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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The Story of the Stoic Father (Fiction)

Hello, I’m Jeff Whitman. I’m a university professor, who teaches Global Studies in Denver, Colorado.  My wife Victoria is professor who teaches Gender Studies for an online university.  We both have been lifelong liberal progressives and have been involved in several social movements together in our early college days.  We actually met at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccoti Park.  When Victoria and I decided to have kids we promised each other we’d raise them with a liberal attitude towards life and would give them plenty of resources to learn and remain open minded to new ideas.

Years after Victoria and I had kids, I became interested in Stoicism and became a Stoic.  I decided to apply Stoicism to my life and try to live as hard as I could to put virtue first in all of my goals.  My wife thinks I’m funny for being so dogmatic.  She’s one of those people who like to have a smorgasbord of ethics.  She likes utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics but won’t settle for any particular ethical system and just uses what she likes given the situation.  That kind of attitude can drive me crazy sometimes but it is what it is and I accept it.

Our youngest child is Vicky.  She is in 8th grade and is doing well in school.  She is really bright and is actually quite familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.  She’s decided she’s a nihilist.  In her mind, there are no real values and no morality.  She still acts on her moral sentimental instincts and is definitely a good kid but she thinks there’s no way to rationally justify her views.  She laughs at anyone who believes in principles and values.

Frank is just starting high school and he’s doing all right.  He’s a B student, kind of like me in high school.  He spends a lot of time at the library alone and considers himself an Epicurean.  I often discuss a lot of different issues with him because he’s always wondering what a Stoic would do and it gives him some ideas on how he can approach the problem from an Epicurean point of view.

Our eldest child is Britney and she’s a senior in high school and she’s already scored high enough in ACTs and SATs to go free-ride to any major American university of her choosing.  She’s thinking about Princeton, which is pretty damn cool.  She’s into computer programming and tells me all the time about programming languages.  I’m often zoning out because programming is so dreadfully boring to me.  She considers herself a Skeptic.  No, not a scientific skeptic, although she is one of those.  But she considers herself an ancient Greek Skeptic.  She often laughs at me and considers my ethical viewpoints to be no more real than optical illusions.

With the different viewpoints my children express and even my wife, it makes for interesting discussion around the dinner table.  We don’t always have to agree on every single thing but we do agree on the important issues like when it’s time to go to bed and turn off the TV.  I’m pretty happy with our family because we are good people despite our different outlooks on life.  I never would’ve thought I’d have a nihilist daughter and I would’ve never thought about a nihilist being such a good person.

I think the main reason why we do so well as a family is because my wife is sort of a control freak.  Sometimes when she’s laying down the law of the house, I can’t help but to jokingly think of her as a fascist.  But I never say it out-loud because she’s only doing what she thinks is good for the well-being of everyone.  She’s pretty much the glue that holds the family together.  If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if anything would get done.

Why don’t I assert myself as the family man and drill Stoicism into everyone’s heads?  For one, it’s never that easy.  Tyrants always create opposition.  For two, I can only do what’s in my own control, I can’t do what’s not in my control, like attempting to control my family’s belief systems and values.  The Stoics taught us long ago that we should try to use reason and Socratic dialogue to persuade others to our beliefs.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I hope you can too.  I’m just one person among many trying to do what I think is best for everyone.  I hope my experiences can teach you how to be a truly good person even if your philosophies are disagreeable to mine.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Stoicism and the Trolley Problem

We’re all familiar with the Trolley Problem.  A Trolley comes barreling down the tracks.  Do you let it run over 5 people or do you switch the track to make it run over 1 person.  The Utilitarian says to switch the track.  The Kantian says to let the Trolley run over the 5 people, at least you didn’t deliberately make it kill one person.

So what would the Stoic do?  Virtue ethics is less about the consequences or act itself and more about the intentions and character traits of the agent.  Honestly, the Stoic in my opinion is free to let Kantian or Utilitarian intuitions take over.  In the case just mentioned, I imagine that the Stoic Sage would switch the tracks to save the five people.  So I think Utilitarian intuitions would take over in that case.

Now would you push a fat man off a bridge in front of the Trolley to stop the Trolley from running over 5 people?  This situation seems intuitively different than merely switching the tracks.  So I think the Stoic Sage would err on the side of Kantian intuitions and not push the fat man to his death in order to save the 5.

Honestly, the Stoic in my opinion will just do what seems the most ethically intuitive when character traits traits are too vague to be useful in determining what to do in such ethical dilemmas.  Just do what you’re compassion tells you to do in each situation and you’re safe.

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Stoicism: The Answer To Today’s Nihilism?

Friedrich Nietzsche warned that with the death of God (the intellectual collapse of Christianity) that it would lead to a state of nihilism.  Basically, for years Christianity had been the answer to everyone’s question, “how should I live my life?”  Without the intellectual fortitude of Christianity anymore, where would people turn to for their values?  Nietzsche took it upon himself to try to help us try to construct a value system that would help answer our question of how we should live our life.  Unfortunately, Nietzsche never got to complete his system.  He fell into madness and left only breadcrumbs of how we might live our life.  It’s also not clear he was even up to the implausible task of answering how we might live our life.

Secular forms of morality seem difficult to logically support especially after David Hume demonstrated it’s probably not possible to get an ought from an is.  Utilitarian theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill tried to make a scientific form of morality but when Mill tried to derive an ought from an is, it turned out he was just equivocating between wanting pleasure and morally having to seek pleasure.  Utilitarianism, despite its empirical/scientific nature, just wasn’t able to support itself.  Ultimately you just had to bite the bullet whether you wanted to seek pleasure for the multitude or not.

Immanuel Kant thought that if he could just support ethics in pure practical reason itself, it would would be enough to keep a secular version of moral Christianity intact.  Unfortunately, Nietzsche later knew that this wasn’t going to help things because it was dependent on the concept of transcendental faculties divorced from our common everyday experiences.  Immanuel Kant cut humans into two realms divorced from each other, the trascendental self and the phenomenal self.  It came at a cost because Kant was asking us to postulate an afterlife and a God to judge us.  What started out as a secular attempt to ground morality just turned into the same thing that doomed the Christian faith in its assumptions of an afterlife and God.  Also, Kant promised that his ethics was going to be intuitive and commonsense but instead his categorical imperative led to all kinds bizarre consequences.  You couldn’t lie selflessly to save other people’s lives.  So much for common sense.

Existentialists of the 20th century weren’t really up to the task to answer how to live our lives.  They were essentially just replacing divine command theory of ethics with ego command theory.  Basically, everyone’s values emanated from their choices they made in life.  Essentially, they were inviting millions and millions of varying moral systems created by the authentic choices of each and every single human being.  This seemed disastrous.  Jean-Paul Sartre tried to ground his existentialism ethics in a form of Marxist solidarity but this certainly didn’t convince Albert Camus, another existentialist, who was quite critical of Sartre as a philosopher and as a person.

So what should we do?  How should we proceed?  Existentialism seems truly scary and bizarre.  Millions of ethical systems based on everyone’s unique “authentic” choices just sounds like chaos.  It sounds like an ethical nightmare.  Well….what if we turned back to the ancient Greeks and Romans?

It turns out that the philosophers of the past might have actually had all the answers after all.  In fact, if we look to the Stoics and even the Epicureans we might find a way to truly live our lives.  The Stoics believed that only virtue was good and only vice was bad and everything else was indifferent.  In fact, if one lived a life of virtue one would be promised a life of eudaimonic happiness.  Basically, not only did the Stoics propose a value system but they proposed a value system that implied a form of therapy.  If you follow virtue as your sole good, you would be promised a life of excellence and contentedness.  This doesn’t mean you’d live happily ever after like in a Disney movie once you married your prince or princess.  It meant that you’d achieve a noble state.  You’d be worthy of praise, be generally untroubled, and free of negative passion.

The Stoics might’ve been onto something empirically true with their ethical system because years later in 20th century Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy by Albert Ellis was built on Stoic ethical premises and it seemed scientifically promising as a psychotherapy.  Later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was derived and is doing great empirically as a therapy.

What’s more is it turned out that the Stoics had an argument for how their ethics might actually be founded in something empirical.  The Stoic Hierocles essentially argued that ethical forms of love spread out from the need of self-preservation to the need of the preservation of the offspring, which spread out further to the preservation of the tribe, and further to the preservation of the society, and further to humanity itself.  I still haven’t carefully read all of Larwence Becker’s A New Stoicism but in his book he argues very logically convincingly for how Stoic ethics is founded in the initial need for self-preservation that spreads outward towards preservation of the human cosmopolis.

So is Stoic ethics what we need as an answer to today’s nihilism?  I think so.  Am I absolutely convinced its the answer.  I’m not sure.  But I’m not sure of anything.  As Socrates once declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.”  But I certainly do think that I have rationally warranted beliefs in Stoicism as a coherent ethical system.

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Picture used from the article Sustainable Development, Wellbeing and Material Consumption: A Stoic Perspective

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

Are Vulcans Stoics? Short Answer: No

To a person unfamiliar with Star Trek and Stoicism, Vulcans might appear to be emulating Stoic attitudes or living a Stoic lifestyle.  The similarities between Stoicism and Vulcan philosophy might make them appear identical on first impression but there’s stark differences between the two philosophies.

Vulcan philosophy originated from the Vulcan Surak.  Surak lived in an ancient time on planet Vulcan when Vulcans were barbaric, violent, and angry.   Surak taught that Vulcans would need to repress their emotion through meditation and discipline to become rational and peaceful beings.

Vulcan philosophy would not work for humans.  It’s quite unhealthy for humans to try to repress their emotions.    While Stoic philosophy is similar to Vulcan philosophy in that Stoic philosophy is concerned significantly with our emotions,  Stoicism differs from Vulcan philosophy in that Stoicism entails mental strategies for deescalating negative emotions.  Surak’s philosophy, on the surface, seems to regard all emotions as insufferable and must be repressed, which would include suppressing not just what Stoics would regard as passions but proto-passions.  Stoicism distinguishes passions from proto-passions, while we have no control over proto-passions, we do exercise some control over our passions if we work at fixing our internal judgments of the world.  Pro-passions would be the immediate feeling you have like when you’re startled or surprised.  From watching Star Trek, one gets the impression that Vulcans shouldn’t be startled or emotionally caught off guard even.

So which one is better?  Surak’s philosophy or Stoicism?  Neither.  Stoicism works great for humans and Vulcan philosophy works great for Vulcans.  Vulcans are naturally more violent than other species so they have to super repress their emotions.   For a Vulcan, letting go of one emotion can let go of all of them. Plus Vulcans have the neurophysiology to handle intense emotional repression and live a healthy life.  Humans just couldn’t live a healthy life repressing every single emotion.  Human beings would probably lash out when they were at their weakest or be in strong denial of having acted irrationally, while supposedly exercising their emotional repression.

It’s not clear entirely what meditative techniques Vulcans use to repress their emotions but Star Trek makes clear that Vulcans meditate quite a lot to exercise complete repression of their emotions.  There are exceptions to Vulcan emotional repression like when they have a pon farr, a strong sexual need to reproduce.  They tend to become super aroused and aggressive during this period of time and it tends to happen every 7 years.

One striking similarity between Vulcans and  Stoics is they care about the concept of diversity and cosmopolitanism.  Vulcans also practice vegetarianism which is similar to some ancient Stoics.  In the cosmopolitan area, Vulcans are like Stoics in that they believe that all beings capable of reason are worthy of respect, however, I think Vulcans are more principled about helping non-rational sentient life than Stoics.  The Stoics didn’t seem all that concerned with non-rational animals.

One strong ethical difference between Stoic philosophy and Vulcan philosophy is that Stoic philosophy is purely virtue ethics.  In contrast, Vulcan philosophy appears as a mix of utilitarianism and virtue ethics.  On one hand, Vulcans are virtue ethicists following the life of Surak.  On another hand, Vulcans are utilitarian, always caring about the needs of the many over the needs of the few, or the one.  There’s also a smidgen of deontology  because supposedly Vulcans cannot tell a lie.  Perhaps the rule is “honesty is the best policy”  when  Vulcans are possibly alternating between rule vs act utilitarianism – as some utilitarians do think we should use either rule/act depending on the situations we’re in (and whether we have to think on our feet or deliberate).