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Thursday, October 28, 2021


As most of you are college students, by now you’ve probably all had the “drug conversation” with your friends. This stimulating discussion usually starts off when one of your friends just tried shrooms and won’t shut up about it. After he pontificates about how his whimsical journey with the drug made him a better person, the discussion digresses towards drugs-taking in general. Some conclude that they must try a hard drug at one point in their lives – others vow never to do so. Eventually, an interesting point is brought up: Is it bad to receive happiness solely from a drug?

In my opinion, this question isn’t only fun to ponder – it might determine the future of humanity! Consider the following hypothetical: some hippie scientist invents a drug that would, indefinitely, put you into a vegetative state, but the tradeoff is an infinite supply of happiness and pleasure. If people decide they would be better off on this drug, chaos will ensue.

I might be getting carried away; surely there will be people who would refuse the drug. People aren’t selfish; they wouldn’t want to hurt their loved ones by turning into a smiling vegetable. Let’s make things more interesting then. Imagine the drug only changed your preferences around, making you receive great amounts of happiness for easily attainable goals. For example, baking a cake now gives you an orgasmic feeling and taking a shower feels like winning the lottery. This drug would be changing your utility function.

For those of you who haven’t heard of this gem of a concept, it means this: a function that inputs world events and outputs “utils” or i.e. a unit of satisfaction/happiness. There are certain world events that correspond to a quantity of personal happiness; a utility function models this relationship. For example, eating an apple corresponds to some measure of utility (read: happiness). This drug would mess with your utility function in a way that would make it a lot easier for you to optimize your utility. No longer will you care about getting married and having a family; that’s too hard. Instead you’ll be baking cakes and taking showers for the rest of your life (voluntarily of course). Would you take the drug?

We are utility maximizers; we want to attain as much happiness as we can. One subtle detail about our utility function is that we receive negative utility for knowingly deciding to change our utility function to a new one that conflicts with the old one. Our utility function can and does change over time; however, we won’t want to choose to change it. Imagine I gave you a pill that would make you want to hate your family. An additional stipulation: Hating your family will give you a lot more utility than the utility you currently get from loving your family. The intuitive utility maximizing decision would be to take the pill. On the other hand, since taking the pill would leave you with a utility function that’s incongruent with your current one, you will not take the pill. Same reason you won’t take a drug that will make you bake cakes and take showers all the time. It might distract you from your current goals and aspirations (you’d make baking cakes a higher priority than, say, having friends). In other words, even if the new preferences will give you overall more happiness, you’ll still prefer your old preferences.

You might be thinking, “Who cares? This drug doesn’t exist yet.” Well, it does; this dilemma exists for people who haven’t tried shrooms yet. According to discovery.com, “61 percent reported at least a moderate behavior change in what they considered positive ways.” Assuming you won’t get a bad trip, is it rational to take the drug? Depends on whether the drug changes your utility function and whether it conflicts with the older version. I doubt a psychedelic experience can help me optimize my current utility function better than my sober self. Therefore, I conclude that it must, in fact, change my preference ordering. I would rather keep my preferences the way they are now, of course.

LIOR GOTESMAN just made your drug conversations that much more fun. Thank him at liorgott@gmail.com.


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