At our Meetup this month we'll discuss the question that tied for the highest number of votes in our June poll: Does only happiness have intrinsic value? This is a question that lies at the very foundation of philosophical ethics.
A thing has intrinsic value if it is valuable for its own sake, even apart from any valuable consequences it may have. If a thing is valuable only for its good consequences, it is said to have purely instrumental value. For example, $100 bills have only instrumental value. If you have 1,000 $100 bills on a deserted island, they will have no value of any kind; this shows that they have no intrinsic value. Some things may have both intrinsic value and instrumental value. Good health is an example, assuming it is valuable in and of itself (perhaps because a person in good health "feels good") as well as for its good consequences (people in good health can do more to help themselves and others).
Some philosophers--hedonists--have argued that the only thing that is intrinsically valuable is happiness. Everything else that's valuable is valuable, they say, because it is an instrumental means to happiness or a constitutive part of happiness. On this view, $100 bills are valuable precisely when they bring happiness as a consequence. Good health, too, is valuable because it promotes happiness, and perhaps also because part of being happy is being healthy (e.g., free of pain). But isn't adversity and unhappiness good, objectors asks, when it builds character? Yes, say hedonists, because good character is an instrumental means to more happiness, for others and quite possibly for oneself.
The late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, in his seminal libertarian manifesto Anarchy, State, and Utopia, famously challenged this view with his "experience machine" thought experiment: "Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper 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's experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life's experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you've decided and the moment you're plugged. What's a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that's what you choose), and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?"
Nozick himself believes there is good reason for us not to spend virtually the entirety of our lives in experience machines, and thus that there is good reason to reject hedonism. Why does he think this? I'll tell you at the end of our discussion. From the beginning of the discussion until then, I want to hear your own independent thoughts on the question!
Yours in Socrates,