Some Aspects of Practical Reasoning in Epicurean Ethics

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Mcfarland, David 

In the introduction I set out the principles and assumptions guiding the thesis, together with the two questions it addresses about Epicurean ethical reasoning: the method for making correct decisions and the education required to be able to do so.

The first chapter discusses Epicurus’ version of the hedonic calculus. My view is that he had a formal procedure for making decisions based on pleasure and he used it to formulate his ethical rules and recommendations, but it was different from a Utilitarian calculus. His calculus had two parts. The first was consequentialist - you should consider the advantages and disadvantages of any decision – and the second evaluative - you should recognise that pleasure has a natural limit, namely painlessness. To understand better how Epicurus’ calculus worked, I investigate the role of duration in assessing pleasure and argue that the inconsistencies in his position can be explained as an attempt at reconciling hedonism with a commonly accepted criterion for happiness, completeness; and I then examine Epicurus’ theory that all mental pleasures are derived from bodily ones and propose that it is evidence of a reductive, teleological model of human behaviour. I analyse Torquatus’ discussion in On Moral Ends of his ancestor’s famous exploits and show that it supports my teleological account of Epicurus’ calculus, which I then use to clarify his classification of human desires and the notion of greater and smaller pleasures. I conclude the chapter by arguing that Epicurus’ hedonic calculus is different from the Utilitarian one largely because of the eudaimonism and practical orientation of ancient Greek ethics.

The second chapter discusses Epicurus’ idea of a moral education. My view is that the study of physics was the central element in learning to be a good Epicurean. I begin by investigating and rejecting two other candidates for that role: spiritual exercises and memorisation. I then look at Epicurus’ study advice to his followers and his practice of summarising his teachings in letters and conclude that Epicurean education was primarily an intellectual activity and had much in common with modern educational methods. I argue that Epicurus’ physics and ethics covered different ground from their modern counterparts and that physics provided the theoretical support for his ethical positions and contained the knowledge that ethical decisions were to be based on. I use these ideas to present a revised interpretation of the canonic passage at the start of the Letter to Menoeceus. I conclude the chapter by arguing that Epicurus’ view of a moral education implies that he saw philosophy as more akin to a scientific discipline than a humanistic one.

In the conclusion I examine Torquatus’ description of Epicurean ethical intelligence in On Moral Ends and show that it is consistent with my analysis of the Epicurean version of the hedonic calculus and a moral education.

Sedley, David
Epicurus, Hedonism, Practical Reasoning
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge