Brief Dialogue on Duty and Ontology

Cassius. I think it is true that we don’t owe “obligations” toward people with whom we have not come into contact with, as that would imply some absolute duty which does not exist. Do we owe a duty to the dead, or to the unborn future, just because they were at some point born? I don’t think so, nor do we owe a “duty” to people across the other side of the world just because they are alive. But to the extent we may potentially interact with them they have the capacity to cause us pleasure or pain, so there is to that extent a factor that needs to be considered.

Hiram. I have a strong intuitive sense that society has a right to extract a duty to the unborn future. Otherwise society might easily cook for itself its self-destruction. I don’t know how to articulate that yet, but if most people that I care about have children and grandchildren that they love, even if I don’t have future generations after me, it would be difficult to argue that I can destroy the future generations’ access to natural and necessary goods without facing backlash and compromising my access to civilized society.

Cassius. Yes but that is not a “duty” in the sense that the word is generally used, which is a reference to the gods or to absolute virtues. That use of the word is the primary one and why one of Cicero’s most widely known books was “On Duties” – De Officiis” I think the continuing key is the proper use of words and definitions so as not to give in to ideas that are incorrect.

Hiram. Is there an Epicurean definition of duty?

Cassius. My first thought is that just like “gods,” “duty” would have a specialized definition fitting how it arises, and would be limited to obligations undertaken voluntarily, by actual or implied contract. Certainly not obligations enforced outside by gods or by absolute virtue or non-existent standards like that.

In addition, thinking further about law, duties arise not only through actual or implied contract, but in “equity” arising from conduct. In other words my conduct toward someone else may create an obligation, such as when I start to save someone who has fallen into a pond through the ice, my action in starting to save them likely causes others to hang back, so in equity I have an obligation to finish the job because I have placed the drowning person in a worse position who is then relying on me to follow through.

Hiram. Can (our own?) nature impose a duty? A thing for which we suffer if we don’t comply?

Cassius. To say that our “nature” imposes a duty probably goes too far because unless we have done something by our own action then we are implying that Nature has some scheme to which we are *required* to conform. That is where the word duty has the sense of an outside-imposed obligation. I don’t think missing out on pleasure by not doing something would be the same thing as a “duty”. And that raises issues of free will as well, which is clearly natural and therefore sort of sets a ground rule of free choice.

Hiram. So a category different from duty should be given to things that are so highly advantageous that we feel strongly morally compelled to do them. I’m not sure what the word for that would be, but I think articulating these things might help us to better address many of the ethical problems of modern society and show the relevance and moral authority of Epicurean ideas.

Cassius. Well, maybe what you are referencing is still just the sense of pleasure, but that this type of pleasure is more intense and/or greater duration than others. Remember there is no motivating force – no “strong compelled” force of any kind – other than pain and pleasure. Admission of ANY force other than pain or pleasure destroys the system

I think we must never admit of ANY “moral force” or any source other than pleasure and pain. Everything else is conjecture / conceptualization / speculation / theory, which may or may not be very pleasurable or painful, but which has no motivating force on its own other than the pleasure or pain that arises from it.

Hiram. Let’s think concretely: in Bolivia there were four months of water wars some years back because the government had privatized all the water in the country and sold it to a private company. Before I became an Epicurean, when I wrote for the student paper at NEIU and other outlets, the issue of water privatization was something I took an interest in because it seemed to me so morally abhorrent to think that in the future, a handful of companies and their greedy CEOs would ensure that nations would go to war for water just as today they do for oil. The categorical distinction of natural and necessary that we find in Epicurus applies to water, but does not apply to oil. Is there not a natural duty to protect public access to water?

Cassius. No, I would say there is NO natural duty! There is only our prediction of the pleasure or pain that will arise from the action. In that case, the people privatizing and channelling the water in ways that are harmful to others must expect that the others will react actively and cause them pain, and the ones adversely affected must indeed do so if they are to vindicate their interests, because there are no outside supernatural forces to vindicate them.

That was the error of the Confederate States in their motto “Deo Vindice” – Vindicated by God — There IS no god or outside moral enforcing agent to come to the support of people – there is only the actions of live people. Actually there is also a passage in Plutarch’s Lives on Cassius and Brutus which I think makes the same point — we might wish to be able to call on supernatural forces as in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings to fight for us, but no such forces exist.

… It is true that abstractions such as thoughts of moral duties can themselves be highly pleasurable to us. So it is not correct to say that abstractions don’t exist and so they can’t bring us pleasure or pain. That is why we have to be sure to be clear when we say “nothing really exists except matter and void.” The meaning of that is that nothing exists ETERNALLY except matter and void, but for us living in the world of bodies which have come together during our lifetime, the bodies we observe and the ideas we discuss are very “real” TO US even if they are not eternal. So even though we are materialists, the world of ideas is very important to us and the source of much of our pleasure and pain. Epicurean philosophy teaches not that the world of ideas is not important, but that the world of ideas has to be tied to reality so that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that our ideas themselves are supernatural or have an eternal existence of their own.

Hiram. Maybe the question is not whether ideas are real or not (they are electric currents running among our neurons, so they exist in that way), but that there seems to be a distinction in Epicurus between sentient beings and non-sentient beings insofar as we can experience pleasure / aversion and other EXPERIENCES. How life is experienced is of great importance to us. Remember how Polyaenus was said to often coin new words for the sake of clear speech? I think we have to do that to articulate these problems. Epicurean philosophy sees sentient beings as arbiters (with the help of the canon) of reality and of things as they are, using their faculties, so the issue of sentience itself needs to be evaluated from an ontological perspective, and somewhat independent of the sources because whatever they said on this didn’t survive.

Cassius. I agree with what you wrote but I think you are making a point I am not exactly clear on. What do you mean from an ontological perspective?

Hiram. Ontology is the part of philosophy that deals with in what way things exist, so your question on atoms and void goes to that. (You were asking:) In what way do ideas exist? Similarly, in the case of sentient beings, we have the canon that says that pleasure and pain are real, but these are qualitatively different EXPERIENCES from when our body’s five senses tell us that rocks, trees, water exist out there as made up of atoms and void. These experiences exist, but in a different way from atoms and void, as emerging properties of some bodies, specifically of sentient beings.

Cassius. Well here I would keep in mind this from DL: “They affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate being, and that the one is favorable and the other hostile to that being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined; and that there are two kinds of inquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words.” Going too far into ontology may wind up to be the path to inquiry that is “nothing but words”.

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.