“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?” – Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
You may be familiar with the above thought experiment, which has since become known as political philosopher Robert Nozick’s “experience machine.”
Nozick employed this hypothetical as a grounding point for a formal argument he believed would essentially disprove classical utilitarianism. Quite intuitively, as the experiment goes, if pleasure is the ultimate good, then we should choose to hook up to the machine. Of course, when confronted with the hypothetical, many or even most of us will cringe and recoil. Nozick rightly anticipated this response and pounced upon the incipient tension. If men are ruled solely by the sovereign masters of pain and pleasure, then why do we find resistance to the experience machine? This tension is the point where Nozick’s argument bears fruit. Since most of us will not hook up to the machine despite the fact that it will bring us infinitely more pleasure, there must be something informing our decision process other than simply the pursuit of pleasure.
The reasons Nozick gives for our resistance to the experience machine essentially involve authenticity. We want to actually do certain things rather than simply feel like we have done them. We want to really be someone who exists in the real world; we don’t want to be floating in a vat. I suspect that Nozick is not far off with these concerns. Such considerations are certainly part of what makes us uneasy when we consider the hypothetical possibility of entering the machine. Something about it seems cheap and hollow. We cannot escape the intuition that, in order for it to be genuine, such happiness must be earned through our own toil and action, or at the very least experienced in a real and contingent reality where we act according to our own agency.
While the experiment probably represents a sufficient counter to utilitarianism by itself, it is a grossly incomplete ethical account of the issues at stake. Nozick takes a perspective that, just like the utilitarian view, is deeply individualistic and takes man as-he-is as its ethical standard. The utilitarians sought to build an ethical system based on their observation that man, as a self-contained individual in his natural as-he-is state, essentially serves the sovereign masters of pain and pleasure.
Nozick’s response, by contesting that man as-he-is actually values individual authenticity and autonomy too highly to sign up for sheer unbridled pleasure within the experience machine, represents only a marginal improvement at best. While we may have escaped amoral hedonism, we are still left on content-starved and dangerously individualistic ground. Unsurprisingly, as a libertarian, Nozick misses the chance to revive a strong traditionalist ethic grounded in duty to one’s family and community and cultivation of oneself in spite of the ephemeral temptations of pleasure.
The fact that we as individuals are naturally attracted to the seductive power of such a machine, or more broadly to pleasure itself, is a paltry launching point for any ethical inquiry. Such ethical thinking could only emerge from a culture that has lost the central thematic notion that man as-he-is is defective and in need of guidance. Of course, it is in man’s nature to lust after pleasure, or to desire authentic individual experience (read: achievements of his own so that he can feel that he possesses power). This is because man as he is naturally is base, selfish, and wicked. To construct ethical thought around man’s fundamental baseness, and to raise his freedom to practice such baseness with impunity to the level of a human right, is a horribly destructive idea.
Such thinking abolishes the careful cultivation of virtue and the submission of the individual to the wisdom and stability of inherited traditions. In doing so, it corrodes the very social foundations of Western (or any) culture. What the results of this corrosion look like are the subject for another essay.
So, it should be said that we should not sign up for the experience machine, but not because it is inauthentic. Rather, we should not sign up because each one of us is always irrevocably tethered to the families and communities from whence we came and to which we are infinitely indebted. To enter the machine, effectively removing yourself from civil society in favor of entirely self-contained hedonistic pleasure seeking, would be unethical and cowardly beyond compare.
For anyone with a coherent understanding of duty and virtue, the idea of such a machine should be nauseating. No man is an island. We are called to forego self-interested pleasure seeking in favor of the cultivation of manly and positive virtues, which we can then put forth in service of the collective.
This is the stuff that makes human societies flourish. Individualism, the opposite of the virtuous submission of the self to the collective, can only be seen as a particular sort of cancer. As Martin Heidegger said in his famous Der Spiegel interview: “From our human experience and history, at least as far as I am informed, I know that everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition.” Only when every human being occupies a position of subservience to their community is society collectively supported and constructively advanced; when this relationship becomes inverted, the structure begins to crumble.
That said, we can push man’s ethical duty to cultivate virtues in service of his community even further, even to a point where it becomes reconciled with and sublates individualism. To do so, we will require a sufficient refutation of the moral climate of 21st century America. I can think of no better summation of this climate than the famous dictum: “It’s not hurting anyone else.”
Further examples: “Why do you care if he’s gay, it’s not hurting anyone else,” “I can do coke if I want to, it’s not hurting anyone else,” and “Hey, you can’t really judge him like that, he’s not hurting anyone else.”
When did my fellow millennials become so interested in the harm principle? This strain of thinking is the talk of a culture that has neutered its own means of self-preservation and rendered itself impotent. The right to destructive individualism has been granted ethical primacy, and as a result, any sort of constructive casting of judgement becomes self-important and tone deaf. When we lose the social glue of ethical collectivism, we should not be surprised when the commonwealth begins to unravel. The problem with “I’m not hurting anyone else” is that in destroying yourself, you are destroying an important cog in a machine much larger than yourself, and therein denigrating the ability of the collective to function smoothly.
I mentioned reconciling duty with individualism, and I intend to make good on that. If we all have the duty to cultivate virtue in service of the collective, then it follows that it is the ethical imperative of every human being to be the best possible version of themselves. I understand virtue to represent the proper form of us-ness: our best self. This form is a moral intuition which we all experience, a subset of our broader moral experience. While conscience in its truest sense haunts us when we cheat our partner or mislead our friend, this form, this Virtue, haunts us in our drunken stupor, in our sloth, in our private lust and avarice. It haunts us because we subconsciously understand that when we act selfishly and neglect to cultivate our best self, we are letting those around us down and shirking our duty to the collective.
On the flip-side, our conscience rewards us when we cultivate our talents through honest work and find ways to apply those talents constructively to the benefit of those around us. This betrays the fact that there remains room for a strong and honorable sort of individualism in a culture that honors duty and virtue as it should. We should not be entitled to do whatever we please without having judgement cast on us–or even the arm of the state–but we should rightly be entitled to pursue our own talents and interests with honorable discipline, so that we may put forth those talents in service of the collective.
In this way, it becomes clear that rather than crushing the individual, a strong traditionalist ethic of virtue provides space for the individual to flourish. Radical individualism will soon enough destroy any space that it creates, as it pushes irrevocably towards anarchy.
In closing, our house will continue to crumble until a proper telos is restored to our picture of ethical man: man as he should be, not man as he is. The individual must be contextualized in a role of subservience to the interests of the collective. The task of the reactionary, then, becomes to practice virtue himself so that he might serve as a positive example in a culture that is dying of cancer.
Go to church, lift weights, start a family, seek out knowledge and wisdom. Additionally, he must be able to masterfully articulate the terminal and problematic nature of individualism, and to point to the importance of virtue and collective ethics. Given an adept and delicate treatment, these are not horribly noxious ideas, even to those on the Left, and I remain convinced that considerable numbers of reasonable people could be convinced of them under the right circumstances.
If we do these things well, we will make greater strides towards becoming worthy. Even if we cannot save this ship from sinking, we will be ready to build from the ashes.