An Error as Old as Epicurus

Our own Stephen J, a frequent commenter here, makes a trenchant observation:

One of the single biggest arguments against the nihilist thesis of Thomas Ligotti’s philosophical tract The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, I have always thought, is the fact that the book exists at all — for if Ligotti truly and wholly believed the argument for meaninglessness which he sets out in the book, I contend he would not have bothered to write the book in the first place.

Ah! I agree with all my heart, and I sigh with Solomon’s sad wisdom to note that there is nothing new under the sun.

Epictetus the Stoic in the Second Century made the same pithy observation about Epicurus and the Hedonist of the Academics whom the Stoic soundly criticized.

Allow me to quote at length. This man was my master before I found Christ. Those who know me will no doubt recognize all my arguments  in him.

This is from Chapter XX of Book II DISCOURSES:

“The propositions which are true and evident are of necessity used even by those who contradict them: and a man might perhaps consider it to be the greatest proof of a thing being evident that it is found to be necessary even for him who denies it to make use of it at the same time.

“For instance, if a man should deny that there is anything universally true, it is plain that he must make the contradictory negation, that nothing is universally true. What, wretch, do you not admit even this? For what else is this than to affirm that whatever is universally affirmed is false?

“Again if a man should come forward and say: Know that there is nothing that can be known, but all things are incapable of sure evidence; or if another say, Believe me and you will be the better for it, that a man ought not to believe any thing; or again, if another should say, Learn from me, man, that it is not possible to learn any thing; I tell you this and will teach you, if you choose.”

It is astonishing to me that this proposition is still being debated today, thousands of years later, when it had been put to rest so entirely.

Later, in the same chapter, Epictetus says:

“Thus Epicurus also, when he designs to destroy the natural fellowship of mankind, at the same time makes use of that which he destroys.

“For what does he say? ‘Be not deceived, men, nor be led astray, nor be mistaken: there is no natural fellowship among rational animals; believe me. But those who say otherwise, deceive you and seduce you by false reasons.’—What is this to you? Permit us to be deceived.

“Will you fare worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded that there is a natural fellowship among us, and that it ought by all means to be preserved? Nay, it will be much better and safer for you.

“Man, why do you trouble yourself about us? Why do you keep awake for us? Why do you light your lamp? Why do you rise early? Why do you write so many books, that no one of us may be deceived about the gods and believe that they take care of men; or that no one may suppose the nature of good to be other than pleasure?

“For if this is so, lie down and sleep, and lead the life of a worm, of which you judged yourself worthy: eat and drink, and enjoy women, and ease yourself, and snore.

“And what is it to you, how the rest shall think about these things, whether right or wrong? For what have we to do with you?

“You take care of sheep because they supply us with wool and milk, and last of all with their flesh. Would it not be a desirable thing if men could be lulled and enchanted by the Stoics, and sleep and present themselves to you and to those like you to be shorn and milked?

“For this you ought to say to your brother Epicureans: but ought you not to conceal it from others, and particularly before every thing to persuade them, that we are by nature adapted for fellowship, that temperance is a good thing; in order that all things may be secured for you?

“Or ought we to maintain this fellowship with some and not with others? With whom then ought we to maintain it?

“With such as on their part also maintain it, or with such as violate this fellowship?

“And who violate it more than you who establish such doctrines?

“What then was it that waked Epicurus from his sleepiness, and compelled him to write what he did write?”

My comment:  One can see how quite easily this argument can be turned against anyone who argues in favor of moral relativism.

Some argue that the standards of morality are not absolute.

The argument can take several forms. The relativist might say the standards evolve, or that they are genetically predisposed by natural selection, or they seek efficiency in social interactions, or that you have to be a minority to understand the standards applying to minorities, which are not the standards that apply to you.

Relativism is not the argument that the particulars of how standard are applied might vary with circumstance, mind you. Relativists do not argue that the question of when some circumstances mitigate or aggravate the blame or praise due a specific action.

Theirs is certainly not the argument that from time to time, under limited and carefully defined exceptions, one moral duty must defer to a higher duty.

No moral absolutist argues against the proposition that particular vary because no one argues against that propositions. The nature of moral quandaries is that sometimes the duties clash, and that circumstances can mitigate or aggravate a crime. (This is why we have a difference between First and Second Degree Murder.)

In any case, all forms of the relativistic argument fail if morality is absolute. Hence, any relativistic argument is always some form of an argument that morality is not absolute.

The word standards means an absolute standard, because if the yardstick grows or shrinks or stretches like baloney, it is not a standard at all.

Well, if there are no moral standards, then dishonesty is permitted.

If dishonesty is permitted, no man has any duty honestly to ponder and render an honest verdict touching any proposition, including the proposition that moral standards are relative. No one has a duty even to listen to you fairly.

Perhaps in the subjective universe, I can believe in relativism if I feel like it for so long as I feel like it, but then, if so, attempts to persuade my reason that the proposition is true is but waste motion. In the subjective universe, all reasoning is vain.

I can claim that I am not yet evolved to a point where integrity and honesty are needed in philosophical matters. And then you can explain to me why, if there are no standards, it is morally wrong for me to rob, maim, or kill anyone whom my strength or cunning allows me, including you?

You see, in all these arguments about absolute morals, objective truth, impartial reason, the speaker adopts certain inescapable axioms before he even begins reasoning.

The existence of absolute morals, objective truth or impartial reason, cannot be honestly questioned because the act of honest questioning itself presupposes all three. And dishonest questioning is merely flattery and self-deception.

To reason without the use of the axioms needed for reasoning is like trying to do geometry while denying points, lines, and figures.

A belief in absolute moral standards is one of those axioms, as is a belief in objective truth and impartial reasoning.

We know these things are true because the attempt to contradict them leads to immediate logical paradox.

Whatever cannot be denied, is undeniable.

Sadly, all the efforts of the modern philosophers from Hegel onward, with a few shining exceptions, have been to deny the undeniable, and to pretend this was intellectual courage rather than sophomoric folly and a dreadful waste of time.

If you believed it, silly postmoderns, you would not bother believing it, or writing books about it.

Your error is as old as Epicurus from the the Second Century BC. It was old and worn when Epictetus in the Second Century AD refuted it, four hundred years later.

Eighteen hundred years have passed. No one has refuted the argument.

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