The Happiness Box: A Short Scene
THE HAPPINESS BOX: A SHORT SCENE
by Jeffrey A. Corkern
Andrew: A married man with a wife and kids. A good and kind man who loves his wife and children very much.
But Andrew is also a man who doesn’t believe he has a soul.
Jeff Corkern: Me.
Me and Andrew are on a stage. I am standing stage left, Andrew is stage right sitting in a chair. In the rear and center of the stage, Andrew’s wife and two children are sitting, watching both of us.
"Andrew, man," I say, "I’m going to do you a favor. I’ve got a gadget that will make you happy permanently."
Andrew raises an eyebrow in mild disbelief.
I walk off-stage and return pushing what looks like a large steel coffin on wheels.
"Andrew," I say, "this is a Happiness Box."
I open the top of the box. Inside is revealed a very large computer, plus various clear plastic tanks containing fluids and tubes running to those tanks. At top, in the region where a head would lay, is an open metal sphere with what looks like half a hollow basketball with tiny electrodes spiking out all over its interior. All the wires and tubes in the box lead to the metal sphere.
"Andrew," I say, "this box is the ultimate in virtual reality, the absolutely latest ultra-cool advance in high technology. It works like this. Surgeons will remove your brain and place it in this basketball-looking thingy here. Then the surgeons permanently implant electrodes into your brain’ sensory nerves---hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, everything. In the box is a computer that will feed impulses into the electrodes attached to your sensory nerves. The computer will be programmed to keep your brain in perfect health and give you whatever you want. Essentially what happens is your current life is replaced by another life---"
Andrew's wife and children look at Andrew with sudden concern.
"No," Andrew says, sharply and with total revulsion. "Who would take care of my children? Who would love them?"
Andrew's wife and children look relieved.
"Please don’t interrupt, Andrew," I say, "it’s rude. Essentially what happens is your current life is replaced by another life---except this life will be perfect. Before you go into the box, you can program any kind of life you want ---"
"No," says Andrew, interrupting again. "I am not interested."
"Please, Andrew, mind your manners," I say mildly. "I’m still not finished. When you go into the box, all memories of the box itself will be erased. So, as far as you will know, the life you are living inside the box will be perfectly real."
"Not interested," Andrew says. "You’re talking about abandoning my family."
"Yeah," I say. "So what? We’ll just chop that memory out, too."
"Forget it," Andrew says, "not a chance."
"Andrew, you’re not thinking," I say. "You’re passing up a golden opportunity. All you are is your brain, right? Reality is just a current of sensory impulses going into your brain and being processed in various ways. That’s all you are. Physically speaking, all we are going to do is replace the sensory current portion with another sensory current. By all logic and reason, it will be precisely the same, precisely as real as the life you are living now."
"Jeff," Andrew says, "you are wasting your time. No."
"It’s my time to waste," I say. "I’m only trying to do you a favor."
"By telling me to abandon my wife and children? Hardly."
"We can wipe the memory of that out after you’re in the box!" I protest. "You’ll never know you did it! C’mon, man! Why not?"
"It’s not ethical!"
"Now tell me, please," I ask, "what does the word ‘ethical’ mean in any physical terms? In terms of volts and newtons? You’re not making any sense."
Andrew shakes his head and looks stubborn.
"What’s the physical difference?" I ask. "What physical experiment could you perform that could tell you the difference? That you were inside a Happiness Box?"
"I don’t know, and I certainly don’t care," Andrew says. "I’m not going to do it."
I sigh in a forbearing fashion.
"Let me point out as precisely as I can what you’re giving up," I say. "Surely you will see the light of reason then. Andrew, what do you really, truly want? In the Happiness Box, you can have it, and more. Would you like to see your children always be obedient and never give you any trouble? Done. Would you like to see your children grow up and win Nobel Prizes? No problem. Be a rich man with no money worries, live in a big, fancy house on the beach? A mere few lines of code. We can even dispense with sensory experience altogether and just shoot the juice to your pleasure centers. Permanent bliss."
"Well, what about women, then? The supermodel of your choice. All of them. One, a hundred, a thousand. They’re all in there, every single one, waiting for you."
"Look," I say, "there are going to be lots of people who will be more than happy to jump into this box with both feet. They’re going to be fighting each other by the millions to get a Happiness Box of their own. Even fathers. Join the crowd. Everybody else will be doing it."
"Perhaps they will," Andrew says, "but I shall not. That thing is an abomination. No."
"Andrew," I sigh, "you’re a hard case. Here’s yet another advantage. When you’re in the box, we’re going to put it deep underground. You will not be exposed to new diseases, or environmental carcinogens, or be in danger of dying by accident, or terrorist attack, or any of a thousand other different dangers. Since you also won’t have a body, it will be impossible for you to die of a million different ailments. Which all adds up to one thing. When you’re in the box, you will be safe, Andrew, safe beyond your wildest dreams, and you will as a consequence live a very long time, maybe hundreds of years."
"Okay," I say, "you force me to do this. I wanted to avoid this, but now I have no choice. I told you I was trying to do you a favor. Now I will tell you why."
I raise my hands to indicate the entire stage.
"This reality we’re in now can be a terrible place, a place of absolute, bone-crushing horror," I say. "What’s the most horrible thing you can imagine? I bet I know. Watching your children die slowly and painfully of cancer while you stand by utterly helpless to remove their pain. I can save you that." I point at the box. "In the box, that can’t happen. In the box, Andrew, nothing bad can ever happen to you."
"That’s nuts," I say. "That’s absolutely nuts. Do you understand what you’re turning down? A long life of perfect peace and happiness, for a short life that is certain to contain pain and suffering. Will you turn that down? Will you?"
"I will," Andrew says flatly. "To raise my children and keep them safe, to love my wife and children, I will take the short life of pain and suffering."
"You’re a good man, Andrew," I say. "But I want to ask you one question. Is what you’re doing rational according to your belief system? All I’m doing, from your perspective, is replacing one sensory stream with another, much better one---and yet you turn it down, and it’s not even close. Does that make sense?"
"I will concede it’s not rational," Andrew says. "But I’d rather be irrational than abandon my family."
"Okay," I say, tossing my hands up theatrically, "I give up."
Hanging my head in a defeated fashion, I push the box off-stage.
I return bearing a flat, oblong package of a green, leafy material wrapped in clear plastic.
"You won’t let me make you happy permanently," I say, "so let me at least make you happy for a little while."
I lay the package at Andrew’s feet and back away.
"That’s marijuana," I say. "Happy toking. Just bend over and pick it up."
Three great, big, mean, UGLY police officers enter from behind Andrew and surround Andrew on three sides. They fold hairy muscular arms over massive chests and stare straight down at Andrew.
Andrew looks up at the three great, big, mean, UGLY police officers.
"Hello, officers," he says.
The three great, big, mean, UGLY police officers don’t say a word. One great, big, mean, UGLY police officer shifts in a significant fashion that makes his handcuffs clink together rather loudly.
"Hurry up, get smoking, and get happy," I say. "Time’s a-wastin’."
Andrew looks at me.
"Now you’re the one who’s nuts," he says. "No. I have zero desire to go to jail."
"If you bend over, pick up, and smoke that dope," I say, "or, generally speaking, get happy by direct stimulation of your brain’s pleasure centers----the three great, big, mean, UGLY cops here will bust you and haul your rear end off to jail."
"You touch that dope, that emotion drug---you get punished."
"That about covers it."
"So touching that dope---isn’t smart, isn’t rational."
"Tell you what," I say, "I have a compromise. If you would, officers."
The three great, big, mean, UGLY police officers back up about three feet. I produce a large piece of white chalk and draw a square around Andrew, so that the three great, big, mean, UGLY police officers are just outside the square.
"All right," I say. "I have made a deal with the three great, big, mean, UGLY police officers here. As long as you stay in that square, you can smoke all the dope you want. Inside that square, you have COMPLETE freedom of action. But, alas, the second you leave that square, for whatever reason, you can be arrested and punished for any illegal actions you performed while inside the square."
"Not punished right then, just punished later," he says. "That is no compromise. Forget it."
"So it’s still stupid to touch that dope?"
"Yes, it’s still stupid to touch this dope."
I gesture. The Happiness Box is wheeled back out onto the stage.
"One more time," I say. "This box will make you happy---UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE. Something I didn’t state the first time, but was certainly implied. Want it?"
"Andrew, man," I say softly, "you are acting just like you did in the white-square situation. This Happiness Box ain't nothing but a high-tech emotion drug, and you are acting like you can get busted for drugs not now, but later. Incredibly, you are acting like you can get busted for using emotion drugs---AFTER YOU DIE. You say you don’t believe you have a soul---but when we examine your actions, we discover YOU ACT LIKE YOU DO."
Now it’s Andrew’s turn to not say a word.
"Now we can define the word ‘ethical’ in physical terms, perhaps," I say. "An unethical action is an action I can get away with while I’m alive, but will be punished for after I die. I screw up, a hammer I can’t escape comes down on my rear end. That’s a PHYSICAL definition."
"But I didn’t think of it like that," Andrew says finally. "I thought only of loving my family."
"But you yourself said what you were doing didn’t make sense by your own belief system," I said. "Only one thing makes your behavior to be in your own personal self-interest, rational, explainable. You are acting like you have a soul---but it’s totally unconscious on your part, buried deep in your guts, so much a part of you you’re not even aware of it. And it’s not just you, Andrew, the vast majority of the human race is doing exactly the same thing---acting like they have souls, but completely unaware of it."
I step back.
"For your kids, I do this," I say. "I suggest you reconsider very carefully what you think you believe, how it might affect people’s actions---the entire human race---in times to come. Because Happiness Boxes are coming, man, they are at most only decades away. And, if there are no souls, this Happiness Box you so rightly called an abomination becomes RATIONAL."