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Reconciling Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism

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Epicurean contractarianism is an attempt to reconcile individualistic hedonism with a robust account of justice. The pursuit of pleasure and the requirements of justice, however, have seemed to be incompatible to many commentators, both ancient and modern. It is not clear how it is possible to reconcile hedonism with the demands of justice. Furthermore, it is not clear why, even if Epicurean contractarianism is possible, it would be necessary for Epicureans to endorse a social contract. I argue here that Epicurean contractarianism is both possible and necessary once we understand Epicurean practical rationality in a new way. We are left with an appealing version of teleological, individualistic contractarianism that is significantly different from Hobbesian contractarianism.

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  1. Here I am drawing on Gregory Kavka’s “reconciliation project.” See: (Kavka 1984, 1986).

  2. In the following pages KD refers to Kuria Doxa or Principle Doctrines, VS refers to Vatican Sayings, and Ep. Men. refers to the Letter to Menoeceus. All references are from The Epicurus Reader translation by Inwood and Gerson. See: (Inwood and Gerson 1994).

  3. A similar question arises, for similar reasons, with regard to the Epicurean and friendship. This paper is not directly concerned either with the possibility of Epicurean citizenship or friendship, except incidentally in §2. For excellent recent work on the topic of the possibility and nature of Epicurean friendship see: (O’Keefe 2001a) and (Evans 2004).

  4. Throughout I will use the terms “ataraxia” “pleasure” “tranquility” and “happiness” as synonyms unless noted otherwise.

  5. Here I am following (Nikolsky 2001).

  6. Again, there is some controversy on this point, but I find Nikolsky’s argument persuasive. See: (Nikolsky 2001).

  7. For an interesting and sophisticated recent treatment of this problem, see: (LeBar 2009).

  8. Of course, it is easy to overstate this point. Julia Annas cautions against contrasting too sharply between the ancients and the moderns on this point. See: (Annas 1993, chap. 13).

  9. See, for instance (Mitsis 1988, 98–128) and (Annas 1993, 236–244).

  10. All references to De Finibus are from the 2001 edition edited by Julia Annas and translated by Raphael Woolf. See: (Cicero 2001).

  11. The obvious analogy is to linear programming and maximization given constraint, where the constraint here is the contractarian rules of justice. For an example how constraints are applied to practical rationality that is similar to the account offered here, see: (Schmidtz 1992).

  12. EPM is an abbreviation for The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. All citations are from the 1998 edition edited by Tom Beauchamp, see: (Hume 1998).

  13. All references to The Republic are from Bloom’s 1968 translation. See: (Plato 1968).

  14. Epicurus is unequivocal that justice is useful and that the purpose of justice is mutual, reciprocal benefit (KD 31).

  15. References from Leviathan are from the 1996 Cambridge Revised Student Edition edited by Richard Tuck. See: (Hobbes 1996)

  16. There are obvious similarities between my account and the account in (Vander Waerdt 1987, p.408–411). One main difference, though, is that I am dealing with the question of whether it is rational to follow the rules of justice in the normal, everyday case. That is, whether it can ever be rational to abide by the rules of justice when they conflict with what practical rationality would recommend if the case were judged on its own, without relation to the rules. Vander Waerdt is concerned primarily with the question of whether there are cases where the Epicurean will be required by practical rationality to disobey the rules of justice. Some of the replies here to Cicero and Glaucon will apply to this question, though a full response would require more work.

  17. For a sophisticated recent attempt to deal with this problem, see: (Vanderschraaf 2010). Epicurus also makes this point in KD 36.

  18. For a canonical description of the prisoner’s dilemma see: (Luce and Raiffa 1957, §5.4).

  19. This is a point that informs much of Cristina Bicchieri’s recent work on social norms. See: (Bicchieri 2006, chap. 1).

  20. An assurance game is a kind of impure coordination game. On the assurance problem, see: (Sen 1967) and (Baier 1995, chap. 5).

  21. Herbert Gintis gives a different, though similar method of using social norms to solve mixed-motive and coordination games that involves transforming the original game into a super-game with another player, the choreographer, who makes a move before all of the other players. See: (Gintis 2010).

  22. For more on the important coordinating function of justice in Epicurean contractarianism which parallels many of the arguments made here in a different way, see: (O’Keefe 2001b).

  23. My discussion on this point shares some similarities with a theme of Gregory Kavka’s work. The general idea that he and I both share is that, in his words, “…interpersonal conflicts…are not—as is often thought—simply a result of the immorality of the parties involved. Rather, they are at least partly the result of independent parties pursuing morally legitimate aims in a situation whose structure leads them into conflict” (Kavka 1995, p. 18).

  24. All excerpts from Lucretius taken from the 2008 Slavitt translation of De Rerum Natura, see: (Lucretius 2008).


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The author wishes to thank Julia Annas, Chris Freiman, Jerry Gaus, Keith Hankins, Mark LeBar, Brennan McDavid, Dan Russell, David Schmidtz, Kevin Vallier, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and discussion on earlier versions of this paper. The author also would like to thank the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona for its generous support during the writing of this paper.

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Correspondence to John J. Thrasher.

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Thrasher, J.J. Reconciling Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 16, 423–436 (2013).

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