DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2024, from

11. Social values

Ancient ethics does not problematize altruism as such, but it does seek the moral foundations of two specific forms of altruism: justice, that is, respecting the interests of your fellow citizens; and friendship. Given that Epicurean hedonism is egoistic – that all your choices as an agent aim at your own pleasure – is it possible to put someone else’s pleasure before your own?

Epicurus analyses justice not as an absolute value but as a contractual relation between fellow citizens, its precise character engendered by current social circumstances (Key Doctrines 31–7). Sometimes it proves mutually advantageous to abstain from forms of behaviour which harm others, in return for a like undertaking from them. So long as such a contract proves socially advantageous, it is correctly called ‘justice’. It imposes no moral obligation as such, and the ground for respecting it is egoistic – that even if you commit an injustice with impunity the lingering fear of being found out will disrupt your tranquillity (Key Doctrines 17, 35).

With regard to his own philosophical community, Epicurus attached positive value to justice and to the specific laws which enforced it not because philosophers need any restraint from wrongdoing but because they need protection from the harm that others might inflict. ‘Do not take part in politics’ was an Epicurean injunction, political ambition being a misguided and self-defeating quest for personal security. But the school nevertheless upheld the need for legal and political institutions, and sought to work within their framework.

Where the political life fails to deliver personal security, friendship can succeed. The very foundation of the Epicurean philosophical community was friendship, of which the mutual dealings of Epicurus and his contemporaries were held up as an ideal model by their successors. Unlike justice, friendship is held to have intrinsic value – meaning not that it is valuable independently of pleasure, but that it is intrinsically pleasant, not merely instrumentally pleasant like justice. Moreover, the pleasure lies in altruistic acts of friendship, not merely in the benefits received by way of reciprocation.

Later Epicureans were pressed by their critics for a more precise reconciliation of friendship with egoism, and developed the position as follows (Cicero, On Ends I 66–70). According to one group, it is indeed for our own pleasure that we form friendships, and it is as a means to this, not ultimately for our friends’ sake, that we share their pleasure and place it on a par with our own. A second group veered away from egoism: although friendship starts out as described by the first group, the outcome is something irreducibly altruistic, whereby we come to desire our friends’ pleasure purely for their sake. A third group sought to restore egoism: the second group is right, but with the addition that friendship is a symmetrical contract, analogous to justice: each friend is committed to loving the other for the other’s own sake.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Social values. Epicureanism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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