Nozick's experience machine and palliative care: revisiting hedonism.

Y. Michael Barilan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In refutation of hedonism, Nozick offered a hypothetical thought experiment, known as the Experience Machine. This paper maintains that end-of-life-suffering of the kind that is resistant to state-of-the-art palliation provides a conceptually equal experiment which validates Nozick's observations and conclusions. The observation that very many terminal patients who suffer terribly do no wish for euthanasia or terminal sedation is incompatible with motivational hedonism. Although irreversible vegetative state and death are equivalently pain-free, very many people loath the former even at the price of the latter. This attitude cannot be accounted for by hedonism. Following these observations, the goals of palliative care are sketched along four circles. The first is mere removal or mitigation of noxious symptoms and suffering. The second targets sufferings that stymie patients' life-plans and do not allow them to be happy, the third targets sufferings that interfere with their pursuance of other goods (palliation as a primary good). The fourth is the control of sufferings that do not allow the person to benefit from any human good whatsoever ("total pain" or critical suffering). Only in the fourth circle are people hedonists.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-407
Number of pages9
JournalMedicine, Health Care and Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2009


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