Tuesday 2 September 2003

Materialism and Ethics (2003)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXI No. 2 Autumn 2003

Learning from Epicurus 

By John Sellars

As the new seventeenth century mechanistic conception of nature developed and gained wider currency during the eighteenth century Enlightenment, a number of contemporaries began to have some doubts about the ethical implications of this essentially materialist philosophy. If man was really simply a machine - as the title of La Mettrieís infamous book proclaimed - determined by Newtonian laws of nature, then what room was left for morality?

Even if God existed - a claim also called into question during this period - how could man follow his moral commands if every human action could, in principal, be predicted according to the increasingly sophisticated laws of science? Further, if all that exists is matter in motion, then what room is left for moral values? According to some, the ethical consequence of Enlightenment materialism was the 'anything goes' immorality of the Marquis de Sade.

It appears, then, that philosophical materialism - aligned as it is with atheism and determinism - is the enemy of ethics. It undermines the authority of claims for the existence of objective moral values and it calls into question our usual attributions of praise and blame. If one accepts materialism - the claim everything that exists can ultimately be explained in terms of matter in motion - then what about the future of ethics?

The issues involved here appear to be fairly straightforward, but what if I were to complicate the matter by noting that the very same materialists accused of undermining traditional morality in fact claimed that they offered the key to a happy and ethical life? Not only that, what if I noted that these philosophers championed materialism primarily because they thought that it would help them to lead such a life? Far from being the enemies of ethics, these materialist philosophers claimed to be primarily ethical thinkers. This is illustrated nowhere more clearly than in the opening line of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature: 'The source of man's unhappiness is his ignorance of nature'.

For d'Holbach, it is superstition that makes man vicious, unhappy, and immoral. By contrast, the rational study of nature will bring understanding, happiness, and concord with others. Moreover, the reason why we should study nature is not for the sake of such knowledge itself, but rather because it will free us from superstition and unhappiness. So here, at least, materialism appears to be motivated by ethical concerns.

The Baron is by no means alone in conceiving a materialist ethics. In particular he is prefigured by the ancient philosopher Epicurus, and it is Epicurus' account of the relationship between materialism and ethics upon which I want to focus here. By going back to a philosopher who lived well before the modern controversy over the relationship between materialism and ethics it may be possible to gain a fresh perspective on the issue at hand.

By way of brief introduction, Epicurus lived in the fourth and third centuries BC and gathered around himself a philosophical community who lived with him in his 'Garden' on the outskirts of Athens. This community of Epicureans held two key doctrines derived from the philosophy of their master: atomism and hedonism. The physical theory of atomism claims that the physical world is comprised solely of microscopic atoms (in Greek atomos, literally 'indivisible') that exist in a void and, as they move around, collide into one another, sticking together to form the larger objects that we can touch and see. The ethical theory of hedonism claims that happiness depends solely on physical pleasure (in Greek, hedone), the maximisation of pleasure and - perhaps more importantly - the minimisation of pain.

Although this doctrine has entered the popular imagination as sensuous debauchery, for Epicurus it involved reducing one's physical needs to a minimum of items that would be readily obtainable, such as inexpensive clothing and simple food. However, what I am primarily concerned with here are not the details of Epicurus' philosophical system but rather the way in which he understood the relationship between his materialism and his ethics. To be more precise, the question at hand is this: 'how does a materialist understanding of the way in which nature works help one to live well?'.

Epicurus' response may be divided into four parts (following the 'fourfold remedy' of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus). Firstly, a materialist account of the natural world removes God from the workings of nature. Although Epicurus did still nominally believe in 'the Gods', he thought that they did not bother themselves with what humans got up to. Nature runs itself following certain regularities that science can observe and record. Sacrifices and prayers are thus of no consequence. Secondly, a materialist account of the human being denies the possibility of an afterlife.

As Epicurus puts it, 'death is nothing to us'. When we are alive we do not experience death; when we are dead we do not experience anything at all. But we do occasionally experience anxiety about what will happen when we die and concern about friends and relatives about to die. But this is literally concern about nothing, that is, anxiety about a non-existence that none of us will never and could never experience. Thirdly, a materialist account of what an individual actually needs in order to live can help us to overcome excessive desires for unnecessary paraphernalia. By learning how the human body works we can see that in fact we need very few things to live well.

People desire a wide variety of things but by understanding which of these are 'natural' (i.e. necessary for our continued existence) and 'unnatural' (i.e. unnecessary and thus superfluous) it becomes possible to desire only those things that are essential. By focusing on the physical stuff of human existence - as opposed to our status, reputation, and what we think society demands of us - we soon realise that all we need to live well is decent shelter, adequate clothing, and simple, healthy food.

For the majority of us these are not too difficult to obtain. And the fourth element, that a materialist understanding of physical pain can help us to distinguish between real pain and mere anxiety. What makes us suffer, when considered physically, is relatively easy to put up with. Although there is no escaping physical pain, much of the suffering we endure is the product of anxieties about suffering pain but not pain itself. The fear and anxiety experienced before visiting the dentist is, for some, considerably greater than the minimal discomfort actually experienced under local anaesthetic once there.

By understanding the nature of physical pain through an examination of the way in which nature works one can begin to learn that much of our suffering is self-created and unnecessary. Intense physical pain is usually brief, while longer term pain is often fairly mild. Thankfully, prolonged periods of intense pain are relatively rare for most people. These, then, are some of the ways in which Epicurus thought that a detailed understanding of the physical world might help to improve our lives.

They can be neatly summarised in the words of the 'fourfold remedy' espoused by Philodemus: 'Do not fear god, do not worry about death; what is good is easy to get, what is terrible is easy to endure.' But one might object: 'to be sure these ideas may promote an individual's own happiness, but how do they make one moral ? - how do they alter our behaviour towards others?'. To this objection I suggest that we should think about some of the wider implications of Epicurus' ideas here. Three in particular are worth noting.

To begin with, a materialist perspective in which God is removed (or at least sidelined) implies human beings should be seen primarily in terms of their shared physical characteristics rather than social or religious divisions. Put another way, although culturally I may have little in common with someone from, say, a nomadic African tribe, physically we share much in common (although he would probably be in better shape than me). Indeed, recent genetic research has done much to undermine the claims of racists that there is any substantial difference between different groups of human beings. Approaching other people from this materialist perspective, then, emphasises what all humans share in common.

By contrast, history shows that religions - supposedly the guarantors of our moral values - create divisions between people, leading to hatred, war, even genocide. Further, the focus upon obtaining only natural needs and reducing one's wants to a minimum undermines the obsession that some have with material gain and social status.

According to Epicurus such things are irrelevant to living a good life (for there are plenty of rich and famous people who are miserable). Consequently his materialist ethics is clearly opposed to the selfish and competitive frame of mind that champions personal success over a wider more social outlook. Moreover, Epicurus' hedonism places the alleviation of real physical suffering - both one's own but also that of others - high on his list of priorities, certainly much higher than the acquisition of unnatural and unnecessary luxuries.

Finally, for the materialist an individual's physical body is all that there is. There is no immortal soul or life hereafter. But rather than devaluing the human being, in a sense this places a greater value upon the physical person standing before me. To destroy the body of a living being who will perish with it is surely a greater crime than to destroy the vessel for a soul that will either receive a new body or enjoy some form of disembodied continued existence. In this sense materialism adds value to the physical individual rather than taking it away.

In the light of these three points one can see that Epicurus' ethics (as concerned with his own well-being and happiness) is also moral, in that it takes into account the well-being of others. It does not propose a series of objective moral values to which one must submit oneself, but it does propose a personal ethic that has attractive moral consequences. Materialist philosophers such as Epicurus and d'Holbach suggest that one should study nature and shun supernatural explanations as this will contribute to one's own personal happiness. In the case of Epicurus, we see that a materialist ethic can also be moral.

Materialism, then, may not be so much as the enemy of ethics, as rather another way in which one might develop a genuinely ethical approach to the world. And this, I would argue, is certainly what Epicurus thought.

Address for correspondence
email: john.sellars@kcl.ac.uk

Further Reading

Most of my references to Epicurus derive from the Letter to Menoeceus, also known as the Letter on Happiness. This can be found in The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, ed. Brad Inwood & L. P. Gerson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994). 

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