From Michael Palmer’s (“Looking at Philosophy”)

The philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) is known (not surprisingly) as Epicureanism. If today the term hints of gluttony, debauchery, and bacchanalian orgies, that is not Epicurus’s fault but the fault of some of his Roman interpreters. Epicurus himself led a life of sobriety and simplicity: eating bread, cheese, and olives; drinking a bit of wine; napping in his hammock; and enjoying conversation with his friends while strolling through his garden. He died with dignity and courage after a painful, protracted disease.

…Epicurus believed that the goal of life was happiness, [and] happiness he equated simply with pleasure. No act should be undertaken except for the pleasure in which it results, and no act should be rejected except for the pain that it produces. This belief provoked Epicurus to analyze the different kinds of pleasure. There are two kinds of desire, hence, two kinds of pleasure as a result of gratifying those desires: natural desire (which has two sub-classes) and vain desire:

I. Natural desire

A. Necessary (e.g., desire for food and sleep)

B. Unnecessary (e.g., desire for sex)

II. Vain desire (e.g., desire for decorative clothing or exotic food)

Natural necessary desires must be satisfied and are usually easy to satisfy. They result in a good deal of pleasure and in very few painful consequences. Vain desires do not need to be satisfied and are not easy to satisfy. Because there are no natural limits to them, they tend to become obsessive and lead to very painful consequences.

The desire for sex is natural but usually can be overcome; and when it can be, it should be, because satisfaction of the sexual drive gives intense pleasure, and all intense emotional states are dangerous. Also, the desire for sex puts people in relationships that are usually ultimately more painful than pleasant and that are often extremely painful.

One of the natural and necessary desires to which Epicurus pays a great deal of attention is the desire for repose. This term is to be understood both physically and psychically. The truly good person (i.e., the one who experiences the most pleasure) is the one who, having overcome all unnecessary desires, gratifies necessary desires in the most moderate way possible, leaves plenty of time for physical an mental repose, and is free from worry.

Notice that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure is negative; that is, pleasure is the absence of pain. It is this negative definition that prevents Epicurus from falling into a crass sensualism. The trouble with this definition is that, taken to its logical extremity, the absence of life is better than any life at all (a conclusion Freud also came to in his text Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he claimed that behind the “pleasure principle” is Thanatos, the death instinct).

This deduction is a bit ironic because Epicurus himself claimed that his philosophy dispelled the fear of death. Democritus’s atomism led Epicurus to believe that death was merely the absence of sensation and consciousness; therefore, there could be no sensation of consciousness of death to fear. “So long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”

Some of Epicurus’s Roman followers interpreted “pleasure” quite differently, defining it as a positive titillation. It is because of these extremists that today Epicureanism is often associated with sensualistic hedonism. Sickly Epicurus, swinging in his hammock, would have disapproved. (Though not harshly. Polemics cause agitation, which is painful.)

Epicurus’s theory never constituted a major philosophical movement, but he had disciples in both Greece and Rome for a number of centuries. His most famous follower was the Roman Lucretius, who, in the first century B.C.E., wrote a long poem, On the Nature of Things, expounding the philosophy of his master. It is through Lucretius’s poem that many readers have been introduced to the thoughts of Epicurus.


Enjoy this modern take on Epicurus:




Christine Korsgaard’s “Sources of Normativity”


The Normative Question

In the Introduction chapter of “The Sources of Normativity”, (1996) Christine Korsgaard writes:

…”We all know in a general way how and why we were taught to follow moral rules, and that it would be impossible for us to get on together if we didn’t do something along these lines. We are social animals, so probably the whole thing has a biological basis. So what’s missing here, that makes us seek a philosophical ‘foundation’?

The answer lies in the fact that ethical standards are normative. They do not merely describe a way in which we in fact regulate our conduct. They make claims on us; they command, oblige, recommend, or guide. Or at least, when we invoke them, we make claims on one another. When I say that an action is right I am saying that you ought to do it; when I say that something is good I am recommending it as worthy of your choice. The same is true of the other concepts for which we seek philosophical foundations. Concepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to say, what to do, and what to be. And it is the force of these normative claims – the right of these concepts to give laws to us – that we want to understand.

And in ethics, the question can become urgent, for the day will come, for most of us, when what morality commands, obliges, or recommends is hard: that we share decisions with people whose intelligence or integrity don’t inspire our confidence; that we assume grave responsibilities to which we feel inadequate; that we sacrifice our lives, or voluntarily relinquish what makes them sweet. And then the question – why? – will press, and rightly so. Why should I be moral? This is not, as H.A. Pritchard supposed, a misguided request for a demonstration that morality is in our interest (although that may be one answer to the question.) It is a call for philosophy, the examination of life. Even those who are convinced that ‘it is right’ must be in itself a sufficient reason for action may request an account of rightness which this conviction will survive.”

…”When we seek a philosophical foundation for morality we are not looking merely for an explanation of moral practices. We are asking what justifies the claims that morality makes on us. This is what I am calling the ‘normative question’.”

In this meeting we will look into philosophical foundations of moral obligation, following Korsgaard’s interpretation of four major attempts to provide an account of it. Korsgaard does not reject these accounts, but concludes that they are all true:

1. Voluntarism (Pufendorf and Hobbes) – “normativity must spring from the commands of a legislator. A good legislator commands us to do only what is in any case a good idea to do, but the bare fact that an action is a good idea cannot make it a requirement. For that, it must be made law by someone in a position to command us. As we saw, that view is true. What it describes is the relation in which we stand to ourselves. The fact that we must act in the light of reflection gives us a double nature. The thinking self has the power to command the acting self, and it is only its command that can make action obligatory. A good thinking self commands the acting self only to do what is good, but the acting self must in any case do what it says.”

2. Realism (Nagel) – “Realists like Nagel think that reasons are intrinsically normative entities, and that what we should do when a desire presents itself is to look at it more objectively, to see whether it is such an entity [a reason to act]. This view is also true. What it describes is the activity of the thinking self as it assesses the impulses that present themselves to us, the legislative proposals of our nature.”

3. Reflective Endorsement (Hume, B. Williams) – “Reflection has the power to compel obedience, and to punish us for disobedience. It  is in turn bound to govern us by laws that are good.”

4. Autonomy (Kant) –  Together these facts yield the conclusion that the relation of the thinking self to the acting self is the relation of legitimate authority. That is to say, the necessity of acting in the light of reflection makes us authorities over ourselves. And in so far as we have authority over ourselves, we can make laws for ourselves, and those laws will be normative. So Kant’s view is also true. Autonomy is the source of obligation.”

Korsgaard concludes that nothing can be normative unless we place a value upon ourselves, unless we endorse our own nature:

“Reflection reveals to us that the normativity of our values springs from the fact that we are animals of a certain kind, autonomous moral animals. That is, in the Aristotelian sense, our human form.”

“The Cold Equations” by Tom Goodwin


In this meeting we continue to explore moral questions. The “vehicle”, this time, is a short SciFi story “The Cold Equations” written by Tom Godwin in 1954.

Despite the fact that this group is concerned with philosophy, we turn again this meeting to fiction literature for our preparatory material. The reading, The Cold Equations, is an acclaimed science fiction short story which should prove fertile for consideration of value theory. The Twilight Zone episode of the same name (linked below) is based on the story. Enjoy either, or both.

The story presents a circumstance in which a moral decision must be made, and is made according to a set of rules that purportedly justify the decision. After you’ve read / viewed the story, ask yourself not only whether or not the decision made is the right one, but, also, whether or not such a set of rules as are applied is the right sort that one should use for such decisions.

Link to the story:


Link to the Twilight Zone episode “The Cold Equations”:


Philosophy in Fiction


“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story written by Ursula Le Guin. The story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974. It is a haunting philosophical parable with themes of happiness and sacrifice, which asks the reader to fully engage with difficult questions of ethics and morality.

The story’s last sentence would mark an excellent starting point for any philosophical discussion of ethics:

“But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The full text of the story is available here:


Test Your A-Morality


by Goran

TheTest Your Morality experiment is based the new “super-organism” moral theory. This “theory” happens to be just the latest among the disturbingly ubiquitous displays of profound ignorance as to what morality and ethics are about.

We are invited to take part in what Lab UK calls “groundbreaking science”:

“The new theory suggests that all moral actions are based on the fundamental need to ‘police’ society in order to keep the ‘superorganism’ functioning properly, and that everyone in human social groups inadvertently plays the role of ‘unofficial policeman’ by making judgments about how others behave.

Moral action, according to this theory, is driven by the expectation of punishment if we don’t properly carry out our roles within the ‘super-organism’ properly.

We each play a variety of roles in the large societies of which we are a part. These range from our professional roles at work, to being a good parent, to being captain of the local chess club.

If we shirk on the job, or let our kids run wild, or cheat at tournaments, we can expect to be punished by others in the relevant social group. This may be directly, through confrontation or sanctions, or indirectly, through shunning or exclusion.

So why do we have individual morality? Why isn’t everyone’s morality the same? Because the theory posits that our moral responses are ‘tuned’ to the roles we fulfil in our social groups. We each fulfil different roles in society, so we each develop our own personal morality.”

And the purpose?

 “Ultimately, we hope the findings from Test Your Morality will lead to an improved understanding of how morality works and could help us to organise our societies in more fruitful ways in future.”

To summarize:

1. Social groups are “organisms”. We, (you and I) are parts of an organism, much like ordinary cells are part of a body.

2. Social groups, like organisms, have mechanisms of self-defense which protect them from harm. We (you and I),  are much like anti-bodies, kicking into gear by firing up our moral judgments whenever a threat is on the horizon. We apparently do it both out of biological necessity and fear of punishment.

3. Now that we know what we do and why we do it, we will finally be able to organize our societies (organisms) in such a “fruitful” way that their well-being is better assured in the future.

This “theory” is based on several items of appalling intellectual recklessness:

– Poor analogy. I remember having similar thoughts at about the age of twelve. Then I read some books.

– The effortless transition from what we do and why we do it  to somehow knowing (usually in some future) what we (will) ought to do. (The incoherence of this sentence illustrates the incoherence of the thought behind it). No mechanism is ever given for this transition. We just need to trust that it will happen.  Never mind that, as far back as 1739,  David Hume demonstrated the impossibility of moving from “Is” to “Ought”.  But that’s just philosophy. No one takes it seriously any more.

– Like any moral theory, this one too pronounces “the good”:  “The good” is the “super-organism”, the society. The goal is to become better at protecting it. Inadvertently,  like a blind chicken, the “groundbreaking science” stumbles upon an “ought” – We ought to become better at protecting the society (organism) of which we are part. This, apparently, is the goal of morality.

The study of ethics is, it appears,  no more than observation of human behavior and formulation of theories that explain it. Then we have a Promise that in some future  sufficient amount of accumulated fact will make us “better”. This is based on an (accidental) assumption of what “the good” constitutes of.

On display here is the naturalistic approach to ethics. It seems to be all the rage in certain circles lately. It certainly sells a lot of books. As Richard Polt puts it in his excellent NYT article “Anything But Human”:

“Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.”

It is no accident that the “super-organism” theory completely ignores the individual. When a human being is explained away in terms of behavior, biology and, in this case, silly analogy, the individual is stripped of all value. That value is transferred to whatever accidental “good” happens to be given.  In this case it is Society, but the word is synonymous with “The People”, “Fatherland”, “Motherland”, or whatever other pet-name is given to the “Super-Organism”.

If this sounds sinister, that’s because it IS.  It is bad enough when these old, worn out, populist and ultimately evil-producing perversions of ethics are driven by political, clerical, nationalist and other agendas. This latest naturalistic fad is especially atrocious because it is based on agendas far lesser in scope. It sells books. It rides free on the enormous successes of our scientific endeavors. It appeals to common sense.

It is free of philosophy. It is a dry, empty husk, light as a feather, easy to lift. It is worthless.

It spreads ignorance.

The Morality Test is worth taking. If your results indicate that you are a danger to the “Super-Organism”, wear that badge with pride and walk away in full possession of your individual human dignity.

If your results indicate anything else, forget about it as quickly as you can. This has nothing to do with ethics.