Discussion summary on Kant and O’Neill

The Questions

  1. How often do you believe that imperfect duties should be completed?
  2. Are there any flaws in the Kantian “bottom-up” approach to aiding and helping others in need?

The Relevance of the Questions

(1) I asked this question as I believe that this is something Kant only briefly touches on and can seem like a hole in the Kantian theory. As imperfect duties are still obligations, but they are not constant obligations, I was interested in how often my fellow peers thought imperfect duties should be completed.

(2) As the “bottom-up” approach seems to value humans autonomy more so than the Utilitarian “top-down” approach, I was interested in seeing if my peers had any opinions or criticisms of the Kantian “bottom-up” method. Helping others is a very important imperfect duty for society, and it’s important to understand the different approaches and the benefits or weaknesses they might have.

Group Discussion on the Questions

  1. Our group had a similar consensus on the frequency of imperfect duties. We decided that imperfect duties must be completed by everyone, even if someone is in stuck in deep poverty for example. We decided that imperfect duties can range from donating money to charities to asking if someone is okay when they fall down. This leads us to the frequency of imperfect duties. Imperfect duties can come along at random times and even when we least expect them. Defining how often imperfect duties should be done was difficult for my group, yet we decided that imperfect duties should be carried out when they are presented to us. For example, if you know you should learn how to cook and develop your talents, and your friend invites you to her cooking class, we believe it’s ones imperfect duty for you to go to the cooking class and develop your talents.
  2. When my group was discussing the two different methods to helping others in need, we all agreed the “bottom-up” approach is far more superior than the “top-down” approach. We discussed the Kantian approach and noted its focus on autonomy and lack of paternalism. We did note, however, this effect could be more time consuming and might not be as effective in time constrained situations. The other possible fault in this approach is in the situation where the ones being helped aren’t aware they are in a state which needed aid, and therefore could not specify what they needed from those trying to assist. Other than these possible blemishes, our group believes that the “bottom-up” approach is one that should be adopted by all humans and is the most humane way of helping others.


Two discussion questions I brought to the group to talk about:

  1. From what perspective should we consider the consequences of one’s actions in order to determine if they are morally good? Is an internalist perspective more important than an externalist perspective when defining justice or injustice in actions? Is the person experiencing the consequences of an action the one that matters when defining morality?  Should there be a set of universal principles that everybody follows in determining whether one is being moral?

For instance, if your best friend has a boyfriend and you discover that her boyfriend is cheating on her, do you tell her even though you are aware she will be devastated? Or do you not tell her and leave her in a blissful ignorance?

Our group discussed that it is necessary to tell your best friend if her boyfriend is cheating on her because, lying is not only intrinsically bad, but also because if your best friend were to find out by herself she would be more in pain knowing that you knew before her. However, we also discussed how, in the hypothetical case that your best friend would never be able to find out the truth unless you revealed it to her that is where the question complicates itself. On one hand if she didn’t find out, she would be more happy and not experience pain, however, from an outsider’s perspective your friend being cheated on is being wronged. Therefore our group discussed that, when comparing internalist versus externalist points of view, in the end the externalist point of view matters most because it determines what is really intrinsically good.

We then linked back our discussion to how Mill is more of an objective moralist, in the sense that he believes in certain moral principles that bind humanity and maintain social order. This relates to the passage of the text when Mill talks about how committing unjust acts for the sake of producing greater good is actually not morally right because then it promotes injustice in all acts and could lead to a chaotic society. However, Mill also says there are exceptions, thus due to the flexibility of Mill’s philosophy depending on the situation, our group discussed that one should attempt to way out the situation and the outcomes.

This relates to the author’s main argument that the GREATEST HAPPINESS PRINCIPLE, involves evaluating actions by how much pleasure they produce in terms of the person experiencing the action but also in terms of an objective moral perspective.

  • “both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.” (p. 5)
  • “Justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules, which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life; and the notion which we have found to be of the essence of the idea of justice—that of a right residing in an individual—implies and testifies to this more binding obligation.” (p. 16)
  1. Why are intellectual pleasures considered more valuable than sensual pleasure and how do they bring more pleasure and happiness in the end?

Our group discussed how sensual pleasures, are pleasures that derive from a NEED. A person in NEED of something will always be troubled by stress because it is LOOKING for something and thus it has to MOVE in order to obtain something. We linked the sensual pleasures back to Epicurus’ concept of kinetic desires such as food or water. These desires are necessary, yet if somebody always looks for sensual pleasures one will always remain unsatisfied. Our group then linked the higher pleasures such as feelings of dignity and virtuousness to Epicurus’ static desires. Our group talked about how higher pleasures come from a peaceful internal state of mind, where one accepts having NO desires. By not having any desires one truly finds peace and a higher sense of pleasure that is long term, unlike sensual pleasures, which satisfy the body momentarily.

This relates to the author’s main argument regarding how to live the best of life, which is by cultivating as much pleasures as possible in terms of quantity and quality; most of all seeking a life of static pleasure. It is through these pleasures, more importantly the higher pleasure that one can achieve happiness and be as farthest away from pain.

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” (p. 4)

“Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good.” (p. 4)

“Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others, and his own, so far as happiness is concerned, were a sheer deduction from the benefit.”  (p. 5)


Discussion Summary – Epicurus/Cicero

The discussion began with the summary of Epicurus’ teaching as presented in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, Principal Doctrines, and Cicero’s Selections from Cicero, De Finibus, Book 1.

Epicurus’ teaching is about obtaining the ultimate good, which Cicero defines as “the End to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else”. Epicurus argued that this ultimate good is pleasure because all living things instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain (Cicero, section IX). He also argued that maximum amount of pleasure can be obtained by avoiding pain. Other vain pleasures, such as wealth, fame, and power, will actually bring pain of guilt, fear, and insecurity.

This brings us to the first discussion question that was asked: The use of the word “pleasure” brought misunderstanding to Epicurus’ teaching. Epicurus and Cicero go in length to define pleasure as not of debauchery or sensual, but as absence of pain (Epicurus, p.2; Cicero, section XI). (1) Can we think of better word than pleasure for Epicurus’ teaching?

The group suggested terms like “minimalism” and “immaterialism”, because one must pursue only what is necessary for satisfy basic needs to live the ideal life described by Epicurus. The group also noticed that this is in accord with teachings of Buddhism in a sense that worldly desires and possessions must be let go to achieve enlightenment. However, because Epicurus’ view is focused on sensation of the true pleasure rather than letting go of worldly possessions, the group felt that terms other than pleasure may bring even greater misunderstanding.

To live the life free of pain, Epicurus had to deal with the concept of death. How can we live life free of pain when pain of death is the only certain things in life? Epicurus answered that to fear death, whether because it is painful to experience or painful to contemplate, is foolish (Epicurus, p.1). Epicurus’ argument was that when we are alive, there is no death, and when we are dead we do not exist. Because death and us cannot coexist, we do not need to worry about death. Here, the group was asked the second question: (2) Do we agree with Epicurus’ argument? Even if Epicurus’ premise of non-coexistence of death and life is true, is his conclusion sound?

The group noted that this dilemma is somewhat similar with the fallen tree in the forest; if a tree in a forest fell, but no one was there to observe it, did the tree really fall? The group also noted the difference in the above comparison; the fallen tree questions whether unobserved events happened or not, and Epicurus’ argument regarding death questions whether unobservable events should be concerned or not. Someone brought up that it is not the death itself that we fear, but we fear losing of things we already have and love – namely family and friends. The question was then if fear of losing what we have is the same thing as pain that comes from contemplating death. While the group failed to come up with the answer, we agreed that pleasure of being with family and friends were in accord with Epicurus’ teaching because both Epicurus and Cicero mentioned friendship as one of the requirement for life of pleasure (Epicurus, The Principal Doctrine, #27; Cicero, Section XX).

Another issue Epicurus faced in dismissing death was validity of his assumption that there is no afterlife. Epicurus said although the myths regarding the gods are false, gods do exist, and their existence can be observed (Epicurus, p.1). These two points, that there is no afterlife and that gods do exist, seems to contradict each other; how can one believe in the gods including Hades the god of underworld, but deny the existence of afterlife? (3) The group was encouraged to discuss this dilemma and come up with possible solutions in favour for Epicurus.

The group first tried to make sense of the fact Epicurus denied the existing myths yet said that the gods are observable. One of the possible solution was that perhaps Epicurus’ idea of gods were not that of classical Greek mythology, but of unexplained natural phenomenon. For example, myths regarding Zeus, how he killed his father and fought against the Titans and sired many heroes, are false, but Zeus does exist as the god of lightning because we can observe lightnings and storms. Another way to explain the observations of the gods are that perhaps Epicurus was taking eye witnesses’ accounts of spirits and nymphs as facts. However, that led to why Epicurus would believe in sightings of nymphs and natural spirits yet dismiss the sightings of human ghosts and afterlife. Epicurus clearly states that one cannot dismiss any of their senses – to do so means all sensation one experiences cannot be justified as being true (Epicurus, The Principal Doctrines, #24).

The discussion ended with interesting comparison of Epicurus and Descartes. Descartes argued that even if all the human sensations are taken away, we are still left with our mind that can think; “I think therefore I am”. Epicurus was an empiricist, and in class it was discussed that in empirical view, only things that exist are ones we can observe with our sense. It was brought up that perhaps act of thinking may count as internal experience for empericists, therefore empricist can justify Descartes’ argument of the existence of “I” as thinking being with internal experience of thinking. Descartes argued that we can trust our sensations as long as we stay true to the God while Epicurus argued that we must trust our sensations because we cannot arbitrarily choose which sensation to trust and which sensation to dismiss (Epicurus, The Principal Doctrines, #24).

Discussion Questions for Epicurus

Question 1: How does Epicurus’ approach to hedonism differ from the common notion of hedonism?

I decided to address the question of Epicurus’ approach to hedonism with my fellow classmates as in the part Master Your Desires, Epicurus states that “Pleasure, we declare, is the beginning and end of the happy life. We are endowed by nature to recognize pleasure as the greatest good. Every choice and avoidance we make is guided by pleasure as our standard for judging the goodness of everything”, yet “not so that we may only enjoy a few things, but so that we may be satisfied with a few things if those are all we have.” These two statements go to show how he shares the general idea of hedonism (with pleasure being the ultimate good/goal), but drifts from the belief in a sense that he believes that people must learn to appreciate the simplest and most basic things in life and should avoid unnecessary desires.

During the discussion we talked about what Epicurus deemed as basic needs and extravagant (pretty much just looking back to his writings), we also joked about a current saying, the “bros before ***s” view Epicurus has. We then brought up and agreed on the point of him being a believer of anti crass hedonism. After that we talked about why it was important to be appreciative of the simpler things and to learn about avoiding things we don’t need. The discussion eventually wandered off and we discussed about which version of hedonism appealed to us more, the result was unanimous on the more popular notion of hedonism (allowing the indulgence of extravagant things, as we all agreed that fine dinning was important to us).

Trying to segue into question 2, I then brought up the point Epicurus brought up in Live Wisely stating that “No one could be more content than one who simply reveres the gods, who is utterly unafraid of death, and who has discovered the natural goal of life” and discussed about the idea if we should actually revere the gods and dismiss the notion of death. We first addressed the later part of the question about dismissing the notion of death. We acknowledged that Epicurus saw no sense in fearing death as the cease of sensation would strip us of our consciousness as the soul could not live outside of of the body. We then talked about whether the way to derive the greatest pleasure in life was in fact to be unafraid of death, and why it may be that way. Elaborating on that, we talked about how it is through the idea of death (a time limit) that we learn to appreciate things as it won’t last forever. I then brought up the point of how some psychologists found that people who accept death gain a grater sense of appreciation pf beauty in the simplest of things (such as rain, or day to day activities) which supports both Epicurus’ version of hedonism and idea of not fearing death. And after that leaves the first part of the question which leads to the second discussion question.

Question 2: Why does Epicurus say to revere the gods if they do not affect you whatsoever?

I decided for this to be my second question as I personally did not see a sense in affiliating yourself with things that do not affect our lives whatsoever, personally if something couldn’t affect me I would question its existence. As the discussion started we all found it rather strange for someone who believes in Atomism to believe in the existence of gods as due to the lack of evidence. The only kind of proof Epicurus provided for the existence of gods was through abstract and unfalsifiable things such a dreams. We agreed that the ideas of Atomism and how Epicurus validated the existence of god seem to be contradictory in nature, and because of that we brought up the idea mentioned in class and agreed that Epicurus doesn’t really believe in the existence of gods and that he only says to believe in it to avoid punishment (so he won’t get similar treatment to Socrates). We came to this conclusion because the idea of god not being to interfere with human life should render gods essentially insignificant to human, and if they are insignificant, there is no reason to respect them, and also because Epicurus’s argument for the existence of gods seemed weak and halfhearted. We then drifted slightly off topic and discussed about the different kinds of pleasure.