An Argument for the Hedonistic Account of Pain


I. Introduction

As we see from Cicero’s account of Epicureanism, its ethical system (i.e. Hedonism) revolves around the entities of pleasure and pain. As in all ethical theories, there is a “greatest good” that is the aim of life . For the hedonist, this is the absence of all pain, and they hold that this is the highest pleasure (and pleasure is equated with good for the Epicurean). There are many reasons the Epicureans give (via Cicero’s testimony) for this, which involve our senses and instinctual responses to good and bad, from our moment of conscious experience (57). Also, we see via Cicero a demonstrative argument for this claim after the more informal reasons are given (59). However, this idea, in virtue of itself, has been one of much contention (which we see through schools such as the Stoics to even modern day philosophers such as Joel Feinberg). Thus, a renewed philosophical inquiry into this matter is needed.

In this paper, I shall argue three things. First, I shall show that the argument that the absence of pain is the highest pleasure, as stated by the Epicureans (via Cicero), is somewhat problematic due to a lack of adequate justification for the second conclusion of his argument (see below). Secondly, I shall restate the argument in such a way that I believe avoids the problems from which the former suffers (and subsequently I shall deal with certain objections that may arise from the restatement). Thirdly, I shall show that given the argument, the intuitive notion that the two different lives are not equivalent is quite misguided .

II. The Argument Presented by Cicero—Mind the Gap

Cicero describes the Epicurean argument that the absence of pain is the highest pleasure as follows:

(i) “When we are freed from pain we rejoice in this very liberation from and annoyance…”

(ii) “…Everything we rejoice in is a pleasure.”

(iii) “It is right to call the absence of pain pleasure .”

(iv) Furthermore, the absence of pain is the highest pleasure.

We see that the inference from (i) and (ii) to (iii) seems valid . However, this does not seem to be the case concerning the inference to (iv). Thus, this is a rather serious issue for the argument as described by Cicero, if this is how we are to take their argument for the absence of pain being the highest pleasure. From the argument, it rightly follows that the absence of pain is a pleasure (for any X, so long as it is something we rejoice in, would rightly be classified as a pleasure). Yet, there is nothing substantial here that demonstrably shows that (iv) follows from (iii). Indeed, Smith may rejoice in the fact that his in-laws left his house after a month-long visit. Obviously (and quite understandably so), this would be a pleasure. However, one would hopefully have reservations to claim, furthermore, that the departure of one’s in-laws is the greatest pleasure.

The fourth premise is simply not given adequate defense by Cicero (indeed, we see no explicit justification as to why Cicero would think this where he writes the Epicurean argument). The most vivid way this inadequacy has been illuminated is by the two lives thought experiment. Namely, imagine two agents who have identical lives (and are fortunate enough to have no pain whatsoever in their lives), sans for one thing. In life one, we see that the agent has the absence of pain, but only eats bread and drinks water. In life two, we observe the same absence of pain, but the agent eats filet mignon and drinks wine. Intuitively (especially since the Epicurean wants to hold some sort of pleasure calculus in his ethics (58-59)), one will want to hold that the second life is more pleasurable than the former. Doing so will then necessitate that the absence of pain is not the highest pleasure possible. The power of intuition wielded by this example is of a considerable magnitude. Indeed, it leaves one pondering what the Epicurean has with which to retort.

To avoid this objection of intuitive inequality (and consequently avoiding the accusation that the absence of pain is not the highest pleasure), the Epicureans introduce different kinds of desires (namely, natural/necessary (e.g. food in general), natural/unnecessary (e.g. filet mignon), and unnatural/unnecessary (e.g. a statue being erected in one’s honor)), and consequently state that these different types are ranked in order of importance. Because filet mignon is natural, but unnecessary, it should not be so highly valued and accommodated for. Thus, they believe the desire for bread and water, and the desire for steak would be different—at least to some degree. However, this should seem questionable to us. Either way, simply because one of the entities is expendable (even when suggested that such an action of expending be taken) does not mean that it negates the value of pleasure that is gained from such an entity. Seemingly, this does not seem to be an adequate response for the Epicurean.

III. A Modest Reformulation from an Alternative Perspective

However, there are alternative ways of deriving what the Epicurean ultimately wants to hold without running into the issues of intuition that have been discussed. I claim that a) it is not necessary to assert this hierarchy of different desires as some “corollary” along with the very succinct argument given by Cicero, and b) all that is needed is a simple restatement of the argument, which focuses on speaking about pain in terms of unmet desires. Observe:

(p) Let us assume that for every pain P, there is an unmet desire

(i) If one has pain, then one has a desire that is not met. [P -> D] 

(ii) Via modus tollens, ~D -> ~P.

(iii) If there are no unmet desires, then all desires of the agent have been met at time t.

(iv) Since ~P follows from ~D, we know that all desires of the agent have been met at time t when ~P .

(v) Pleasure ensues when desires are met.

(vi) ~P is where all possible pleasure has been obtained by the agent at time .

(vii) If there are no other possible pleasures obtainable for a given entity, then that entity should be thought to be experiencing the highest possible pleasure.

(viii) ~P will the highest possible pleasure for any agent X.

Obviously, the success of the argument hinges on whether or not pain was defined in a correct manner. Yet, we are able to see a definite correlation between the presence of pain and unmet desire, which gives way to the conclusion that the unmet desire is a considerable factor in the presence of pain. For example, when we see one suffer pain due to unrequited love, it is not simply because the “lady fair” has rejected the poor pursuer, but is due to his desiring her in the first place (for, if he had not desired her at all, there would be no pain—and consequently no poetry by John Donne). When one suffers pain due to being poor, it is not because of the fact that he is poor, but because he has the unmet desire not to be poor, and subsequently the desires to obtain things such as steak, wine, good clothing, etc. that cannot be met when one suffers from a lack of financial wellbeing. Note that if it was because of the fact that he was poor alone, then he would most likely cease feeling pain if being poor was looked on with the utmost respect, and was a mark of true virtue, etc. However, most would agree that this would not occur. Further evidence is seen when observing the ideal Stoic. The ideal Stoic does not experience pain because he has accepted whatever occurs in nature as necessary. Since his desire is to live in accordance with nature (and the nature of the universe is not something that is significantly altered (nor its “plans” thwarted) as we can tell), pain will not be known to him. However, if the ideal Stoic desired to live in any other fashion, it is quite plausible (even likely) that at some point in time he would experience pain.

Once one has looked further into the instances where pain is present, it becomes apparent that this absence of met desires has a significant correlation with observed pain. Given the logical connection we see in the first premise (and hopefully justified by the examples above), having the situation of experiencing unmet desires not occur will necessitate the absence of pain. So long as one has accepted (i), (ii) should not require further elaboration. The rest, consequently, should follow without serious issue (and if there are, then the issues will arise out of objection to Epicurean ethics, and not to the argument itself).

IV. Objections

However, there will inevitably be at least one objection that arise from this argument. One may argue that (i) is problematic in the following manner: It seems quite plausible that there are certain pains which are produced from other sources than unmet desires—namely physical pains . This would of course discredit the first premise of the restated argument. This objection certainly has empirical weight to it (e.g. biological and neurological studies), and thus should be dealt with accordingly.

From a physiological standpoint, it is quite difficult to deny the existence of physical pain. Indeed, the firing of certain nerves, such as C-Fibers, that send a response to the brain is a concrete example of what pain is. This, of course, is something that will occur in situations beyond any agent’s control. However, with every physical pain, along with it comes the desire for that respective pain sensation to go away . When Jones touches a hot iron, he cannot help the physiological phenomena that occur within him (e.g. the firing of C-fibers, his yelping, etc.), nor the interpretation of these phenomena as pain. However, almost immediately, we can imagine (and rightly so) that he then has the desire for this sensation to go away. So long as this desire is unmet, he will continue to have pain. Yet, as soon as the desire is quelled, the pain is no longer present (for if the person was still experiencing pain unwillingly, he would undoubtedly still desire for it to be removed). Therefore, it seems that the physical pain can exist and (since it brings with it a desire for its removal) still be compatible with the first premise, as thus there is still a connection present in the unmet desire (of the pain to go away) and the pain subsisting in the agent 

This being said, the harm that we are speaking of in this instance entails another kind of desire being unmet, i.e. an implicit desire . For example, when Jim is walking down the street to the bakers, he has an implicit desire not to be punched in the face. However, more specifically, he has the desire not to have the mental state of my face is in excruciating physical pain (Again, if he did not have this deeper desire to avoid this mental state, then being punched in the face should not be a source of displeasure as far as mental states are concerned.). Thus, when Smith socks him one, his implicit desire has failed to be satisfied, which consequently results in his mental state of pain. The same can be said for any other account of physical pain. This would then show that the objection of (i) on these grounds is not detrimental to the argument.

With this objection now assuaged, we are thus able to move forward. It is beneficial to remind oneself that unlike the argument put forward by Cicero, this argument has focused on the connection between pain and unmet desires (which is the reason for its success). By virtue of this restatement of pain (which has been defended above), it is simply not possible for one to have any higher pleasures once the absence of pain has been met—seeing as the absence of pain is exactly what having all pleasures possible at a given time is. Thus, while the previous move from (iii) to (iv) in Cicero’s argument was rather perplexing, such a move cogently follows from the restated argument.

V. The Two Lives, Revisited

However, now it must be shown that this new argument explains the two lives objection in a satisfactory manner—avoiding the intuitive power that it seemingly wielded against the former argument. For sake of convenience, I shall restate it as follows:

In life one, we see that the agent has the absence of pain, but only eats bread and drinks water. In life two, we observe the same absence of pain, but the agent eats filet mignon and drinks wine. Intuitively, the latter seems to experience more pleasure than the former. Certainly, this should show that the absence of pain is not the highest pleasure possible.

As previously discussed, this observation carries a significant amount of intuitive weight . However, once these two lives are investigated in a more thorough manner, in light of what we deduced in the reformed argument, we will see that this is not the case. From Cicero’s testimony (as stated before), we see that the Epicureans had in mind a certain pleasure calculus, where one may forego a certain immediate pleasure or endure a certain pain in order to hopefully obtain a greater pleasure in the “long run” (albeit assumed that humans usually do this quite poorly when “calculating” future events). It is by this method that one makes rational decisions concerning ones actions (58-59). In determining one’s aggregate experience of pleasure at a given time, we may imagine that a given pleasure is assigned some positive value V and its opposite some negative value –V. Given our previous argument, we could imagine that this negative value denotes the desire for something (and consequently will be indicative of displeasure, or pain, if the desire is not met), and that positive value denotes the fulfillment of such a pleasure. Thus, when the desire is fulfilled, we are met with an equilibrium mirroring the tranquility experienced when all pain is absent.

With this in mind, let us now turn to the two examples. The opponent wants to assert that because filet mignon and wine are more pleasurable to ingest than bread and water, and both lives are absent of pain, then the latter should more pleasurable than the former since there is some apparent extra pleasure value. However, there is a grave misunderstanding that has taken place in this objection. As stated by the reformed argument, one is absent of pain only when all desires have been met. In other words, all negative values in terms of the pleasure calculus have been canceled out (i.e. fulfilled) with the positive ones. So, while the first life may only involve eating bread and drinking water, there is no desire for steak and wine. Thus, the first life is in equilibrium. The second life is also in equilibrium even though the agent is eating rather tasty foodstuffs, because before the person was continuously ingesting the steak and wine, there was a desire for such foodstuffs . Thus, the negative value has been canceled out with the positive. Therefore, the two lives are equivalent to each other in terms of the aggregate pleasure value . There is no difference in the aggregate pleasure that each agent experiences their respective lives.

It is a clever move on the opponent’s part to mention the steak and wine separately from the fact that all pain is absent, for it gives the illusion of both lives being equal, plus some given pleasure for which the steak and wine allow. Yet, as we have illuminated, this is not the case. In fact, if all pain is absent from the second life, then the steak and wine should not even be mentioned, as it is included in the former fact. Though, perhaps the objector will try to counter the following: It should be possible for one to experience a pleasure, but not have the desire for it. If this is so, then the two lives would not be equivalent at all. I certainly agree that if this was possible, then the two lives objection would have substantial weight, regardless of its initial misconceptions of aggregate pleasure. However, I do not see this as a viable possibility. To illustrate this point, let us observe a thought experiment:

Billy is one of the fortunate fellows who has no pain in his life (because, of course, all of his desires have been met—meaning that he is experiencing the highest pleasure at time t). One day, while walking down the street, a magical fairy appears from thin air and instantaneously erects an honorific statue of Billy on the corner of the street (and we may imagine, for the purposes of this thought experiment, that it is the most beautiful statue Billy has ever seen). Billy, of course, did not have this desire before; for if he did, he would certainly not be some one in which all pain is absent. Thus, it appears (albeit prima facie) that Billy has experienced a pleasure that is free from any desire of it. Does this not show that the theory of pleasure calculus as employed in the two lives is false?

Indeed, this seems quite perplexing. However, one must ask what would happen if the statue was suddenly taken away. Surely, all would agree that this would cause Billy some sort of pain . However, therein lies the rub. If Billy then suffers pain, it must be because there was a desire somewhere that was not fulfilled. More specifically, there was a desire that arose in the time that the statue appeared and disappeared. But where did this desire come from? It seems that the instant Billy saw the statue, a desire to have the statue remain accompanied the initial pleasure that Billy observed. Thus, even though it appears that Billy’s pleasure (that the statue evoked) was unaccompanied by any desire, the two entities materialize almost instantaneously . Therefore we see, like the other aforementioned instances, that pleasure ensues when the desires are continuously satisfied, hence the equilibrium that is present.

VI. Concerns about the Pleasure Calculus

However, another objection may arise concerning how these arbitrary “pleasure values” are calculated. One might object that this makes an incorrect assumption that V and –V will have always have the same arbitrary “pleasure value” in terms of absolute value, when clearly it seems that one can conceive of an instance of refutation via thought experiment. Such would be the following: Tom wants lamb chops for dinner (rather, he desires them). Thus, as above, this desire results in the negative pleasure value –V. Now, it just so happens that Vanna White (who happens to love lamb chops) will be walking by Tom’s house during the time he is cooking the chops. If he cooks them, she will smell them, and will desire to come in and eat them. Being that Tom happens to cook the best chops in the neighborhood, Vanna will be so enamored with his cooking skills that she will want to marry him. Thus, on one end (namely, if the desire for lamb chops is unmet) the pleasure value will be –V, but on the other hand (namely that Tom will cook the chops and consequently marry Vanna White), Tom will reach equilibrium (by obtaining V) AND gain a seemingly insurmountable amount of pleasure. Thus, it seems that in this instance the events denoted by V and –V do not have the same absolute value at all when contemplating the adherence or the neglecting of a given desire. Such is their objection.

However, it is important to note that this is a causal sequence of events, and the events tied to Tom cooking the lamb chops would not all constitute V, but rather V (cooking the chops) and some other values of W, X, Y, etc. correlating to having Ms. White come over, etc. Yet, even if we did treat all of the causal events as one, it is much like the statue example (see page nine), in that once these events concerning Ms. White have occurred, a desire for them (to continue) develops. Furthermore, as the experience of pleasure increases in magnitude, so too does Tom’s desire for these pleasures, which continues to counter act each other. Thus, it seems that there really is no imbalance concerning the equilibrium of aggregate pleasure/pain after further inquiry into the matter.

Now that we have reached a better understanding of both the argument and the nature of generating pleasure, we are now able to revisit the Epicurean “advice” of eliminating nonessential desires. However, this time it becomes a matter of simple pragmatism as opposed to something needed to get around the issue that arises from Cicero’s rendition of the argument. While there is nothing wrong with having more desires so long as they are met continuously, fulfilling them (and thus being rid of pain) becomes more of a risky endeavor, as one is introducing more and more variables that could go awry. Thus, we may say that while the two different lives are equivalent in terms of the aggregate pleasure experienced, it might be better to lead the first, more modest life, since there is less chance of something going awry and consequently resulting in pain. However, this is seemingly the only way that one could be advised to pick one over the other. Granted, some may desire the other choice (as I am sure there are those out there who would, prima facie, find the idea of replacing steak with bread quite laughable). Here again, it is a matter of preference and one’s disposition which also determines this choice (indeed, perhaps Smith likes living modestly, or vice-versa).

VII. Conclusion

Therefore, we find that the refocusing of pain in terms of being unmet desire not only fits in accordance with our own actions, but frees the Epicurean argument of the troubles it was threatened by earlier in the Ciceronian account. Consequently, the two lives objection to the Epicurean thus ceases to have any significant claim, since the second argument for the absence of pain now includes all possible pleasures at t. Hence, we find the separation of “absence of pain” and “filet mignon and wine” to be misleading in juxtaposition with the first life, as this distinction between “no pain” and the relative foodstuffs is no longer needed. While this is not presumed to be the “winning point” for the legitimacy of Epicurean ethics, it should serve as a testament that sometimes so much as a simple syntactic re-description illuminates demonstrable information not seen before hand.

Works Cited

Inwood, Brad, and L P. Gerson, trans. “The Testimony of Cicero.” Hellenistic Philosophy. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Company, 1997. 58-59.

LoLordo, Antonia. Lecture. University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 14 Nov. 2007.


1. This should not be confused with the quality of prudence. While the Epicureans do in fact claim that prudence is the highest good, it is obvious that in that sense, “good” is taken to mean “quality,” and here “good” is meant as something obtainable, as well as being a goal. Also, needless to say, I am not considering any moral theories that champion complete and utter moral apathy, but rather the ethical theories forwarded by Aristotle, Plato, the Skeptics, and the Stoics.

2. For further explanation on this, see page two. Note that this experiment has been somewhat modified from the prior versions which are an objection to quantitative hedonism. This is not what I wish to concentrate on (indeed what I later champion has much to do with the Hedonistic calculus performed), but rather that the “experiment” does indeed show the intuitive issues present when concerning oneself with the conception of pain. It is for this reason that I have used this adaptation. It will behoove the reader to keep this in mind when one continues through the paper, lest one believe I am addressing the situation in an inappropriate manner concerning the objectors’ position.

3. Taken from p. 59 of Hellenistic Philosophy (see references)

4. We find this to be a form Iaaa syllogism, where F = all instances that are free from pain, R = instances where we rejoice, and P = instances that pleasures. The syllogism is thus: F a R, R a P, \ F a P.

5. This should not be confused with a causal conditional. One should take it, rather, as a logical connection.

6. Here I will make a concession to my opponent. The complete success of this argument depends on the notion that an unmet desire always constitutes pain. While perhaps there are some cases that are more convincing than others where this is concerned (e.g. having an unmet desire to be loved by one’s parent). Is it possible for the reader to construct a scenario where an unmet desire does not constitute a sense of pain? While I might still try to argue that there are different levels of pain, and that even an inkling of disappointment constitutes such a pain, perhaps. Of course, this is one of the reasons this is entitled a “modest” argument, and furthermore a “modest reformulation.” The important thing to keep in mind is how often this does seem to be the case, regardless of whether or not it is simply assumed.

7. Note that “possible pleasure” does not mean logically possible. Here, possible means all desires have been met, and since this is so, then it would not be possible to gain any more pleasure at t given (v). Of course, one may object that this assumes that the only way one is able to obtain pleasure is to fulfill one’s desires. This objection is dealt with on page eight.

8. I would like to thank Jesse Newton for this objection.

9. This is of course assuming that the agent in question possesses normative faculties and does not have any anomalous mental characteristics such as being a masochist or a hypochondriac, for instance.

10. Again, it is a different sort of scenario than the paradigmatic examples previously discussed. The source is external from the agent’s system of beliefs and desires (the latter, more importantly). Again, this would revert back to the comment I have made earlier in the paper of there being a possible shortcoming. Nevertheless, we may still apply the pattern so that it loosely fits, thereby not destroying the argument altogether.

11. By “implicit desire,” I mean a desire such that one does not consciously affirm that there is any such desire until the situation calls for some sort of introspection, upon which there is indeed found to be one. For example, we all have an implicit desire not to get hit in the face (most of us, at least). However, we do not walk amidst ourselves consciously asserting this desire. It is simply a given assumption that this is something we do not want to have occur, and thus it is correct in saying that we do in fact have the desire not to get hit in the face. Though normatively speaking, this only comes up in conscious affirmation a) when someone is specifically looking introspectively at ones desires, or b) after this desire has failed to be met. For example: “Smith, why did you hit me in the face?!” “Oh, sorry Jones, I did not think you would mind.” “Of course I mind, I certainly did not want to get a shiner!” Hence, we see the implicit desire Jones had was not made elicit until after the fact, but he nevertheless had it.

12. As discussed in lecture by Professor Antonia Lolordo on November 14th, 2007.

13. Or, perhaps it resulted when the agent ate for the first time.

14. Of course this is not to say that being a beggar is the same as being a king (though opponents of hedonism have claimed that it does). Simply because their aggregate “pleasure” is equivalent does not necessitate that they be identical. Indeed, there are different types of lives that are experienced, and with every life experienced, the “experiencer” is somewhat different.

15. This is so, for we have deduced that pleasure comes from desires being fulfilled, and taking away the pleasure will thus leave one with unmet desires, and thus with pain. However, this is assuming that Billy likes the statue of himself and wishes to see it erected. That being said, I feel confidant that most people are mildly narcissistic enough for this experiment to have a certain plausibility (concerning the progression of one’s mental states as described, not the magically appearing statue).

16. I say almost, because one may argue that Billy had to experience pleasure before he could discern that there was a desire to keep the statue around (for surely the rational person of normative faculties would not desire something that was not pleasurable). If the statue was rather ugly, then obviously there would be no such desire. So, perhaps Billy felt pleasure for a very short time frame where there was only time for Billy to discern that he was experiencing pleasure. Likewise, perhaps at the time that the agent in the “second life” eats steak, there is a moment where the two lives are not equal in their aggregate pleasure value, but it is only until the agent realizes that eating the steak is pleasurable, which most would agree would be negligibly short.

Joshua M. Mitchell (’10) is a Philosophy and Middle Eastern Studies major at University of Virginia

Cover image: “Hedonistic Pain” by Alexis Vlahos

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