O’Keefe On Action And Responsibility In Epicurus


• 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

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


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