Nozick and the Experience Machine

Today is the birthday of Robert Nozick, one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century. He was born on 16 December 1938 and passed away, prematurely, on 23 January 2002. When I was a graduate student at Oxford University in the early 1980s, I had the opportunity to spend some time with him at two Liberty Fund seminars. He was a remarkable man, handsome like a film star (looking a bit like George Clooney), brisk and merry, with an easy smile. He was a superb debater, quick as a lightning, locating with apparent ease the logical fallacies in the arguments of his opponents. Milton Friedman was the only person I found to be his equal in debate.

Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia was a sensation when it was published in 1974. In the first part he argued against anarchists that the state could arise spontaneously, without violating individual rights. In the second part he demonstrated that the only morally justifiable state would be the nightwatchman state, or a minimum state that would confine itself to preventing injustice. In the third part he pointed out that people could realise their own little utopias within the minimum state: socialists could for example found workers’ collectives like the kibbutz in Israel: the only requirement would be that they would not force others into their communities.

The philosophy establishment gasped in surprise at Nozick’s audacity as he presented in the second part of his book one clever argument after another against income redistribution. They had never even thought of some of them. In my opinion, however, the second part is not as original as the first part. The second part is basically a brilliant restatement of the case against economic interventionism, forcefully made earlier by Frédéric Bastiat, Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. These thinkers, famous and influential in the second half of the nineteenth century, had sunk into oblivion, as interventionists slowly took over the universities in the twentieth century. In the first part Nozick however ingeniously uses an ‘invisible hand’ explanation to show how the state could arise as the unintended consequence of individual choices, out of a state of nature. To do this, Nozick applied his knowledge of Austrian economics. His explanation of the state is similar to Carl Menger’s account of the emergence of money in a spontaneous evolution, not planned by anyone, a result of human action, but not of human design.

Nozick based his arguments against the redistributive state on the postulate that individuals have inviolable rights. They should be treated as ends in themselves, not only as means for others. His critics have argued that therefore his theory lacks foundations, as he did not provide an independent, sustained argument for natural rights, only some suggestions. I think this criticism misses the mark. Nozick was concerned with demonstrating how redistribution of income violated the rights of people to their talents and abilities and to the income they could freely derive from those talents and abilities. Be that as it may, Nozick’s theory goes against one of the most common moral theories of modern times, utilitarianism, the idea that we should maximise pleasure or happiness. If society is serving such an end, then the sacrifice of some individuals may be necessary to increase the pleasure of others. Then they are not treated as ends in themselves, but as means to the one prevalent social end, maximum pleasure. (This is the case with all ends or goals involving maximisation, including economic growth.)

Nozick also rejects utilitarianism because it is in conflict with our idea of the individual as a distinct person with his or her own traits and projects. He illustrates this with his famous experience machine. Imagine a machine which would give you any experience you could desire. You could for example think and feel that you were writing a great novel, making a new friend, or listening to a wonderful piece of music, perhaps even creating it. There would be no negative repercussions of entering and staying in the machine, and an incredible variety of experiences to be selected inside it. Would you plug in for, say, two years at a time? Nozick replies: No, for several reasons. We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. We also want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. The man in the experience machine is just floating around, with no personal traits, not being courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, or loving. Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, whereas we want to live our lives for ourselves, come what come may.

I think the experience machine is a powerful and convincing parable. But I find it surprising that nobody seems to have noticed that a similar parable was told by a nineteenth century German philosopher, Friedrich Paulsen, who wrote in his System of Ethics, published in 1889 and translated into English ten years later: “Let us suppose that we could distil a drug like opium, capable of arousing joyful dreams, without, however, producing harmful effects in the intoxicated one or his surroundings. Should we recommend the use of the drug, and praise the discoverer as having made life more valuable? Perhaps not even a hedonistic moral philosopher would do that. Why not?” Paulsen adds: “The simple reason is that such pleasures would be ‘unnatural,’ and a life composed of them would no longer be a ‘human’ life.” Paulsen recalls the tale in the Odyssey of the sorceress Circe who changed the visitors of her island into well-fed and thoroughly contented swine. Was it then a blessing to have been cast on her shores? Of course not, Paulsen replies. Man is no swine. “He desires to live a human life and all that is implied in it; that is, a mental, historical life, in which there is room for the exercise of all human, mental powers and virtues. He desires to play and to learn, to work and to acquire wealth, to possess and to enjoy, to form and to create; he desires to love and to admire, to obey and to rule, to fight and to win, to make poetry and to dream, to think and to investigate.”

I am pretty sure that Nozick invented his experience machine himself. This similarity is just a demonstration of an old truth: Great minds think alike.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 16 November 2020.)

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