Morality and Pleasure

According to the Epicurean philosophers, their “Wise Man… is always happy: his desires are kept within bounds.” This is a point brought out in Cicero’s dialogue, De Finibus, which presents a debate between representatives of three major schools: Epicureanism, Stoicism and Platonism. The first spokesman, Torquatus, dismisses the idea that the Epicurean is a mere sybarite or undisciplined hedonist. One should seek the “highest bodily and mental pleasures,” with the latter being a superior form of enjoyment. According to Epicurus, “no one can live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably and justly.”

Now in one sense, Torquatus is right, if we speak in terms of “well-being.” What most Greco-Roman systems have in common is that they are eudaimonistic—proper ethical conduct leads the individual to “happiness.” Of course pleasure and happiness are not interchangeable. Even the Epicureans are willing to concede this point. Too much food and drink can lead to discomfort or even ill-health. By that same token a more patient man can undergo extreme hardships for the sake of material gain or, better yet, for the honor of doing his duty (and the accompanying fame and friendship that this might entail).

Yet there is a limit to the “calculus of pleasure” envisioned by the Epicureans and later Utilitarians. On the one hand I think it is unlikely for people to respond to an ethical creed that cannot evince some obvious benefits in the here and now. Nevertheless at some point one runs up against the circularity of such reasoning. What tells us which results are beneficial or not? If it is a system of sheer pleasure-seeking then it must gradually degenerate into licentiousness. A person may defer gratification and make sacrifices for the sake of completely nefarious ends, like embezzling funds from his company, seducing his neighbor’s wife, obtaining absolute political power, etc.

To my layman’s way of thinking there is both an “innate” as well as a “consequential” aspect to moral behavior. It would be absurd to divorce the two. Even Christian conduct can be seen in a eudaimonistic fashion (as Thomas Aquinas explains in his adaptation of Aristotlean teleology). What we are promised in return for our obedience and good conduct is eternal happiness.

I know that some people—whether critics of Christianity or very austere spiritual proponents of religion—would say that this makes one’s faith just as self-seeking in its way as the Epicurean system; that only a completely disinterested faith is worthy of the name. I disagree with these scruples. Such a question involves subtleties that range well beyond the scope of this brief commentary, except to say that the goods of creation have been made attractive to us for a reason. No one is exempt from this attraction, and in the end it is really a question of whether we pursue these goods in their proper order or foolishly set lesser forms of happiness over greater ones.

Related commentary: Cicero’s Guide to Life

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