Consequentialism & Moral Relativism within the context of Pleasure-filled Philosophy

  • Living pleasurably is not the same as feeling pleasure. A prisoner (who is not an Epicurean) can feel pleasure intermittently, but I would contend that they aren't living pleasurably. Someone living in abject poverty (who is not an Epicurean) can feel pleasure intermittently, but I would contend that they aren't living pleasurably. The feeling of pleasure alone is not a sufficient reason to contend that someone is living a pleasurable life.

    As I reread your post I don't know that we really have much disagreement on the fundamental points as much as we are on that conclusion and the implications of it. On this "Living pleasurably is not the same as feeling pleasure." I would say that clearly seems to be a problem, maybe mostly because of the implications it raises without answering them. Because this sentence "The feeling of pleasure alone is not a sufficient reason to contend that someone is living a pleasurable life" can hardly mean anything other than that there is some reason OTHER than the feeling of pleasure to contend that someone is living a pleasurable life. Clearly the person asserting such a position has something OTHER than the feeling of pleasure to assert as the standard of a pleasurable life.

    Maybe it would help if you would explain what that standard might be, but I cannot imagine that asserting that "the standard of a pleasurable life is something other than pleasure" could lead to much that would be consistent with Epicurus.

    But I am all ears ;)

  • I agree with everything Cassius has said, Eugenios, and I think this is an extremely important issue to understand, in order to thoroughly grasp this philosophy. Once you have fully gotten it, you won't have trouble recognizing when people aren't understanding it.

    One way people can accidentally slip into idealism on this subject is through using personifying language about nature. Epicurus did do that, but I am sure he made certain his students knew what he was doing. If that is tripping you up, you might want to avoid using metaphorical language and see if it is easier to avoid this trouble.

    The actual way we got to develop both the capacity for pleasure and specific preferences is through evolution. Humans who followed their desires to pursue pleasure and avoid pain survived and reproduced-- but it is not that the sweet fruit which was life-supporting was designed for us and the poisonous fruit not. We evolved together. The sweet fruit propagated by having us eat it and evacuate its seeds, so those fruits which matched our tastes most closely were propagated more, and we learned to continue to eat them-- humans who had a taste for them and could get those calories survived. The poisonous fruit which does not spread that way survived humans eating it by mutations which killed or repelled through taste --- the fruit without that taste and/or poison mutation didn't survive, if our eating it killed it off. The humans who ate food tasting that way didn't make it. None of this was according to any kind of design.

    The typically shared pleasures of our species were evolved, such as a tendency to empathy and cooperativeness... but the "cheater" niche, which includes sociopaths, is a consistently filled niche in most if not all species. It isn't unnatural. It has advantages and disadvantages, and a member of the cheater niche is going to feel pleasure and pain from different stimuli than the rest of us. Their subjective pleasure can only be sensed by them. Species with cheaters also evolve ways among the typical members to detect and contain cheater activity within a certain range-- or else that population tends to die off. Unchecked cheating is not a successful evolutionary event.

    In the last two paragraphs, I have gone beyond what Epicurus said, because he did not have all the evolutionary science available to him which we have now. But I think what I have said is coherent with the philosophy. I have not yet found any observable material phenomena to conflict with his philosophy, because it is based in reality.

  • And let me be clear-- just because our specific pleasures and pains developed through survival and reproduction advantages does not make survival/ reproduction our primary goal. There is no absolute good in survival and reproduction. I was just giving the descriptive background. Once a species has evolved the capacity for pleasure and can make choices, pleasure itself is the goal of life.

  • Eugenios, and I think this is an extremely important issue to understand, in order to thoroughly grasp this philosophy. Once you have fully gotten it, you won't have trouble recognizing when people aren't understanding it.

    ... and you will get lots of practice recognizing it! As for myself I have a harder time telling whether people don't understand it, or whether they just refuse to accept it. This is think is related to the widespread injection of "humanism" into Epicurean discussions. Everyone (me included) has personal preferences as to how we would like to see the world work, but the humanist seeks to universalize his or her conclusions into a single "best" system for everyone.

    To be fair to Epicurus and to understand him, I think we need to recognize that Epicurus wasn't in the business of creating a political system.

    Epicurus won't deliver a god-like pronouncement as to whether - to take a current example - the Greeks should fling open the gates to the Syrian refugees, or whether the Syrian refugees should even be trying to get into Greece. Epicurus was in the business of understanding the universe so that EVERYONE, Greek and Syrian, could - if they cared to - evaluate their personal situation according to reality and then act accordingly.

    The point people don't like to hear is that the facts of nature don't take sides, and Greeks and the Syrians both could take exactly the same starting points as to philosophy and come to all sorts of different conclusions -- from coexistence to separation to all out war -- based on their own personal considerations.

    And the fact of nature that we have to live with as to Epicureans is that Nature doesn't "care" about the result, and doesn't care whether the Greeks or the Syrians win or whether they all exterminate each other. There are no gods or "ideals of virtue" to look to either to tell us which side to root for, other than any we might choose to create for ourselves. We ultimately each as individuals have to look to our own feelings of pleasure and pain, and then act accordingly.

    It's really hard to keep a clear distinction between our own personal preferences, and our understanding of what Nature and philosophy can answer for us. Really hard. But I think we can sense strongly in the surviving texts of Epicurus, especially in parts like PD10 and the PD's stating that there is no absolute justice, that this individual contextual analysis is exactly what Epicurus was saying.

  • I am coming back to this thread because I want to make a brief point, but I think this is not really the thread I am looking for. Somewhere recently I was making the argument that Epicurus was very clear that there are only two feelings, pleasure and pain, and that this is the foundation of so much else in terms of understanding that pleasure is the ultimate goal. (Very few people want to advocate pain, they simply want to advocate something else.)

    But what i was looking for was a post where I was listing the cites in Epicurean texts which make this point. Until I find it I will post it here because it is relevant here too:

    I generally remember to point to Diogenes Laertius for this "the feelings are two" point, and also to a passage in the letter to Herodotus, but here is a passage from Torquatus / On Ends that really needs highlighting in this context. It is said here in passing, but in very clear terms: if you are feeling ANYTHING, that feeling is either Pleasure OR Pain:

    "A man who is conscious of his condition at all must necessarily feel either pleasure or pain."

    Here is the Latin:

  • Of course survival and reproduction it is not an absolute good that is ordered by any god or any leader, but it is a relative good according to the relative circumstances of the relative experiences as measured (in time and space) with senses and among pleasure and pain whilst we might see clearly evidential that survival and reproduction it was not an absolute good but a kind of a necessity for the survival of a society.

    An example based on experiences: There is, as we call it in western societies :"the social security system". This system is not an ideal and absolute invention, it has been evolved as we human beings have been evolved and still evolving on the basis to help each other when there is a great need and as it is called also as solidarity of a society which keeps its coherence, because at the same time we have seen clearly that in time and space there are not only situations as “milk and honey” in a society. And this happens according to the experiences that have been measured that to maintain whatever you have acquired and to provide for the future is something that is pleasant and not painful. Isn't it ?

    So it becomes clear that the social security system is that financial deposit account that pays in some percent: Our lovely Doctors and nurses and all the medical staff for providing to our health in hospitals when we got ill e.g. from coronavirus, medicines in pharmacies, and mainly this : for paying the pensioners' pensions. However, there is also a crucial question that has to be answered: When this social security system would fall down and be collapsed? It is when we insist that when there are almost 5 old pensioners who take their pensions monthly, without being worried and enjoying their leisure, for maintaining hospitals with medical staff, providing medicines, doing researches in the laboratories and the like, (to not mention the schools, universities and education issues) and when we see clearly that: Oh, geee there are only one and half young man that is able to work for those five old pensioners, as well as these ones and half young men are working for themselves too when they would confront a situation of a great need.

    And what is doing a society when its social security system falls down and being collapsed due to the above ? Do not worry, dear ladies and gentlemen, there are others that are intruding for holding the situation firmly bonded to the "demands" of Nature on what it can be done and not can't be done by us, since those that are intruding, have already born 6/7 children in one family. So, then, here I want to see this society/societies that include both old and young men, if they have those GUTS for making social contracts with others (that may have NOT the same idea what is just and what is unjust) and on the basis to not harm and not be harmed each other.

    What on earth does Epicurus say here? Does he maybe describe societies of jungles ? Doctrine 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.

    Did you were unable or unwilling to born new babies according to a relative/and prudently measured good that is the safety and the coherence of your society? Do not worry about what is just and what is unjust ! Nature that does not care at all, will point out to you clearly -in time and space - what is just/ pleasant and what is unjust/painful.

    Because there is also - the fifth in line - Principal Doctrine which says: It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honorably and justly, [nor again to live a life of prudence, honor, and Justice] without living pleasantly. And the man who does not possess the pleasant life, is not living prudently and honorably and justly, [and the man who does not possess the virtuous life], cannot possibly live pleasantly.

    For this Epicurus maybe he had said: Prudence is higher than philosophy. Prudence is that kind of capacity of those societies for making clear that there is and the need to keep safe of whatever you have been acquired and to provide for the future. Because if this society will act otherwise, it would fall to the stoic apathetic “suggestion” which does say : Has your estate was taken from you ? It was given back. He who took it from you is wicked. What does it matter to you through whom the Giver asked it back? As long as the giver gives you, take care of it, but not as your own; treat is as the passers-by treat an inn ! Thus, according to the stoics’ "suggestions: treat our societies like an inn, or better as the Americans ask: What is this, Grand Central Station???" that means a) there are too many people around here, or b) people seem to think that they can come and go as they please. OR as we Greeks say with another idiom : "edo einai bate skyloi aleste & alestika min dinete", which means : " Here is the place where everyone does whatever one wants, open to all, free to all, anything goes, come one come all".

    Yes indeed, the wise man will marry and have children, as Epicurus says in treatises On Problems and On Nature, but only in accord with the circumstances of his life and IF these circumstances point out to him clearly that he has to take care of his property and provide for the future.

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Excellent post Elli. Since we are talking about something similar here, let me post this assertion that I think applies here too:

    So what we're talking about ... comes down to "Is there an 'OBJECTIVE' ranking of Pleasures and Pains to which we can refer to as absolute standards to be embraced and rejected in all situations?"

    And the answer to that which is dictated by Epicurean understanding of the nature of the universe would presumably be "No such standard exists so no absolute ranking is possible."

    link: Commentary on KD 10'

  • Picking up from some ruminations on this thread months ago.

    There's a single paragraph within On Ends where Torquatus is discussing Justice that I will quote below. I have underlined some important aspects in which I will raise some questions and discussions.

    Yet nevertheless some men indulge without limit their avarice, ambition and love of power, lust, gluttony and those other desires, which ill-gotten gains can never diminish but rather must inflame the more; inasmuch that they appear proper subjects for restraint rather than for reformation. Men of sound natures, therefore, are summoned by the voice of true reason to justice, equity, and honesty. For one without eloquence or resources dishonesty is not good policy, since it is difficult for such a man to succeed in his designs, or to make good his success when once achieved.

    Back in March I wrote a vaguely worded thread, ruminating on the concept of Consequentialism, specifically the variations of "Motive Consequentialism" and, to a lesser extent, "Negative Consequentialism".

    The former judges strictly based on the current state after an act has been made, compared with other possible decisions and their potential outcomes, justifying different acts and holding that certain acts, despite a negative outcome cannot be reprimanded or called out due to the circumstances which led to the course of action from the agent making the decision, for their motivations regardless were in a good, or justifiable place.

    The latter in that the best moral outcome is one that seeks to reduce as many negatives as possible, or the least damaging outcome. An easy comparison to explain this is to compare it to "Negative Utilitarianism" or "Negative Hedonism" in that the highest good is found through reducing the pain or suffering of the greatest number.

    Not to get onto the absence of pain debacle, but nonetheless, removing pain is an important concept and a key aspect of Epicurean Philosophy. However, context and individual interpretations and approaches to this are a necessity, since there is no sole universal pleasure which unequivocally works for each person, despite common instances such as food, and desires play the chief role in all this.

    For desires are something we act upon for the sake of pleasure. Sometimes those desires require self-reflection and the philosophizing about whether or not they are worth it, but even in these instances the end goal is for our pleasure, even if that means enduring a small amount of pain in the present, something established by many Epicurean sources.

    How this all comes back full circle, we must first establish a few points for clarity and context: (I promise to not use formal logic, this is just a very layered issue)

    1. Epicurean Philosophy has no universal or absolute moral principles, neither duty or virtue are held to such standards, as they are subject to the all-encompassing axis of pleasure & pain.

    2. The Canon, or the Epicurean Epistemology is directly tied to everything in which we interact with, and is responsible for much more, as for this point, our senses and feelings are the important part for confirming the first statement above.

    3. Third, and perhaps above all, pleasure *is* the good, and pain *is* evil. It is to this end that we actively and passively (moving/static) pursue pleasure, and avoid pain. This truth is self-evident, and to be as bold as to claim that this is a universal truth, well, by that I would say it is our natural inclination as evidenced by our sensations and reactions to both.

    Here's where things can get tricky, as actions done in the name of removing pain are viewed as a good thing.

    Quote from Principal Doctrines 6 & 7

    6. Whatever you can provide yourself with to secure protection from men is a natural good.

    7. Some men wished to become famous and conspicuous, thinking that they would thus win for themselves safety from other men. Wherefore if the life of such men is safe, they have obtained the good which nature craves; but if it is not safe, they do not possess that for which they strove at first by the instinct of nature.

    Likewise, must we assume that actions done in the name of pleasure are in themselves good? That certainly seems to be something we can get behind.

    The question remains then: what is to be done about those, Epicurean, hedonist, Cyrenaic, whose actions can be related to Torquatus and what Epicurus termed and referred to as [pleasures of] "the profligates".

    Quote from Principal Doctrine 10

    10. If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky, and death, and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full, with pleasures from every source, and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.

    These profligates, or, the ones who may require restraint as worded by Torquatus, or, to be put in another manner, those whose actions done in the name of pleasure, who cannot be reconciled, for their pleasure incidentally reflects (and effects) poorly and negatively among others. They are the target of both Epicurus and Torquatus.

    Now, before we discuss Justice, I would like to pull a quote from Epicurus' On Nature, Book 18, translated from French to English (by Hiram.) If only there were more available subject matter regarding these French books.

    Quote from On Nature, Book 18

    One must rely on sharpness of perception to separate the notions of nature from those that are designed with difficulty or obscurity … Pay full attention to the power of the empirical reasoning. – Epicurus

    While the above quote is used within the context of "empty words", I believe that it provides a good and consistent foundation from which we can reasonably proceed, in that judging the words and actions of others, is done primarily through our senses (ie the canon). Therefore, taking an empirical, or rather canonical approach to the aftereffects of an action is the only feasible method in which to judge something as justifiable.

    There are many, numerous quotations, fragments, sayings, and paragraphs detailing the extent of law and justice from an Epicurean perspective. I firmly disagree in that its sole foundation is the concept of mutual benefit. Instead, its notions and anticipations of contractarianism and Social Contract theory, refer instead to a mutual accountability on the basis of allowing individuals to pursue their pleasure and avoid pain caused by others. Let's take a look at some of these sources, namely the last 9 PD's.

    In regards to the application of Epicurean Justice, I will refrain from inviting discussion onto the implications of an Epicurean state, society, or civilization, I will instead broadly refer to culture and law as if these were commonly accepted. But first, I will refer to three paragraphs from Torquatus about Choice & Avoidance and how they pertain to consequence, which includes the law and thus fear of punishment.

    Quote from Torquatus On Ends

    If then we observe that ignorance and error reduce the whole of life to confusion, while Wisdom alone is able to protect us from the onslaughts of appetite and the menaces of fear, teaching us to bear even the affronts of fortune with moderation, and showing us all the paths that lead to calmness and to peace, why should we hesitate to avow that Wisdom is to be desired for the sake of the pleasures it brings and Folly to be avoided because of its injurious consequences?

    The same principle will lead us to pronounce that Temperance also is not desirable for its own sake, but because it bestows peace of mind, and soothes the heart with a tranquilizing sense of harmony. For it is temperance that warns us to be guided by reason in what we desire and avoid. Nor is it enough to judge what it is right to do or to leave undone; we also need to abide by our judgment. Most men however lack tenacity of purpose; their resolution weakens and succumbs as soon as the fair form of pleasure meets their gaze, and they surrender themselves prisoners to their passions, failing to foresee the inevitable result. Thus for the sake of a pleasure at once small in amount and unnecessary, and one which they might have procured by other means or even denied themselves altogether without pain, they incur serious disease, or loss of fortune, or disgrace, and not infrequently become liable to the penalties of the law and of the courts of justice.

    Those on the other hand who are resolved so to enjoy their pleasures as to avoid all painful consequences therefrom, and who retain their faculty of judgment and avoid being seduced by pleasure into courses that they perceive to be wrong, reap the very highest pleasure by forgoing pleasure. Similarly also they often voluntarily endure pain, to avoid incurring greater pain by not doing so. This clearly proves that Intemperance is not undesirable for its own sake, while Temperance is desirable not because it renounces pleasures, but because it procures greater pleasures.

    Now, if we are to suppose that these laws were commonly accepted or put into practice, we would see instances in which those who harm others intentionally or unintentionally, would be subject to some form of punishment, for they have committed an injust act via harming another person. Though depending on the severity, since this must all be on a case by case basis (see circumstance in PD 38), and per Torquatus, the hand of the law could either include restraint (punitive) or reformation (restorative) means. To say nothing of having the law dictate and subsequently act upon what is *considered* good and evil or unjust and establishing a precedence, but instead by acting upon empirical, observable effects of an individual or even a collectives efforts that are deemed as unjust for violating the mutual agreement.

    Side note: I've read in a few instances in Usener's Epicurea, a story or account in which Epicurus & Metrodorus (or perhaps Hermarchus) attempted to free a friend of their who had been imprisoned, which required visiting local authorities. Despite this I recall the account ending in their friend remaining imprisoned. Another instance similar to this via interacting within the constrains of the law, is when Zeno of Sidon eventually had Diotimus the Stoic sentenced to death for the latter's crude and excessive defamation against Epicurus. Additionally, Epicurus being forced to sail during the winter seasons during his exile from Lesbos (or Mytilene) because he had angered the local authorities on various charges also comes to mind.

    So what does this all mean?

    Well, given the various sources and taking into account the many nuances that go into formulating a specific position such as this in regards to Epicurean Philosophy. I propose here that it's safe and reasonable to assume that Epicurean moral theory is the following:

    A consequentialist, relative, and hedonist theory that does not outright declare any action or intent as inherently morally good or evil, rather that all morality stems from pleasure and pain, since pleasure is the good and pain being the evil in life. Where unseemly actions may be justified and perhaps even lauded (as good).

    Morality as a whole stems from this as well, so just as Epicurus put it in PD 10, we cannot blame and punish other hedonists but rather express condemnation at shortsighted behavior, likewise we cannot fault others who act only on their behalf for the purpose of securing a safe future for themselves, whether financially or physically. However, we can use our standing with the law and a willingness to preserve the integrity that is the mutual advantage and compact of Justice to be allowed the means to sanction or punish those who cause pain unto others, even if its done in the name of pleasure.


    I know this was sort of a rambling mess, but a structured one at that, as I wrote this over a span of time in which I had to constantly revisit my desk after being taken out of focus due to errands and other obligations. Generally this topic has been of major interest to me, and its nice to actually have an idea of what to post on the forums.

    Let me know what you think!

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”