I’ve been writing too much lately, but this is probably because it just feels so great to be writing again after not writing anything for nearly a year. This will just be a quick one. It is likely that Epicureanism is the ethical philosophy most consistent with naturalism. Epicureanism teaches that by “good” we mean pleasure and “bad” we mean pain. In other words, pleasure, for the epicurean is the ethical principle. Now, of course not all pleasures are good for the epicurean. Those that bring pain as a consequence such as drinking a 5th of tequila are perhaps pleasurable at the time but bring pain as a consequence. Likewise, while a lavish lifestyle would be pleasurable, it causes too much pain to get it due to the jobs we would have to work to make the money to sustain such a life (not to mention losing our freedom as a result of having to answer to bosses). Similarly, not all pains are bad for the epicurean. For example, getting a root canal. To be sure, we experience pain at the time, but ensures our health and freedom from pain later. The epicurean life is, of course, a moving target. The more we learn about health, the environment, psychology, and social dynamics the better we’ll be at achieving peace of mind and living a pleasurable life. Interestingly, the picture of the epicurean life is closer to that of a Buddhist or Christian monk (moderation and simplicity) than Jim Morrison, because those lives are the healthiest and allow for the most mastery/freedom in ones existence. If epicureanism is one of the strongest candidates for a naturalistic ethics, then this is because it doesn’t presuppose any transcendent laws or rules, but just goes with the immanence of life and existence on the planet among other people.
Problems emerge, however, when we begin to measure it against our ethical intuitions. This is often how I approach reflection on ethical philosophies. I shuttle back and forth between our day to day intuitions about what is right, good, and what would constitute the good life and what the ethical philosophy proposes. The ethical philosophy can then function as a critique of our ethical intuitions– for example, epicureanism suggests that abstaining from shellfish probably isn’t an ethical duty so long as they’re preserved correctly and we’re not allergic –but also we can use our ethical intuitions to critique the ethical philosophy. Many of us have the strong ethical intuition that it is commendable to run into a burning building to save a person, or that it is morally praiseworthy to fight and die on behalf of a cause like justice; whatever justice might turn out to be. However, it’s difficult to see how such values can be grounded within a naturalistic or an epicurean framework. For example, it’s difficult to see what epicurean or naturalistic rationale there could be for becoming a Badiouian subject engaged in a truth-procedure. This is precisely because the work of a truth-procedure (e.g., struggling for egalitarian justice) draws us beyond the animal domain of pleasures and pains, often subjecting us to intense pains that won’t produce subsequent peace of mind and moderate pleasure like getting a root canal. The question, then, is how such ideals, practices, and actions can be grounded within a naturalistic framework? I’m not looking for answers per se, but just trying to pose the problem clearly.