For the last couple of days, my arguments have been about a parent or guardian’s moral responsibility towards children. I have argued that a parent, making decisions on a child’s behalf, should be governed by the principle of deciding for children what those children would decide for themselves if they were competent to do so.
In “Consent and Dignity: The Case of Ashley” I argued that Ashley’s parents were being good and responsible parents by making decisions for Ashley that will better fulfill Ashley’s own future desires.
In “Obese Children” I argued that the parents of obese children are abdicating their moral responsibilities to their children by giving those children desires and habits more likely to contribute to future misery.
There is another way that parents can fail their children – by giving those children desires that are impossible to fulfill.
To explain this fully, I wish to use an argument that both explains what desire fulfillment is, and argues against one of the most popular theories of value among atheists – the idea that value resides ultimately in happiness. It is a classic argument against happiness theory that asks about the value of life inside of an “experience machine.”
The Experience Machine
Congratulations on the birth of your new child. Of course, as good parents, you want your child to be happy. I have here a machine that will guarantee your child as much happiness as she can possibly have. We put your child inside of this machine and hook her up, then we run this computer program that will give your child the experience of living an ideal life.
While your child is lying in this chamber, she will be caused to believe that she is a princess growing up in a royal household. Do not worry about the possibility that she will not want to be a princess growing up in a kingdom; our machine will give her these desires as well. Our program has the subjects of this kingdom living calm and blissful lives in perfect awe and admiration of their most precious princess. When she grows up, our program will introduce her to a handsome prince, equally admired by all, who will win your daughter’s affection.
If you are worried that your daughter will be bored, and that this will lead to unhappiness, rest assured that we have taken care of that. The program will give your daughter challenges to overcome. She will even fail to overcome some of them – the smaller and less important ones. However, she will always succeed in overcoming the most important challenges. Of course, she will not know that she will succeed. We have discovered that we must introduce at least the fear of failure. However, these slight sorrows have been introduced only because they are necessary to bring about even greater happiness.
We have engineered our program so that once your daughter thinks she has reached the age of twenty –five, she will not age any further. She will, in fact, not know death. Of course, we can’t work miracles. Your daughter will eventually die. However, from your daughter’s point of view, she will no none of it. She will cease to have experiences without knowing that she has ceased to have experiences. In the mean time, you would have provided your daughter with as much happiness as her life could hold.
Refuting Happiness Theories of Value
Many readers, I suspect, would view the life of a person laying in a chamber being fed a program of imaginary success would still find something missing from such a life. Actually, if I imagine myself laying in a tube while some computer program tickled the relevant parts of my brain to produce ‘happiness’, I would rather be dead. I would already be as good as dead, for all such a life would be worth. Putting a child into such a situation, and requiring that she spend her whole life there, is the moral equivalent of killing that child.
This type of claim hardly counts as an argument. However, we would have an argument against the happiness theory of value and in favor of some alternative if we could find a theory that explains these and other sentiments.
The reason such a life has little value is because humans do not value happiness – or, at least, they value things other than happiness that an experience machine cannot provide.
Desire utilitarianism states that value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires, that desires are propositional attitudes, and an agent with a desire that ‘P’ for some proposition ‘P’ seeks to create or preserve states of affairs in which ‘P’ is true.
The problem with the experience machine – the reason it does not produce value, is that propositions that are the objects of our desires are not made or kept true by such a machine. We are made to believe that they are made or kept true, but our beliefs are mistaken. Our desires are being thwarted.
An experience machine cannot fulfill my desire to “make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been if I had not lived,” because the experience machine cannot make this proposition true. It can cause me to believe that I have made this proposition true (the purpose behind my writing this blog), but it cannot make the proposition true in fact. As such, it can give me happiness, but cannot create a state that has value to me.
This theory not only explains and predicts choices where people refuse to enter into such an experience machine, it would also explain and predict choices where people opt for such a machine. For example, a person who only desires happiness will have no reason to refuse entering the machine. In this case, the machine will make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of his desire – specifically, the proposition “I am happy.” It will tickle the parts of his brain in exactly the right way to produce this state called ‘happiness’ and, if that is what the agent wants, that is what he will receive.
Desire fulfillment theory defeats happiness theory is in its ability to explain both those who enter the machine and those who refuse. Happiness theory cannot explain those who refuse.
The happiness theory of value – perhaps the most popular theory among atheists who try to argue that morality is possible without God – is just plain wrong.
Religion as an Experience Machine
If the above argument is sound, then a parent’s duties to their children is not to provide them with happiness, but to help them to fulfill their desires. The experience machine is ruled out (in almost all cases) because the desires of the children (and the adult they become) are not fulfilled. Even if the individual comes to believe that his desires are or will be fulfilled, the life still has been robbed of most of its value – most of its meaning – because that which the child (and later adult) thought she had accomplished never happened, or never will happen.
Religion, in this context, is somewhat clumsy and crude version of the experience machine.
Many of the arguments in defense of religion these days – that it provides a person with comfort, that it helps them to avoid the suffering of loss, and that it provides the faithful with (an illusion of) meaning – are all claims consistent with making religion comparable to experience machines. It provides people with a set of desires that cannot be fulfilled and, like the experience machine, fills them with false beliefs that those desires are being fulfilled, in order to induce a psychological state of happiness.
This happiness is qualitatively no different than the happiness of a person, laying in a chamber, being fed stimuli that the brain turns into beliefs that she is a popular and beautiful princess about to marry a charming prince that will make her the envy of the entire kingdom.
In fact, her desire to be an admired princess cannot be fulfilled because there is no kingdom for her to be a princess of. Her desire to marry a charming prince is unfulfilled because the prince does not exist. No person’s desire to serve God can ever be fulfilled because there is no God to serve. Nobody can purchase a ticket for their friends and relatives to enter heaven because there is no heaven for them or their relatives to enter.
This is the message that I attempted to convey in an earlier posting called, “The Meaning of Life.”
The meaning that a religious person finds serving God is no different than the meaning that our ‘princess’ finds in becoming the fiancé of the perfect (though imaginary) prince and the object of admiration for the fictitious citizens of a fictitious kingdom. The life of a religious person has meaning in the same way that the life of the woman lying in a chamber having her brain tickled by a computer program has meaning.
There may be an exception to this. If a person, because of their religion, acquires a desire to help real-world people deal with real-world problems, this desire to help real-world people deal with real-world problems can be fulfilled. People put into a religious “experience machine” are not zombies doing nothing. They are still agents who are acting, they still have the capacity to have desires relevant to the real world, and there is still the possibility that some of those desires are fulfilled.
However, while some in the religious experience machine may desire to help others (and actually do so), they may could still suffer from two problems. They could have bad ideas about what counts as “helping” – where the experience machine causes them to believe that something is helpful to others when it is actually harmful, or it could feed them desires to do harm to others “in the name of God”. The fact that people in a religious experience machine interacts with others (in ways that the girl in the fictitious experience machine mentioned above does not) does not automatically produce good consequences.