Pod People Paternalism

The fourth film adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this time with Nicole Kidman, is now out on dvd.  It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite, but it does re-raise an interesting thought experiment in paternalism.  After all, in this movie "pod people" retain their memories and their new "culture" makes them happy, serene, cooperative, and peaceful.  Their main crimes are:

  • a flatter emotional tone,
  • a foreign origin, and
  • converting others by force

But similar complaints apply to giving kids Ritalin, pushing upper class culture in the inner city, or pushing western culture in the third world.  Now hard-line libertarians can consistently oppose using government power to purse such policies, even if they really benefit people.  But what about the rest of you?  Are happy people with the emotional range, peace, and productivity of a typical engineer really such a horror?  From the view of non-libertarian pod people, doesn’t it make sense to force everyone else to convert? 

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  • Ben Jones

    Sounds like the Happy Happy Joy Joy pill Eliezer refused to take. Want to convince me that it’s better to be a pod person/Jehovah’s witness/Robot underling/Nazi/Scientologist? Argue your case. Start using force and it’s natural that I’ll suspect an ulterior motive and resist, even if you don’t have one.

    The Ritalin one has bothered me for a long time, and stems from the binary diagnosing of certain mental illnesses, and mechanisms like the DSM, which still don’t sit completely comfortably with me.

  • Julian Morrison

    I’m a libertarian, but anyway, utility to me is interestingness, not happiness. A pod people future for humanity would be dull, ergo, not buying.

    In fact in the general case, the use of force implies one of two scenarios to me…

    One: you couldn’t possibly understand and I couldn’t explain (because I’m so much smarter than you). I might take that from a superhuman AI, but anything close to the human range gets to explain their case, or I assume…

    Two: you’d understand, and not find my case persuasive in terms of you own utility. So in other words, I’m using force to make you take a loss on the deal. (That’s WHY I’m a libertarian, if you consider the opposite, dealings via mutual consent. Both parties take a utility profit.)

  • tcpkac

    I think I’d look for a little granularity behind the word ‘happy’ before considering the question.

  • Way back in Brave New World, they had their pill Soma that would make you happy and calm. And that was supposed to be a dystopia buried beneath the apparent utopia. People have always mistrusted artificial happiness enhancers in theory. But now that we have them in reality, they are among the most popular drugs. My guess is that if “pod people” really existed, there would be a substantial debate about whether becoming one was good or bad, and many, perhaps most, would seek it out.

  • I’m ready to jump in Nozick’s experience machine and I might accept a pod.

  • This reminds me of when I read the scholarly literature about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. As you may remember, in the end the Christians force Shylock, a Jew, to convert to Christianity. One commenter argued that in the Christians’ own view, this was doing Shylock a favour. (He would be saved from hell or something.)

    As for the substantial matter, one would usually think that if state A makes people better off than state B, people would voluntarily choose state A, hence no problem. The problem only starts if someone (the government?) knows that people will not maximize their ex-post utility because their information, or reasoning, is faulty. In which case force, or whatever you want to call it, would seem to be justified, even called for, from a utilitarian standpoint.

  • Hal,

    according to the introduction to the book I once read, Huxley didn’t actually mean Brave new world as a distopia, but rather was ambivalent about the world portrayed. Personally, I always found it rather attractive. Everybody happy with his job! Lots of casual sex! What’s not to like?

  • And to add a third post…

    …note that this

    “someone (the government?) knows that people will not maximize their ex-post utility because their information, or reasoning, is faulty. In which case force, or whatever you want to call it, would seem to be justified, even called for, from a utilitarian standpoint.”

    is also the only good argument you can come up with for banning certain drugs. (I don’t think the externalities argument works because arguably, externalities are greater when drugs are banned.)

  • Robin,

    You make it sound as if libertarianism is the only philosophy that opposes forcing people to do something.

  • Wendy Collings

    Happy-calm drugs are certainly popular, but not universally so. Others would rather feel useful and important than happy and calm; and some prefer to fill their lives with chaos and emotional drama.

    Following the Ritalin theme: I know at least three adults with ADD. One chooses to take Ritalin because it helps him work better; one chooses not to take it because he works better without it (different job); one substitutes lots of coffee and chronic procrastination for Ritalin (coffee has a similar effect to Ritalin, though much weaker; last-minute panic focuses the mind marvellously).

    Which one is right? All three, of course! And none of them would want to convert the others – they know it wouldn’t make sense.

  • We’ve had many people defend paternalistic policies on this blog, but so far none have engaged this example. The question is: what makes the paternalism you like good, but this paternalism bad?

  • This sounds a lot like the “animal uplift” debates I’ve been studying lately. Or, closer to home, parenting children.

  • Douglas Knight

    Huxley wrote a whole book “Brave New World, revisited” explaining in detail that he viewed it as bad and likely. That was 25 years later, but I think there’s a lot of documentation from the 30s, too.

  • Robin,

    you could have read my first post as a defense of some paternalistic policies, including “this one” (if you want to call it a policy).

    To me, the question always is, What maximizes overall ex-post utility. If a paternalistic policy does, it is the right one. Of course, knowing the answer to the question, concerning whatever policy, isn’t exactly easy.


    I’ve never read the book you mention. Either Huxley changed his mind (in line with the zeitgeist) or the introduction I read was just bull. All I can say is that in the 30s, large-scale social engineering, including eugenics, didn’t have such a bad name.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    We’ve had many people defend paternalistic policies on this blog, but so far none have engaged this example. The question is: what makes the paternalism you like good, but this paternalism bad?

    OK, let’s give this a try 🙂

    First of all, paternalism ranges from vaccinations campaigns to genocide, so the fact that some paternalisms should be better than others is not a surprise.

    The answer to this particular problem is easy – I don’t agree with the end result, so disapprove of the paternalism involved. But let’s dig a bit more than that.

    I might agree with the forced medication of violent schizophrenics, which is somewhat similar. And, if everyone was a pod person, I wouldn’t approve of coercing them to back to “normal”.

    So why the lack of symmetry? The fact is that paternalism carries a cost (libertarians are adept at listing these costs, so I won’t go into them). So I feel that paternalism should only be used if the difference between state X (current state) and state Y (coerced state) is sufficiently large that it is justified. If the two states are close to each other, then paternalism should be avoided.

    There are degrees in this, of course – soft paternalism, such as extra taxes, subsidies, or some sort of favourable treatment in law, has much less negative consequences that the police banging down the doors and dragging you off; so soft paternalism is more allowable when X and Y aren’t too far from each other.

  • I think you are either deliberately or incidentally misinterpreting the choice here. The choice is not about being happy and unemotional vs being unhappy and emotional. The choice is about being an unhappy, emotional person and replacing that unhappy person with a completely different entity that happens to be happy, unemotional and retains your body and your memories. AFAIK, some of the more aggressive psychotropic medication treatments might cause drastic permanent personality changes and the movie would be a good allegory to such experiences, but I think comparing ADD medicines such as Ritalin with a complete obliteration of personality is a bit of a stretch. “Pushing” cultures example, is even more stretched, to make proper comparison we would have to “push” culture by exterminating entire population and repopulating with anglo-saxons.

  • Isn’t the me of today an entirely different entity from the me of yesterday?

    Also, check out this cartoon.