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September 21, 2004


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As I read your post, an alternative explanation came to mind.

About the Experience Machine, your question is one of *choice*: "Would you enter the EM?"

But in Duplicitous Significant Other, your question is one of *value*: "Are your worse off in the DSO-world?"

I think this difference might account for the difference in your students' answers. If you asked your students not, "Would you enter the EM?", but rather, "Are you worse off in the EM?", you might get a different answer. Likewise, if you asked your students not "Are your worse off in the DSO-world?", but rather, "Would you choose the DSO-world?", you might also get a different answer.

For my part, I think I agree with those who would say "No" to entering the EM but who agree that one is no worse off in the DSO-world. But this is not because the EM thought experiment is too far-fetched. Indeed, I accept that I would be no worse off in the EM either. What explains my refusal to enter the EM is that *I care about more than just welfare*. I prefer that I not be deceived, even though I am no worse off as a result of it. I prefer really to accomplish things, even though I wouldn't know the difference in the EM.

P.S. I do notice that you pose the EM question with the constraint that "you were looking for a way to get the best possible life for yourself (the life with the most welfare value for you)." I think this does effectively change the question from one of choice to one of value. But perhaps it is easy for students (as it was for me) to forget about this constraint when answering the EM question about choice.

I agree with Chris and had the same idea about choice and value. It's quite possible that the students don't like the EM choice for two reasons. Firstly, they are being asked to consciously decieve themselves which they might be reluctant to do. If they don't know they are in the EM, they are being asked to choose a lie. If they know they are in the EM, it is of course impossible to enjoy it as much since you know your pleasures are inauthentic (which is why Prozac is not the same as being genuinely happy).

With the DSO world students will simply feel they are being asked to distinguish the two experiences, which will be identical.

BTW I'm not sure your point about the DSO is correct. I agree that the harm that is done by the cheating spouse originates in the acts of lying and infidelity but nevertheless, for the harm to be actualised requires the cheated upon to be aware of it. The misdemeanors are necessary but not sufficient conditions of the harm.

1. In support of Chris's point about choice and value, I often have students offering other-regarding reasons for not hooking up to the EM. They say "sure, I would be having a wonderful time hooked up to the EM, but I'd also be neglecting my family and friends, failing to contribute to society, etc." In order to block such considerations I usually resort to that good old philosopher's prop: the desert island. "Imagine you're isolated form the rest of the world on a desert island, and you come across an EM ... "

2. Regarding your comments about finding out that your duplicitous partner has been cheating on you, we can distinguish two questions:

(1) Are you harmed by your partners cheating?
(2) If you are harmed, when are you harmed?

Suppose we say, in answer to (1), that you're harmed only if you find out about the cheating. So far as I can tell, it's consistent with this to say, in answer to (2), that you were harmed all along (i.e., for the full duration of the cheating, including times prior to your finding out). That is, the following seems a consistent position: if you find out (at some time), then you were harmed all along; whereas, if you never find out, then you were never harmed.


I think that the EM is pedagogically useful, if only to isolate the issue between hedonists (and other subjectivists) about value from their objectivist opponents. I do think it helps students begin to ask questions about hedonism which do not tend to strike them naturally. Students have trouble critically scrutinizing hedonism largely because they have trouble distinguishing two possible roles pleasure, or other psychological states, might play in a theory of value, namely, pleasure as evidence for something's being valuable and pleasure as a thing's value. (These have reverse directions of explanation.) In my experience, the EM gets students to ask 'what, if anything, does the EM leave out of what we value?' Once students appreciate that question, they can at least begin to entertain doubts about a purely subjective theory of value.

But as for its utility in getting students to probe their own understandings of value, I'm not so optimistic. I agree with previous posts that the difference between the EM situation being chosen and the DSO worlds not being chosen might be important to many people, our students included. Perhaps the thought is this: Suppose that from a purely experiential standpoint, the EM is indistinguishable from actually having the corresponding EM experiences. Likewise, DSO w1 is experientially indistinguishable from DSO w2. Perhaps someone might think that (a) the EM is worse than the real world EM-equivalent because of whatever (non-experiential) factor is lacking in the EM, but (b) DSO w2 is no worse than DSO w1, though DSO w2 presumably lacks that same non-experiential factor that made EM worse than its real world equivalent. Maybe (a) and (b) can be made consistent if we say that EM is worse because the agent chose to divorce herself from this non-experiential factor, whereas DSO w2 is no worse than w1 because the non-experiential factor (that the DSO is actualy cheating on you) was not chosen by the agent. I'm not sure that this amounts to much more than 'ignorance is bliss', and of course, the EM could be described so that the agent who has entered it is no longer aware of having chosen to enter it.

I also wonder if, incidentally, our students might not be intuitively turning the logical relationship between welfare and morality around. That is, perhaps they think that one is worse off, all other things being equal, if one is a victim of a moral wrong. And if we add that one must know that one is such a victim in order for it to be a wrong, then we might be able to account for the view the consistency of (a) and (b). Just a thought.


I'm not sure that I agree with your assertion that if you are harmed by the cheating at any time, you are harmed from the moment the cheating began. I think the inuition comes from an analogy with physical harm. In the case of physical harm, you are harmed the moment you are inflicted with some physical ailment whether you are aware of it or not. I'm not sure that emotional harm works in the same way. With emotional harm you really do need to find out about whatever it is to be harmed. With physical harm you can be unaware of it and it still makes sense to say you were harmed.

What I'm getting at is that finding out about the cheating is every bit as much a component of the harm as the cheating itself. Without the knowledge there is no harm, therefore, the harm must be done at the moment of revelation even though the possibility of that revelation occurred earlier.

If students are in fact more capable of "bracketing" in the case of the DSO than they are in the case of the EM, I'm suprised. It seems to me that the closer to one's actual experience an example is, the more difficult it is to distinguish from one's actual experience. Since students have never encountered anything like the EM, I would think they would be willing to believe just about anything you tell them about it. After all, nothing you say will be any more plausible or natural than anything else. On the other hand, since students have probably had significant others, and might even have been cheated on, I would think it would be difficult for them to set aside the details of their own experience and deal strictly with the rules of your hypothetical case.

Off the cuff, it would appear that in the EM case one knows that experience is not veridical. (At least, students could get that impression.) Whereas in the DSO case you don't know this. And on the principle that "what you don't know can't hurt you" the cases are asymmetrical.

I teach an introductory political philosophy case and ask the EM differently. Instead, the question is whether Cypher is wrong to want back into the Matrix (the movie) -- the ignorance is bliss Prisoner in the Cave view. You might try this approach and see if your results are any different.

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