Epicurean Ethics in corona times (English)

Humanitarian Ethics or Economic Ethics?

(Article published in the Greek newspaper “To Vima”, 26-4-2020)

Christos Yapijakis

Associate Professor of Genetics, School of Medicine, National Kapodistrian University of Athens

Advisory Committee Member of the Laboratory of Applied Philosophy, School of Philosophy, National Kapodistrian University of Athens

Founding Member of the Friends of Epicurean Philosophy "Garden of Athens"


I rarely express myself publicly in the press and usually only on the occasion of an interview about something I consider important for our society. However, the current unprecedented for humanity period of the coronavirus pandemic urged me to certain thoughts. The impetus to share these thoughts was given to me by two texts published in the newspaper “To Vima” concerning the support of two opposing philosophical approaches of dealing with the pandemic which were followed by modern European societies. One approach in favor of the empirical criterion "to save human lives" was expressed by the emeritus professor of National Technical University of Athens Theodossios P. Tassios, an Aristotelian sage of our time, titled "Ethocoronics: Human life as a supreme value" (April 5, 2020). The second approach in favor of the criterion of "the dignity of a good death" aimed at saving the economic activity of a society, titled "People, numbers and moral superiority" (April 19, 2020), was written by professors Anastassis Perakis and Nikos Psarros (in Utrecht University, Netherlands and Leipzig University, Germany, respectively), who expressed themselves as modern Stoic thinkers. The philosophical dilemma, serenely analyzed by the aforementioned fellow professors, is in its simplified form: human life or socio-economic value of humans?

Professor Tassios mentions the respective main criteria in favor of life or in favor of economy and ultimately indicates the experience of three thousand years that supports life as the supreme value. The professor reasonably argues that the best morality is that one which respects humans as biological beings. Unrepentant economists, who believe that the economy is more important than humans, should consider for how much money they would accept to be themselves blinded or to sell their children for fodder…     

On the other hand, Professors Perakis and Psarros defend autonomous and voluntary self-sacrifice, the choice of a "good death", the fulfillment of the stoic duty of the citizen, in other words the Protestant ethics that benefits the economy and ultimately society as a whole. of. They thus believe that there are values ​​beyond human biology, values owned by an imaginary objective observer of the universe with stoic apathy and indifference to every human being, without emotion but also without "altruistic strategy" (as they call it). It is obvious that the intellectual and rationalized approach of the Stoics which does not respect humans as biological beings (and therefore their emotions) may become inhuman in some situations. There are many such examples in history, when the stoic reasoning of sentencing people to death was applied for the "good" of the French Revolution in the era of Terror, for the "good" of the Russian Revolution in the Soviet Union and unfortunately today for the "good" of the Economy in many countries, including -unfortunately- Social Democratic Sweden. And the theorists of the Stoic approach do not realize the psychological consequences that the extensive losses of people (even of "experienced executives", according to Tassios) and an extended long-term mourning will surely have, which could undermine the economy and the cohesion of a society for an elongated time.

It is obvious that the "altruistic strategy" of solidarity and mutual assistance in times of weakness stems from the normal biology of people who have emotional brain function, empathy and social skills. This strategy may be costly in the short run but in the long run has yielded wonderful collaborative outcomes, such as theater, medicine, science and human culture in general. After all, Darwin, who wrote about the survival of the best-adapted beings in nature, pointed out with gratification that compassion for the weak is one of the noblest characteristics of human societies.

Professors Perakis and Psarros also make an obvious philosophical error, as they refer to the stoic strategy of some Northern European states with the term "utilitarian strategy". Nonetheless, Utilitarianism is a philosophical view that concerns the ethics of utility, that is, increasing people's happiness through the qualitative and quantitative increase of pleasure (hedonistic life) and the reduction of physical and mental pain. This utility has nothing to do with a myopic economic interest, nor with stoic devotion to duty and obsession with "virtuous behavior without emotional involvement".

Utilitarianism, as admitted by its leading representatives Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is a modern socio-philosophical expression of Epicurean philosophy, which aims at the happiness (eudaimonia) of every human being through their physical and mental health. Epicurus relied on the method of objectively observing nature and the biological ethics of Aristotle to create his philosophy, which he transmitted to rich and poor, men and women, free people and slaves, Greeks and foreigners. The Epicurean philosophy contains all the main characteristics of modern Humanism: naturalism, friendship for every fellow human being who has self-value just because of his/her human nature, freedom of choice which includes freedom of religious and ideological expression, justice as a social contract, quality of life and happiness of every human being as the basic goal of humanity. It is no coincidence that these Epicurean characteristics, namely friendship/love/solidarity, free will and the transmission of this message to those who freely wanted to follow it, are the best components of Christianity, as observed by the Christian Humanists of the Renaissance Erasmus, Thomas More (a Catholic saint) and Pierre Gassendi. The latter, who was a Catholic priest, philosopher, astronomer and friend of Galileo, was the one who realized the revival of Epicurean philosophy that led to Empiricism, Enlightenment and Science eras. Consequently, the utilitarian strategy, that is, the Epicurean strategy, considers as the best ethics the one that focuses on humans and respects them as biological beings, the one that is interested in alleviating their pain and increasing their happiness. As a human being, as a scientist and as a Greek, I am proud that the Greek society with solidarity in the difficult present conditions was inspired by the best values ​​of Humanism and Science and adopted the strategy of protecting the weakest.

After all, humanity and cultural cultivation are the essence of Humanism and not economy. It is no coincidence that the concept of "humanism" first appeared in the years of the classical Athenian Democracy, when Aristippus said: "It is better to be a beggar than an uneducated man. Because the beggar needs things, while the uneducated humanism".