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The Richness of Human Experience

Richard Kraut
Photo by Christine Baker-Parrish
May 4 2017
Sara Button

At some point or another, most people have played the game “Would You Rather?” It’s simple enough: think of two situations (usually neither is enticing), then force your fellow player to choose. As kids, the questions might be something like, “Would you rather eat a handful of live beetles or let thousands of live beetles crawl all over you?” But as adults, the questions we ask ourselves and the scenarios we envision shift drastically. On April 19, 2017, Northwestern University philosophy professor Richard Kraut’s first of the two Tanner Lectures, “Richness of Human Experience,” urged his audience to play much more complex games of Would You Rather than they may have played as kids. Would you rather live a rich human life--replete with all of life’s joys and sorrows--that would last a typical length, or would you rather live a painless life that could last for thousands of years, but with a low level of pleasure? Would you rather experience climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, or would you experience equal value in a simulated experience of the same?

Before addressing these questions, though, Kraut introduced his ideas of well-being and virtue, which hinged on the notion that experience is essential to well-being. He sided with the claim that there’s no value in a virtuous life if it’s an inactive one--intellectual exploration, a sense of accomplishment, these are the goods that make life, well, good. All because we experience them. In fact, he argued, all goods which comprise well-being are experiential. I can see his point to an extent: my well-being certainly improves when I experience eating a delicious meal, or embrace someone I love.

Which sort of brings us to Would You Rather. In both lectures, Kraut engaged extensively in particular with two thought experiments: McTaggart’s oyster and Nozick’s experience machine. Both explore how experience (or perceived experience) contributes to our ideas of value in a life. The “oyster-like life” is one that lasts a very long time but features little pleasure and no pain; during his first talk, Kraut explored solutions to that puzzle, and whether or not a human life, with its highs and lows and lack of longevity, would be better. His characterization of the experience machine reminded me a bit of The Matrix: imagine a machine exists that we can plug into and “experience” a simulation. Everything feels the same, seems the same, but you’re floating in a tank rather than actually doing it. How should we take the difference between these experiences when gauging a life’s value?

During the Q & A, the audience engaged actively with his proposals. One of the most thought-provoking was this: “How do we deal, then, with disability in this framework?” If someone is physically unable to experience something deemed a good for well-being (say, if a person who is deaf is unable to hear a symphony being played) then can that person not achieve the same level of well-being as a person who can hear? And what about the question of accessibility? Many of the examples Kraut provided when discussing pleasure and experience were from high culture, like opera. “Is a person enjoying opera better than someone enjoying the aesthetic experience of television?” one questioner asked. Where does Breaking Bad fit into aesthetic experience? What if you don’t have access to La Traviata?

His assertion that the best things in life are available to us as adults sparked my curiosity, as well. According to Kraut, opportunities for well-being increase as we age. Plenty of things are better for me as an adult. I am independent, and I can use the knowledge I’ve gained in my years on Earth to better understand and enjoy the world around me. But does that mean adults have more well-being than children? What role does ignorance play in our well-being? Despite all my “opportunities for well-being,” I certainly have far more responsibilities and stressors in my life compared to when I was a blissfully ignorant child. Is my adult life more virtuous, regardless of stress?

The next morning at a lively roundtable, University of Toronto professors Rachel Barney and Tom Hurka led commentary in response to the previous evening’s talk. Both paid particular attention to the thought experiments Kraut had cited. Barney examined them in conjunction with the ancient thinkers whose work had influenced Kraut, and in doing so,  questioned his use of the oyster. Though it was McTaggart’s thought experiment, she stipulated that it was “Plato’s oyster.” Plato would disagree, she argued, that pleasure alone is sufficient to render a human life happy because if everything is gone--including memory and reason--it is not a human life at all. Barney ultimately didn’t think an expansion of Kraut’s definition of pleasure would contradict his argument; he and Aristotle should be on the same side here. “Richard is more of an ancient thinker than he thinks and Aristotle is on his side more often than he realizes,” she concluded. Hurka focused his response on the oyster, too, honing in on nuances of complexity, comparing a human life to an opera and an oyster life to a tin whistle song. Ultimately, what Kraut seems to value based on his lecture, Hurka asserted, is the appearance of richness and variety, even if they’re not really present, while Hurka himself would say that actual novelty and variety lead to richness.

As for me, I would rather live a life in the real world, sans experience machine, short and tumultuous as it may be. I feel my life would be richer that way. What would you rather?

SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.