International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 145 20th July 2009


I. 'Bertrand Russell: The Potential for Ethics Through Authentic Philosophical Enquiry' by James M. Magrini

II. 'The Free Will Problem: Antinomy or Conundrum?' by Max Malikow

III. 'Aristippus for Happiness' by Kristian Urstad



This issue of Philosophy Pathways has a predominantly ethical theme. James Magrini offers what is, for me, the startling revelation of the similarity between Bertrand Russell's case for the value of philosophy in Problems of Philosophy and the views of the continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas on the 'radically other nature of the not-Self'. For Russell, authentic philosophical inquiry recognizes that not-Self can never be assimilated to Self, and herein lies the basis for a conception of ethics which places respect for otherness and difference at the heart of moral endeavour.

Max Malikow offers a view of the free will problem, not as a mere theoretical puzzle with different proposed 'solutions' but as the practical challenge of deciding how we should respond to the most difficult cases where there is no simple yes/no answer to the question whether an individual is morally responsible for his or her actions. Along the way, he cites a number of famous legal cases, including Clarence Darrow's defence of university students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who claimed that they were inspired by reading Nietzsche to murder a 14 year old boy in cold blood.

Kristian Urstad looks at Socrates' contemporary Aristippus whose provocative espousal of thoroughgoing hedonism has led commentators to conclude that either he had no meaningful conception of 'the good life', or that he rejected belief in personal identity, or that he denied the need for prudence. Urstad argues that the evidence for each of these three alternatives is feeble. It is perfectly possible in Aristippus' view to set out as one's life plan the pursuit of pleasure by every available means, adapting oneself to circumstances in order to gain the maximum enjoyment of every moment, now and in the future.

Geoffrey Klempner



Violence dominates the landscape of our present world. Prejudice and sectarianism threaten human rights, putting our hopes for the authentic possibility of humane ethical/ moral interaction on a global scale in serious question. Ours is a world where epistemological and ethical relativism appear to rule the day. In these extremely 'hard times,' as Nietzsche was fond of saying, it would benefit us, as philosophers, informed thinkers, and concerned human beings, to revisit with a discerning eye and charitable heart the philosophy of Bertrand Russell as it appears in The Problems of Philosophy (1912), wherein Russell reminds us in a powerfully persuasive manner just how important philosophy can be in offering hope for a better world during dark, turbulent times. In what follows, I examine the unique way in which Russell responds to the following question: What is philosophy good for, what is the value of philosophy for the world and its inhabitants?

Bertrand Russell is firmly identified with philosophy's analytic tradition, co-authoring with Alfred North Whitehead the monolithic tour de force, Principia Mathematica (1910). Focusing on the study of mathematics and formal logic, Russell's approach to philosophy is highlighted by a rigorous, academic style of crystalline communication. However, in Russell's signature book, The Problems of Philosophy, he employs a poetic style that is decidedly uncharacteristic of the typical style and idiom of analytic philosophy. In the final section, Chapter XV, 'The Value of Philosophy,' Russell writes in a highly speculative and refreshingly idealistic manner about that which is crucial to the understanding of what good philosophy is all about, namely, the indispensable concern for the ethical when attempting to approach the ultimate questions of existence. Perhaps this is not surprising considering that Russell held fast to a humanitarian existence throughout his life. A pacifist during World War II, active in the social movement to 'ban the bomb,' his life was guided by the quest for knowledge, the search for love, and the ultimate cause to alleviate human suffering in all its virulent forms.

According to Russell, if practiced as an ethical discipline, philosophy can guide our enquiry along the path to knowledge of the world, and more importantly, philosophy can also inspire us to actively improve the world that we inhabit with others. Russell identifies philosophy's value in its potential to authentically inspire our practical ethical comportment, fostering and enhancing our legitimate interpersonal relationships, as a secondary benefit of a unique method of enquiry. Russell believes that philosophical enquiry is best practiced as an ethical endeavor when it retains and accentuates the crucial distinction between what Russell terms the 'Self' (the philosopher) and the 'not-Self' (the objects of the philosopher's contemplation), stressing a charitable and respectful attitude toward questioning the world at large and its inhabitants.

Russell opposes the traditional and dogmatic subject-centered model of philosophical enquiry that, 'fetters contemplation to the self' and finds its ground in the absolutist tendency to reduce the objects of its enquiry to a comprehensive and categorical body of systematic knowledge in which the notion of difference, or otherness, is either pared down or abolished.[1] According to Russell, what traditional philosophy calls knowledge, 'is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and designs making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond.'[2] Russell's distrust of rigid, systematic philosophical explanation emerges from his critique of all forms of philosophy that display the heedless drive to understand the world in unabashedly categorical terms. He is also critical of philosophies which attempt to force the vast and expansive universe to conform with our preconceived epistemological notions of how things should be, presumptuously embracing the idea of Man as the 'measure of all things' while callously neglecting the all-important ethical distinction between the Self and the not-Self.

In The Problems of Philosophy, Russell effectively attacks the epistemological relativism of Protagoras, Nietzsche's idea of truth as a human construct, the idealism of Bishop Berkeley, and Kant's monumental attempt in The Critique of Pure Reason to reconcile rationalism with the tenets of empiricism. Russell's brilliant critique of the Western philosophical tradition renders the aforementioned positions unsound and illogical. For in essence, as related to Russell's understanding of ethical philosophical enquiry, they fail to adopt a charitable and respectful attitude toward the not-Self:

     There is a widespread [negative] philosophical tendency
     towards the view that Man is the measure of all things,
     that truth is manmade, that space and time and the world of
     universals are properties of the mind, and if there be
     anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of
     no account for us.[3]
Philosophers fall into error, according to Russell, for two reasons. First, they make the assumption that humans are seamlessly woven into the complex fabric of the world, and secondly, they believe that it is possible to 'assimilate the universe to Man,'[4] and not vice versa. Importantly, when we incorrectly perceive and judge that the world is just like us, that is, that the world is identical to the 'Self,' we mistakenly imagine that 'knowledge of it is possible without admission of what seems alien.'[5] Russell, quite correctly, is highly critical of the pervasive attitude within much of philosophy's tradition that believes that all knowledge of the world presupposes a reduction and assimilation of the object to the thinking subject into a closed, all-encompassing, system of explanation, or grand-narrative.

Russell eloquently describes the philosopher's (Self) authentic relationship with the objects of philosophical contemplation (not-Self) in terms of a union that must be liberated from any and all self-centered aims on the part of the thinker:

     Knowledge is a from of union of Self and not-Self; and like
     all union, it is impaired by dominion and therefore by any
     attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we
     find in ourselves.[6]
According to Russell, the philosopher must, with steadfast resolve, abstain from the headstrong disposition that would violently force the objects of philosophical contemplation to conform with preconceived notions of how they should be, for philosophical knowledge can never be subjugated or controlled by the thinking subject. Knowledge of a philosophical nature is never a possession of the thinker because it always transcends the possibility of reducing the world to our ways of perceiving and thinking.

Russell states that philosophical contemplation, in the form of the union of Self and not-Self, should never 'aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man.'[7] Rather, in Russell's opinion, it is philosophy that must adapt to 'the characters which it finds in its objects,' and if the philosopher grants to the objects of his contemplation the just due of their uniqueness and 'otherness,' he expresses an attitude that embraces and actively works to preserve the sublime sense of wonder inherent to our world and the infinite universe.[8] Russell demands that all philosophical investigation should adopt an ethical approach to its questioning, which is highlighted and characterized by the desire to allow the not-Self, that which is radically Other and always beyond our absolute comprehension, to retain its question-worthy status, its unique, foreign, and mysterious nature with respect to our ways of being.

In response to the possibility of allowing the objects of our philosophical thoughts to retain their uniqueness, or transcendent natures, as we attempt to understand them, Russell proposes an ethical model for philosophical enquiry wherein 'true' contemplation, 'finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated.'[9] As opposed to interpreting the universe as a means to the philosopher's ends, in a relationship that privileges the Self above the universe (not-Self), Russell reverses the variables in the equation by proposing an authentic model for philosophical enquiry, as contemplation, wherein the universe, or not-Self, is given priority. Russell urges the philosopher to grant a sense of superiority to the objects of philosophy, and 'through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.'[10]

Thus, Russell understands knowledge as the product of the asymmetrical union between the Self and not-Self, wherein the philosopher embraces the recalcitrant universe, and through a loving, intractable, and ever-evolving discourse, works to reveal the hidden nature of the universe. The universe, in turn, remains forever beyond the philosopher's logical grasp, despite the philosopher's best attempts at explanation.

Unlike the sciences, the problems, issues, and questions to which we can provide no definitive solutions and responses, 'remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.'[11] If it should ever be the case that philosophy provides a categorical explanation for the things it interrogates, they leave the purview of philosophy and become something other than a subject for philosophy. The philosopher must recognize that definitive knowledge of the world, specifically in terms of philosophical knowledge, is a hopelessly impossible ideal.

True contemplation, according to Russell, finds satisfaction and its value in all that enlarges and ameliorates the not-Self, or the objects of philosophical reflection. Philosophical contemplation conceived as an ethical endeavor is the liberating freedom from narrow subjective, egoistic aims and expresses an impartial attitude through 'the unalloyed desire for truth,'[12] which should always be free from prejudice and dogmatism in all matters of truth-seeking. It is Russell's claim that the freedom and impartiality of the philosopher's charitable and respectful attitude afforded to the objects of thought carries over into the philosopher's interpersonal relationships, preserving a similar freedom and impartiality in the realm of practical activity, which includes the understanding of the human as a fragile, passionate, and emotional being.

Russell is careful to elucidate and punctuate the notions of authentic social justice and universal love that emerge from philosophy's unique method of ethical reflection. According to Russell, retaining the openness of both mind and soul in the unprejudiced quest for philosophical truth is,

     ... the very same quality of mind which, in action is
     justice, and in emotion as the universal love which can be
     given to all, and not only those who are judged useful or
Just as the great philosopher resists the complete 'objectification' of his subject matter, so too the good, moral human avoids the 'objectification' of other human beings. With such understanding, perhaps we can acquire a newfound respect for the differences within others, allowing those people with whom we share the world to retain their uniqueness. Thus, as opposed to privileging our own personal desires, treating others as disposable means-to-the-ends of our projects, the possibility exists for a renewed sense of dignity to rise up from the heart of the human condition.

Presumably, this protracted relationship between Self and not-Self , one that graduates from theoretical enquiry to the realm of practical interpersonal social interaction can be grasped at the level of inter-subjective discourse, for Russell is adamant that the objects of philosophical reflection can never be reduced to philosophical subjectivism (solipsism) or expressed in terms of objective, universal truth. Russell seeks to demonstrate that ethical discourse on the social level plays out in the manner of charitable philosophical interrogation, which attempts to address the various quandaries it encounters with a heightened sense of respect, and such a context for ethical interaction would perhaps manifest through a loving, intractable, and ever-evolving social discourse in which radical differences are not only recognized, but further, are privileged and preserved above similarity and identity.

Importantly, Russell intimates the responsibility that I have for each and every living being who is quite literally not like me, radically Other in their existence. In this realm of authentic social discourse, the philosopher (Self) also assumes the role of the Other (not-Self) within a context where others retain their privileged status as unique, different, and indefinable human beings, and it is in this radical notion of the not-Self (Otherness) that Russell locates the center of human dignity. In the immediacy of our ethical encounters with the other, we are struck and overwhelmed by our innate responsibility to be as ethical, engulfed by the transcendent sense of wonder that allows for the manifestation of 'familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.' [14]

According to Russell, philosophy should not to be studied because it procures definitive answers to its questions. Rather, he suggests that philosophy should be pursued and practiced for the way it enriches our intellect, soul, and contributes to the understanding of human potential, which always includes the pressing and immediate concern with authentic ethical relationships. However, it must be stressed that Russell is not propounding a rigid and complete ethical schema or system for moral behavior, with prescribed and proscribed rights and duties. Rather, he is working to break open the space, or context, within which the potential exists for revealing and nurturing authentic ethical encounters in the first instance, the rich soil from which ethics can take root, growing and flourishing in time with the proper attention. This represents Russell's original and primordial thinking on ethics, perhaps in terms of offering the grounds for a possible ethics to emerge from the context established by the ethical model of philosophical enquiry, which is highlighted by the relationship, or union, between the Self and not-Self, between the philosopher and the objects of philosophical contemplation.

In a move similar to the Continental philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (Totality and Infinity, 1961), a kindred philosophical spirit to be sure, Russell discusses an ethical relationship that is importantly characterized by the encounter with the radically Other nature of the not-Self. Thus, as opposed to the notions of identity or similarity forming the singular fundamental ground, or bedrock, for establishing morality based on what we all share universally, he suggests that the potential for ethics must also be considered from the notion of difference, or the radical and transcendent nature of the other's being.

There is a unique particularity bound up with the problem of ethics that Russell refuses to ignore. The global landscape is such that the obvious and apparent differences between cultures cannot be ignored. Technology, in one respect, has brought the world's population into closer proximity than in any other historical age. Ironically -- and herein lies the tragic double-bind at the root of humanity's struggles -- despite the nearness of the proximity, there exists a profound ethical distance between human beings, which appears to be insurmountable, and so I return to the question that began the essay: What is the value of philosophy for the world and its inhabitants?

Russell has provided a powerfully viable response to this query, and in these 'hard times,' we would benefit by taking seriously what Russell has to say about the practice of philosophical enquiry. Ultimately, the only hope for authentic social justice is through united group activity -- and if Russell is correct, philosophy holds the potential to inspire such practical ethical activity, with the potential to make us 'citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest.'[15]

Text Cited

Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, New York) 1997.


1. Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, New York) 1997, p. 159.

2. Ibid., p. 159.

3. Ibid., p. 159.

4. Ibid., p. 159.

5. Ibid., p. 158.

6. Ibid., p. 159.

7. Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, p. 158.

8. Ibid., p. 16.

9. Ibid., p. 160.

10. Ibid., p. 159.

11. Ibid., p. 155.

12. Ibid., p. 161.

13. Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, p. 160.

14. Ibid., p. 158.

15. Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, p. 161.

James M. Magrini College of DuPage Department of Liberal Arts: Philosophy

(c) James M. Magrini 2009




     Men believe themselves to be free simply because they are
     conscious of their own actions, knowing nothing of the
     causes by which they are determined.
Benedict Spinoza
     Triggers are pulled by individuals. Orders are given and
     executed by individuals. In the last analysis, every single
     human act is ultimately the result of an individual.
Scott Peck

Over two hundred years ago the French philosopher Paul Holbach wrote:

     Man's life is a line that nature commands him to describe
     upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able
     to swerve from it, even for an instant... Nevertheless,
     in spite of the shackles by which he is bound, it is
     pretended that he is a free agent. (1770, 1).

This is an uncompromising statement of determinism, 'the position... that every event is the necessary outcome of a cause or set of causes' (Katen, 1973, 313). So defined, it would seem that determinism makes no provision for free will, 'the capacity of human beings to make choices free of coercion or compulsion and to choose the important actions of their lives' (Pence, 2000, 23).

The belief that people have the ability to make authentic selections from options is not derived from experimentation, hence it is not an empirically based position. Also, since belief in free will is not the result of a sound reasoning process, it is not based upon logic. The appeal of free will emanates from emotion and experience. William James, in his essay, 'The Dilemma of Determinism,' argued for free will on the premise that the experiences of guilt and regret make sense only if people believe they could have acted otherwise. An eloquent, if not compelling case for free will is made by Thomas Ellis Katen with these words:

     Human beings come to terms with life and understand
     themselves as human through such experiences as regret,
     remorse, sorrow, and guilt. This entire mode of functioning
     cannot be simply dismissed. Free will is a working
     assumption of human existence as it has evolved throughout
     history, and moral experience is an all-important aspect of
     that history. Precisely because human experience over the
     course of history does found itself on a premise of freedom,
     we have an excellent working criterion on the basis of
     which we might justify free will... Since determinism is
     itself only a theory and not an established fact about the
     universe, why should we deny our experience of freedom?
     (1973, 318).
Determinists counter the sentimentalist argument represented by James and Katen by pointing out that it is not unusual for people to feel guilty about events over which they admit to having had no control. Further, since every effect has a cause, it might be that human beings are compelled to have these emotions for reasons that are unknown and might not ever be discovered. (Determinists posit that there are three categories of causes: the causes that are known; those that eventually will be known; and those that never will be known.)

The problem of '(whether) human beings can be said to be free agents or whether their activities and thoughts are determined completely by the many influencing factors that impinge on them' constitutes the free will problem (Popkin and Stroll, 1981, 115).

Stated as a question, the free will problem asks: Why are people held responsible for behaviors over which they had no control?

Introduced as a dilemma, the free will problem presents this paradox: Across cultures and time, human beings are held responsible for their behavior. Also, given the law of cause-and-effect, it is logical that the sequence of causes that culminates in a given behavior is beyond the control of the individuals, making them not responsible for their behavior.
Essential to a consideration of the free will problem is an understanding of two subcategories of determinism: hard determinism and soft determinism:

     Hard determinism maintains that all behavior is invariably
     and without exception determined by causal forces beyond
     the control and responsibility of any individual, so that,
     in effect, free will and moral choice do not exist. However,
     soft determinism... maintains that while there is a
     cause for all action, certain choices can still be made
     freely as actions that stem from the character or will of
     the agent, thus preserving the notion of moral
     responsibility (Pence, 14).
The subtitle of this essay poses the question of whether the free will problem is an antinomy, 'the existence of two incompatible statements, each of which taken alone is reasonable' (Pence, 3), or a conundrum, 'a problem admitting of no satisfactory solution' (Morris, 1969, 290). Aristotle's axiom that the truth of a matter is to be found between two extreme positions suggests that the concept of soft determinism might contribute to a solution. Soft determinism, also referred to as compatibilism, allows for both determinism and free will to be true. Of course, such a meeting of east and west requires an elaboration, which is the charge of this essay.

The Significance of the Free Will Problem

Approximately one-thousand years ago the Persian poet Jalalu'ddin Rumi observed: 'There is a disputation that will continue till mankind are raised from the dead, between the necessitarians and the partisans of free will' (Feinberg and Shafer-Landeau, 2002, 499). That observation is no less true today than it was in the twelfth century. The longevity of the free will-determinism disputation is attributable to its implications for civil order, criminal culpability, interpersonal relationships, and the experience of guilt. In his essay, 'The Problem of Free Will,' Walter Stace accurately characterized the free will problem as a debate that is semantic rather than pragmatic:

     It is to be observed that those learned professors of
     philosophy or psychology who deny free will do so only in
     their own professional moments and in their studies and
     lecture rooms. For when it comes to doing anything
     practical, even of the most trivial kind, they invariably
     behave as if they and others were free (Fineberg and
     Shafer-Landeau, 487).
Richard Popkin and Avrum Stroll made a similar argument against determinism with this simple, but not simplistic, observation:

     If the determinist's theory is true, then instead of
     propounding arguments, he/ she ought to find out what
     factors produce philosophical decisions, and then employ
     these, whether they be wooden clubs, alcoholic beverages,
     drugs, etc. But the fact that he/ she, too, uses
     argumentation suspects there is some element of freedom in
     human behavior. Also, if one takes determinism seriously,
     anyone who believes in free will is determined to accept
     that theory, so what possible good could reasonable
     discussion accomplish (1993, 120).
'What is a human being?' is one of four questions Immanuel Kant put forward as seminal and indispensable to philosophy (1998, 28). Katen provides a partial answer to Kant's question with his assertion that free will is a distinguishing feature of human beings:

     Which makes most sense of and best illuminates the facts of
     human experience as we know them? If the issue is put in
     these terms, I think the position could be developed that
     the idea of freedom is an inherent part of the defining
     concept of man (1973, 318).
This is not to claim that an individual acting under coercion or handicapped by a mental illness is not a human being. To the contrary, in criminal proceedings such conditions are considered extenuating circumstances, contextualizing an act in the interest of giving the accused full consideration as a human being. Conversely, people who are being manipulated or lied to are not receiving full consideration as human beings. Victims of manipulation or lies are unaware of influences on their behavior, thus depriving them of their optimal exercise of free will.

Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University has provided another partial answer to the question: 'What is a human being?' He taught that free will is to be understood in a hierarchical manner. The first-order of free will is the ability to act on a desire. The second-order of free will is unique to human beings: 'An act is free if it is in accord with the desire one wants to desire' (Grim, 2008, 148). Frankfurt would make a distinction between alcoholics who want a drink but do not want the desire to drink, and alcoholics who want a drink and are untroubled by their desire to drink. The former are not free because they do not want the desire to drink. They do not want to be alcoholics and are drinking against their will. The latter are free to because their desire to drink is acceptable to them. Having accepted their alcoholism, they are not drinking against their will.

To better understand the difference between deliberate acts of free will and nonthinking action, consider instances of creatures acting instinctively. The eminent entomologist E.O. Wilson accomplished a fascinating experiment following his discovery that living ants react to dead ants according to a chemical message. Wilson learned that two days after an ant dies, the deceased insect emits the odor of oleic acid. A living ant passing by a dead comrade interprets the odor as a signal to remove the corpse to the colony's burial area. Wilson was able to produce a substance with the odor of oleic acid, which he then sprayed on a live ant. As he expected, the next ant passing by the ant he had sprayed set about to remove the 'dead' ant to the burial site. The sprayed ant resisted the premature funeral, vigorously fighting off the ant attempting to make the removal to the final resting place. (One can only wonder how the sprayed ant interpreted the odor of oleic acid.)

Similarly, Robert Cialdini reported the research of M.W. Fox, who noted an innate behavior among turkeys -- specifically turkey mothers.

     Turkey mothers are good mothers -- loving, watchful, and
     protective... But there is something odd about their method.
     Virtually all of this mothering is triggered by one thing:
     the 'cheep-cheep' sound of young baby chicks... If a chick
     makes the 'cheep-cheep' noise, its mother will care for it;
     if not, the mother will ignore or sometimes kill it
     (Cialdini, 1984, 2).
Polecats are natural enemies of turkeys and the approach of a polecat will drive a turkey into a frenzy of squawking, clawing, and pecking. In Fox's experiment he placed a stuffed polecat in the proximity of a mother turkey and drew it toward her by pulling on an attached string. As expected, the mother turkey reacted with a furious attack.

     When however the same stuffed polecat carried inside it a
     small recorder that played the 'cheep-cheep' sound of baby
     turkeys, the mother not only accepted the oncoming polecat
     but gathered it underneath her. When the machine was turned
     off, the polecat model again drew a vicious attack (2).
In recent years considerable attention has been given to pheromones, chemical signals that trigger a reaction to another member of the same species. A possibility that has not been confirmed by research is that pheromones play a significant role in the attraction of one human being to another. If pheromones are a factor in romantic attraction then the role of conscious choice-making is diminished. While this would not relegate people to the same deterministic status as ants and turkeys, it does have implications for the understanding of free will. Some researchers are suggesting that the selection of a partner might not be an uncontaminated free will choice (Fallon and Aron, 2001).

The free will problem is not a mere playground for philosophers. As previously stated, it is an integral part of any serious discussion of civil order, criminal responsibility, justice, interpersonal relationships, and the personal experience of guilt. In some situations, assigning responsibility to a person is not easily accomplished. The case of James Carncross is such an instance. On December 6, 2006 in Syracuse, New York a jury found the twenty-one year-old Carncross guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of New York State Trooper Craig Todeschini. Eight months earlier Todeschini was killed when he lost control of his SUV while in pursuit of Carncross, who was on a motorcycle evading the trooper at speeds in excess of one-hundred miles per hour. Criminal negligence is defined as having acted in such a way as to create a substantial and unjustifiable risk that an ordinary person would perceive as substantial and unjustifiable. (The jury did not find Carncross guilty of manslaughter: the killing of another with neither premeditation nor intention to kill.)

The trial of James Carncross raised a philosophical question that has reverberated through as many centuries as human beings have been thinking about their behavior: How is personal responsibility determined? It is one thing to say that people are responsible for their actions. Stated more precisely, people are responsible for the consequences of their actions. It is quite another thing to say that people are responsible for every event in a sequence that was initiated by something they have done. People are accountable for any and all foreseeable events that follow their actions and are connected to them. However, there is no formula for distinguishing foreseeable events from those that are unforeseeable. Making such a distinction is a matter of judgment.

The law of unintended consequences maintains that every significant action is followed by unplanned events (Merton, 1936). It is implicit in this law that statements like, 'I didn't intend for X to happen,' and 'I never anticipated that X would happen,' are inadequate for the relief of responsibility. People are responsible for the intentions and imaginable effects of their behavior. This being said, 'I didn't mean for or anticipate that X would happen,' is not the same thing as saying, 'No one could not have imagined that X would happen.'

Applying the law of unintended consequences to this case, is it reasonable to assume that Trooper Todeschini's death is one of the possibilities Carncross should have anticipated when he decided to take flight? Given the situation, it seems doubtful that he deliberated before attempting his escape. If he considered any possibilities, likely they included getting caught, getting away, or getting himself killed. To have anticipated the trooper's death, Carncross would have had to calculate that the trooper had no alternative means of pursuit and would not break-off the chase -- even if it meant pursuing in excess of the SUV's maneuvering capability. Ironically -- some might say criminally -- Carncross took for granted the trooper's high-speed driving ability and good judgment in making pursuit. In other words, Carncross took for granted Todeschini's ability to take care of himself.

The jury agreed with the prosecution and Carncross was sentenced to seven years imprisonment to be followed by five years on probation. That he was responsible for initiating the high-speed chase is indisputable. That he should have anticipated the trooper's death is unclear. An indelicate question is: Does Todeschini bear some responsibility for his own death? At his sentencing, Carncross said, 'Had I known then what I know now, I would have stopped' (The Post Standard, 2/15/07). There is no hint of determinism in that statement. He believes that given different circumstances (i.e. more knowledge) he would have chosen to act differently.

Regarding crime and punishment, forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis has likened free will to sanity in that both exist as a continuum:

     ... all or none standards of sanity and insanity don't do
     justice to the complexity of human behavior... Guilt was a
     lot easier to measure before we recognized that free will,
     like sanity and insanity, is a constantly fluctuating
     intellectual and emotional continuum and not a fixed,
     immutable capacity or state of mind (1998, 283-284).
In 1984 a young lawyer witnessed the testimony of a ten-year-old rape victim in the De Soto County courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi. The lawyer, John Grisham, based his first novel, A Time to Kill, on what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her rapists. Legal defenses based on diminished capacity, temporary insanity, and crimes of passion give weight to Lewis' view that a human being's state of mind is subject to considerable variability. It is no simple matter to assign responsibility for a crime committed under stress so extraordinary that the defendant's state of mind was altered.

In a 1924 case hailed as 'the trial of the century' Clarence Darrow served as the defense counsel for two young men who had abducted and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy. Darrow had the accused, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, plead guilty and then argued for life imprisonment in lieu of their execution. Darrow argued that their state of mind had been altered by indoctrination into the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche believed that men should create their own values rather than passively conform to societal standards. Darrow was successful in making the case that Leopold and Loeb were not fully responsible for their crime:

     Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's
     philosophy seriously and fashioned a life upon it?... it is
     hardly fair to hang a 19 year- old boy for the philosophy
     that was taught him at a university (Darrow, 8/22/24).
Equally challenging is determining the culpability of individuals who have done something so horrifying that the act itself is a declaration of a mental illness. The psychiatric diagnosis of Edward Van Dyke will never be known, but there is no doubting that his state of mind was pathological. In the spring of 2006, while on vacation with his family in Florida, he threw his eight and four-year-old sons from the fifteenth floor balcony of their hotel room. Van Dyke, a physician, then jumped to his own death, making an explanation for this bizarre murder-suicide unavailable.

Even among those who have committed similar acts, there is diversity among their sentences. Sherwin Nuland's How We Die includes the horrifying, heart-breaking narrative of the murder of nine-year-old Katie Mason by Peter Carlquist, a paranoid schizophrenic man who was determined as not being responsible for his crime. Not so for Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, ranging in age from six months to seven years. She was found guilty of capital murder in spite of her psychiatric history that included chronic depression and psychotic episodes accompanied by auditory hallucinations. (Convicted in 2002, her sentence was overturned in 2006, when she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a psychiatric institute.)

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks presents the case study of Donald, a man who was not held responsible for a murder. Although there was no question that he had committed the murder, Donald was neither executed nor sent to prison. Instead, he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.

     Donald killed his girl while under the influence of PCP. He
     had, or seemed to have, no memory of the deed -- and neither
     hypnosis nor sodium amytal served to release any. There was,
     therefore, it was concluded when he stood trial, not a
     repression of memory, but an organic amnesia -- the sort of
     blackout well described with PCP.
     The details, manifest on forensic examination, were macabre
     and could not be revealed in open court. They were discussed
     in camera -- concealed from both the public and Donald
     himself. Comparison was made with acts of violence
     occasionally committed during temporal lobe or psychomotor
     seizures. There is no memory of such acts, and perhaps no
     intention of violence -- those who commit them are
     considered neither responsible nor culpable, but are
     nonetheless committed for their own and others' safety.
     This was what happened with the unfortunate Donald
     (1970, 154).
In contrast to Donald is Arthur Shawcross, the 'Genessee River Killer' convicted in 1990 of ten murders and sentenced to 250 years in prison. (Shawcross died in prison in 2008 at age 63.) Dorothy Otnow Lewis interviewed Shawcross and testified for the defense at his trial. In Guilty by Reason of Insanity she expresses her belief that there is a neurological explanation for his psychopathic behavior:

     ... the MRI had shown that, nestled at the tip of his right
     temporal lobe, was a small, fluid-filled cyst. The brain is
     a very sensitive organ. The tiniest scar or tumor or cyst
     can, under certain circumstances, trigger abnormal
     electrical activity... Abnormal electrical foci at the
     anterior pole of the temporal lobe have been associated
     with bizarre, animalistic behaviors...
     Mr. Shawcross never denied any of the murders to me. He
     admitted everything. The trouble was, whenever I tried to
     get a complete account of what he had done, Mr. Shawcross
     became befuddled. He would repeatedly confuse one murder
     with another. Finally, in desperation, I asked, 'Mr.
     Shawcross, do you remember what happened?'
     'No. Not really.'
     'Then why did you confess to the police?'
     He looked at me as though I were crazy. 'because I was
     there!' (Lewis, 1998, 272)
Dr. Lewis' testimony did not establish an extenuating circumstance for the jury. Moreover, she was reviled by the media and public. Instead of being respected as a scientist and expert, she was maligned as being effusively sympathetic to a serial murderer:

     Not only did the jury not believe me, they hated me. Then
     again, so did the rest of Rochester (New York)... Night
     after night during the course of my testimony I would
     return to my hotel room... I would then switch on the news
     and watch the man (or woman) in the street belittle me and
     my testimony... It was a nightmare (280).
The Solution: Compatibilism

Is there a way out of this fly bottle or is any claim to a solution a futile attempt to have one's cake and eat it too? Compatibilism 'claims that determinism and free will can both be true. In other words, every event may have a cause and I am still free to make my own choices' (Pence, 10). In 'Freedom and Necessity' A.J. Ayer advocated compatibilism as the solution to the free will problem:

     It seems that if we are to retain this idea of moral
     responsibility, we must either show that men can be held
     responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or
     else find some way of reconciling determinism with the
     freedom of the will (1969, 273).
Ayer and other compatibilists have located the problem in the confusion of two terms: causation and coercion. Compatibilism maintains that causality equals coercion is a false equation. At this point, perhaps an illustration will be helpful. It is 8:00 p.m. and I have the desire for a cup of coffee. How do I account for this desire? The contributing causes for this desire are numerous. I live in a coffee-drinking culture and was raised in a family of coffee drinkers. Many of the social interactions I enjoy are around a cup of coffee and I find the taste of coffee pleasurable. In fact, the taste is so pleasurable that after so many years of drinking coffee I have become psychologically dependent upon it, if not addicted. Further, the Dunkin Donuts advertisement informs me that, 'America runs on coffee.' Given all of these factors, how can I believe that this desire generated from within me? It would seem that Arthur Schopenhauer is right: 'A man can do what he wants, but the catch is that he cannot will what he wills' (Katen, 314). Is there any place for a free will choice in this circumstance?

Compatibilism allows for the concession that my desire for coffee is not the result of a choice. The desire is the effect of the aforementioned causes. Nevertheless, in the context of this situation I can choose to have or not have the coffee. If I choose to have the coffee I will be responsible for not being able to fall asleep tonight and any subsequent dysfunctionality owing to sleep deprivation. I am not like a ping-pong ball going over Niagara Falls; I can choose to resist this desire and actualize my choice. An allegory that reinforces this idea is 'Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,' used in addiction recovery.

     I walk down the street.
     There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
     I fall in.
     I am lost... I am helpless.
     It isn't my fault.
     It takes forever to find a way out.
     I walk down the street.
     There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
     I pretend I don't see it.
     I fall in again.
     I can't believe I'm in the same place.
     But, it isn't my fault.
     It still takes a long time to get out.
     I walk down the street.
     There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
     I see it is there.
     I still fall in... it's a habit... but,
     my eyes are open.
     I know where I am.
     It is my fault.
     I get out immediately.
     I walk down the same street.
     There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
     I walk around it.
     I walk down another street.
According to compatibilism, God's foreknowledge equals no free will is another false equation. It is a non sequitur that God's knowledge of all things future constitutes coercion of all human beings to act in accordance with this foreknowledge. To believe foreknowledge negates free will is analogous to believing that knowledge of how a movie will end, because it is being seen for the second time, determines how the movie will end. It could be argued that God's knowledge of how people will use their free will has been integrated into the divine plan. Such incorporation does not imply hard determinism. For example, included in the New Testament is a narrative describing Pontius Pilate's decision to have Jesus of Nazareth executed by crucifixion. If this is what Pilate wanted to do, and apparently he did, then he exercised free will. He cannot be commended for his contribution to the plan of salvation. Rather, he is responsible for the execution of an innocent man and God is responsible for integrating Pilate's unjust sentence into the redemptive plan. A more ordinary illustration of non-coercive foreknowledge is accurately predicting that an honest man will tell the truth in a given situation. Knowing that a man will tell the truth is not tantamount to compelling him to speak truthfully.

There might be those who would view Pilate's placement in history as a form of entrapment. Legally, entrapment is the construction of a situation to induce a person to commit a crime that person would not have committed otherwise. Entrapment is illegal because it places someone who has no predisposition to commit a crime in a situation which any normal, law-abiding citizen would find irresistible. Ruling on the matter of entrapment, the Supreme Court's decision stated:

     To determine whether or not entrapment has been established,
     a line must be drawn between the trap for the unwary
     innocent and the trap for the unwary criminal (Sherman v.
     United States).
Implicit in this ruling is that a constructed situation that would not induce a normal, law-abiding citizen to commit a crime is not entrapment. This category of situation is referred to colloquially as a sting. A sting is within the law because the determining factor for the criminal act resides in the psychological state of the individual, not the orchestrated situation. Walter Stace addressed this difference in his essay on free will:

     ... free acts are all caused by desires, or motives, or by
     some sort of internal psychological states of the agent's
     mind. The unfree acts, on the other hand, are all caused by
     physical forces or physical conditions, outside the agent
     (Fineberg and Shafer-Landeau, 2002, 490).
Returning to Pilate's decision, it could be said that he was caught in a sting because his action was caused by his desire to do what was expedient -- even if it meant the execution of an innocent man. (In John 19:6 Pilate said of Jesus: 'I find no basis for a charge against him.' In Luke 23:22, referring to Jesus, Pilate said: 'I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.')


A dilemma is a situation in which no matter which of two options you choose, you will be wrong. Conversely, an antinomy is a situation in which no matter which of two options you choose, you will be right. An antinomy is, 'the existence of two incompatible statements, each of which taken on its own, is reasonable' (Pence, 3). Rene Descartes classified the free will-determinism debate as an antinomy (Grim, 131).

The Book of Kings records the wise ruling of Solomon when confronted by two women claiming the same infant son. The king was unable to discern which of the two women was the rightful mother until he called for a sword to have the baby cut in half and then divided between the disputing women. The case was settled when the actual mother said, 'Please my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!' (The other woman said, 'Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!') If the baby had been divided by the sword, both women would have lost, including the one who was telling the truth. In contrast to the case before Solomon, both sides in the free will-determinism debate are telling the truth. In the free will problem there is no 'true mother' to be discerned. The benefit of compatibilism is that both free will and determinism enjoy the status of being right. Imagine a world in which human beings were not responsible for their behavior. The fact that such a world has never existed is ample evidence that free will is right and necessary. Imagine a world in which the law of cause-and-effect did not apply. Certainly, it is not the world in which we live or anyone has ever lived. If either free will or determinism were not true, it would be impossible for people to manage their lives.

A compromise is required when opposing sides have equal and competing claims. People who say, 'I never compromise when I am right,' are properly asked, 'When do you compromise, when you are wrong? Why should anyone compromise with you when you are wrong?' A compromise is a settlement of differences between two parties who are right, each in their own way. A compromise provides a solution in which the merits of both positions are retained. The free will-determinism problem is not like a Rubik's cube with a solution by which all sides are neatly reconciled. Neither is the free will problem like the case decided by Solomon, in which one claimant lost and the other won. The free will-determinism dispute is an antinomy that calls for each side to concede to the correctness of the other. Compatibilism includes these concessions. Compatibilism also requires each side to see itself, if standing alone, as an incomplete explanation of the human condition.


Ayer, A.J. 1969. 'Freedom and Necessity.' in Philosophical Essays. New York. St. Martin's Press.

Cialdini, R. 1984. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Collins.

Darrow, C. 'The State of Illinois vs. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.' August 22, 1924. Recovered from the Lerner and Loeb Homepage.

Fallon, J. and Aron, A. 2001. 'Mysteries of Mating.' The Learning Channel. Film Garden Entertainment, Inc.

Feinberg, J. and Shafer-Landeau, R. 2002. Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

Grim, P. 2008. Philosophy of the Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

Holbach, P. 1770. 'The Illusion of Free Will.' in Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. 2002. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ Thompson  Learning. p. 462.

Kant, I. 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Guyer, P. and Wood, A. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Katen, T. 1973. Doing Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lewis, D.O. 1998. Guilty by Reason of Insanity. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group.

Merton, R. 'The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposeful Social Interaction.' American Psychological Review. Vol. 1, Issue 6, Dec. 1936.

Morris, W., Editor. 1969. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Pence, G. 2000. A Dictionary of Common Philosophical Terms. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Popkin, R. and Stroll, A. 1993. Philosophy Made Simple. New York: Bantam Doubleday Publishing.

Sacks, O. 1970. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York: Summit Books.

The Post Standard. Syracuse, NY. February 15, 2007.

(c) Max Malikow 2009




The traditional and popular characterization we have handed down to us of Aristippus of Cyrene amounts to something like the following. That though he led a kind of colourful, iconoclastic pleasure-filled life, there was little there in the way of a clearly defined end or telos, no conception, in other words, of happiness or eudaimonia, understood in the minimal sense as a concern for one's life as a whole. Scholars have had various explanations for this. I want to spend some time on three of the more popular explanations advanced in recent years for Aristippus' alleged anti-eudaimonism. All three accounts, I try to argue, are not only unconvincing but largely incompatible with the bulk of the evidence. More positively, I hope to show that Aristippus is actually someone who is firmly entrenched in the surrounding eudaimonistic tradition, someone who does not run foul of the ordinary Greek commitments to prudence and life as a whole, understood as a concern for the future.

It must be mentioned that the notion of ancient eudaimonia is a comprehensive (and contentious) one, and I do not here try to give a comprehensive treatment of it. Such a treatment would include considerations of self-sufficiency, rationality and morality, among others -- all important eudaimonist concerns. What I am particularly interested in here are the following minimum assumptions (discernible in Socrates/ Plato and the surrounding philosophical tradition): there is an articulation of an ultimate goal or aim (telos), which is (agreed on as best) characterized by the term happiness (eudaimonia), and that happiness must concern one's life as a whole, or at least involve a significant amount of forethought about one's future. Again, my intention in this paper is to show that Aristippus, against popular interpretation, does not break with these minimum assumptions.

Wolfgang Mann claims that Aristippus makes no clear statement of, and has no account of, the telos, understood as a single and specific end for one's life as a whole. I will call this the lack of telos explanation. T. H. Irwin, in his paper entitled 'Aristippus against Happiness', argues that Aristippus rejects eudaimonia because he has doubts about personal identity or a continuing self, which are in turn grounded in a kind of radical epistemology. I will call this the radical epistemology explanation. Julia Annas claims that Aristippus essentially throws prudence to the winds, that he goes after 'what is presently attractive, quite explicitly at the price of commitments to ideals which require self-control and deferral of gratification'. I will refer to this as the lack of prudence explanation.


Let us begin with the lack of telos explanation. Mann has written a paper on Aristippus where he claims that he held no telos at all, for the reason that 'philosophers before Aristotle did not use this terminology; they did not concern themselves with anything they called the telos.'[1] He concludes that those who ascribe a view about a telos to Aristippus are doing so anachronistically, on the basis of the anecdotes about him. Before proceeding, a quick word about the meaning of telos is in order. Of course, the principal sense of telos is end or goal. Though in some cases it can mean the goal or purpose of any particular action, here it is concerned with the overriding goal of a person's life, the ultimate or supreme good.

Now is Mann right to question the existence and use of the concept telos as it concerns the final aim for one's life as a whole before Aristotle? This would seem to depend on the sense he gives it. Perhaps he means that those before did not concern themselves with anything they called the telos in the sense that their views were not grounded in anything like Aristotle's theoretical teleology about human nature. If talk of telos is strictly connected to the development of Aristotelian teleology, then of course it would seem to be ipso facto true that philosophers before Aristotle did not concern themselves with the terminology in exactly that sense. But, for starters, the notion of telos as the final end and its determination has no essential connection to natural teleology. Aristotle may rely on it but Plato, and certainly the two later Hellenistic schools, seem to start from some conception of the highest good, and then from that derive a characterization of the good life.[2]

Moreover, and importantly, Plato actually does use the term telos explicitly at Protagoras 354b7 and in the same dialogue seems to employ it synonymously with the goal concerned with the whole of one's life (356d4-5), which we know from elsewhere he identifies with happiness (eudaimonia) (Meno, 77e-78b; Symp. 205a2 -3; Euthd. 278e). Plato also uses telos at Gorgias 499e8 (and again at Symp. 205a-d) where he identifies it with the good, which later he uses interchangeably with happiness (494eff). So Mann, it would seem, is simply wrong to say that philosophers before Aristotle did not use this terminology. In any case, since Plato uses it in his publications, the notion of a final end or telos is clearly available to Aristippus, a contemporary of his and a student of Socrates.

Now what is true is that the term telos is not explicitly attributed to Aristippus anywhere in the historically proximate testimony (although there are clear attributions of telos to Aristippus in later sources[3]). However, that it is not given explicit mention is no assurance that Aristippus did not employ it or have it in mind. For instance, in Xenophon's Memorabilia, an important historically proximate source, Aristippus speaks markedly to Socrates about wanting to aim for the 'pleasant life' and 'happiness' (eudaimonia) ( 2. 1. 9- 11). There is every indication here that he takes this aim to be synonymous or convertible with telos, or end concerned with the whole of one's life (more on this discussion in the Memorabilia shortly).


Let us now move on to the radical epistemology explanation. Some scholars have attempted to account for Aristippus' (and the Cyrenaics') strong emphasis on the present by appealing to the view that he holds a conception of personal identity which denies that the same agent sees himself as persisting throughout a lifetime, in other words, that he sees himself as a single, temporally extended person.[4] T.H. Irwin (as far as I am aware of, the only scholar to have devoted an entire paper to it) claims Aristippus and the Cyrenaics reject long-term planning, or eudaimonia, because they have doubts about personal identity or a continuing self. Such reservations are in turn related, it is argued, to certain ontological and epistemological doubts they have about aggregates or collections of affections or impressions (pathe).

Very briefly, the brunt of Irwin's argument runs as follows. The Cyrenaics ground their main ethical position, that individual present pleasure is the moral end, on the distinction between particular and collections of pathe. While they see individual present pleasure as belonging to particular or simple pathe and so as identifiable and irrefutable, they see eudaimonia and temporally extended selves in compositional terms or as collections of pathe and so as unidentifiable and fallible -- hence they adopt a sceptical stance towards them .[5]

Whether Irwin believes Aristippus the Elder to hold these doubts is unclear, although he does say that if 'my argument is plausible, it may indirectly support the view that Cyrenaic philosophical doctrines may go back to Aristippus the Socratic...' (n.2) In any case, the view espoused here would amount to roughly the following. Aristippus holds an account of personal identity which conflicts with the 'common-sense' view of the same agent persisting throughout the whole of life. 'Future selves' stand to 'present selves' from a diachronic perspective in the same way as other persons on a synchronic perspective do. Hence, the reasoning goes, we will not be concerned with the future since whatever it brings will not really belong to us -- those plans will really be for our 'future selves' for whom we have no rational concern. We would have no good reason therefore to sacrifice our pleasures now for the sake of our 'other' selves down the road. We would thus be rejecting the assumption that temporal stages in our life must all be taken into account with every rational choice, or, to put it another way, we would be concluding that to discount 'our' own future pleasures is rational because the pleasures experienced by later selves is not fully one's 'own'.

Though neatly cogent, there is absolutely no justification for such a view to be found in the testimony on Aristippus, let alone the Cyrenaics.[6] Nothing explicit in the sources concerning Aristippus himself even remotely suggests concerns about temporal identity. In fact, the sources on Aristippus unequivocally land on the side of the 'common-sense' view. For example, Aristippus explicitly states there that he wishes for a life (bios) of the greatest pleasure that can be had (2. 1. 9) and then goes on to claim that he in fact has the most certain path to happiness (eudaimonia) (2. 1. 11).[7] This does not seem to be indicative of someone who has abandoned or diverged from any normal way of thinking about himself or his life as a whole. Rather it seems clear that this sort of perspective, or eudaimonism, presupposes, or rests on the assumption of, a conception of the ethical agent as a self whose identity endures over time, in other words, of someone conceiving of oneself as having a life -- a chain of actions and experiences that belong to one subject lasting through (a least a significant period of) time.

Moreover, even when they are not explicitly spelled out, such eudaimonistic undertones clearly permeate their discussion and similar implications are to be found later in Socrates' rendition of Prodicus' Fable, where, for starters, the two women there appear to symbolize two opposing personal lifestyles or life-strategies, not two opposing points of view with regards to time, or considerations for the whole of life. Hence, with respect to the testimony of Xenophon, not only is it clear from certain claims he makes that Aristippus is conceiving of the good life or life as a whole -- and thus by extension of himself as a temporally extended and persisting agent -- but the language and the overriding concern of the discussion itself, actually presupposes it.

Much of the later testimony also implies or entails belief in a continuing self on the part of Aristippus. To take just one apparent example, consider the following passage from Diogenes:

     Again, when Aristippus was asked what are the subjects
     which handsome boys ought to learn, his reply was, 'Those
     which will be useful to them when they are grown up.'
     (II 80)
Aristippus here is clearly conceiving of the boys and the grown men they will one day become as the same agents in different times.[8]


That Aristippus rejects eudaimonia, understood as a concern for one's life as a whole, because he holds certain sceptical views about personal identity is simply not supported by any evidence. Nevertheless, Aristippus does not require any such view in order to reject a concern for the future. Perhaps he simply advocates a policy of present pleasure-pursuit divorced entirely from forethought towards one's life as a whole. This brings us to the lack of prudence explanation. Julia Annas, in her The Morality of Happiness, claims that Aristippus' position falls short of any kind of prudential theory of conduct. She thinks that seen against the long-term hedonism of Plato's Protagoras, Aristippus holds an irrational and absurd view. She maintains that Aristippus' own form of pleasure pursuit, with its emphasis on the present moment and perceived lack of concern for the future, is far removed from Socrates' stress in the Protagoras on hedonism as a rational overall strategy to guarantee maximum pleasure over one's life as a whole (228).

To begin with, I take it as evident that, in an assessment of his actions, it simply cannot be true that Aristippus takes no concern whatsoever of the future. Nobody who is concerned with any kind of deliberative activity at all can ever be said to be totally unconcerned with anything that extends beyond the present temporal point that one occupies; after all, even a simple action like reaching for a glass of wine at the dinner table involves a concern for a future state of affairs.

But more importantly, to attribute to Aristippus any such radical discounting simply runs antithetical to his commitments, implied throughout the testimony, to a fair amount of prudential discrimination and self-control. This is clearly expressed in both of Aristippus' discussions with Socrates in the Memorabilia. At 2. 1. 4-6, he agrees with Socrates' counsel in approaching certain situation with the requisite foresight. Earlier on, Socrates runs through seven respects in which, if one wishes to lay claim to being fit to rule, one ought to practice prudence and self-control. In every instance Aristippus responds with full affirmation; for instance, he completely agrees with Socrates that to plunge headlong, like a silly animal, into adultery when there are other, less dangerous ways of satisfying such a desire is sheer lunacy (2. 1. 5). And later, at 3. 8. 2, Aristippus asks Socrates if anything is good, with the intent of showing that, if Socrates mentioned some good thing like food or drink, it can sometimes be bad. I take Aristippus' point here to be about the harmful consequences of present indulgence; drinking is not a good thing if it turns out to be outweighed by its painful effects. So, at least according to the testimony of Xenophon, Aristippus does not appear to deny reflection or foresight of the future effects of one's actions.

Outside of the historically proximate Memorabilia, there is also much testimony to the effect that Aristippus was very conscious of forethought and of not being overcome by pleasures and not being subjected to unpleasant consequences. An excellent example of this is reported by Diogenes Laertius: 'One day, as they entered the house of a courtesan, one of the young men in his company blushed. Aristippus warned him, 'It is not going in that is dangerous, but being unable to come out.'' (II 69) Thus Grote (1865, 555), going against the traditional and popular characterization of Aristippus, appears to be right on track: 'Prudence, knowledge, the art of mensuration or calculation, were essential to Aristippus, and ought to be put in the foreground when his theory is stated.'

Now we might perhaps allow that Aristippus cares for some amount of prudential discrimination without at the same time attributing to him any kind of long-term concern about one's life. Maybe he holds to some type of short-term conception of happiness, where there is some forethought about one's future actions but this is limited to the near-distant future. According to such an account, Aristippus would show some prudential concern for the shorter-term future, but no over-arching concern for life as a whole. I think this is highly doubtful. This is because a conception of happiness as some kind of short-term state is not something that would be widely shared by the Greeks, at least up until the time of Aristotle. This is reflected, among other places, in Aristotle's account of common views in the Rhetoric (1360b14ff). There, when Aristotle describes the different views of happiness representing common beliefs, there is not one which does not point to, or show concern for, a condition of a person's life as a whole. Of course, this is not proof that Aristippus could, or did not, hold such a view, but it makes clear the general counter-intuitiveness of any such claim about happiness. Moreover, given the prevalence of this view of happiness as some condition of a person's life as whole, we might reasonably suppose that Aristippus should be understanding it in this way unless he clearly says or indicates otherwise.

A final point about Aristippus' surrounding philosophical tradition. In the very few commentaries on the ethical views of Aristippus out there, there has been little attempt to try to consider his views, or make sense of him, in light of his Socratic background and affiliation. This, I believe, is an important oversight; since consideration of this background will also give us some reason to assume Aristippus does not run foul of a commitment to happiness or life as a whole.

To begin with, there was clearly a strong connection between Aristippus and Socrates. This connection is first implied by Plato in the Phaedo. Recalling the names of the most faithful friends of Socrates who were present the day on which the philosopher drank the hemlock, Plato felt the need to expressly say that Aristippus was not there since he was at Aegina (59b). This might suggest that Aristippus was a true intellectual follower of Socrates, someone with a special adherence on a philosophical level. After all, Plato is reported to have been on bad terms with Aristippus and to have abused him.[9] The fact that Plato nevertheless makes sure to account for the absentee makes all the more convincing that there existed an important connection or relationship between Socrates and Aristippus.[10] Moreover, we might find it hard to envision Socrates being in a relationship with anyone without there being some sort of intellectual bond between them.
This connection in the Phaedo brings us to a further important point which bears on the issue of philosophical substantiality on the part of Aristippus. Aristippus was not only a friend and admirer of Socrates (e.g. see Phaedo 58c, Aristotle's Rhetoric 2. 23. 12, Eusebius, PE, 14. 18. 31, and Xen. Mem. 2. 1) but also his student. Diogenes Laertius reports that Aristippus was a pupil of Socrates (II 74), who was his teacher (II 65), and that he went to him for wisdom and education (II 78, 80). It would be reasonable to assume from this that it is not simply certain attitudes or convictions or a set of character traits exhibited in a style of life that Aristippus receives from his teacher - - although these are important too (for instance, a sense of confidence and autonomy), but also certain philosophical views or reflections (though of course this is not to suggest that Aristippus need have endorsed them all). Indeed, it is hard to imagine that listening to Socrates speak and being exposed to the sorts of questions he asked and to his intellectual vitality in general would not have bore in an admirer and receptive individual like Aristippus a worthy degree of philosophical fruit, both in the form of reflection and theory.

As well, it is important to remember that both Plato (Phaedo 59b) and Xenophon (Mem. Book 2. 1; 3. 8), two informants who were actually present in the Socratic circle, imply (in Plato's case), or report (in Xenophon's case), Socrates' and Aristippus' presence with one another. Furthermore, given that they were similar in age and their close association in Athens, Plato's dialogues were almost certainly available to Aristippus. Thus not only was Aristippus actually intimately close at hand to Socrates himself, but he had exposure to the views of 'Socrates' in Plato dialogues (and presumably to other Socratic writings in the same period).

So why is all this important? It is important because it would seem to make all the more probable that Aristippus was not some anomalous figure with heterodox views with respect to eudaimonia. As mentioned earlier, Socrates, both in the works of Plato and Xenophon, is repeatedly talking to his interlocutors about the long-term goal of happiness (with no apparent sign of confusion or disagreement on their part). Moreover, the philosophical climate in general espouses the commonplace idea that there was a highest good and that this involved consideration of one's life as a whole.[11] For instance, many of the so-called minor-Socratics around during this time -- Antisthenes for example -- are working within this eudaimonistic model (DL VI 11).[12] Thus, given the philosophical climate he was immersed in and his looming Socratic background and affiliation, it is hard to imagine Aristippus would have advocated a type of anti-eudaimonism. This, coupled with the (as we have seen) failure of certain popular explanations advanced in recent years for Aristippus' alleged lack of concern for the future or long-term goal, should strongly suggest that Aristippus does not run foul of Greek eudaimonism, understood in the basic sense as a concern for one's life as a whole.


1. Mann, 1996, 114-116.

2. Long, 1999, 618, n.3.

3. E.g., Athenaeus, Deipn. XII 544a; Diogenes, II 85; Aristocles, Praep. Ev. XIV 18, 31.

4. Mitsis, 1998, 56; Irwin, 1991.

5. Irwin, 1991, 62-6.

6. Even Irwin, 1991, though well into his exposition by now, admits this: 'My attempt to connect Cyrenaic objections to happiness with doubts about personal identity lacks direct support from the sources; for they never say either (i) that Cyrenaics have sceptical doubts about personal identity or (ii) that these doubts underlie the objections to happiness.' (69) For further doubts on Irwin's view, primarily in regards to Cyrenaic epistemology, see Tsouna, 2002, Sect. III, and O'Keefe, 2002, 395-416. See also Gosling and Taylor, 1983, 41.

7. In fact, drawing from the conversation between Aristippus and Socrates and including the rendition of Prodicus' Fable, there are, assembled together, thirteen references to variations of bios, zoe, and eudaimonia.

8. See also Tsouna, 1998, 133, for more such presuppositions in the testimony.

9. For example, DL III 36, DL II 65; see also the suggested enmity at 1398b31- 32 in Aristotle's Rhetoric, and in Athenaeus, Deip. VIII, 343c-d and XI, 507b.

10. Plato, after all, does not mention Xenophon's absence from the death-scene, and there was apparently also quite a bit of bad-blood between these two (see, e.g. Athenaeus, Deip. XI, 504e-f). Again, that he felt a need to mention Aristippus is perhaps telling.

11. See Vlastos, 1991, 203 and Irwin, 1995, 32-33.

12. Isocrates, writing just 10 to 15 years after the death of Socrates, also points out that this understanding of happiness was a central one in the early Socratic tradition (Against the Sophists 3-4).

(c) Kristian Urstad 2009


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020