Nozick’s experience machine

David Friedman writes:

Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, offers an interesting hypothetical; I don’t have a copy of the book ready to hand so will give you my version:

Someone invents an experience machine; get into it and you will have a fully convincing illusion of experience. Somehow, the inventor figures out about what your life is going to be like and makes you the following offer:

Get into my experience machine, spend the rest of your life there, and I will give you the illusion of a life slightly better than the one you would otherwise live. Your average income in the illusion will be a few thousand dollars higher than it would have been in reality, your wife a little prettier, your children slightly better behaved, your promotions just a little prompter. Your illusory summers won’t be quite as hot, or winters quite as cold.

As I (and Wikipedia) remember the thought experiment, your life [sic] is much better, a bit like the Hollywood movie of your choice, at the very least.

This thought question is supposed to refute utilitarianism, or at least its hedonistic version.  Pleasure isn’t everything, and authenticity counts too.

But for an economist, Friedman is oddly non-interested in the marginal questions.  At what age should you opt for the experience machine?  If it can give you eighty more years of subjectively perceived time on your deathbed, that is a no-brainer.  At what per capita income level should you prefer the machine?

Or say you don’t want the machine, but your acceptance will save five other people’s lives.  Would you proceed without guilt?  And how many lives should be needed to push you over the edge?

Is the experience machine example so compelling as a refutation of hedonism?  I think it puts pleasure squarely on the map as one value which matters and which is even undervalued in many circumstances.  Many of us are too reluctant to step into the machine rather than too ready.  Isn’t our general tendency to overvalue the illusion of control? 


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