Can Hedonism account for justice?

11 Nov, 2021

Epicurus observes a more fundamental purpose of sentient existence, noting that the instinct of all creatures is to avoid pain. A good life is one with minimal suffering. To be overly simplistic, Epicurus philosophy can be summarised as “minimize suffering, maximise pleasure” (Konstan, 2018), or more accurately; attain a pleasure which does not fleet.

Epicurus recognises that his pursuit of a good life fails to include the notion of justice as intrinsically good. Instead, a basic form of law must be provided to assure that everyone has the fairest chance of pursuing happiness in their own way. This social contract is necessary for the Epicurean good life in order to regulate justice (Rachels, 2003). To justify the ‘goodness’ of a social contract, one of two statements must be true. Either an institution of justice is intrinsically good, or an institution of justice is instrumentally good. The fact that justice is not included within the Epicurean parameters of a good life, leaves justice with only rational utility. The Epicurean must then demonstrate why a social contract is more rationally useful than its absence.

“I have never yet heard the superiority of justice to injustice maintained by any one in a satisfactory way.” – Plato.

An argument for why justice is rationally useful is that it allows each person to be autonomous. However, Epicureanism makes no positive claim that autonomy is intrinsically good. Instead, there seems to be more evidence which points to the benefits of abolishing a justice institution. Plato writes, “there is far more profit for him personally in injustice than in justice is what every man believes”. (Plato & Bloom, 1968). Here he suggests that it is self-evident that there is greater utility in denying an institution of justice. In other words, the quickest way to ‘maximise pleasure’ is through injustice. This does not only challenge Epicurus’ ideas on justice but presents a major problem for utilitarian ethics.

Is this a false dichotomy, in which the Epicurean can simply deny that that justice is not instrumentally or intrinsically good? This would imply that a ‘good’ worldview does not have to necessarily regulate or account for justice. Justice, however, is as an essential doctrine to the good life, due to the absurdity of the contrary. All humans at some point will have an instinct to present a moral complaint. With the absence of an authority or law to appeal to, all complaints lack substance. It is merely a battle of opinions. The Epicurean must abandon any objective or authoritative rational ground to punish others or complain against evil. For a world view to make accurate observations about the world, it must necessarily have justice, which the Epicurean good life fails to account for.

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” - John Piper


Konstan, David. (2018). Epicurus. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Retrieved from

Plato, & Bloom, A. (1968). The Republic. 360D. New York, Basic Books.

Rachels, S., & Rachels, J. (2019). The elements of moral philosophy. 144. New York, NY : McGraw-Hill Education.