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Richard Layard’s blue pill utopia

By Don Arthur - posted Tuesday, 22 January 2008

In the world of the Matrix, Richard Layard would side with the machines. After all, the machines are only doing what any good government should do - keeping people as happy as possible.

During the war between humans and machines, the earth was plunged into darkness. Knowing that their enemy relied on the energy of the sun, the human scorched the sky, covering it with a thick blanket of cloud. But the machines found an alternative source of energy. They imprisoned the humans in pods and used them as biological batteries. They fed them, kept them warm and safe, and enveloped them in a virtual reality that was indistinguishable from human civilisation at its peak - it was called the Matrix.

While the machines wanted to exploit human beings as a source of energy, they did not want to punish them. According to Agent Smith, “the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world”, a world where there was no suffering and everyone was happy. But unfortunately this wasn’t possible - humans rejected the program. The best the machines could achieve was a world where human beings were as happy as they had been before the war.


When Neo, the film’s hero, is offered a choice between reality and illusion he chooses reality - the nightmare world with its scorched sky and pod-encased humanity. His mentor, Morpheus, offers him two pills. The blue pill takes him back to the world he knows, while the red pill opens his mind to reality. He doesn’t choose the real world because it will make him happy, he chooses it because he wants to know the truth.

Another character, Cypher, makes a different choice. He doesn’t care what causes his experiences, he only cares about whether they are satisfying. He is happy to have his memory erased and to return to the Matrix believing that he is someone rich and powerful. As he dines in a luxurious virtual restaurant with Agent Smith he says:

You know, I know that this steak doesn’t exist. I know when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I’ve realised? Ignorance is bliss.

Most people who watch the film think that there’s something wrong with bliss when it’s based on an illusion. They would choose as Neo chose - to live in a nightmarish reality rather than a comfortable world of ignorance and illusion. But if you accept Richard Layard’s argument, then you should follow Cypher’s example rather than Neo’s. The machines were right to hunt the human rebels down. They threatened to bring the nightmare crashing through the illusion.

The Architect as hero

As a follower of Jeremy Bentham, Layard believes that the only thing that matters is how we feel. Everything in the world that is good, is good for the same reason - it makes people feel good. Everything in the world that is bad, is bad for the same reason - it makes people feel bad. The only morally significant aspects of human existence are pleasure and pain.

With his felicific calculus, Bentham swept away centuries of ignorance and prejudice - or so his followers thought. Values like freedom, dignity and truth were worthwhile only in a derivative way. Only to the extent that they promoted pleasure and prevented pain were they worth valuing. The same was true of human rights and moral rules about honesty, respect and compassion.


For Bentham, the government’s job is to make us happy. By providing human beings with a virtual environment which is vastly more pleasant than the real world with its scorched sky and barren earth, the machines have fulfilled this responsibility. The Architect, the computer program which designed the Matrix, originally tried to create a virtual utopia but found that human beings would not accept it. However, the world he did create was far better than the real human beings confronted after the war.

For Layard it is impossible to side with the rebel humans against the Architect and the machines. For any Benthamite, the Architect is the story’s real hero. Not only did he save the machines from extinction, but he saved human beings from the consequences of their own destructiveness. If destroying Zion is the only way to protect the Matrix then destroying Zion is the only moral thing to do.

For a Benthamite it is irrelevant that the machines are deceiving people in order to exploit them. The fact that the humans have not given their consent is also irrelevant. The only thing that matters is how much pleasure and pain the humans feel. And if we were to allow that computer programs like the Oracle, the Architect and agents could experience pleasure and pain then the case for the Matrix would be even stronger.

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First published at Club Troppo on February 25, 2007.

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About the Author

Don Arthur lives Canberra where he is employed as a researcher with a non-profit social services agency. He has written for Policy magazine and the Evatt Foundation. He currently writes for the group blog Club Troppo. The views expressed here are his own and are not necessarily shared by his employers - past or present.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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