Is it possible for an Epicurean to put someone else’s pleasure before his or her own? ‘ Date: Wednesday, 16 March 2005. I shall show how it is possible for an Epicurean to put someone else’s pleasure before his own. I shall show how this is possible in at least one situation with a lack of knowledge of an interpersonal nature. There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal association in whatever localities now and again from time to time, providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.
(Principle Doctrines #33) The Epicurean criterion of ‘right action’ has to do with the net effect that any action has on a situation in terms of the outcome measured in it’s eventual pleasure1 experienced by those who are experiencing it. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together. (Principle Doctrines #3)
Also, I shall show how there is a problem with this modus operandi: that it offers no assistance when putting pleasure before myself, in an Epicurean fashion, as I cannot certainly know which course of action I will take. Pleasure is the absence of pain (see Doctrine #3, above), and: All desires that do not lead to pain when they remain unsatisfied are unnecessary, but the desire is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to obtain or the desires seem likely to produce harm. (Principle Doctrines #26)
Since this pleasure depends on an outcome, all actions are premeditated – or at least should be (in the Epicurean society). Epicureanism is the best-known form of ancient hedonism. Epicurus identified pleasure with tranquility, and emphasized the reduction of desire over the immediate acquisition of pleasure2: “since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them” (Letter to Menoeceus)
If I cause someone pleasure by doing something then certainly I should do it only as long as I cause a net general effect of a positively pleasurable/happy experience – or at least not ‘cumulatively’ worse negatively pleasurable/happy one. 3 According to this I must always act in favour of the general situation, not to only my own, or, for that matter only anyone else’s happiness/pleasure. So, if I make myself happy by doing something for someone, the action is, on my half of the deal, a right one.
Also, if I make someone else happy by doing something, I should also do it – again the action is ‘right’. However, what if the action necessarily causes one agent some sort of unpleasurable experience whilst also necessarily causing another agent pleasure we need to weigh up the ‘net effect’ of this pleasure in deciding what to do. For example: a man is walking and sees two men drowning in a river, he knows he can rescue one of them, but doesn’t know if he has enough time to save both. Which should he rescue?
Taking the example in it’s simplest form – where the rescuer does not have any affiliation with either man – then he should save either man as this will, overall, produce more good feelings than not saving anyone. It seems not to matter, whichever he saves. Still, there’s a problem: we cannot tell who was saved, most surely not if the man who is doing the saving has never seen either of these two drowning men before, and, furthermore had presumably had, by epicurean standards, a ‘good time’.
What if the man left in the river would have had a more pleasurable life than the one taken out? 4 However, if the man sees his brother in the river, who should he save? It is both within his interest to save his brother and in the brother’s interest also; what about the other guy? According to the criterion of right action, which states that a person should do that which causes the greatest net pleasure, should he then save his brother rather than some random drowning man in a river? In this account, the man does not cause more pleasure by saving his brother than letting him die.
If he saves the brother, surely his family would not feel the pain of loss, but the other man’s family would. If it causes us to have greater overall personal pleasure by doing a bad thing and a (very? ) good thing, then if the moral motivation was relevant, could we simply say that, at least in this case, it might be possible to put one’s own pleasure before that of another. 5 Conclusively then, it is possible for the Epicurean to put his own pleasure before that of another, especially so considering:
The wise man feels no more pain when being tortured himself than when his friend tortured, and will die for him; for if he betrays his friend, his whole life will be confounded by distrust and completely upset. 6 Vatican Sayings, 56-57 So, if one could then you should do a good (right) thing for someone as long the good thing will bring about a positive net effect as the total pleasure (lack of pain) in the grand scheme of things. But this seems only possible where the actor has no possible egoistic motivation for his ‘pleasure seeking’7.
It may not be at first clear how and when Epicurus would wish for us to put ourselves first, but examination shows us that on closer inspection, Epicurean teaching tells us that the ultimate nature of friendship is almost martyr-like in character – that, under the correct conditions I would be willing to lay down my life for my friend, for not doing so would lead me to greater pain, or ‘confoundedness’. In this way then, it is possible for an Epicurean to put someone else’s pleasure before his or her own. Bibliography
Principal Doctrines by Epicurus, Translated by Robert Drew Hicks, http://etext. library. adelaide. edu. au/e/epicurus/doctrines/ 2004, Wednesday, 09 March 2005 Wednesday, 16 March 2005 Letter to Menoeceus By Epicurus, Translated by Robert Drew Hicks, http://etext. library. adelaide. edu. au/e/epicurus/menoeceus/, Monday, 07 March 2005, Wednesday, 09 March 2005, Vatican Sayings, Epicurus et al, http://www. epicurus. net/en/vatican. html, Tuesday, 08 March 2005 Hedonism: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Hedonism, Wednesday, 16 March 2005
1 For epicurus, there were two sorts of pleasure, both intrinsic and instrumental (“… Of our desires some are natural and necessary others are natural, but not necessary; others, again, are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to illusory opinion. ” (Doctrine #29) “… people [may] find it useful to distinguish instrumental and intrinsic goods. This was discussed by Aristotle: an intrinsically good thing is worth having for itself, even if it doesn’t help you get anything else that’s good. ”
(http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodness_and_value_theory#Hedonism, Wednesday, March 16, 2005) 2 Whilst many philosophers claim it should be viewed differently, there is still the common claim that Epicureanism is possibly the most well known form of hedonism (Hedonism) 3 A ‘cumulative’ amount is a suitably good description as how else are we to measure pleasure/happiness together, or indeed, apart – does there exist a definitive scale? Could we try to do what economist do with utility? 4 This begs the question of what will happen to the saved man after he is saved?
Will he live the rest of his life with, overall, a more pleasurable/happy net experience of it, or would the other man have had a more pleasurable life than the man who was saved? How could we ever tell? How would we ever decide? How could this concur with the above point, of being measurable to a scale or continuum of some sort? 5 Assuming that one’s own ‘pleasure in life’ was not at stake then motivationally this is not at fault. 6 Vatican Sayings 7 Bearing in mind our previous definition of pleasures.