Why Epicureans and Utilitarians are wrong: on the axiology of pain and pleasure

Figs in Winter
8 min readMay 29, 2024

Moral philosophers are beginning to incorporate insights from evolutionary biology

The four big hedonists: Aristippus (upper left), Epicurus (upper right), Bentham (lower left), Mill (lower right)

Hedonism, philosophically speaking, is “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.” (Apple Dictionary) Two major clusters of hedonistic theories appeared in the history of western philosophy: the Cyrenaics and Epicureans of Hellenistic times, and the Utilitarians of the 19th to the 21st centuries.

Cyrenaicism was a short-lived school established by Aristippus of Cyrene (modern Libya, north Africa) who was born around 435 BCE and was, interestingly, a student of Socrates — himself certainly not an hedonist. The Cyrenaics believed that the good life consists in experiencing physical pleasures in the present, largely rejecting both intellectual pleasures (because they are less intense) and pleasures that were from the past (enjoyed merely by remembering them) or the future (not here yet, and may never come). Not surprisingly, they also believed that pain is the only evil.

The Epicureans were a bit more sophisticated. They shifted the emphasis to moral and intellectual pleasures, like those we experience when we are in the company of friends…

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Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.