Friday, May 02, 2008

Chin up!

We have been reading Epicurus' Kyriai Doxai in our seminar this term and I began last night to introduce KD 18-21, which attempt to show that Epicurus' hedonism can still offer a recipe for a good and 'complete' life: a life lacking nothing good. It seems that this might be a tall order for a hedonist because if (i) pleasure is the good then (ii) the more pleasure the better. That would seem to imply (iii) a longer life containing more pleasure will always be better than a shorter life containing less pleasure, and (iv) however long your life is, then, it always could have been better.

The Epicureans deny the inference from (i) to (ii), controversially, and therefore hope to avoid (iv) and rescue the possibility of a complete mortal hedonist life. Pondering all this I remembered one of my favourite quotations from Henry Sidgwick (perhaps most famous among the majority of Cambridge undergraduates for his Avenue...), Methods of Ethics Book II chapter 2 'Empirical Hedonism' (p. 130 n.):
It is sometimes thought to be a necessary assumption of Hedonists that a surplus of pleasure over pain is actually attainable by human beings: a proposition which all extreme pessimists would deny. But the conclusion that life is always on the whole painful would not prove it to be unreasonable for a man to aim ultimately at minimising pain, if this is still admitted to be possible; though it would, no doubt, render immediate suicide, by some painless process, the only reasonable course for a perfect egoist-- -unless he looked forward to another life.
(There is a very handy e-text of the whole work here and links to other resources here.) Sidgwick's point is certainly true: whether or not we do or can live lives which are pleasant, all things considered, is not really relevant to the question whether hedonism is true. In fact, hedonism is compatible even with a very dark view of our chances of ever living a life in which pleasure predominates over pain. Of course, should hedonism be true and it be the case that pleasure will never predominate over pain then this would recommend immediate suicide: things can only get worse if they are prolonged. (I wonder if he had a cheeky smile on his face as he wrote this note. Hard to tell whether he's the kind of person who ever had a cheeky smile...)

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