Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Excerpts from David Sedley's entry on Epicureanism in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)


...The school was founded by Epicurus (341-271 BC). Only small samples and indirect testimonia of his writings now survive, supplemented by the poem of the Roman Epicurean Lucretius, along with a mass of further fragmentary texts and secondary evidence. Its main features are an anti-teleological physics, an empiricist epistemology and a hedonistic ethics.

In ethics, pleasure is the one good and our innately sought goal, to which all other values are subordinated. Pain is the only bad, and there is no intermediate state. Bodily pleasure becomes more secure if we adopt a simple lifestyle which satisfies only our natural and necessary desires, with the support of like-minded friends. Bodily pain, when inevitable, can be outweighed by mental pleasure, which exceeds it because it can range over past, present and future enjoyments. The highest pleasure, whether of soul or of body, is a satisfied state, 'static pleasure'. The short-term ('kinetic') pleasures of stimulation can vary this state, but cannot make it more pleasant. In striving to accumulate such pleasures, you run the risk of becoming dependent on them and thus needlessly vulnerable to fortune. The primary aim should instead be the minimization of pain. This is achieved for the body through a simple lifestyle, and for the soul through the study of physics, which offers the most prized 'static' pleasure, 'freedom from disturbance' (ataraxia), by eliminating the two main sources of human anguish, the fears of god and of death. It teaches us that cosmic phenomena do not convey divine threats, and that death is mere disintegration of the soul, with hell an illusion. Being dead will be no worse than not having yet been born....

Although Epicurean groups sought to opt out of public life, they respected civic justice, which they analysed not as an absolute value but as one perpetually subject to revision in the light of changing circumstances, a contract between humans to refrain from harmful activity in their own mutual interest.


Epicurus argues that there can be no creating or controlling divinity, and that our world, one of infinitely many, is an accidental and temporary product of large-scale atomic collisions. Apparent evidence of divine creation can be explained mechanistically. Animal parts, for instance, however well suited to their uses, came into existence accidentally before those uses were conceived. In the early days of life on earth many non-viable creatures were generated, but did not survive (Lucretius V 837-77; a widely admired anticipation of Darwinian survival of the fittest). Even human institutions such as language and law, often attributed to divine benefactors, are formalized versions of modes of behaviour with purely natural origins in human need and instinct.


That our world cannot be a product of divine craftsmanship is argued on several grounds (especially Lucretius V 156-234). Quite apart from the world's obvious imperfection, and the difficulty of finding a motive for its creation by already blissfully happy beings, the true conception of a god is incompatible with the role of cosmic administrator. A god is a supremely tranquil being, whereas the burdens of government include attitudes of anger, favour and worry.

How do we know that god is like this? In Epicurus' view there is a natural conception of god as a blessed and immortal anthropomorphic being, a conception shared by all human beings, even though in most it has been obscured by a veneer of false beliefs, for example, that the gods are vengeful, or that they govern our lives, turn the heavens and so on. People tend to endow god with their own moral values, especially the competitive values of political society, and by the same token the Epicurean reversion to the true conception of divinity as tranquil and detached is also a rediscovery of the natural human goal, tranquillity...


Another 'innate' human attitude, along with the prol0psis of god, is the pursuit of pleasure as the only positive value, or 'end' (telos). Epicurus argues that the behaviour of the newborn, and even of non-human animals, confirms that to maximize pleasure and minimize pain is the natural and primal drive (Cicero, On Ends I 30). â [E]thics starts with the mapping out of all intrinsic values into pleasure and painâ the next move consists in showing these two items to be jointly exhaustive: the absence of pain is itself pleasure, and there is therefore no intermediate state (Cicero, On Ends I 37-9).

This controversial thesis goes to the heart of Epicurus' ethics. In his view, most human misery results from ignorance of how to quantify pleasure. Where some hedonistsâ had recommended the constant renewal of pleasure through self-indulgence, Epicurus observes that this accumulation does not increase the total of pleasure beyond that achieved when all pain has gone, but only 'varies' it. Freedom from pain is itself already a supremely pleasant state. The pursuit of luxury, far from increasing pleasure, enlarges your desires and leaves you needlessly vulnerable to the whims of fortune.

â[He] examines the non-hedonic values which others assert, such as virtue, and argues that they are in fact valued not for their own sake but as instrumental means to pleasure (Cicero, On Ends I 42-54).

It remains to fill out the prescription for the maximization of pleasure, that is, to sketch the ideal Epicurean life. This involves calculating the relative roles of bodily and mental pleasures, and of static and 'kinetic' pleasures. Bodily feeling is in a way focal, since mental pleasure and pain consist ultimately in satisfaction and dissatisfaction, respectively, about bodily feeling. For instance, the greatest mental pain, namely fear, is primarily the expectation of future bodily pain (which is the main ground, and a mistaken one, for the fear of death). But although mental feelings ultimately depend on bodily ones, and not vice versa, mental feelings are a more powerful ingredient in an overall good life. Someone in bodily pain - which may be unavoidable - can outweigh this by the mental act of reliving past pleasures and looking forward to future ones. It is this ability to range over past and future that gives mental feeling its greater power. But misused, especially when people fear everlasting torture after death, it can equally well become a greater evil than its bodily counterpart.

Static pleasure is the absence of pain. The bodily version of it is called 'painlessness' (aponia), the mental version 'tranquillity' (ataraxia, literally 'non-disturbance'). Tranquillity depends above all on an understanding of the universe, which will show that contrary to the beliefs of the ignorant it is unthreatening. (This is, strictly speaking, the sole justification for the study of physics.) Kinetic pleasure is the process of stimulation by which you either arrive at static pleasure (for example, drinking when thirsty) or 'vary' it (for example, drinking when not thirsty). There are mental as well as bodily kinetic pleasures, for example, (perhaps) the 'joy' of resolving a philosophical doubt or holding a fruitful discussion with friends. Although kinetic pleasures have no incremental value, Epicurus does apparently consider them an essential part of the good life. This is particularly because the mental pleasure which serves to outweigh present pain will inevitably consist in reliving past kinetic pleasures and anticipating future ones. So a successful Epicurean life cannot be monotonous, but must be textured by regular kinetic pleasures. In the letter written on his deathbed, Epicurus claimed that despite the intense bodily pains this was the happiest day of his life, because of all the past joys of philosophical discussion that he could relive.

At the same time, these kinetic pleasures must be carefully managed. Some desires are natural, others empty. The latter - for example, thirst for honours - should not be indulged, because their satisfaction will bring either no pleasure or a preponderance of pain over pleasure. Even of the natural ones, some are non-necessary. For instance, the desire for food is necessary, but the desire for luxurious food is not. In order to be maximally independent of fortune, it is important to stick primarily to the satisfaction of natural and necessary desires. But occasional indulgence in those kinetic pleasures which are natural but non-necessary has a part to play, so long as you do not become dependent on them. True to this principle, Epicurean communities lived on simple fare, and even trained themselves in asceticism, but held occasional banquets...


Epicureanism enjoyed exceptionally widespread popularity, but unlike its great rival Stoicism it never entered the intellectual bloodstream of the ancient world. Its stances were dismissed by many as Philistine, especially its official rejection of all cultural and intellectual activities not geared to the Epicurean good life. It was also increasingly viewed as atheistic, and its ascetic hedonism misrepresented as crude sensualism (hence the modern use of 'epicure'). The school nevertheless continued to flourish down to and well beyond the end of the Hellenistic age. The poets Virgil and Horace had Epicurean backgrounds, and other prominent Romans such as Cassius, the assassin of Julius Caesar, called themselves Epicureans. In the first three centuries of the Roman Empire many writers show some debt to Epicurean thought, including not only the novelist Petronius but even the Stoic Seneca and the Platonist Porphyry. When Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor AD 161-80, established four official chairs of philosophy at Athens, a chair of Epicureanism was among them. In later antiquity Epicureanism's influence declined, although it continued to provide a target for thinkers, both Christian and pagan, in search of a godless philosophy to attack. Serious interest in it was revived by Renaissance humanists, and its atomism was an important influence on early modern physics, especially through Gassendi.

Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge
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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)