Toward A Better Understanding of Epicurean Justice And Injustice (With Examples of "Just" and "Unjust")

  • [ADMIN NOTE: This new thread was started so as to contain the responses to the following post, which is itself a response by Don to a post by Elayne. Please check Elayne's post in the original thread for past context. As per the title I gave the new thread, it would be good to produce some hypothetical examples of "just" and "unjust" so we can begin to see the common themes.]



    There are people who take great pleasure in actions which their current majority culture labels repugnant but who cause no actual harm to anyone-- and this is definitely a common human social situation, especially in association with religions, not a rare or hypothetical event. For instance, in some cultures, anything other than heteroromantic love and sex is treated with disgust and in some cases still today with the death penalty. Would you say that a consenting adult same-sex couple in such a culture was not Epicurean to have a relationship even at risk of death? I certainly would not.

    Okay, this is helpful for me to flesh out my thinking if y'all will bear with me...

    I would say this specific scenario is the exact opposite of what I had in mind when I wrote my post, but that's valuable. I do find the scenario you outline repugnant (i.e., that someone holds those beliefs, to be clear), but I want to try and analyse this from an Epicurean perspective and not my personal preference.


    First, I believe your scenario can be analysed to spring from an "empty" opinion or belief on the part of the one feeling "disgust" and, as such, they are not acting morally, justly, or prudently, and so their action can be said to be not choice-worthy.


    1. Nature appears to provide abundant examples of same sex activities, so the "disgust" does not arise from nature.

    2. If not from nature, it must arise from culture and/or law.

    3. As such, is the law/custom just? Does it conform with the basic measure of justice: to neither harm nor be harmed.

    4. The same sex couple are harmed explicitly. The empty belief also harms the one holding it by producing unnecessary pain. So, it does not align with the basic measure of acting justly.

    5. The belief could also arise from religious (god-given) or cultural indoctrination. We know the gods do not hand down dictates from on-high. If it is cultural indoctrination, Epicurus encouraged us to free ourselves from that.

    6. Therefore, I would say the person holding this opinion and getting pleasure from it is not acting justly, wisely, or morally. If they experience momentary pleasure from holding this belief, it is not choice-worthy for the reasons outlined here. The opinion will not lead to a maximally pleasurable life. A person holding that belief cannot consider themselves as following an Epicurean path.


    Now, to turn to the couple.

    1. The pleasure of the relationship is not an empty opinion. It arises naturally. I see no reason that specific pleasure is not choice-worthy, but...

    2. In deciding to continue the relationship, the couple has to weigh multiple options in deciding choices or rejections: Is the pain at the anxiety of getting "caught" more than the pain of being apart from their partner? How long can their relationship be kept secret? Do they have alternatives? Can they migrate somewhere else? In this case, only they can decide if the resulting pleasure is worth the pain. I wouldn't have any issues with saying these two people were following an Epicurean path regardless of their ultimate choice.

  • First, I believe your scenario can be analysed to spring from an "empty" opinion or belief on the part of the one feeling "disgust" and, as such, they are not acting morally, justly, or prudently, and so their action can be said to be not choice-worthy.

    oh no - no - no --- I would not take that route at all! (this is why i SO dislike the "empty" word). Let me read the rest.....


    But this is VERY good to explore.....


    Here are my first thoughts:

    6. Therefore, I would say the person holding this opinion and getting pleasure from it is not acting justly, wisely, or morally. If they experience momentary pleasure from holding this belief, it is not choice-worthy for the reasons outlined here. The opinion will not lead to a maximally pleasurable life. A person holding that belief cannot consider themselves as following an Epicurean path.


    Yes that is "your" view of the situation, but the person holding the other viewpoint is in fact getting pleasure from it (under your scenario) so their pleasure is a canonical "fact" for them which they must analyze along with the fact that you disapprove of their viewpoint and may come down on them with disapproval of all kinds, including force. You may in fact choose to do that, and to force them to back off from their pleasure at pain of punishment, and that would be an example of "how the world works" which Epicurus tells us to take into account. But you would need to realize that it is only your ability to use force to enforce your opinion that "justifies" your substituting your view for theirs. From that point of view you are pursuing your own pleasure, and as Epicurus says that is the way the world works, but I don't think Epicurus would tell you that your particular position takes philosophical precedence over theirs -- it is just a matter that your view of pleasure is in conflict with theirs, and that is where in the PDs as to justice Epicurus points out that there is no natural "justice" -- if you don't agree, then you don't agree, and you can resort to force or persuasion or whatever, but if there is no agreement, then there is no "justice" to appeal to, and in the end the appeal ends up being to "might makes right."


    With perhaps the major point being here that this is what makes "feeling" a part of the canon of truth.... that our FEELINGS of pain and pleasure are true to us, regardless of where they come from. We can choose to follow them or not .. and suffer the good or bad results of so doing ... but they are in fact the guide that nature gave to us, so in terms of "justification" our feelings need no justification from gods or from ideal forms -- or from majority or minority or even "Epicurean" viewpoints.


    OK I am going to stop editing this post, wait for others to post, and then reply as needed below.

  • i would like to comment on this:


    Would you say that a consenting adult same-sex couple in such a culture was not Epicurean to have a relationship even at risk of death? I certainly would not.

    I would say this specific scenario is the exact opposite of what I had in mind when I wrote my post,


    Just so someone can correct me if I read this wrong, Elayne is asking about a society which condemns homosexuality, in which a couple chooses to pursue the relationship at risk of death. Elayne is pointing out that even though the couple may risk death, it might well be Epicurean of them to pursue their own pleasure, even though society disapproves and might put them to death. I say "might well be Epicurean" because it would be up to them to weigh the pluses and minuses and make their own decision -- there is no way for anyone else - Epicurean or not - to decide for them whether to pursue their relationship or not, because the ramifications are unpredictable and no one can decide for them how to navigate those choices. (I see that Elayne says that "I certainly would not" but I think she implicitly is saying that the choice could be analyzed in Epicurean terms either way, due to the contextual uncertainties involved in putting yourself in the position of any other particular person.)


    I think this is a very good scenario to illustrate the issue, so I am not sure Don why you see this as "the exact opposite of what you had in mind"(?) Maybe there is something in your comment there, as to why you find the scenario the opposite of what you were thinking, that would help if you explained(?)

  • I think I see where you're coming from, but I'm trying to apply PD31 to the scenario:

    Quote

    31 Natural justice is a covenant for mutual benefit, to not harm one another or be harmed. [St-Andre note to PD 31: The word σύμβολον refers to a covenant, contract, or other mutual agreement, especially (in a legal sense) a treaty between two city-states to safeguard trading between them. The verb βλάπτω means to hurt or damage someone or something, but not in a way that reflects willful injustice or wrongdoing (for which the verb ἀδικέω is used)]

    That scenario did not seem to agree with that doctrine. But I'm re-reading your post... Maybe a couple times before replying in-depth. Thanks for engaging in this!!

  • No problem at all because this helps us all to articulate better.


    As to PD 31, that consideration is certainly true, but it is immediately modified and controlled by


    32. For all living things which have not been able to make compacts not to harm one another, or be harmed, nothing ever is either just or unjust; and likewise, too, for all tribes of men which have been unable, OR UNWILLING, to make compacts not to harm or be harmed.

    We might be experiencing here the harm that comes from segmenting the PDs into numbered separations, which to my understanding were not present in the original. I think it is important to read the entire section on justice altogether, and when one does one sees that justice is entirely contextual and really means nothing at all UNLESS there is a positive agreement. Absent an agreement (which even then can be broken when circumstances change) there is really no such thing as "justice" at all. This is a great illustration of how virtue has no meaning unless it bring pleasure.

  • Perhaps one lesson we might end up drawing from this discussion when it is over is that we need to spend more time sooner discussing the PDs on justice -- which people tend to avoid, probably for EXACTLY the reason that we are now discussing them! ;) (and that reason is that the PDs on justice are a stark reminder that virtue is contextual and has no absolute basis.)

  • I think this is a very good scenario to illustrate the issue, so I am not sure Don why you see this as "the exact opposite of what you had in mind"(?) Maybe there is something in your comment there, as to why you find the scenario the opposite of what you were thinking, that would help if you explained(?)

    Oh, I originally approached the thought experiment as something I (or someone like me) would find repugnant (e.g., killing ones children, torturing people, etc.) that someone else would find laudable. I didn't consider the scenario of somebody being repelled by something I feel positive toward. So I found the turned-tables an interesting but unexpected opportunity to explore this topic.

    I hope that helps explain my verbage.

  • 33. Justice never is anything in itself, but in the dealings of men with one another, in any place whatever, and at any time, it is a kind of compact not to harm or be harmed.


    I think I see this translated at times as "there is no such thing as absolute justice" and that might be preferable to drill home the point.

  • So I found the turned-tables an interesting but unexpected opportunity to explore this topic.

    Probably as we develop improved techniques for explaining Epicurean philosophy quickly and clearly, we ought to look for examples that do exactly that.


    Today when we did the last podcast for book 4, I made a similar observation, that romantic love probably provides a particularly good example for us to talk about precisely because it evokes such strong emotions and positions.

  • in the dealings of men with one another, in any place whatever, and at any time,

    In the modern world, how do we define "place". Are we dealing with only national or smaller places... Or do we consider the international arena to take precedence? Or the human community,? Or something else entirely?

  • I also would say that the pleasure of the homophobe is no more choice-worthy than the pleasure of the profligate from our old friend PD 10. You may get pleasure from it for awhile, but it's eventually going to bite you... Or has the potential to. In the former case, depending where they go in the world, there is social sanction, political ostracism, becoming a victim of violence if you state your beliefs to the wrong person, etc.

    I realize this veers from the justice argument, but I feel it's also a consideration in determining the choice-worthiness of the pleasure.

  • In light of there being no absolute justice (or ideal virtue of justice), how do we determine if an act (or law) is just? How do we act justly?

    Can you provide a specific scenario that would illustrate someone acting justly? Or the opposite?

    That's not a challenge btw 😉 just a clarifying question.

  • I also would say that the pleasure of the homophobe is no more choice-worthy than the pleasure of the profligate from our old friend PD 10.

    Yes absolutely, that is the point. Simply feeling a pleasure does not tell us it is choiceworthy under our personal circumstances. The larger point, however, is that philosophically if we are looking to nature or something outside ourselves for justification for that choice, we aren't going to find it. All we can note is that our feeling of pleasure is our natural canonical experience -- just like seeing a tree or bird. What we do about what we see or hear is no different than when we do about something we feel. All our actions in life have consequences, but not consequences resulting from the gods, or from idealistic visions of absolute truth.


    In many ways i think discussions like this remind us what a "high-level" we are dealing with here. Like Cicero said somewhere, Epicurean philosophy is not really very difficult to understand. The big picture comes down to denial of the allegations of the major competitors - There IS no god, there IS no life after death, there IS no otherworldly realm of absolute truth. There is for us only our natural world, during our lifetimes, and nothing from nature giving us any "stop" or "go" feedback other than pain and pleasure.


    Much of what Epicurus is doing is simply exploding the opposition, and then pointing to the basic aspects of nature and saying: "This is what you have to work with - go to it with these basics as best you can."

  • In light of there being no absolute justice (or ideal virtue of justice), how do we determine if an act (or law) is just? How do we act justly?

    Can you provide a specific scenario that would illustrate someone acting justly? Or the opposite?

    That's not a challenge btw 😉 just a clarifying question.

    You're wrestling on but you almost have the opposition pinned, and the referee is counting down to the end of the match!


    I think the obvious answer to your question and the obvious implications of the final ten PD10's all point back in the same direction as saying "the goal is pleasure" or "pleasure is the alpha and omega of the blessed life."


    Just like you can't truly know the difference between courage and foolhardiness, or wisdom vs stupidity, or any other virtue vs its opposite, you can't judge "justice" or "injustice" without looking to the results of the particular set of facts.


    And worse than that from an absolutists' point of view, when you do look at it from that relativistic point of view, you're drawn to the conclusion that these words like "justice" and 'virtue" were nothing more than "words" from the very beginning -- which recalls the"last words of Brutus" supposedly recorded after the battle of Philippi (see my note):


    The Wikipedia entry for the Battle of Philippi includes this (as of 09/01/17):


    Plutarch also reports the last words of Brutus, quoted by a Greek tragedy “O wretched Virtue, thou wert but a name, and yet I worshipped thee as real indeed; but now, it seems, thou were but fortune’s slave.”


    https://newepicurean.com/note-…cassius-dio-not-plutarch/


    But to answer your question more directly, it sounds to me like Epicurus is allowing for a proper use of the word justice to refer to an agreement between consenting people for something that is in their mutual benefit - which means it brings them both pleasure. So it sounds like he thinks that in such a relationship it is proper to call that "justice." But he is also saying that as soon as it ceases to be for the benefit of both it at that moment ceases to be "just." So in the end does the word "justice" really have any beneficial use other than in describing an agreement which is mutually beneficial to the people involved? I can't really see that it does, but then that's pretty much the same status as the other "virtues." I suppose that just like "wisdom" means "smart analysis that brings pleasure," Epicurus might say that "justice" means "an agreement (contract?) that brings pleasure to all parties to the contract." If so, then injustice might refer to "an agreement (contract? social relationship?) that does NOT bring pleasure to all parties in that relationship.


    Maybe "justice" is a good general term for a specific type of "social relationship," or "agreement," but the terms "just" and "unjust" are going to be rigorously contextual.


    I will be curious what Elayne has to say on this.

  • I'm thinking also about what other general comments need to be said about the overall context of these observations.


    One generality that comes to mind is this: That although Epicurean philosophy causes us to lose our illusions about the universe having a grand scheme of justice that makes everything come out in the end "fairly" for everyone involved, maybe at least we have in compensation that we have a clear view of the "truth."


    We aren't able anymore to live under the false illusions (primarily of religion, but also of general "humanism") that we used to find so comforting, but in exchange there's something comforting about reconciling oneself to "the way things are," and knowing that whatever time we have had, we have lived it in touch with reality and did the best we could with it.


    I know in my own case that I think all my live I've been prepared to accept "truth" that I didn't like, if need be. But most of all I didn't want to waste my entire life being manipulated and living under some "noble lie" as a pawn of false forces that sounded good but were - in fact - a lie! To me there is some pleasure in thinking that I did what I could even if circumstances were adverse. But to wind up at the end of life thinking that I had spent my time being a helpless pawn at the whim of liars whom I should have seen through? That would be the worst possible result.


    Now I know this viewpoint has to be tempered by the "But was it in fact a pleasurable life?" analysis, referencing how Epicurus said that it is better to live under a false religion that to accept hard determinism that it is not within your power to be happy. I suppose I can imagine a scenario in which there are some truly benevolent people who do in fact keep some hypothetical other person "in the dark" throughout their lives for the sake of that other person living pleasurably.


    But while I can imagine such a scenario being possible, I see no evidence that any existing human system has such a result as its goal or as its practical result. Therefore my acknowledgement of the hypothetical has not given me any reason be worried that I was in such a situation myself or unfairly rejecting such a system anywhere else. And for the same reason I don't expect that Epicurus himself found that he had to worry about adopting a religion so as to avoid the clutches of the hard determinists.


    There's a pleasure in using one's mind and doing what one can to find out the truth and then apply the lessons learned, and at least from my point of view that pleasure is worth an awful lot.


    (Ha -- and of all the ways I could describe it, would I ever think of referring to that pleasure primarily as "absence of pain" or "katastematic"? Not in a million years.)

  • Epicurus might say that "justice" means "an agreement (contract?) that brings pleasure to all parties to the contract." If so, then injustice might refer to "an agreement (contract? social relationship?) that does NOT bring pleasure to all parties in that relationship.

    I see where you're going I think.

    But if that's the case, then I also think I stand by my initial assertion that the law/custom/contract to execute homosexuals is not just because it certainly doesn't benefit both parties.

  • ...There's a pleasure in using one's mind and doing what one can to find out the truth and then apply the lessons learned, and at least from my point of view that pleasure is worth an awful lot.

    That entire post is an eloquent statement of your beliefs and obviously heartfelt and sincere. I deeply appreciate your sharing it.

  • ..... law/custom/contract to execute homosexuals is not just because it certainly doesn't benefit both parties.

    You may be right to disagree with my first suggestion. Maybe the issue is that to be unjust, the agreement has to start out beneficial and satisfactory to both, but then circumstances changed, and it is the attempt to enforce the old arrangement is injustice. But then it seems to me that it is hard to distinguish that situation from "unwilling to agree" which is a situation of "neither just nor unjust."


    It is possible that it would be a good idea to start a new discussion under one of the "justice" subforums. As I recall over the years very infrequently have any of us engaged in long discussions over the last ten PDs, but it would be HIGHLY beneficial to do so.

    Regardless, it seems to me that we have to compare 32 to 37 and 38 to triangulate on this issue:


    Quote

    32. For all living things which have not been able to make compacts not to harm one another, or be harmed, nothing ever is either just or unjust; and likewise, too, for all tribes of men which have been unable, or unwilling, to make compacts not to harm or be harmed.


    37. Among actions which are sanctioned as just by law, that which is proved, on examination, to be of advantage, in the requirements of men's dealings with one another, has the guarantee of justice, whether it is the same for all or not. But if a man makes a law, and it does not turn out to lead to advantage in men's dealings with each other, then it no longer has the essential nature of justice. And even if the advantage in the matter of justice shifts from one side to the other, but for a while accords with the general concept, it is nonetheless just for that period, in the eyes of those who do not confound themselves with empty sounds, but look to the actual facts.


    38. Where, provided the circumstances have not been altered, actions which were considered just have been shown not to accord with the general concept, in actual practice, then they are not just. But where, when circumstances have changed, the same actions which were sanctioned as just no longer lead to advantage, they were just at the time, when they were of advantage for the dealings of fellow-citizens with one another, but subsequently they are no longer just, when no longer of advantage.

    PERHAPS my suggestion should be reworded as:


    Epicurus might say that "justice" means "an agreement (contract?) that brings pleasure to all parties to the contract." If so, then injustice might refer to the attempt to enforce an old "agreement (contract? social relationship?) that does NOT bring pleasure to all parties in that relationship.

    But that is only an interim thought - we need to continue to discuss.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Toward A Better Understanding of Epicurean Justice And Injustice” to “Toward A Better Understanding of Epicurean Justice And Injustice (With Examples of "Just" and "Unjust")”.