it while destroying your capacity to detect errors in what you're doing.

(3) The idea that ignoring a person's objections to something you want him to do is making him experience reality is wrong. Since you have no interest in whether he understands and consents to what you are doing to him, you have no interest in whether he can interpret the experience properly and learn from it. So there is no fundamental difference between the case in which you force somebody to do something that you think should give pleasure and something that you think is "real". (I put inverted commas around the real because the experience in question is made up and controlled by you: it is a story you made up, not reality.)

(4) Your fantasy about a brain disease that somehow reprograms a person to want to hurt himself is grossly immoral and dehumanising. A fault in the brain caused by some chemical or bacterium or structural fault is not going to make a person refuse some particular kind of experience. Such faults don't instantiate knowledge about what people want, any more than a fault in your television would make it display television shows you dislike. See the writings of Thomas Szasz, such as this essay.

You ask:

Does my own opinion matter (meaning, let's say I'm in the same position as the man in the first case myself, but I wouldn't refuse the opportunity to plug in to the experience machine)?

If you want to do something that will produce a particular sensation that you interpret as pleasure go ahead. This activity is about as worthwhile as sitting around pushing a red button all day just because it's red. You will thereby place an upper limit on the value you can get out of your life in terms of aesthetic progress, moral progress, scientific progress or any other kind of progress. You're just doing something you already know how to do. Inflicting such treatment on yourself is stupid, inflicting it on somebody else is evil.

  • I hope you realize that with (4) you're going against the contemporary academic establishment. Do you deny that chemical signals are responsible for brain states, emotions, and experiences? Do you really think that you can reinterpret pain as pleasure, and call that knowledge? I'd love to learn how to do that en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Szasz#Criticism
    – That Guy
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 21:18
  • Your first sentence is not an argument. "Do you deny that chemical signals are responsible for brain states, emotions, and experiences?" You're not being clear. Experiences and so on are abstractions instantiated in chemicals in the brain. Just randomly putting some chemicals into the brain will not produce a specific idea that prompts somebody to act in a way others don't like. "Do you really think that you can reinterpret pain as pleasure, and call that knowledge?" Some people do reinterpret pain as pleasure, it's called BDSM.
    – alanf
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 10:41

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