When Ignorance Truly Isn’t Bliss
Lessons from We Happy Few
By Brandon Packard
We’ve heard it a million times, “Ignorance is Bliss.” It’s a phrase that has echoed through time, but where did it start? The phrase dates back to 1742 and a poem in which Thomas Gray states, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” In other words, ignorance of certain issues makes you happy, and what’s the point of informing yourself on those issues if it will only make you miserable?
Imagine hearing that it is a law in a foreign country called “MadeUpTopia” that all puppies must be kicked once a day. The news is upsetting and you can’t do anything to change the situation. So you force yourself to stop thinking about it and thus forget about the plight of the puppies. As a result you are happy again, or at least as happy as you were before the news.
We need to ask: when does ignorance amount to negligence? When are you obliged to learn the truth even if it means making you uncomfortable?
Let’s consider an extreme case in the game We Happy Few, a case where you are so ignorant for the sake of happiness that you sacrifice essentially your entire perception of the world.
We Happy Few takes place in the fictional city of Wellington Wells in 1960s England. Everyone in the city is happy, all the time. That’s not just a state of mind, that’s the law. All the citizens of Wellington Wells (at least in the inner city) are happy because they all partake of a drug named Joy.
At the very start of the game, you have a choice of whether to take a Joy pill or not. If you do, your character remains happy, and the game ends. If you refuse to take it, the color starts to fade from the world. As you progress in the game, you quickly start to see that things are not as they seem. It turns out that the pill makes you happy, but it does so by essentially censoring the world around you, making everything seem bright and happy when really you are living in filth and squalor. For example, your main character’s job is essentially censoring any truth from old articles that would make people unhappy, and at one point you go to a party and discover that the piñata is really a dead rat. After that, you get thrown out of the town for being off your Joy.
When you return and move through the city, you must smile and wave at those you meet on the street. Otherwise they’ll get suspicious that you may be off your Joy. If they get too suspicious, they will attack you or call the police, since you are a “downer.” All of the city’s citizens have chosen to live in complete ignorance of the truth, in return for being happy, and they have done so to such an extent that they strike back at you for daring to try to discover the truth. When you see a bunch of people eating the innards of a dead rat (sorry for that mental image) because they believe it to be the candy from a piñata, it’s not hard to determine that they are taking ignorance way too far.
Clearly, in this case it seems that it would be better to stay off the joy and know the truth, rather than essentially being on an incredibly powerful hallucinogenic 24/7. However, this is an extreme dystopian scenario. How does it relate back to our real lives? In our world, we tend to favor personal autonomy over many things – often when we disagree with a friend or loved one’s decision we fall back on “well I don’t agree with it, but that’s their choice.” Generally we allow people to have some level of decision-making ability, even if their decisions tend to harm themselves. This same logic also applies in areas such as medicine or being able to take a walk late at night.
It is very important to note, however, that the “Wellies” in We Happy Few aren’t just harming themselves, but others as well. They are so afraid of being brought down by the truth that they actively seek to destroy those who start to learn the truth. Although the level to which we should allow people to potentially harm themselves in return for their autonomy is debatable, harming others crosses wherever that line may lie.
In general, the idea of ignorance being blissful stands in stark opposition to the Socratic claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In fact, Socrates uttered these words after choosing death over exile or silence. He believed that knowledge of the truth is so important, so essential to being truly human, that he would rather die than give it up. In contrast to Thomas Gray, Socrates believed that living truthfully is the best human life. A life of ignorance in pursuit of pleasure is a life more befitting of a mere beast than a human being.
The philosopher Robert Nozick also has an interesting take on this issue in his classic thought experiment concerning an “Experience Machine.” He asks you to imagine a machine that could give you any experience you wanted while you were hooked into it. You could be writing a novel, making a friend, exploring space, or absolutely anything else that you wanted to do. Furthermore, while connected with the machine, you wouldn’t know that you were connected with the machine – you would believe it all to be really happening. The question, then, is whether or not we, as rational human beings, would want to plug into the machine. One point of Nozick’s thought experiment is to show that there are things that matter to us besides pleasure. After all, if the only thing that mattered was pleasure, then everyone would want to plug into the Experience Machine. However, many of us, myself included, would not want to sacrifice our real lives for a “virtual” life, no matter how real or pleasurable it may seem. So, fully deceiving ourselves for the sake of pleasure appears myopic at best, and reduces us to mere beasts at worst.
Naturally, we all tell ourselves and others some white lies occasionally. We do it to preserve our own or others’ happiness, by not telling them what they “don’t need to know.” However, when it goes too far, and our refusal to acknowledge a truth harms others, that is when we need to cast off our ignorance and absorb the truth. At that point, it’s time to trade our own happiness for knowledge that can help us make others happy. It’s impossible to not be ignorant about anything, but we have a responsibility, not just to ourselves but to our fellow humans, to actively work to combat our ignorance and fight for happiness for others, even if it means sacrificing some of our own.
Dr. Brandon Packard is an assistant professor at Clarion University, where he coordinates the Video Game Programming Concentration and runs an online Game Creation Camp in the summer. His research interests are video games, AI, and machine learning, and the ethical questions thereof. In his spare time, he enjoys playing video games and working on programming projects.