The concept of Utilitarianism, at its foundation, is quite simple and intuitive: the determination of what is right or wrong depends on whether or not, and to what extent, a given action has utility; it’s consequentialism of a kind. If the rightness of two actions are to be compared, the action that produces consequences that provide the most utility for the most people should be considered more just than the other.
What is considered by most to be a knockdown argument against utilitarianism is a thought experience known as the experience machine, and it goes as follows. Imagine that a machine existed that one is able to plug in to in order to experience the best life imaginable; a sort of virtual reality machine that simulates a perfect life. Everything you could ever desire can and will come true inside of this machine, but you only have one chance to make this decision: either you plug into it forever, or forgo the machine entirely. Would you do it? Doing it would mean that you are to spend the rest of your days in transcendent bliss, while in reality being tethered to a machine that is running a mere simulation. The fact that most people would not choose the machine tells us that there is something more to what constitutes the “good life” than simply maximizing utility — commonly taken to be some form of pleasure, mental or physical.
One’s first encounter with this hypothetical scenario will almost certainly give them pause, and rightly so. It’s not something most people would otherwise give much thought to, and the decision certainly should not be taken lightly. What surprises me, however, is that after some time, and multiple clarifications and caveats, most people still choose not to plug into the machine; they deny heaven, as it were, in favor of a life of grinding, grueling, and inevitable pain and misfortune. I’ve actually heard this question posed to a classroom of people multiple times, and not once has anybody opted for the experience machine. This actually is too surprising; it is after all a critique of utilitarianism, and would only serve to bolster the philosophy if it didn’t tap into a dormant human intuition, inducing a slight sense of revulsion at the thought of it.
Granted, it is difficult to understand just how good of a life the experience machine could provide. Most people at first have a hard time picturing such a life, and say things like “what if I change my mind about what I want while I’m in the machine?”, “what about my family? I’ll never see them again!”, or “I won’t be happy knowing that what I’m experiencing is not real.” But the experience machine is perfect, as most philosophy professors rebut, and the life it creates for you is based entirely on what will give you the most pleasure in each moment, and given that you are in a simulated world, the greatest happiness is in fact possible, i.e., the usual constraints on your happiness in life simply do not apply in the machine. If you don’t want to know that you are attached to a machine after you do so, then you won’t; if you want to have your family with you in the machine, then you will. Moreover, you are not the one that actually gets to decide what makes you happy, since you are exceedingly imperfect; the machine knows you much better than you know yourself, and at all times will craft the experience that makes you happiest, period.
The entire point of this thought exercise is to expose a not-so-obvious human value that most share, that of the remembered self. We all want to be happy not just from moment to moment, but also in retrospect; we want to believe that there is a greater purpose to our lives than just living well, and most would sacrifice temporary well-being to that end. While the precepts of Utilitarianism are somewhat familiar and coherent to us, most can relate to this desire to cultivate our remembered self; the starving artist, the med-student, Himalayan monks, and Mother Theresa can all testify to this idea. The experience machine can give you moment to moment pleasure, but it cannot guarantee you the life that you would be proud to tell others about, as it’s commonly perceived — it might resign you to a life of hot tub parties and mushroom trips, and in the “real” world, a life as a human vegetable attached to a machine.
Some see the value of the remembered self as untouchable by Utilitarianism and the experience machine, but I dare say that is not. What the machine does is maximize your happiness given every possible piece of information about you. Again, it knows you deeper than you could ever know yourself, and is guaranteed to use that information to make your life most pleasurable. Our desire to lead a life worth leading is a piece of information that will be accounted for in the machine! The fact that we are slightly repulsed by the idea of a purely hedonistic life means that such a life cannot be the pinnacle of our happiness, and will therefore not be the life we live in the machine. The machine will not change what makes you happy, but works with what you desire to make it happen; if becoming a doctor is part of that, then it will be done in the machine.
What the machine cannot give you is a good life outside of it. The problem with this thought experiment is that it requires you to tell the person that they will be connected to a machine. But what if the machine was already running? What if we were in it now? What if it was turned on without your consent, and you gradually slipped into the perfect life run by this machine? Undoubtedly then it would be something that we would all want for ourselves and others. We want to maximize pleasure in our lives in all respects — physical, mental, and spiritual — and the machine can give us that.