Virtue And The End Of The Harm Principle

“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.

Checkmate utilitarians.

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.

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  1. Paul Brasillach May 30, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    I largely agree with your remarks on duty and virtue — and wholeheartedly agree that the most egregious shortcoming of libertarianism its almost complete lack of resources for moral criticism when an action does not violate the harm principle. However, it seems that Nozick’s thought experiment could be modified in ways that call for clarification of your position.

    Consider, for example, some modifications proposed in an SEP article on well-being: “One can make the machine sound more palatable, by allowing that genuine choices can be made on it, that those plugged in have access to a common ‘virtual world’ shared by other machine-users, a world in which ‘ordinary’ communication is possible, and so on.” So, we could change the experiment to involve an entire community entering the experience machine.

    Supposing this would allow us to continue our organic communal relationships and perpetuate our community in a biological sense, what is to stop us ALL plugging in?

    There seem to be at least two ways to object to this practice:
    1) The purview of our duties is even wider than suggested above; perhaps we have some duty to continue the traditions of our ancestors and entering the EM violates this duty.
    2) To enter the machine would be to fail to act in accordance with virtue; it is cowardly, even if we still maintain our bonds to family and community.

    I’m skeptical of (1) because I’m unsure how far our duty to uphold traditions extends. It is unclear whether this form of technological innovation — should it ever arrive on our doorstep — is so clearly off limits. But I’m also skeptical of (2); Sure, it would be personally cowardly for me to use the machine individually in my present state, but I’m not certain it would be immoral to use the machine collectively in the event that it could alleviate severe suffering in the community.

    1. Randy Randleman May 30, 2017 at 5:11 pm

      Thanks for the interesting perspective, that angle would never have occurred to me. Entering the machine as a collective certainly opens up an entirely different moral debate, and I can’t say that I have a strong answer for it. It seems less cowardly and it would certainly alleviate human suffering of the natural/physical kind (disease etc.). I’ll grant you that. It’s also worth noting that if human agency were allowed in such a machine, we would find ourselves running into many of the same problems that we run into in the real world, due to intrinsic human imperfection and selfishness. So, if there’s no agency, then it seems inauthentic and cowardly to me, but if there is agency, then we’re essentially abandoning the natural world for the same imperfect life under better (simulated) living conditions.

      If your hypothetical truly came to pass, I feel I would have to fall on the side of upholding tradition and remaining in the real world. I will concede that it’s a tough issue, however.

      1. Blais Richelieu June 2, 2017 at 12:39 am

        Here’s a potential response to the thought experiment of entering the experience machine as a community:

        What if the experiment goes wrong? What if the deal is not as described? What if there is a bug? What if the people outside the experience machine pull the plug? Then you and your community are doomed.

    2. Libertarianism is concerned with the non-aggression principle. This is not the same as the non-harm principle. The non-harm principle is rooted in consequentialism, not in a rigorously logical derivation from first principles, as the non-aggression principle is through argumentation ethics. Non-harm means that one may threaten or imperil people at will so long as the threat remains unrealized, while the non-aggression principle forbids this. (Further reading:

      I will also note that the promotion of vices as though they were virtues is a sign of leftist infiltration into libertarianism. Right-libertarians oppose having the state act as an enforcer of morality, but we are quite comfortable with shaming, ridiculing, ostracizing, or even physically removing degenerates of various stripes. After all, just because one can do something does not mean that one should. (Further reading:

  2. “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.”

    I’m beginning to suspect the task will defeat us.

  3. Julien Benoit May 30, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    Fantastic article explaining why our culture’s relatively new hyper-individualism and permissiveness is not a move in the right direction. I think many people instinctively sense that there is actually something wrong with degeneracy, obesity, sloth, and so on, even if they can’t articulate why. (This is why even mainstream sites like Reddit have communities like /r/cringeanarchy – despite the widely accepted social dictum that people can “do what they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone,” most people deep down don’t really believe it.)

    1. Randy Randleman May 30, 2017 at 5:18 pm

      Yes! Unlike “Julius” above, I maintain hope that many normal people are appalled by radical individualism and degeneracy, even if they don’t want to say it out loud or can’t exactly put their finger on why. They’re willing to laugh and poke fun at the weirdos, but they stop short of saying that such behavior shouldn’t be openly tolerated/encouraged. They just need to be nudged a bit farther in the traditionalist direction.

  4. Outside of mundane day to day tasks, whenever you meaningfully interact with someone you are either reaching for what is best or what is worst in them. In a cultural of moral inversion and atomization these interactions can’t help but tend to weigh towards reaching for what is worse in people or at the very least not weigh towards reaching for what is best. Perhaps its in part due to the natural buildup of entropy in our social systems or from direct negative influences. I think confusing non-harm for non-aggression was only the latest in destructive mistakes to come out of the libertarianism movement that was originally intended to free people to pursue their higher values. Without accepting that no human being is completely independent of other human beings this progression was natural.

  5. Asian Reactionary June 1, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    The way that modernity has deconstructed everything into its most base components has been horrific to the very notion of anything that is sacred, soulful, or beautiful. Its almost as if secretly, a wave has passed over and children born post 1990 were missing souls.

  6. Nice easy to summarize objection to individualist utilitarians you’ve made here. If the core could be shrunk down to a few paragraphs I could see it fitting nicely into a freshman ethics class with an NRX canon.

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