Richard Layard’s blue pill utopia

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.

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17 years ago

What a great post. Vote 1 for Don Arthur.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

Thanks Don,

I agree with Patrick – a great post.

One of the things that amazes me is the totalising mania of social scientists. I’m a fan of utilitarianism for trying to decide upon priorities in government policy. But that’s a million miles away from Layard’s nonsense (if Wilkinson’s precis is accurate) that there is some apex value to which we can appeal which will sort out priorities in the blink of an eye and the flash of a credit card.

Even in Govt policy utilitarianism is often inadequate and one needs to import ideas from elsewhere.

This doesn’t seem to be a problem in science where you apply frameworks in so far as they help you out and don’t get too tangled up in metaphysical delusions of grandeur.

Now there are some people hanging out for a ‘theory of everything’ but even if we got one it wouldn’t change the basic method of progress for most science which is to use little frameworks in different areas where they seem to shed light.

Don you’ve used Nietzsche as a foil to Layard’s totalising utilitarianism but of course Nietzsche is off on his own totalising mania (albeit one with vastly greater philosophical power and insight than Layard).

For at least some of us, and perhaps you are one, this kind of one dimensional thinking – however clever it is – gives us the willies.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
17 years ago

“Nietzsche is off on his own totalising mania” Yes he is. And no, I don’t find it appealing. But at least it’s not as banal as Bentham.

Aristotle also argued that happiness is the one thing that is an end in itself but his idea of happiness — ‘eudaimonia’ — is an entirely different thing to Bentham’s idea of happiness as pleasure. Clive Hamilton argues for eudaimonia rather than the maximisation of pleasure over pain.

As I was writing about Nietzsche I couldn’t help thinking about how much it sounded like Ayn Rand.

Ken Parish
17 years ago

Pursuit of Aristotelian eudaimonia (virtue etc broadly defined) as opposed to just sensory pleasure may well make sense on an individual level, but makes little sense at all as a guide for government policy. The material in Julie Bishop’s Australian values education program appears to equate roughly to eudaimonia, or at least a half-baked modern version thereof. I don’t have a problem with teaching that sort of stuff in primary schools. However it’s difficult to see what relevance it might have to government policy beyond that point. Enforced virtue isn’t virtue at all, as Kant argued, nor does such enforcement work:

The notion of duty is in itself already the notion of a constraint of the free elective will by the law; whether this constraint be an external one or be self-constraint. The moral imperative, by its categorical (the unconditional ought) announces this constraint, which therefore does not apply to all rational beings (for there may also be holy beings), but applies to men as rational physical beings who are unholy enough to be seduced by pleasure to the transgression of the moral law, although they themselves recognize its authority; and when they do obey it, to obey it unwillingly (with resistance of their inclination); and it is in this that the constraint properly consists. Now, as man is a free (moral) being, the notion of duty can contain only self-constraint (by the idea of the law itself), when we look to the internal determination of the will (the spring), for thus only is it possible to combine that constraint (even if it were external) with the freedom of the elective will. The notion of duty then must be an ethical one.

BTW I agree with others’ comments about the post, and have entered it in my forward list for BBP2007. Like most great writing, when I read your post I instantly thought “Yes, of course! That’s exactly what the big problem is with Layard etc.” And yet I hadn’t been able to articulate it myself despite several stabs at comment box contributions on James Farrell’s post. Many thanks for helping me to clarify my own thinking on the subject. If James’ student takes all these contributions on board it should be one hell of an Honours paper.

Ingolf Eide
17 years ago


17 years ago

I admit that I haven’t read Aristotle in years. But I think Clive Hamilton falls on the side of Plato, by a safe margin. After all, although KP attributes it to Kant, I amwas fairly certain that Aristotle was the author of the classical Christian theory (as adapted, I presume, by Aquinas) that to do good meant, by definition, to choose to do good.

Whereas Hamilton, as all good socialists must, has exhausted of waiting for the hoi polloi to choose appropriately and decided that our betters (he) must choose for us.

NG, I think you are right about Nietszche as well, but surely Don’s key point is that if there is any evidence that we are ‘programmed’ for anything, it suggests that we are programmed for survival and gene-promotion. It is extremely hard to find historical evidence that supports the idea that we are programmed to seek happiness, or even eudamonia.

as for BBP2007, I think this almost merits having a winner – I thought much as KP did: eureka!

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
17 years ago

Gee I don’t know. All this is fine as persuasion at a personal level, but I still want to rescue utilitarianism as a totalising theory. I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and the abuses which the likes of Layard have made of utilitarianism do not exclude the more modest form of rule-utilitarianism I suggested in my comments on James’ post which paradoxically may actually lead to more happiness in the long run. Utility is a nifty idea, revealed preference and the idea that the State should err on the side that presuming that revealed preference leads to mutually beneficial outcomes and should really only intervene to facilitate institutions where individuals can reveal their preferences to each other and make exchanges on that basis (e.g. where under public good/externality conditions this is done using the machinery of politics rather than spontaneously evolved markets) is a nifty idea.

On the other hand, Nietzsche’s psychological critique is pretty powerful. I have always thought so. Perhaps there is a way to distinguish ‘utility’ from happiness? I have to think about this.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
17 years ago

The Matrix analogy isn’t so far fetched.

here is a good test – if a single (i.e. unmarried with no children) individual wants to live his entire life stoned on drugs, can afford to fund his lifestyle, is not mooching off anyone else and harms no one else, should the State intervene? I’d say no. To me his revealed preference is sufficient – he is happy with his life and should be left alone. So this puts me in a sense on the side of the blue pill.

Ingolf Eide
17 years ago

“Should the state intervene?” Like you, Jason, I’d say no, at least not in the sense of using direct or indirect force.

To suggest that such an individual is happy with his life is, however, to render the word happy meaningless. He’s AWOL, not happy, and one could only hope that good friends. perhaps, might help him to better understand the demons that drive him to seek some form of oblivion. And perhaps thereby find a way to coax him back into life.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

I was going to try to post something on the point Jason has made but I’m too busy. Suffice it to say here that I think Layard has given utilitarianism a bad name with his totalising nonsense. In government if you are try retain the patina of rationality you have to have some ‘totalising’ logic even if it’s a bit threadbare in places. You have to decide how much money goes to the Australian Institute of Sport and how much to the Institute for the Blind.

Ken’s fear (existential terror?) of being captured by aliens and turned into a game show host (I don’t think even aliens could do it) leads him to be instinctively suspicious of the recasting of utilitarianism or old arguments about utility but with the idea of ‘happiness’ subsituted for ‘utility’. (of course utilitarianism began with the slogan the greatest happiness for the greatest number but at least in economics ‘ultility’ came to be the anchor concept.

Personally as I’ve said in the previous thread, I think happiness is a major distraction and it would have been better for Layard and others to explicitly go back to Marshall, Pigou – and perhaps Bentham though he’s got a bit of a bad name (though I’m not sure it’s deserved).

I think there’s a ‘horses for courses’ issue here (as they say in France – cullinary joke!). I don’t run my life along utilitarian lines, but if I’m thinking of govt policy it’s one of the touchstones – along with others like liberal principles. I don’t know of a better way to make public policy spending decisions for instance. But that doesn’t make me someone who wants to directly target ‘happiness’ with elaborate social engineering.

17 years ago

Jason, surely you are forgetting that you are only on the side of tolerating voluntary blue pill taking, whereas the argument is that we should, all, take the blue pill. I certainly don’t think you are on Layard’s side of the (asylum) fence.

I agree with Ingolf on ‘happiness’ generally.

NG, I am worried about your constant references to Pigou. My recollection, which is mainly based on reading Frederic Bastiat, is that Pigou was pretty much an old-fashioned neo-socialist (literally, I can elaborate). Wasn’t his key point that since I couldn’t have made my widget without the wider societal framework, in fact my widget was as much the wider society’s as mine?

France is still paying the price for such stupid misunderstandings about the ‘right’ to wealth and the ‘ownership’ of one’s production – Ayn Rand, crazy as she was, made more sense than that.

I would, of course, love to be corrected.

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago


Bastiat is a problematic source on Pigou as he died 27 years before Pigou was born.

If Pigou made the political or moral point you say he did it is pretty irrelevant to his economics. It’s a fair debating or moral point that our property came into existence not just from our own efforts (sometimes we were given it) but also from the co-operation of others. It’s just that private property works so much better than the alternatives that I regard the debate as ‘theological’ if you will.

Pigou was happy with private property though his economics – like Marshall’s leads him inexorably (and in my view correctly) to the conclusion that redistributing wealth – at least at the margin – increases utility.

On socialism, remember that every age has it’s conceits. Like Veblin, Schumpeter thought we were headed inexorably towards a world dominated by engineers. He was wrong – Hayek, standing outside the mainstream of the time, was dead right.

On socialism, there are plenty of useful economists (and indeed classical liberals) who were a tad optimistic about socialilsm – J.S. Mill being one of them. It needn’t be a big negative against their economics which was focused on practical problems of their time (many of which remain for us also).


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