John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.3.1: The First Defense: Epicurean


3.3: Four Attempted Defenses of Eudaemonism. The rest of this chapter considers four defenses of eudaemonism, and rejects them all. The first is an Epicurean defense, the second a Stoic defense, the third a Thomist defense, and the last a defense through the notion of self-transcendence.

3.3.1 The First Defense: Epicurean. The first defense of eudaemonism against the charge that it is unacceptably self-regarding derives from the Epicurean tradition, which identifies the good with pleasure. There’s an important division within the hedonist tradition between what Sidgwick calls “egoistic hedonism” and “universalistic hedonism.” The egoistic hedonist proposes that the agent should think about her own pleasures, and the universalistic hedonist proposes that she should think about the pleasures of all those affected by her decision, and count those people as worth the same as herself in the calculation of all sentient beings.


Both kinds of hedonist have in common that it is pleasures the agent should think about, and that these pleasures constitute happiness. As friendship is so vital, some hedonists might suggest the wise will feel the same way about their friends as they do about themselves. The friendship marked by equal regard for the friend may develop gradually, and it may sometimes involve something like a pact or agreement to love one’s friends as much as oneself. But the basic point is the first one, that pleasure as our chief good should be expanded to include the pleasure we get from the pleasure of our friends. With some kinds of pleasure such as pleasure in friendship, pursuing something for its own sake and for its particular kind of pleasure amount to the same thing, and with these pleasures we can give a plausible account of a good life that includes concern for the good of others for its own sake.

Note that this first eudaemonist defense doesn’t have to be put in terms of pleasure. Some utilitarians moved from an emphasis on pleasure to an emphasis on happiness, because there seemed to be ingredients of happiness that are not in any obvious way pleasures, and they thought we should be maximizing those ingredients as well. Some utilitarians moved beyond the value-laden notion of happiness to an account in terms of maximization of preferences.

The essential form of the first eudaemonist defense is that an agent’s own good, whether this is defined in terms of pleasure, happiness, or preference-satisfaction, can be structured in a complex way, so that it contains both merely one-at-a-time goods and life-as-a-whole-affirming goods; the former can be evaluated by their contribution to the latter. Some goods, like friendship, have leverage over one’s life, making it worthwhile as a whole. The point of this first defense is that objectors to eudaemonism focus on the merely one-at-a-time goods, and fail to see the resources of the life-as-a-whole-affirming goods for addressing the objection that eudaemonism is unacceptably self-regarding. Not all of these latter have to be pleasures.

We can put the point in terms of Scotus’s distinction between the three different kinds of thing we want in loving God: wanting God to have everything good, wanting union with God, and wanting the satisfaction that comes from union with God. The first eudaemonist defense does not need to rely only on the third kind, but can work with the second kind as well. If, however, it moves to the first kind, it will no longer be eudaemonist.

The strategy in this first eudaemonist defense is to distinguish two different ways in which we can enjoy something “for its own sake.” In one way, if something is loved for its own sake, there can’t be anything at all for the sake of which it is loved. The analogy with music is helpful here. It’s wrongheaded to criticize one who says he loves music for its own sake because in fact he derives pleasure from music. When I get the proper kind of pleasure from music, the pleasure is not something else, or something external, for the sake of which I love the music. The second way we can enjoy something “for its own sake” is when there is nothing external to it for the sake of which it is loved. Pleasures come in two different kinds, as do ingredients of happiness and preference-satisfaction. There are what was called earlier “one-at-a-time” goods and “life-as-a-whole-affirming” goods. When I love my friend for her own sake, this is like loving music for itself; both of these loves are perfectly compatible with, indeed they require, getting a certain kind of pleasure or satisfaction, and loving that satisfaction. The two loves also have the capacity to have leverage over one’s life as a whole. Life-as-a-whole-affirming goods characteristically have instances such that the instance is loved both for its own sake and for the sake of the life-as-a-whole-affirming good, which belongs with it internally. The first eudaemonist defense argues that in loving my friend for her own sake I am also loving her for the sake of my happiness, and there is nothing paradoxical in this because her well-being is internal to, or an ingredient in, my own.

We can appeal here to two different levels at which we do practical thinking. We operate most of the time at an intuitive level with principles that we do not think out from scratch. But when we have leisure, we can try to work out critically what principles or intuitions we should live by. We could call this higher level “the critical level.” This strategy works for the first eudaemonist defense because we can say that the self-referential eudaemonism comes into play only at the critical level. Most of the time we live at the intuitive level, and at this level we can think entirely about the well-being of our friends or of other people. Some object to this two-level thinking as schizophrenic, but Hare thinks this is unfair. The two-level account, he says, is not supposed to be an account of two simultaneous pieces of reflection. There’s nothing schizophrenic about parents thinking sometimes about the benefits to the world as a whole of parents feeling special obligations to their own children.

There is, however, something troublesome about the application of the two-level picture to a defense of eudaemonism, rather than to an analysis of morality more broadly. The question is how much concern for others the higher or critical level will let through. Suppose we concede that it will endorse principles at the intuitive level that call for loving family and friends for their own sake. The problem is that the critical level is still by hypothesis eudaemonist, and, when I consider the interests of others beyond family and friends, it will not make all that much room for them. We have a limited capacity for caring. Even if the eudaemonist critical level endorses principles of non-self-indexed concern for family and friends at the intuitive level, this will itself diminish the caring we can do for those outside these limits.

Suppose we grant that the satisfaction we get from seeing the happiness of those we love is capable of exerting significant leverage on whether our lives seem to us worthwhile on the whole. Nonetheless there are needs of people and indeed of all sentient beings beyond these limits that we both can and should try to meet. We seem to reach natural limits of human caring, and we almost certainly have moral obligations that go beyond these limits. If the eudaemonist responds that my sense of a meaningful life is not what counts, but rather the degree of my perfection, we have gone beyond the limits of the Epicurean defense.