Happy Twentieth: The Ethics of a Quarantine

Happy Twentieth of April! Please enjoy our educational videos on YouTube, and please subscribe, comment, and share. Some media updates:

In the past, I’ve written about the sense of smell as it relates to the Epicurean canon, and this last Aeon essay does a great job of accentuating the importance of this faculty. It explains how, compared to vision which is vulnerable to optical illusion, it’s much more difficult to trick the nose, and that it’s a much more reliable connection with reality than most people realize.

The essay also reminds me of the nexus between cuisine and Epicurean philosophy. It discusses how the aroma of coffee, for instance, has dozens of ingredients, some of which on their own are not appetizing or would be repulsive, but when these combine in the right proportion and in the right manner, they produce a synergy that is unique to the coffee experience, and is by far greater than the sum of the ingredients. These emergent properties are what Epicurus in his Letter to Herodotus (and, later, Polystratus and others) called secondary, or relational, properties of bodies.

In addition to learning how to use cricket flour (and discovering its synergy with cassava), I have in the past discovered similar synergies between ingredients like raw cacao (chocolate in its natural form) and maca and coconut water, and as I am writing this I am enjoying a millet porridge that was blah until I added sugar and peanut butter, which turned it into a yummy experience. All ingredients require that the culinary artist learn how to employ them, otherwise they will not be useful or appetizing in the kitchen. We could say the same about philosophy: in order to produce a happy life, we need friendship, self-sufficiency, the study of philosophy, self-discipline, and many other concrete ingredients, without which pleasure can not “grow together with the virtues” as Epicurus says in his Letter to Menoeceus.

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Since we are going through a period of health crisis and most of us are to some extent or another under quarantine, I thought I’d discuss some of Epicurus’ doctrines on justice as it relates to these times. The most important thing to know is that, in nature, we observe no absolute justice. Justice exists by convention and by culture: it’s an artifact of human genius that is meant to serve the needs of human societies.

And so justice must be related to concrete circumstances, which change with time. Since these circumstances change, what is just must change also. The Principal Doctrines give mutual advantage as the criterion by which we judge what is just.

Quarantines afford us a unique opportunity to see what is just is relative and changes according to circumstances. Let’s look at PD’s 37-38:

Among things that are thought to be just, that which has been witnessed to bring mutual advantage among companions has the nature of justice, whether or not it is the same for everyone. But if someone legislates something whose results are not in accord with what brings mutual advantage among companions, then it does not have the nature of justice. And if what brings advantage according to justice changes, but for some time fits our basic grasp of justice, then for that time it is just, at least to the person who is not confused by empty prattle but instead looks to the facts.

Notice here the portion “whether or not it is the same for everyone”. Quarantines are an instance where only select individuals must respect particular taboos regarding free movement and association. They were originally imposed during the Black Plague to merchants who docked in the pier in Venice after a long trip abroad. In other circumstances, quarantines are applied to residents of a certain village, or a certain city (Wuhan), to people just coming into one country or region from another region, or to colonies of lepers. The spread of a plague or disease is the particular disadvantage that justifies (that is, “makes just”) the quarantine. But additional disadvantages may arise from societal and political disorder if the people feel that their government has mismanaged the health crisis, social ostracism for patients, economic difficulties for large numbers of individuals, and other issues.

We also find in PD 37 the assertion that the word of the law is not always in line with justice. Sometimes failing to abide by laws carries great disadvantages, but if the law was originally unfair to begin with, we may say that these added disadvantages were not only unfair but also unnecessary.

We also find the assertion that temporary measures (like a 15-day quarantine) can sometimes be just only for a time–that is, during the time for which they produce mutual advantage. Isolating particular groups of people for arbitrary reasons not related to mutual advantage, outside of the circumstances we have today, is seen as unjust.

When circumstances have not changed and things that were thought to be just are shown to not be in accord with our basic grasp of justice, then those things were not just. But when circumstances do change and things that were just are no longer useful, then those things were just while they brought mutual advantage among companions sharing the same community; but when later they did not bring advantage, then they were not just.

We should defer to health experts before we decide when the current stay-at-home orders and quarantines must end, but for the time being, measures of social distancing bear the stamp of being just because they bring mutual advantage. These measures protect our health and protect us from the many disadvantages tied to the worsening of the current health crisis.

If you’d like to further discuss the intricacies of the Epicurean doctrine of justice based on mutual advantage, and other aspects of Epicureanism, please join us at the Garden of Epicurus FB group!

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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