Action And Responsibility In Epicurus: O’Keefe


• Main question: how can free human agency/responsibility be retained in a deterministic universe consisting solely of atoms and void?
• Epicurus introduces `the swerve’ in response; also allows composite objects
• O’Keefe argues that freedom has three variants: agency; character formation; moral responsibility → Epicurus wants to retain all three

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Determinism, Effective Agency And Bivalence

• Atoms naturally fall straight downwards, so would not be capable of forming composites other than in one dimension; deterministic universe
• The swerve is a random deviation sideways by one spatial minimum
• Argument: P: atoms swerve; Q: free volition exists: $\neg$P $\rightarrow$ $\neg$Q; Q; $\therefore$ P
• Lucretius: racehorses in a stall exit it with a delay whereas they move instantaneously if bumped from behind; delay is effective agency in action
• O’Keefe: 1). effective agency ≠ 2). free will because animals have 1) and not 2); and animals not morally responsible
• Popular view: determinism → inability to do otherwise so no free will; free decisions constituted by swerves; preserves ability to do otherwise
• O’Keefe contra that view: Lucretius does not include swerves in description of volition and random swerves get you random action not free will
• `Lazy argument’

• PB = Principle of Bivalence: all propositions true or false
• Leads to fatalism; was always T or F that the patient would recover

• The swerve avoids the necessity of fate; also Chrysippus responds that determinism is compatible with effective agency because actions `co-fated’
• Objections: O’Keefe accepts this but how are fated actions free; why are T counterfactuals relevant?; moreover Chrysippus is a Stoic

Atomism And Self-Formation Of Character

• Epicurus wants swerve + freedom to avoid making us dependent on chance to achieve our desires: believing that would not lead to ataraxia
• Hedonism: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain at root of all actions
• No threat to freedom because beliefs subject to reason → asceticism
• This sets us apart from animals; we can overcome `atomic constitution’
• So Epicurus wants to preserve efficacy of our reason within atomism
• Epicurus holds:

• (A): atoms and void only make up the world
• (B): atomic clusters make up real macroscopic objects inc. our minds
• (C): properties of atomic aggregates are real (inc. relational properties like health and \textbf{enslavement

• (C) differs from Democritus, who is accused of skepticism about knowledge, objects, the mind: `by convention x, in reality atoms and void’
• Allows Epicurus to affirm the reality of the mind; it is `emergent’
• O’Keefe: Epicureans can have real emergent minds and still be physicalists: they identify the mind with an atomic aggregate
• Psychological `products’ — not atomic constituents — drive personalities (tension with previous view that fire atoms in psyche make lions irascible)
• O’Keefe appeals to a nature/nurture type debate here — genes influence but do not control who we become — in attempt to resolve this

Reason And Responsibility

• Epicurus wants to justify our practices of blame and praise
• Criticism of others requires causes of actions are `in us’, `depend on us’
• Epicurus argues it is self-refuting to deny we are responsible for our actions
• One cannot criticize an opponent of this thesis if everything is necessitated because then the opponent’s opposition was necessitated
• O’Keefe correctly observes this is weak: a necessarily expressed position can still be wrong
• Epicurus’s variant: we rebuke each other as if we are responsible
• Assumes we are responsible for reasoning correctly; claimed contradiction
• Centrally, Epicurus is claiming we are responsible because we are rational
• All concerns about PB, determinism are subordinated to that → ataraxia

See Also:

Why Does Epicurus Think That His Radical Views Will Be Persuasive To The Average Person?

Can Inductive Reasoning Be Justified Without Using Induction?

How Far Should Equality Under Law Extend?

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Photo by Pixabay on