It’s fundamental that virtue is the only good for a Stoic. There’s not a perfect proof for why virtue is the sole good. As my philosophy professor at Drury U used to say, “you just have to bite the bullet when deciding to commit to any particular ethical theory.” People at times despair that if an idea doesn’t have a geometric proof for it, then it’s pointless to commit to such an idea. I think with that kind of attitude, you won’t get far in life. Sometimes you believe in a position based on the best evidence and best reasons you have. I have the best reasons I can think of for why Stoic virtue is the sole good . I’d like to share those reasons. I’d like to contrast Stoicism with other ethical theories such as deontology, hedonistic utilitarianism, hedonism, and Epicureanism. I’d like to explain why virtue by itself is worthy of pursuit. I’d also like to discuss the Stoic Hierocles and his observation and theory regarding animal and human development.
In hedonistic utilitarianism, the good is maximum pleasure of the most people. Hedonistic utilitarianism requires decisions that we wouldn’t be comfortable making. Utilitarianism necessitates calculating the best decision that serves the most good for the most people. One problem emerges that it’s not plausible to know what’s the best for the most amount of people. For example, does utilitarianism permit slavery if a few slaves are unhappy versus the happy multitude who benefit from slavery? That’s just one sort of problem with utilitarianism out of the multitude of increasing problems.
What about Kantian deontology? In Kantian deontology, the good is an action that comports with the categorical imperative, a dutiful action. Immanuel Kant asserted that his moral system outlined in Metaphysics of Morals was in congruence with our commonsense. But is it commonsense to always be honest and to always keep a promise no matter what and when? Is it commonsense that justice must be served even if it means the whole world’s destruction? Also, there are many times in our life where it seems sensible to sacrifice the one for the many; just think of war as an example. Also how many of us would pull the lever to save 5 lives over 1 life from a murderous Trolley in ethical Trolley dilemmas? Probably a significant amount.
Consider hedonism. In hedonism, pleasure is the sole good. Hedonism is appealing because prima facie, we do often seek pleasure and comfort and we avoid discomfort and pain. Pleasure as the sole good seems sensible enough. However, everyone knows that one should follow pleasure and avoid pain within limits. So what are these limits? In terms of commonsense, we constrain our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain within an ethical apparatus not aimed at pure pleasure. So then pleasure isn’t the sole source of good. Pleasure is actually limited by a higher good than pleasure itself. Epicurus sought to deal with the virtue and pleasure issue. In Epicureanism Ataraxia is the sole good (Ataraxia: tranquility due to total lack of pain). The Epicurean’s ethical project was assigning virtue as one path to total lack of pain. This wasn’t successful because despite endorsing the practice of virtue, the virtue rang hollow. Epicurus believed that we should be virtuous because if we behave viciously, we’ll be troubled by the legal consequences or even if we don’t get caught we’ll fear that we will be caught later. Virtue as an instrument to tranquility doesn’t mesh with our conception of justice and courage. We should be just and fair to one another because it’s just and fair and not because we’ll be without pain. Being courageous in itself is a desirable ethical goal. Being courageous as a path to freeing oneself of pain is not courage at all. Also, no Epicurean could argue consistently that one should sacrifice one’s own life for the lives of others. How would that be a path to long-term pleasure or the complete lack of pain?
The Stoics didn’t see pain and pleasure as relevant to virtue and vice. Yes, sometimes doing what’s right will result in some pleasure and doing what’s wrong will result in pain. But pain and pleasure do not always correlate with virtue or vice. If you err and you get yourself into trouble, the Stoics would say that you should learn from your mistakes and do not regret your mistakes because regret is an unnecessary passion to have. The Stoics knew that people make mistakes throughout their life, whether attempting to live the good life or being ignorant about how to live the good life. Stoicism entails humility. We all make mistakes, so let’s try to fix them and then move on. No sense living with remorse. Sometimes, we are ashamed but there is no sense in extending our grief over our prior faults.
What’s more is Stoicism allows for pleasure but regards it as neutral. Stoicism allows for the pursuit of wealth, health, education, reputation, and pleasure and regards them as preferred although “indifferent” or ethically neutral. Stoics can pursue preferred externals so long as they don’t interfere with the pursuit of virtue. Since Stoics can pursue externals without interfering with virtue, then Stoics might seem like regular people. Pursuing the same externals that everyone else prefers allows for Stoics to live in harmony with people around them. However, Stoics will stand out if there is an injustice and no one but them has the courage to stand against it.
Virtue is popular when people think about what virtue entails. When people reflect on the virtue courage, they’d think that the soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of other soldiers did good. Most people would think that someone that risks their own life saving two kids from drowning is a brave person . People have an ethical sense that corroborates virtue is the sole good. That’s not to say that everyone has a perfect sense for what is virtuous but when people do take the time to reflect about what a good person is, they’ll think of someone behaving virtuously rather than a person who chooses what’s expedient as the right course of action.
So we know that people value courage and fairness. Couldn’t we be fooling ourselves and we only act courageous for pleasure? The Stoic Hierocles observed animals and humans and noted that all humans begin their infancy with self-love. Eventually as people grow and develop their love expands outward from their self to their family, outward from their family to their community, and finally outward from their community to all of humanity. Hierocles also observed that animals were not merely motivated by pleasure and pain. Often animals would put themselves in harms way to protect their young. Human beings also endanger their lives for loved ones on a frequent basis. So humans aren’t purely motivated by pleasure, they’re motivated by protecting their own physical constitution in infancy and then later their own rational constitution. Humans and animals are motivated out of a concern for their own constitution and their own offspring’s constitution than they are with their own pleasure or pain.
So it’s worth biting the bullet for the axiom, “virtue is the only good.” It’s because there’s just a smidgen to lose biting the bullet for virtue than there is for biting the bullet for utilitarianism, deontology, hedonism, and Epicureanism.