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Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

19 aug. 2020

Guest post by Hannes Bengtsson: Four philosophical questions

My sixteen year-old son, Hannes, has taken his first course in philosophy during the summer holidays. During this time he has written four short essays on classic philosophical questions. I am very happy to follow his progress and I am proud to present his essays below.

1. Hedonism and the experience machine

The experience machine

The experience machine argument is a thought experiment that serves as an argument against the hedonistic theory of well-being. In the experiment you are faced with a decision: to plug yourself into the so - called “experience machine” or to continue with your daily life.

The experience machine is a machine that, once you’re plugged in to it, will make you experience nothing but uninterrupted high-quality [1] pleasures during your whole life. The pleasures will be suited to your preferences and might be e.g : proving mathematical theorems, saving the world and having wonderful relationships. All your biological needs will always be satisfied and you will be completely solo with no means of interacting with the outside world.

According to the hedonistic theory of well-being the only thing that one’s well-being turns on is the total balance of pleasure (contributing positively to one’s well-being) over pain (contributing negatively to one’s well-being) in your life. Pleasure makes one’s life go better, pain worse. So, the best thing according to this theory would be to plug yourself into the machine. But most likely you wouldn’t want to do it. Why is that? There’s something else than pleasure and pain that matters in one’s life. We want to have authentic experiences, not artificial.

The argument against the hedonistic theory of well-being, formalized (P = premise, C = conclusion)


If the only thing one’s well-being turns on is the total balance of pleasure over pain in one’s life, and we want our lives to go better for us rather than worse, then, if an experience is more pleasurable than another, we should choose the more pleasurable experience.


One will experience more pleasure if one is plugged into the machine compared to not being plugged in.


If the hedonistic theory of well-being is true we should plug ourselves into the machine.

(P3) [2]

People don’t want to plug themselves into the machine.

( P4)

There are other things people value than just experiencing as much pleasure as possible.


Hedonism about well-being is wrong.

This is a valid argument, the conclusions follow the premises and the premises can’t be true and the conclusion false. In this essay I will try to show that the argument isn’t a sound argument by showing that (P4) can’t be taken for granted.

Does it work?

Below I will be presenting two arguments against the experience machine thought experiment. I will call these argument “the authenticity argument” and, ”the simulation argument”. Following my presentation of these arguments I will try to defend them by responding to arguments one may have against them.

The authenticity argument

The experience machine thought experiment rebuts the hedonistic theory of well-being by arguing that a person wants to have authentic [3] experiences we don’t want to be loved and love others artificially. A person faced with the decision of entering the experience machine wouldn’t want to enter because they want to have authentic experiences not artificial. This argument, I think, doesn’t quite hold. How are we to know what is authentic and what is not? Isn’t in the end everything we do, from listening to music to tasting food to feeling the sun warm our skin, just experienced by us? Every sensory input and internal stimuli generated by our brain and body will always just be experienced by us. They are all also processed and filtered by our body, so we can therefore never be certain about what’s authentic and what’s not.

The simulation argument

This argument is an upgraded version of the authenticity argument. We can’t be certain that our universe isn’t part of a bigger, more complex simulation nor can we be certain that we aren’t all already plugged into a machine similar to the experience machine, without us knowing of it. Maybe we were all faced with a similar decision in another universe, time and space, and we all made the decision to plug ourselves into that machine and we ended up where we are now. That simulation in turn could be part of another simulation that is part of another simulation etc., like an onion with infinitely many layers. So, what difference would it make making a jump between one simulation and another, or plugging ourselves into yet another machine? My answer is none, it wouldn’t make any difference because we can never know what’s a simulation and what’s real (if we can even consider some things more real than others). I therefore think that the argument that we don’t want artificial experiences doesn’t hold.

Here people might say that this way of arguing against the experience machine will lead to some radical conclusions. They might say something like this: If we can never be certain of what’s authentic and what is not, then we’ll not be able to distinguish reality from fiction. And this in turn could lead to unwanted consequences like the justification of murder by people arguing that they didn’t know if the person they killed was authentic or not.

To this I would respond that that’s a fair point. But, my argument need not be viewed as a prescriptive argument (how things should be) but rather as a descriptive argument (how things are). We humans may need to believe in something as authentic, or genuinely real, in order to experience living a good life, but that still doesn’t mean that it is authentic. What I wanted to bring forth in my argument is that we should be careful of falling into the belief that we think everything is fixed and that our perspective as humans is the only one possible.

Would you get in the Experience Machine?

I would, after having considered the arguments above, enter the experience machine. In my opinion the arguments for plugging oneself into the machine weighs heavier than the arguments against. But, I must say that I’m acting contrary to my instincts. It’s hard to think outside of my comfort zone and see things through another, maybe more objective, perspective. I guess this feeling has to do with the fact that I’m afraid of, essentially, losing my sense of consciousness and being. Even though I find it hard to not accept or take into account the arguments above I wouldn’t want to jeopardize my being. But I would, as stated above, get into the machine.

What does this tell us about Hedonism?

The experience machine thought experiment conclude that the hedonistic theory of well-being is wrong. Above I have argued that this experiment doesn’t hold to fully rebut this theory of well-being but I have not argued that hedonism is right nor that you can’t prove it wrong. This essay just argue against the experience machine thought experiment and it doesn’t tell us much about hedonism.


[1] High-quality pleasures, as described by John Stuart Mill, are pleasures that only humans have the capacity of attaining, via as an example rational-thought and self-awareness. Having sex and enjoying food are pleasures we share with other animals.

[2] This premise just tells us that some people aren’t hedonists, and says not that hedonism is wrong. We could also ask whether this is based on empirical studies or on armchair intuitions (where you, based on your feelings and thoughts, assume everyone else must feel the same way)

[3] In this essay I will exclusively use the words “authentic” and “authenticity” to represent what we consider reality or what’s real, as opposed to represent meaningfulness.


2. Philosophical Relativism


Can Philosophical Relativism be successfully defended? Explain why this theory is found plausible by some and address the objection to it you find most compelling. Is this objection decisive? If not, how can the Relativist reply to it?


I will in this essay try to argue that philosophical relativism can’t be successfully defended. I’m putting emphasis on “try” since I haven’t taken into account every argument a relativist might have in favor of philosophical relativism and I can therefore not decisively argue that it can’t be successfully defended.

I will first describe what philosophical relativism is. I will then present two reasons why some people might find this theory plausible. Following this I will present my main criticism of philosophical relativism and then respond to three arguments a relativist might have against it. I will call these arguments “Bite the Bullet”, “Contextual relativism” and the “Preference argument”. Following this I will present another respons a relativist might have to counter the criticism. I will call this argument “cultural relativism”.

Philosophical relativism

Philosophical relativism is a theory that argues that every view and belief is equally legitimate - that they are on a par with each other and that you can’t prove that one belief is better or worse than the other. This theory is one of several ways you can go if you think that there are no objective moral truths, because you needn’t be a relativist to think that there are no moral objective truths. A philosophical relativist acknowledges, in an individual or a cultural ethical disagreement, that the other party’s view is on a par with his or hers and that they both have equally legitimate views. Even in a case of fundamental ethical disagreement the relativist would say that both views are equally legitimate.

Why some people find the theory plausible

First and foremost I would like to clarify that there is a difference between what is plausible and what is attractive. If someone finds a theory plausible they needn’t be attracted by it and vice versa. Furthermore, some people might find the theory plausible because they are attracted by it and vice versa.

Some people find the theory of philosophical relativism plausible because they have acknowledged that there don’t seem to be any moral objective truths.

Some people might also find the theory plausible because they have acknowledged that there don’t seem to be any decisive solutions to moral problems.

Criticism of philosophical relativism

One salient counterargument to the theory of philosophical relativism is that it can’t refute views that are morally wrong. If all views are to be seen as equally legitimate it would also allow for the justification of morally wrong actions. A philosophical relativist would have to say that the Nazi’s view on jews is equally legitimate as someone who holds a different view, since everyone is justified to hold their own views as long as it accords with their fundamental values. Below are three responses a relativist may have to counter the argument above:

Bite the bullet

Yes, the Nazi’s view on jews is a view that is as legitimate as any other to hold and all moralities are equal. There are no moral objective truths.

Contextual relativism

The meaning of legitimate, or of right and wrong, or of true or false is dependent on the context. The meaning of these terms are subject to change and the usage of them different from one culture to another, so I can therefore not argue that their view, back then, is morally right or wrong.

Preference argument

Even if someone is a relativist they can favor some views over others and have a strong inner feeling of what is right and wrong, only they are not entitled to interfere with other people’s views. They can’t prove that their view is somehow better than another view but they might still prefer one. So, they can say that they are strongly against how the Nazi’s viewed the jews but that they can’t prove that that view is better or worse than the Nazi’s.

The “Bite the bullet” argument above in defence of philosophical and semantic relativism seems to be a rather extreme argument that could allow for the justification of murder. The consequences of “Contextual relativism” is that the terms lose their meaning. If we can’t be certain that the term “true” means the same thing independent of context then we won’t be able to communicate with each other. The “Preference argument” does not really solve the problem with having to accept the justification of morally wrong actions because it still allows for them. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow for moral progress.

Cultural relativism

A philosophical relativist might also object that one culture should not interfere with another culture and that we should let each and every culture decide what is best for themselves. Why should we think that a culture who fosters a certain set of moral values, different from another culture’s values, are justified to judge or force their values upon the other? Maybe that other culture, by their measurements and standards of what is good and bad, are equally or more satisfied, or justified, to hold their beliefs than the first.

To this argument a person who rejects relativism may object that a person can be part of several different groups and cultures. These groups may also have totally different views and there may be difficulties in identifying which truths are relative to which groups. This means that the person who is part of several different groups may not know which norms or moral values they should adhere to.

I would all in all say that this counterargument to philosophical relativism is decisive but I can still imagine how a relativist might be able to respond to them (see above). We have also seen that the relativist's replies just lead to other problems.


3. Bentham's Arguments for Utilitarianism


In Chapters 1 and 2 of his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham offers three arguments for the claim that Utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. Describe each argument briefly, and then pick out the one that you believe is strongest. Explain that argument in the most persuasive way you can. Then assess the argument from a critical perspective. Raise at least one objection to it. Then consider how Bentham might reply. In the end, are you persuaded by that argument? Why or why not?


In this essay I will first describe shortly what the utilitarian theory of morality consists of. Following this I will describe three arguments of Bentham’s that purport to show that Utilitarianism is the correct moral theory. These arguments will be called 1. “The semantic argument”, 2. “The argument from human nature” and 3. “The incoherence of rival views”. Then I will explain the third argument as persuasively as I can, since I find this argument to be the strongest of the three, and raise one objection to it. I will call this objection the “every moral theory” objection. Following this I will consider how Bentham may reply to my objection, and then explain why I find the “incoherence of rival views” argument persuasive.


Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism which assesses actions as right or wrong based on their results. The utilitarian theory of morality says that, when we are faced with a choice of actions, we should choose the action that promotes the most net good (e.g happiness and pleasure), i.e: the action that maximizes utility when we have subtracted pain from pleasure. That action is said to be the only morally right action to take and all the others morally wrong.

The three arguments

Here are three of the arguments Bentham brings forth to support Utilitarianism.

1. The semantic argument

This argument is based around the notion of what the terms “right” and “wrong” mean. Bentham thought that the terms “right” and “wrong” couldn’t possibly have any other meaning than “productive of benefit” and “productive of harm”. Bentham doesn’t give us any argument in favor of this claim, rather he is asking us if we can argue for the meaning of these terms to be different, and if so, how? The argument also says that Utilitarianism is the only moral theory that uses these terms in that way.

2. The argument from human nature

A second argument Bentham brings forth appeals to the nature of humans. He states that the utilitarian theory of morality is the only theory that is in conformity with human nature. Bentham supports this claim by saying that we humans are all already applying the utilitarian principle in our daily lives (perhaps unconsciously and inconsistently); we tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. He also points out that we humans naturally approve of actions that increase pleasure and that we disapprove of actions that increase pain.

3. The incoherence of rival views

The third argument says that all other ethical systems are tacitly relying on, or are covert applications of, utilitarianism or that they are just unsystematic collections of our likes and dislikes.

Of these three arguments I find the third argument to be the strongest and I will below explain it as persuasively as I can.

The incoherence of rival views

My view is this [1]: If morality is to have worthwhile meaning for us humans, then, it has to be connected to human well-being. Furthermore, I think morality needs to function as a tool for us humans to determine which actions to take and which actions to avoid; that is, have real world applications. Even though there might be other [2] moral theories, such as hedonism, based on this notion of morality, I would argue that these views are applications of Utilitarianism, and that Utilitarianism is the basis on which these other views rely on. I cannot prove my claim since I cannot take into account every possible moral theory, but Utilitarianism is in my opinion the most neutral and grounded moral theory based on this notion: take the action that promotes the most net good, nothing else.

If we look at hedonism or virtue ethics or deontology, and ask ourselves and their subscribers how they would argue in favor their moral theory, and how they would go about convincing others that their moral theory is the best, I think that their arguments would have to appeal to human well-being in some way or another. If they don’t, I don’t think that a lot of people would be interested in the theory. They have to say something along the lines of: “My moral theory is the best since it tells me to do this because this results in that…, and that thing is desirable, or good.... This I think, is the reason why Bentham makes his assertion that all other moral theories are just covert applications of Utilitarianism.

Below I will describe the “every moral theory” counter-argument.

The “every moral theory” counter-argument

A person who disagrees with the “incoherence with rival views” argument might say that the argument doesn't hold since we can never be certain that there are no other moral theories that don’t rely on utilitarian principles; and the “incoherence with rival views” argument says that all other theories are just applications of Utilitarianism.

How Bentham might reply

Bentham would perhaps say that yes, we can never be certain that we have exhausted every moral theory, but we can never be 100% certain of anything. So this counter-argument, even if it works as a counter-argument to refute the “incoherence of rival views” argument, doesn’t carry that much weight because it could be a counter-argument to every argument ever made. Rather, if we look at every moral theory that has been presented so far we can see that they all rely on utilitarian principles [3].

Am I persuaded by the argument in the end? Why, why not?

I am persuaded by the original “incoherence of rival views” argument even though I can see how people can argue both in favor of Bentham’s argument or in favor of the “every moral theory” counter-argument. The counter-argument speaks to me since I am a person who appreciates precision, but still, the “incoherence of rival views” argument is in my opinion the stronger of the two. This is because I have an innate feeling that we humans have to be able to apply our knowledge, our thoughts and our wisdom to the the world, and that morality has to be connected with human well-being if morality is to have any worthwhile meaning for us. I also think that we have to accept that we can’t (at least at the moment), be 100% certain of everything, because if we don’t, we won’t make any progress as individuals or as a society; we will constantly be stuck in theoretical outcomes and never be able to take action.


[1] In this essay I am solely focusing on moral theories that, in my eyes, promote the connection between morality and human well-being, in my eyes: hedonism, virtue ethics and deontology I am fully aware that one could reject my whole argument and my claims just by saying that there is no connection between them, but, as I said I am only focused on this specific area in this essay.

[2] Henceforth when I write “other moral theories” I am only focusing, as stated above, on moral theories, that in my eyes, promote the connection between morality and human well-being.

[3] Let’s take deontology and virtue ethics. Bentham may have replied that “to be a virtuous person is good, or desirable, only because it leads to either an inner feeling of well-being, or to your being viewed by others as a good person, or to you letting others have an opportunity to experience well-being. So, it’s not the virtues themselves that are good, but the good they result in.

Bentham would probably have argued in the same way when it comes to deontology. He may have replied “Well, the rules set for us to follow, will lead to us acting in the right way are relying on utilitarian principles”. I think he would have supported his claim by saying, as has been previously mentioned, that if you ask a deontologist why you should subscribe to deontology he would probably have to (perhaps unconsciously) appeal to human well-being.


4. Killing one to save five


When is it morally okay to kill one person so as to prevent five people from being killed?

- How would an act consequentialist think about this question?

What would an act consequentialist say about the cases we considered in Lecture 13?

- Does the act consequentialist get these cases right?

- If not, what is the right general account of when it is morally okay to kill one person so as to save five?


In this essay I will look at how an act consequentialist (henceforward called “AC”) would think about questions and thought experiments that involve killing one so as to save five other people from being killed. I will also argue that it may be possible to come up with a general principle for when it would be morally okay to kill one so as to save five so long as we don’t mix in our intuitions in the discussion.

When is it morally okay to kill one person to save five people from being killed?

Depending on which moral theory one is subscribed to and which moral intuitions one might have one could respond differently to this question. Some people say that you should never kill one to save five, while others say that you should always do it. Some people are not sure and for some it varies.

Below I will shortly describe act consequentialism and then see how an act consequentialist (“AC”) may reply to this question.

Act consequentialism

Act consequentialism is a form of consequentialism which says that the only morally right action to take is the one that produces the most the net-good (the total bad of everyone subtracted from the total good of everyone), when compared with the net-good of other actions the agent can take.

An “AC”’s response to the question “When is it morally okay to kill one to save five from being killed?”

Given the following presuppositions: Each life in this situation counts for an equal amount of, let’s call them utility-points. The situation takes place in a closed universe, that is, we neglect everything else that has not been explicitly said to be part of the situation, e.g, people that might judge your acting. Given these presuppositions an “AC” would always say that you should kill the one person to save the five from being killed, since it’s the action that results in the most net-good compared with the action of not doing anything and letting five people die.

Below I will explain 3 thought experiments which all are based on, and are modified versions of, the question given above. I will first describe each of them and then see how an “AC” may reply (still given the presuppositions above). These thought experiments combined with the solutions an “AC” gives to them aim to evoke doubts about act consequentialism.

Different cases to test act consequentialism


You are a doctor and you have an anesthetized patient on a table. Five of your other patients need one liter blood each to survive and the anesthetized patient could provide it, but he’d die in the process of donating the blood. Should you suck the blood out of the anesthetized patient (thereby killing him) and save the five others that would otherwise die?

Trolley Problems


A trolley is heading toward five persons on a track and the driver has lost control over it. You and a large fellow are standing on a footbridge that goes over the track. By knocking the large fellow off the bridge and causing him to fall onto the track and die when the trolley hits him, you could save the five persons that would otherwise have died by the trolley (the large fellow slows it down). Should you knock him over?


A trolley is heading toward five people and the driver has lost control. You are now instead standing next to a switch and you can pull the switch causing the trolley to change tracks. On the other track there’s another person. Should you pull the switch and save five persons that would otherwise have been killed but kill the one on the other track or don’t and let the five persons die?

Does the act consequentialist get the cases right?

Given the same presuppositions as above an “AC” would always kill one so as to save five others from being killed. I take it your immediate reaction to this is that the “AC” acts wrongly by killing the large fellow, but you may feel that it seems okay (or at least not wrong) to pull the switch. Personally I’m not entirely sure, but I still feel as though the act consequentialist’s way of acting is a bit radical.

Is it possible to come up with a general principle for when it’s okay to kill one to save five? A general principle that sorts the cases above in the “right” way; not pushing the large fellow off the bridge (Footbridge), but still maybe allowing for one to pull the switch (Switch)?

General moral principle for when it’s ok to kill one so as to save five?

My view is that we can come up with a general principle for the cases above. Maybe that principle encompasses all of our intuitions and gut feelings, maybe not, and my point is that it doesn’t necessarily have to do that. Why should our intuitions set the standard for plausibility or for morally justifiable actions?

We humans have evolved to act in certain ways in certain situations. Why rule out a general principle such as “take the action that promotes the most net-good; in the cases above, kill one to save five.” based on our intuitions? Our intuitions are not only unreliable but they are also inconsistent. Our intuitions of what’s morally right or wrong might change over time and acting on them doesn’t always lead to the “best” outcome.

The reason as to why we humans won’t push the large fellow off the bridge is due to evolution. When we are standing on the footbridge we are unconsciously thinking about how our acting will be viewed upon by others, even if we can’t see anyone there. Maybe there’s someone there, only you can’t see him. If, on the off-chance there is someone there judging your acting, you would be worse off pushing the large fellow than not pushing him since the watcher may then view you as untrustworthy. In the past you’d not want to risk getting alienated from your group.

To say that it is impossible to come up with a general principle for the cases above, or to rule out theories or principles, based on our intuitions, I find short-sighted.

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