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Essay on J.S.

Mill’s Utilitarianism
Can J.S. Mill’s conception of happiness accommodate Robert
Nozick’s convictions about the “experience machine”? If so, how?
If not, what follows?
Robert Nozick’s thought experiment about an “experience machine” is explained
in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia[Nozick, 1974]. Though it is not explicitly
intended to be a direct refutation of some of the claims made by John Stuart Mill
in his essay Utilitarianism, it does present a challenge to the basic principles of
hedonistic ethics underlying Mill’s theory. This essay will attempt to argue that
Nozick’s thought experiment has no damaging implications for Mill’s conception
of happiness: the first part of the essay will constitute an explanation of Mill’s
conception as interpreted from his essay Utilitarianism, followed by an outline
and explanation of Nozick’s thought experiment; the second part will firstly
explore the possible ways in which Mill’s conception might accommodate or
dismiss Nozick’s convictions.

John Stuart Mill’s initial definition of happiness in the essay is the following: “By
happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain,
and the privation of pleasure”[Mill, 1863]. This principle epitomises the typical
hedonistic treatment of ethics, where happiness and good are equated with
pleasure. However, beyond this initial principle Mill’s essay develops a novel
strain of hedonistic ethics; one which utilises refined concepts which earlier
utilitarian thinkers did not embrace, in an attempt to meet utilitarianism’s
traditional objections. The most significant development is the distinction
between different kinds of pleasure. Mill contends that there are certain
pleasures which are superior, ones which any rational and informed human being
would prefer over other kinds of pleasure. He says that all things which people
desire, they desire for their inherent pleasure or for their utility as a means to a
pleasurable end; he also maintains that “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are
the only things desirable as ends”. However, he argues that pleasures of the
mind or intellect are always preferable to pleasures of the body, and this truth is
demonstrated by the fact that someone who has experienced and fully
appreciates both will always choose the former: “it is an unquestionable fact that
those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and
enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference for the manner of existence
which employs their higher faculties” – the ‘higher faculties’ traditionally being
identified with reason and intellect.

Mill’s conception of happiness could then be extended beyond the simple

hedonic equation of happiness with pleasure, to a notion which regards true
happiness as consisting in the fulfilment of the rational desire to satisfy those
pleasures which employ the higher faculties.

In Nozick’s famous thought experiment, he postulates the existence of a

machine which allows you to experience any pleasure you wish by direct
intervention in your brain’s activity. You could have all of your desires satisfied
by this machine, assuming that you only desire pleasure. Perhaps as a deliberate
response to Mill’s particular theory, Nozick specifies that you could think and feel
like you were engaging in intellectually stimulating activities such as reading or
writing a book, or speaking with a friend. In truth, you would be “floating in a
tank”, with electrodes plugged into your cortex, experiencing only an artificial
representation of the pleasures you have chosen. Nozick then asks if anyone
would really plug themselves into this machine. If it is only pleasure we desire
and nothing else, it follows that anyone would choose the artificial reality offered
by the machine over the world outside, which is manifestly less pleasurable. His
argument might be presented as follows:

P1. Humans only desire pleasure (for reductio ad absurdum).

P2. If doing x brings more pleasure than doing y we should choose to do x.
P3. Plugging into the experience machine brings more pleasure than not
plugging into it.
C4. We should choose to plug into the experience machine.
P5. We should not choose to plug into the experience machine.
C6. Humans do not only desire pleasure.
Nozick gives three reasons for P5 – the premise that we should not choose to
plug into the experience machine. Firstly, he claims that we do not just want to
experience things; we also want to do them. This desire, he says, precedes the
desire to experience doing an action or to know that we have done it. Secondly,
he states that we want to be a certain kind of person; we want to be intelligent,
courageous, kind etc. We would not want to be an “indeterminate blob”
incapable of cultivating these characteristics – Nozick claims that plugging in
would be a kind of suicide, in that we would lose our identity, or at least we
would lose whatever aspects of it we might value. Finally, he points out that
resigning ourselves to an artificial reality would limit our experiences to a man-
made world with no possibility of reaching any deeper reality.

These reasons should be examined to determine whether the crucial premise of

the argument can be accounted for or dismissed by Mill’s theory. Firstly, Nozick
leaves open the question of why we originally want to do things rather than just
experience them. It could be argued that we value the sense of achievement
gained from having earned our pleasure, and we wish to know that we were the
authors of our experiences (as opposed to being the passive recipients of
mechanically-induced hallucinations). However, to genuinely challenge Mill’s
assertions it would have to be proven that such a sense of achievement was
valued for some reason other than its utility.

His second reason for not plugging in, that we desire to be a certain kind of
person rather than just have certain experiences, could be met with the same
response. It would have to be shown that the desire to be who you wish to be
stems from something other than the perceived pleasure which such a state of
being would result in. Nozick’s second reason seems to appeal to virtue ethics; a
system in which morality means the fostering of a virtuous character, rather than
the achievement of good ends. Mill makes a brief dismissal of alternative ethical
systems in the first chapter of his essay. He claims that the principle of utility
“has had a large share in forming the moral doctrines even of those who most
scornfully reject its authority”; it is ultimately the principle which has guided all
the varying ethical systems and has resulted in the consistency of their moral
beliefs. Presumably this applies to virtue ethics as well.

The final reason, that the experience machine would limit us to a man-made
reality, is simply a matter of hypothetical specification. Having already stated
that we should ignore the more technical issues about the machine, it hardly
seems consistent for Nozick to declare that the technical limitations of such an
imaginary machine prevent us from experiencing a “deeper reality”. One could
imagine, for example, that the machine is not man-made, or that it can interface
with the ‘true’ reality in some way so as to make the experiences it induces
limitless, or make any other ambitious conjectures about what it could achieve.
And again, even if people were to choose against it, it could be because they
perceive greater pleasure from reality external to the machine, so their choice
would still hinge on purely hedonistic considerations.

Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson, in Unto Others: the Evolution and
Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour, defend the hedonistic account of human
action against Nozick’s thought experiment [Sober, 1998]. They argue that a
person choosing against plugging in can be explained by “hedonism of the
present moment”; at the time of making the decision not to plug in, the person
believes the decision will benefit them. They claim that “the problem of suicidal
self-sacrifice and the problem posed by the experience machine can be
addressed in the same way”; in both cases, a person will apparently do
something which will, in the long run, bring them far less pleasure than the
alternative. However, at the time of the decision, they are convinced that the
decision of self-sacrifice, or to remain unplugged from the experience machine,
will be more pleasurable than the alternative. So the initial hedonistic account of
happiness offered by Mill, which equates happiness with pleasure and states that
pleasure is the only object of desire, can accommodate Nozick’s convictions. As
an isolated moral dilemma, the agent still should plug into the machine,
according to Mill’s theory, but the fact that normally one wouldn’t plug in does
not entail that they hold extra desires beyond the desire for pleasure.

On the other hand, the extended conception of happiness developed by Mill,

incorporating notions of higher and lower pleasures, is not challenged at all by
Nozick’s thought experiment since P2 would not apply: even if doing x would
bring more pleasure than doing y, it would not necessarily bring a superior
quality of pleasure. The only benefit that the experience machine can convey
over reality is that it can offer a greater quantity of pleasure with little or no
quantity of pain; the quality of pleasure that it offers cannot be any greater than
the quality of the pleasures available to our higher faculties in reality. Since the
attainment of higher pleasures permits the endurance of pain, the presence of
pain in the real world would present no obstacle to an agent’s choice to remain
unplugged, and so a rational being in pursuit of higher pleasures would not
necessarily choose to plug into the experience machine. Furthermore, to exist in
an artificial world is to inevitably be in a state of extreme ignorance; Mill states
that no rational person would choose to resign their wisdom simply to satisfy
their lower pleasures. Among other things, our sense of dignity would prevent us
from doing this.
In conclusion, it can be argued that Mill’s conception of happiness can
accommodate Robert Nozick’s convictions about the “experience machine”. The
basic hedonistic account of happiness can surmount the challenge of the thought
experiment by appeal to “hedonism of the present moment”, in Sober and
Wilson’s terms. More importantly, the extended definition of happiness which
employs the concept of quality in pleasures is unaffected by the Nozick’s
hypothetical machine, since the quality of a pleasure is determined by its
stimulation of the intellect – something which an artificial reality could not
achieve to any greater extent than real life, regardless of the quantity of
pleasure it might provide. On top of this, one could argue that entering the
experience machine would involve a surrender of knowledge in favour of blissful
ignorance, and therefore would not be desirable action in Mill’s ethical

Mill, J. (1863). Utilitarianism. In J. Mill, J. Bentham, & A. Ryan (Ed.), Utilitarianism
and Other Essays (p. 278). London: Penguin.

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. (1998). Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of
Unselfish Behaviour. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.