Utilitarianism, Pleasure, Experience and Happiness
The Principle of Utility (or the Greatest Happiness Principle) “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 228). Jeremy Bentham builds off this Principle by claiming the circumstances of an act like the intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, and propinquity or remoteness, also play a factor in determining whether an act causes more pain or pleasure, thus determining whether it is right or wrong. Bentham argues that since both humans and animals can feel pleasure and pain, their experiences and feelings should hold the same value. He states, “A full grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old” (Bentham, 227).
John Mill builds off Bentham’s views by offering a more in depth understanding about the different circumstances of pain and pleasure for different beings. Mills argues that “It is quite compatible with the Principle of Utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others (Mill, 229). By saying this, he disagrees with Bentham’s argument that animals and humans’ experiences can hold the same value, as animals have smaller emotional and intellectual capacities than humans. Mills elaborates by explaining that since humans have a higher capacity for feelings, they can feel both pleasure and pain more intensely than animals, making them intrinsically more valuable. He explains “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, directly refuting Bentham’s argument that the two beings’ experience of pain and pleasure are the same.
Aldous Huxley’s critique of the Principle of Utility in Brave New World was so overt, it offered the highest level of understanding for me. Huxley reflects Bentham’s understanding of the Principle of Utility in the sense that even though the Controller personally preferred the former way of life that offered the pain and pleasures of poetry, art and intellect, he believed that his new society founded off the idea of “Community, Identity and Stability” would offer the most amount of pleasure for the majority, therefore it was the right thing to do. While he is debating back and forth with the Savage, he says, “Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness” (Huxley, 281). He weighed the values of pain and pleasure, and chose the path that he believed offered the least amount of pain for society. Similarly, Robert Nozick’s The Experience Machine offers the same blissful ignorance and escape from reality. One must simply plug up to the machine to live a lifetime of pure happiness. While this paints a beautiful picture, Nozick argues that while a short experience plugged up to the Experience Machine might be beneficial, a lifetime would be unacceptable. Nozick sums it up perfectly when he argues, “the connection to actuality is important whether or not we desire it-that is why we desire it-and the experience machine is inadequate because it doesn’t give us that” (Nozick, 5).
I think Huxley’s application of the Principle of Utility and Nozick’s argument against it are successful as they both accurately apply the Principle, and offer a rejection of it based off the logical facts of human nature. When the savage claims the right to be unhappy, he symbolizes humans’ natural inclination to feel pain as well as pleasure. The two are intertwined, and a life with just pleasure and no pain is a life of existing, not living. Both authors offer a concession on why the Principle could be beneficial, but conclude that artificial happiness is not genuine or more valuable than real human experiences of both pleasure and pain.
In light of all these considerations, I do not think that one should permanently upload to San Junipero, the Experience Machine-like place in the TV show Black Mirror. I agree with Nozick that temporarily plugging up to the machine could be enlightening, and a good experience. Perhaps you get the chance to have an experience that would otherwise be impossible for you before leaving this earth, or you could do as Yorkie did and spend your remaining days in bliss instead of pain. But to permanently plug up to San Junipero would be a violation of the natural course of life. Can one really appreciate an experience if it is not only fake, but also endless? I think that things hold value for us because we know that experiences, moments, people and life are fleeting. Moments pass and after time, we can’t remember them the same. We forget the little details. Memories fade, the experiences remain a memory we relive through photographs, and people leave or change or die. While it sounds depressing, this harsh reality is exactly why these things are precious, and why they hold value for us. I truly don’t believe that once plugged up into San Junipero, anyone could be happy there forever. While I’m sure it is partially because of my personal religious beliefs, I don’t think San Junipero would offer the same kind of peace as a real after life. I think it’s easy to say that we want everything to be perfect, but I think it’s also human nature to love pain, sadness and anger. While San Junipero could offer permanent and endless bliss, we all learn and grow from pain. It is as essential to our lives as breathing.
Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1907. Library of Economics and Liberty. 3 October 2017.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Harper Collins Publishers Inc., and Chatto & Windus, Ltd, 1932. 3 October 2017.
Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism. 1879. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 3 October 2017.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974. Print.
WRITTEN BY: GRACE RILEY