Why is virtue the only good?

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 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 discuss the popular modern ethical schools hedonistic utilitarianism and deontology and explain how they fail as viable ethical schools. I’ll also discuss hedonism and, specifically, Epicureanism and why hedonism and Epicureanism fail as life philosophies. In doing so, I’d like to explain why virtue by itself is worthy of pursuit. Finally, I’d like to discuss the Stoic Hierocles and his theory regarding animal and human development and how that supports Stoic virtue as the only good.

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 appeali2ng 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 or treat others with fairness 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, then later outward from their family to their community, and then 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. As humans learn to value their rational faculty, they can extrapolate their own love for themselves and friends outward towards all humanity. Love for one’s own rational constitution is to treat one’s reason as an end. Valuing one’s own reason means valuing wisdom, the ultimate virtue. That’s why virtue is the end.

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 compared to the super-sacrifice of biting the bullet for utilitarianism, deontology, hedonism, and Epicureanism.

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Stoicism, Temperance, and the Role of the Paternalistic State

Libertarians often complain about the role of a paternalistic state, whether it’s seatbelt laws, limits on the size of soft drinks, higher taxes on beer and cigarettes, gun control, and many other laws the state will enforce to protect us.  Libertarians do have some reason to fear a protective state because some free choices will have to go.  But are free choices inviolable?

I can’t help wonder what the ancient Stoics might think.  Perhaps they would agree strongly with some protections and regulations on our behavior.  After all, they valued temperance for individuals, so why not temperance on a societal level?  This is all speculation but the ancient Greeks often liked to think of the self as a microcosm that reflected the larger macrocosm.  So maybe our own self-regulated behavior should reflect a self-regulating society.

In the name of the virtue of temperance we shouldn’t out-right ban everything.  We shouldn’t outright ban externals because that would be treating externals as bad.  Instead, maybe we should be lawfully limiting the extreme behavior with regard to externals.  For example,  we can drive cars fast but there has to be a speed limit that keeps vehicles from driving too fast.  We can drink caffeine but our drinks will have an upper limit of caffeine in them.  Heck, maybe all drugs could be legalized since drugs aren’t evil in themselves but they can be regulated and taxed more than other things that are preferred for our health and safety.

In the name of temperance, the amount of greed on Wallstreet would certainly need to be regulated.  Too much greed and concentration of wealth can’t be good for the health of the state.  We saw what Wallstreet speculation did to the economy during the housing and lending crisis of 2008.  Perhaps, this idea of a paternalistic state is beginning to sound more like Plato’s Republic than Zeno’s Republic.  But one must remember, Zeno’s Republic might’ve only been limited to the role of an anarchy for well-seasoned Stoics.  If people in your society are all Stoics, then there wouldn’t need to be courts, currency, and temples.  But in the case of a civilization made up of only an insignificant amount of Stoics, perhaps Stoic principles would need to be more lawfully enforced.  Also, Plato’s Republic was far far more authoritarian than what’s being proposed so far.

What’s more, laws are just a mean to keeping society self-regulated but individuals need to educated to be self-regulated as well.  After all, laws aren’t always there to keep ourselves in check.  So, we’d have a national curriculum applied to all our schools and universities to teach Stoic temperance from kindergarten to secondary school and beyond.  The schools would not only teach self-discipline but practical wisdom, justice, and courage.

In the Stoic state, there would be no outright prohibition on goods and services but there would be limits on excess.

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Stoicism, Broicism, and $toicism

About Broicism

As feminism has gone more mainstream, and has become more popular, a counterculture of young white men has arisen expressing their concern that men’s rights are being overshadowed. Angry that they no longer feel represented they have banded together to create what is called Men’s Rights Activism. The counterculture has unfortunately tried infiltrating Stoicism, hijacking it, and pretending Stoicism is all about being a man and manning up. I like to call their form of Stoicism, “Broicism.”

Stoicism was a philosophy progressive for its time because it saw all humans the same, capable of using reason and being capable of living a virtuous life. Zeno’s Republic actually mentions women as being members of his society of virtuous Stoics. The Stoics believed women were equal to men in their ability to use reason. Broicism tends to try to undo this history or has no interest in this history of Stoicism. Broicism tends to use quotes from Stoics selectively and ignores the cosmopolitan elements of Stoicism.

Stoicism is about trying to eliminate negative passions such as anger and sorrow and replace them with positive passions of joy and compassion. Unfortunately, Broicism tries to replace this with toxic masculinity, the belief that all emotions in men should be suppressed except for violent expressions of anger/outrage.

Stoicism emphasizes Hierocles’s Concentric Circles that there is self-love and out of self-love comes love for family, then love for community, then love for humanity. Broicism emphasizes self-love only and thinks that virtue means doing what’s in one’s best self
interest. The attitude is usually, “I got my virtue now screw you!”

On Facebook, when a question is asked why there are so few women in the Stoic Group, the first people to pop up and say, “it’s because Stoicism emphasizes rationality but women aren’t very rational and are more emotional” are Broics. They tend to think of Stoicism as a men’s only club and so subconsciously de-legitimize women from also being capable of being Stoics and using reason. Real Stoics understand that women have had a history of dealing with such stereotypes and it may take a while for the culture to
change its view of women in the Stoic group and outside.

Broics tend to be alt right or “cultural libertarians”. They tend to see any kind of liberalism as feminism run amok. Liberal values such as cosmopolitanism, diversity, open dialogue, even free expression that Stoics should embrace are a threat to their worldview. Stoicism is fine with feminism. It may not agree with all feminists on all issues but it’s perfectly fine with liberalism and feminism. In fact, Stoicism tolerates conservative views as well. It’s a very tolerant philosophy, whereas Broicism is not. Broicism usually expresses its intolerance through cheap jokes, trolling, and derailing charitable discussion.

About $toicism

Stoicism has really grown in popularity over the years. The Facebook group Stoicism Group (Stoic Philosophy), hosted by Donald Robertson, has grown to 40k members and is still growing. Stoicism is pretty much the largest growing philosophical school on the Internet. But as Stoicism grows so does making money off of Stoicism. Also Stoicism is being branded as a lifehack that will help you succeed in the business world. I call this kind of Stoicism, “$toicism”.

Stoicism is a philosophy that helps you be resilient in tough situations. $toicism uses this feature to try to sell you success. In fact, $toicism tells you if you try living by the wisdom of the Stoa, you’ll likely be very successful in the business world and you can have the Stoic insights to build your business from the ground up into a mega corporation. Stoicism doesn’t get your hopes up like this. Stoicism tells you that it’s ok to be poor and you’re not a loser for being poor, sometimes shit happens.  Stoicism just teaches you how to deal with your circumstances and make the best of them.

$toicism tends to try to sell you Stoic merchandise with notable Stoic quotes. Real Stoicism only tries to sell you wisdom with the only price being that you try. If you try at achieving the virtues, you will have a more just, wise, and benevolent character.

$toics only seem to care about the preferred indifferent wealth. The $toics think that this means greed is a good passion to have in such circumstances. But greed is just another negative passion that grows from the wrong judgment that wealth is good. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus clearly tell us that very little is required for happiness in this life and wealth doesn’t make you good, it just makes you wealthy.

Since $toics only seem to care about Stoicism in terms of a successful life, only for themselves and nobody else, they tend to downplay the virtue justice. Stoicism emphasizes the role of justice, in fact, Marcus Aurelius believed that justice was the chief virtue among the four virtues. It’s important to cooperate with others and not merely compete with others in the greater society.

$toics can’t seem to figure out why Ayn Rand is a bad guy. They think her philosophy of Objectivism is completely compatible with the philosophy of the Stoa. But little do they realize that Objectivism is a selfish philosophy. I’ve pointed this out to supposed $toics but they’re in denial. Finally, I pointed out that Ayn Rand specifically wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and they were still in denial. That’s not particularly a very Stoic attitude for those people to have.

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Stoicism and US National Healthcare

One of the contentious issues, whether you’re on the left or the right politically, is whether healthcare should be a right given to citizens by their government.  The Stoics believed that everyone had a preference for health.  Also, with this in mind, they had the idea that everyone had the right to be treated fairly and equitably.  We all have a duty to treat each other fairly and equitably.

Since health is a preferred indifferent and we should all treat each other fairly and equitably, we should be ensuring that everyone has their fair share of health preferences met.  Everyone deserves a right to healthcare.  The Stoics couldn’t have imagined such a national healthcare system in place in their day because they didn’t have the technology, science, and knowledge of civil engineering we now possess.  But now that such a system can be run via public taxation, it makes sense that, as a course of justice, we should be supplying everyone with healthcare.

One could argue that a free market system for healthcare would be better but so far it is subpar.  People spend tremendous amounts of money if they don’t have the insurance or they spend tremendous amounts of money just to meet their astronomically-sized deductible.  Some people live paycheck to paycheck and can barely meet their premiums.  Healthcare is just tremendously expensive and unfortunately hospitals do have to make money even if they’re non-profit.  If the money funding the hospital isn’t efficiently and equitably being taxed from everyone throughout the population, whether healthy or sick, the sick are the ones who have to pay the bill in a free market system.

The only alternative from a Stoic point of view is some kind of public system that covers the poor and wealthy, the young and the old by money that is collected evenly and efficiently through taxation of both the sick and healthy alike.  This is how our preference for health is met in a just and fair Stoic society.

I use the following argument to support my conclusion.  It’s kind of rough right now but I’ll work to make it better later.

1.Justice has a connection to a fair distribution of preferred indifferents.
2. One of these preferred indifferents is health.
3. Therefore in the name of justice health as a preference should be met for everyone throughout the society if it can be met.
4. It can met through efficient and fair taxation.
5. Therefore a public healthcare system should be established.

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What does Marcus Aurelius mean by “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”?

Marcus Aurelius says, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”  Does that mean we can’t act in retaliation if someone uses violence against us?  No.  Does that mean we can’t perform a similar act towards someone who just performed an aggressive act towards us?  No.

Marcus Aurelius was meaning that we shouldn’t have the same intention and negative passions that led someone to injure us.  It doesn’t mean that if a nation attacks another nation, the nation attacked shouldn’t respond in force.  If it meant that, then Marcus Aurelius would be a hypocrite responding in force against the barbarian threat against the Empire.

Stoicism is a virtue ethics, so it cares about the character and intent of the agent.  If someone attacks you violently, you might have to attack back but with a whole different intention than the one that the other person had.  Your intention is to neutralize the threat.  The intention of the person who caused the injury is to cause injury because they’re mad at you.  Very different from a virtue ethics stance.

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Stoicism and Evil as a Function of Ignorance

One of the hardest parts of Stoicism for people to wrap their heads around is that evil people are vicious exactly because they’re ignorant.  This doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of society’s expectations, the law, or even a definition of what good behavior is.  They’re ignorant in the sense that they lack the wisdom necessary to understand that virtue leads truly to the good life (eudaimonia).

So when I hear people say, “well, murderers know exactly what they did was wrong but they did it anyway.”  But if they really understood the good life, virtue, and excellence, surely they wouldn’t have committed their crime because they’d be cheating themselves of something much greater.  Instead, murderers mistakenly believe they’re getting something good by murdering someone (perhaps a temporary satisfaction to their jealousy) but they’re absolutely mistaken.  Their need for their negative passion to be exemplified in action is transient and soon will be replaced with a new need to maybe seek vengeance on someone else or do harm in another way.

If you could take a criminal mind and show them truly what wisdom and knowledge of the good entails, they wouldn’t trade that knowledge of the good for their previous petty notions of “goods” for a second.  They would understand what the good life entailed and would act to be as virtuous as possible.  Socrates knew this, Plato knew this, and so did Zeno of Citium.

Am I mistaken that bad people do bad things out of ignorance?  Maybe so.  I’m always keeping and open mind about this position.  But let’s just entertain that people do bad things not because of lack of wisdom but because of lack of willpower.  I’m open to such a possibility but oddly enough it seems pretty compatible with Stoicism to hold this view as well.  People who lack willpower are just as hard to be angry at as people who lack knowledge of good and evil.  After all, if they lack willpower, they can’t help themselves.  But what about the third possibility that people completely 100% voluntarily do bad because they know it’s wrong but do it anyway?

Well, let’s just go down that road.  For these people who supposedly do bad voluntarily, it’s still difficult to be righteously indignant at those sorts of people because by not following virtue, they’re hurting themselves by feeding their negative passions.  They give into anger and hate and have an ill soul.  So even with that position, the Stoic will have difficulty being righteously mad at such a person because these bad people have irrationally chosen to go against the good even though they knew better (supposedly).

I still think that bad people do bad things out of ignorance/amathia.  But even with the slim possibility of incontinence/akrasia/weakness of will, people still seem to harm themselves and their actions seem almost beyond their control at times.

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Stoicism and the Art of Apathy? Not So Fast!

Stoicism has become fairly popular as a philosophy.  When you compare it to other philosophy schools on Facebook, Stoicism Facebook groups’s membership greatly outnumber other philosophical schools’s membership like Kantianism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Schopenhauereanism, for example.   Unfortunately with large numbers in any group comes with members who have large misconceptions.

One major misconception of Stoicism is that it is about being apathetic and apolitical.  If you’ve read Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, you’d know that Stoicism isn’t about being apathetic.  Some individuals are attracted to the Stoic groups because they see themselves as placated with careless apathy and think Stoicism is all about careless apathy.  But they couldn’t be anymore wrong! Stoicism isn’t about not giving a care, it’s about decreasing negative passions such as anger and sorrow, as a few examples.  When Stoicism talks about apatheia, it’s meaning that you’re free of negative passions.  But in place of the negative passion, it substitutes positive passions such as compassion and joy.

People misread the view that judgments should consider externals as indifferent as “judgments should consider externals as completely valueless.”  To Stoics indifferents are very important, they just don’t matter to our eudaimonia (the good life).  Some also misread indifferents as meaning we shouldn’t care about people either because they’re external to us.  But they forget that one of the virtues of Stoicism is justice.  Justice usually includes piety, fair dealings, being equitable, and compassion.

One thing that annoys the people who misunderstand Stoicism the most is when someone in the group posts something political related to Stoicism.  The people who misunderstand Stoicism complain that political posts are not “Stoic.”  Little to do they know that Stoicism is very political.  It’s difficult to decipher exactly what you should believe politically on any particular issue via Stoicism but Stoicism does stress the importance of being involved politically.  So all Stoics ought to be prepared to justify their political positions as Stoically or rationally as possible.

In conclusion, Stoicism may want you to achieve apatheia (freedom from negative passions) but it doesn’t want you to achieve apathy.  If you want apathy, you’re not really going to find a very developed school of philosophy for that.

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Is Humility A Virtue Nested Somewhere In The Four Stoic Virtues? Yes, Actually.

Let’s take a look at this paragraph I borrowed from the Stoic Ethics section of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The Stoics elaborated a detailed taxonomy of virtue, dividing virtue into four main types: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Wisdom is subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness. Justice is subdivided into piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing. Courage is subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness. Moderation is subdivided into good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control.

 

If I had a to guess, I’d say humility might be nested in the sub-virtue piety.  When we think of piety we usually think of religious devotion.  But in this context, I think it means reverence for the universe.  And if you revere the whole universe, you pay it a deep respect.  Basically, you inflate the importance of the universe and you deflate your importance relative to it.  So you basically humble yourself before the Divine Whole of the Universe.

Another place where humility would be nested would be in modesty.  Modesty means being moderate in one’s estimation of one’s abilities.  So there appears to be two places where humility resides as a sub-virtue.

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Commentary on “Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self: The Power To Change Society”

Kai Whiting wrote an insightful article entitled Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self:  The Power To Change Society.  It explores the need to look into Stoicism, in particular its emphasis on the social virtue justice.  After reading it these words just flowed from my fingers as I responded to it:

Ayn Rand’s philosophy has really poisoned the intellectual/philosophical well of the United States. And I don’t mean academic philosophy, I mean the philosophy of the common American. Not only, as Isaac Asimov warned, have we attached ourselves to anti-intellectualism in this country, we have managed to individualize our experiences to the point of moral solipsism. We think of ourselves as me vs me vs me. The only time we ever collectivize is when its us vs some other that we poorly understand.

It’s true that Stoicism has no political ideology but it is of course political, as it cares about justice, which means it will care about the downtrodden who are exploited by corporate sociopaths. It will care about women who still endure sexism from their employers through their unequal pay or something sinister like their male colleagues mansplaining to them how to behave or express themselves, constantly silencing their opinion through interruption.

It’s time that we care about social virtue. It’s time that we read Stoicism exactly as it was intended, to create a pluralistic society that unifies everyone in a common cosmopolis of humankind.

We need to break away from intellectual laziness and embrace wisdom in its pure and practical forms. As Socrates said before he drank the hemlock, “the unanalyzed life is not worth living.” Epictetus says that we’re all little spooks carrying around our corpses. Well, sometimes, I see no evidence of a spirit in some of these corpses that lost their soul years ago when they learned to embrace willful ignorance.

It’s time that we enlighten a few of these spiritless corpses and bring back the spirits.

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Are there any Stoic utilitarians and what would that mean?

Some people believe in having good characters for the sake of creating good consequences.  But what if we reversed that and cared about promoting the best consequences because to do so would be virtuous.  Could one be simultaneously a Stoic and a utilitarian?  Also can one be a utilitarian for the sake of virtue?

Well, I think it would all depend on how you define virtue.  One of the key virtues that helps you morally interact with the rest of humanity is justice.  I suppose that a Stoic could just forego the word justice, as a virtue, and replace it with utilitarianism.  So instead of having a good justice virtue, you’d have a good utilitarian virtue.

It’s kind of hard to understand all what is entailed in Stoic justice.  Usually an act of compassion, empathy, fairness, equal distribution of resources.  But suppose we replaced that with the virtue utilitarianism?  What would that entail?  Well, what things would a Stoic want to promote for individuals?  Perhaps preferred indifferents!

A Stoic utilitarian might want to maximize the greatest amount of preferred indifferents for the most amount of people.  What are some preferred indifferents?  Wealth, health, reputation, pleasure, and education.  So a Stoic would try to help a person maximize these particular preferred indifferents.  So to increase people’s health, you should donate blood.  To increase people’s reputation, you’d want to say good things about them to others if they’re behaving well.

Would a Stoic utilitarian try to maximize the greatest amount of virtue in others?  Only if people will listen.  Education in virtue requires not only you to teach it but the other person to learn it.  If there is a lot of unwillingness of the other person to learn, then it’s going to be difficult to teach virtue to another person.  So it’s probably more realistic in everyday life to focus on helping people maximize their preferred indifferents.

So let’s review.  What would a Stoic utilitarian be?  A Stoic who tries to increase their own virtues such as  wisdom, courage, temperance, and utilitarianism (instead of justice).  How does a Stoic utilitarian act on their utilitarian virtue?  By helping others maximize their preferred indifferents, also help them maximize their virtue if possible.

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham