In the world of the Matrix, Richard Layard would side with the machines. After all, the machines are only doing what any good government should do — keeping people as happy as possible.
During the war between humans and machines, the earth was plunged into darkness. Knowing that their enemy relied on the energy of the sun, the human scorched the sky, covering it with a thick blanket of cloud. But the machines found an alternative source of energy. They imprisoned the humans in pods and used them as biological batteries. They fed them, kept them warm and safe, and enveloped them in a virtual reality that was indistinguishable from human civilization at its peak — it was called the Matrix.
While the machines wanted to exploit human beings as a source of energy, they did not want to punish them. According to Agent Smith, “the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world”, a world where there was no suffering and everyone was happy. But unfortunately this wasn’t possible — humans rejected the program. The best the machines could achieve was a world where human beings were as happy as they had been before the war.
When Neo, the film’s hero, is offered a choice between reality and illusion he chooses reality — the nightmare world with its scorched sky and pod-encased humanity. His mentor, Morpheus, offers him two pills. The blue pill takes him back to the world he knows, while the red pill opens his mind to reality. He doesn’t choose the real world because it will make him happy, he chooses it because he wants to know the truth.
Another character, Cypher, makes a different choice. He doesn’t care what causes his experiences, he only cares about whether they are satisfying. He is happy to have his memory erased and to return to the Matrix believing that he is someone rich and powerful. As he dines in a luxurious virtual restaurant with Agent Smith he says:
You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I’ve realized? Ignorance is bliss.
Most people who watch the film think that there’s something wrong with bliss when it’s based on an illusion. They would choose as Neo chose — to live in a nightmarish reality rather than a comfortable world of ignorance and illusion. But if you accept Richard Layard’s argument, then you should follow Cypher’s example rather than Neo’s. The machines were right to hunt the human rebels down. They threatened to bring the nightmare crashing through the illusion.
The Architect as hero
As a follower of Jeremy Bentham, Layard believes that the only thing that matters is how we feel. Everything in the world that is good, is good for the same reason — it makes people feel good. Everything in the world that is bad, is bad for the same reason — it makes people feel bad. The only morally significant aspects of human existence are pleasure and pain.
With his felicific calculus, Bentham swept away centuries of ignorance and prejudice — or so his followers thought. Values like freedom, dignity and truth were worthwhile only in a derivative way. Only to the extent that they promoted pleasure and prevented pain were they worth valuing. The same was true of human rights and moral rules about honesty, respect and compassion.
For Bentham, the government’s job is to make us happy. By providing human beings with a virtual environment which is vastly more pleasant than the real world with its scorched sky and barren earth, the machines have fulfilled this responsibility. The Architect, the computer program which designed the Matrix, originally tried to create a virtual utopia but found that human beings would not accept it. However, the world he did create was far better than the real human beings confronted after the war.
For Layard it is impossible to side with the rebel humans against the Architect and the machines. For any Benthamite, the Architect is the story’s real hero. Not only did he save the machines from extinction, but he saved human beings from the consequences of their own destructiveness. If destroying Zion is the only way to protect the Matrix then destroying Zion is the only moral thing to do.
For a Benthamite it is irrelevant that the machines are deceiving people in order to exploit them. The fact that the humans have not given their consent is also irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how much pleasure and pain the humans feel. And if we were to allow that computer programs like the Oracle, the Architect and agents could experience pleasure and pain then the case for the Matrix would be even stronger.
A Benthamite would say that Cypher had made a rational, self-interested choice. By returning to the Matrix his life would be more comfortable and less stressful than it would be in the real world. However, there is one aspect of Cypher’s deal that ought to make us stop and think. Cypher not only asked to return to the Matrix, he asked Agent Smith to erase his memory of the real world. Why would he do that?
Was Agent Smith right?
The Architect never explained why the first Matrix failed, but Agent Smith thinks he knows:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.
Friedrich Nietzsche would have agreed. Nietzsche argued that there were two kinds of happiness. The first was the pleasure of falling asleep: “…the exhausted want rest, to stretch out their limbs, they want peace, quiet…” This was the happiness of the nihilistic religions. Utopia, nirvana or heaven arrives when human beings stop struggling and accept the world as it is. But in the process, they will their own extinction.
The other kind of joy comes from power — from overcoming obstacles and vanquishing opponents. Any human being who longs for life rather than annihilation wants power. According to Nietzsche:
Man does not seek pleasure and does not avoid unpleasure: it will be clear which famous prejudice I am contradicting here. Pleasure and unpleasure are mere consequences, mere accompanying phenomena — what a man wants, what every smallest part of a living organism wants, is an increment of power. Striving for this gives rise to both pleasure and unpleasure; out of that will man seeks resistance, needs something to oppose him. Unpleasure, as an inhibition of his will to power, is thus a normal fact, the normal ingredient of everything that happens in the organic world, and man does not avoid it but instead has constant need of it: every conquest, every pleasurable feeling, everything that happens presupposes a resistance overcome (p 264).
When Cypher makes his deal with Agent Smith he doesn’t just ask to return to a world where his brain is fed pleasurable sensations, he wishes for power:
I don’t want to remember nothing.
Nothing! You understand? And I
want to be rich. Someone
important. Like an actor. You
can do that, right?
Unless he forgets that his new power is illusory, he cannot experience the joy of overcoming. By asking to forget his real life, Cypher is acknowledging that pleasure is not an end in itself. The desire to return as an actor is a sign of what is wrong with Cypher’s solution — he will not return as himself, the power he has will not be his own. In this way he wills the destruction of self. Cypher surrenders to the will of another.
Will Wilkinson and value monism
Both Bentham and Nietzsche insist on the same thing — life must have a single purpose. Both philosophers reduce everything worth desiring to one thing. For Bentham and Layard it is the desire for pleasure and for Nietzsche is the will to power. But in a 2005 post, Will Wilkinson takes issue with this assumption:
I think I need to stop arguing with Layard about utilitarianism because he’s really just too philosophically inept to take all that seriously. The chapter at the middle of Happiness defending the principle of utility as the sole standard for judging right action and public policy is just laughably dumb.
If I was still TA-ing ethical theory classes, and Layard turned this in, he’d get a solid “B”:
Why should we take the greatest happiness as the goal for society? Why not some other goal–or indeed many? What about health, autonomy, accomplishment or freedom? The problem with many goals is that they often conflict, and then we have to balance them against each other. So we naturally look for one ultimate goal that enables us to judge other goals by how they contribute to it.
Happiness is that ultimate goal because, unlike all other goals, it is self-evidently good.
How is it that health, autonomy, accomplishment, and freedom are not self-evidently good? Layard will want to insist that we only want these other things for the sake of happiness. But that is just so much table pounding, and it is false. I am, in fact, willing to sacrifice some measure of happiness to ensure my autonomy, or to accomplish something of great value. I would, in fact, be willing to face suffering and death if that was required to preserve my freedom. And it’s pretty easy to point out that happiness is instrumental to other values. I want happiness because I will be motivated to accomplish great things if I am happy. I am more likely to be benevolent and kind if I am happy. I am more likely to have a meaningful, successful intimate relationship. I will live longer if I am happy, and it is good to live. Etc. If we are going to admit that it makes sense to talk about things being self-evidently good, then happiness surely is one of those things. And so are all the other goods Layard mentions. He gets nowhere.
Layard is right that a plurality of values requires balancing. But there is no way around this on a personal level, and especially not on a public level.
This is the liberal response to Layard’s argument — to deny that happiness is the only self-evident good.
…and an answer to James Farrell
This entire post is just a long winded answer to James Farrell’s question — What’s wrong with the Layard thesis? Let’s summarise by responding to James’ key points:
2. Humans are genetically programmed to pursue happiness. Nietzsche argues that all organisms are programmed for the will to power. Why should we prefer Layard’s claim to Nietzsche’s?
7. Happiness is a self-evident good. Other things that are good, like freedom, morality or affluence, are ultimately justified in terms of their ability to make us happier. But happiness is an end in itself, and canât be justified in terms of anything else. Really? What’s Layard’s argument for this? Why isn’t Nietzsche right? Why isn’t Wilkinson right? Is Layard’s claim just based on his personal intuition? What if my intuition is different?
8. The highest goal of government policies should be to make us happier on aggregate, and therefore some index of happiness rather than one of material production should be the benchmark of national performance. Isn’t there something wrong with wanting to live in the Matrix? Is the Architect really the film’s hero? Ultimately this claim rests on the idea that happiness is the only thing that is good in itself.
It seems to me that Layard hasn’t really provided an argument for his most basic claim — the idea that happiness (sensations of pleasure) is the only thing worth pursuing. To some people Benthamism seeks like common sense and to others it seems like nonsense. A sensation of obvious rightness is hardly a solid foundation for a radical shift in policy.