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Happiness isn’t just up to you.
It also requires the cooperation
of the world beyond you.
OCTOBER 6, 2010, 7:30 PM
The Spoils of Happiness
In 1974, Robert Nozick, a precocious young philosopher at Harvard,
scooped “The Matrix”:
Suppose there were 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
..] 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?. (
Anarchy, State, and Utopia
, p. 3)
Nozick’s thought experiment — or the movie, for that matter — points to an interesting
hypothesis: Happiness is not
a state of mind.
“What is happiness?” is one of those strange questions philosophers ask, and it’s hard to answer.
Philosophy, as a discipline, doesn’t agree about it. Philosophers are a contentious, disagreeable,
lot by nature and training. But the question’s hard because of a problematic prejudice about
of thing happiness might be. I’d like to diagnose the mistake and prescribe a
Nozick’s thought experiment asks us to make a decision about a
possible circumstance. If things were thus-and-so, what would you
do? Would you plug in? Some people dismiss the example because
they think the very idea of that sort of decision, with respect to a
hypothetical situation, is somehow bogus and can’t show anything. “These are all just
hypothetical! Who cares? Get real!”
But the fact that a scenario is hypothetical doesn’t make it imponderable or worthless. Compare
a simpler case: Suppose there were a fire in your building and you could either save your
neighbors, who’d otherwise be trapped, by dragging them outside, or you could save your
pencil, by holding on tight to that as you escaped, but not both. What would you do? I hope the
answer’s easy. And that’s the point: We can, sometimes at least, answer this sort of question very
easily. You are given a supposition and asked whether you would do this or that; you consider
the hypothetical situation and give an answer. That’s what Nozick’s example is like.