Philosophical hedonists think that in the final analysis, the good is nothing but what we desire, and the only thing we actually desire is pleasure. Did you think you desired love, knowledge, meaning, friendship, or friendship with God? No, you only desire the pleasure of those things.
Most of my students find this argument irresistible.
They have all seen movies like The Matrix, so to provoke them to look deeper, I used to pose this puzzle: “Suppose someone invented a system of illusions you could be plugged into, with sights, sounds, sensations, and memories so photo-perfect that you thought you loved real people, you thought life was meaningful, you thought you were enjoying friendship with God – in fact, whatever you want -- but actually all these impressions were being fed into you by electronics. The inventor offers to plug you into his device for the rest of your life. Do you accept the offer?”
Over the years, the number responding “No, it wouldn’t be real” has declined, and the number responding “Sure! What’s real anyway?” has increased.
So I’ve upped the ante. I’ve dropped the distraction of virtual reality. Now I say, “Suppose a surgeon offers to strap you onto a gurney and implant a tiny electrode implanted into the pleasure center of your brain. You will stay on the gurney forever, but with just a few microvolts of carefully monitored current, you will experience the greatest possible pleasure, and a glucose drip will keep you alive so it goes on and on until you die of old age. You won’t think you are loving someone. You won’t ask whether anything has meaning. You won’t think you enjoy friendship with God. The only thing you will be aware of is all that pleasure. Now do you accept the offer?”
Fewer answer “Yes” than before. But you’d be surprised by how many still do.
All sorts of philosophical fallacies are wound up in that reply, for every pleasure implies a good different than itself – the pleasure is the experience of repose in that particular good. Hallucinating pleasure is not the same as experiencing it, any more than hallucinating a cat is the same as seeing it. In one case, the cat isn’t there; in the other case, the good isn’t.
Yet I can’t help but think that the problem is not just an error in reasoning. What kind of society have we made, that comfortably brought-up young people can prefer death-in-life to life?