Ayn Rand could be characterized as a virtue ethicist. Rand claimed her virtue theory was inspired by Aristotle. Ayn Rand reinterpreted Aristotle’s eudaimonic virtue theory as rational egoism. Rand explained her virtue theory as selfish and she had in mind an enlightened selfishness. So let’s consider Rand’s selfish virtue theory.
Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy is called Objectivism. She said her philosophy Objectivism asserts the importance of human rationality and affirms objective reality. Rand highly valued the preservation of an individual’s existence both physically and rationally. She said she would’ve called her philosophy Existentialism because of her concern with existence but the name was already taken. In the area of ethics, Objectivist virtue includes rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride. These virtues might fit well with enlightened egoism if one defines justice outside its definition within mainstream philosophy. One wonders if productiveness is a virtue since it requires a lot of externals outside of one’s control. Rand seems to have in mind an artist or businessperson making goals and completing them. It seems like she had a certain personality in mind that not everyone can fit. With productiveness being a virtue, one can easily understand why some individuals are attracted to her philosophy. Rand made it clear that her egoism is categorically opposed to altruism. Ayn Rand suggests that one should never live for another but only for oneself and another should only live for themselves and not for another.
Living for oneself sounds alluring. Wouldn’t one want to be their own person, taking control of one’s life, and not allowing other people to determine one’s fate? It’s all incomplete. Objectivism is incomplete because sometimes a person must sacrifice one’s time for another. Sometimes a person must sacrifice a great deal of their time and even life for others. Sure, it’s reasonable to want time to oneself and to have one’s own projects. But don’t we care about others? Don’t we wish to help advance other people’s lives or projects just as well as ours? Never living for another but oneself as a categorical principle is simply uncaring of other’s needs and experiences. Selfishness as a virtue, even if enlightened, doesn’t agree with people’s notions of what a highly virtuous act would look like. Many find it virtuous for a soldier to jump on an enemy grenade to save the lives of other soldiers from being killed by the shrapnel and explosion. That kind of virtue is not consistent with enlightened egoism. How about someone who gives up all their belongings to 20 people who absolutely need the belongings? Many of us could not conceive of ourselves acting so charitably but it would be an act of virtue. It would not be a virtue concordant with Objectivism.
Ayn Rand was once asked if one should save a drowning person and she replied affirmatively. Rand’s own ethics undermine her reply. Living for only oneself means that one should never sacrifice oneself for another. Clearly, by Rand’s philosophy, one shouldn’t save a person drowning. It’s because following Rand’s ethical advice means if saving someone’s life is a threat to one’s own, then one shouldn’t bother.
The Stoic virtues wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage are concerned with acting in one’s own interest and the interests of others. Sometimes doing good will require a person to give up a significant amount of time to her own interests. Helping others doesn’t mean the helper becomes a doormat. It’s important to stand up for oneself and one’s interests and principles. Acting courageous doesn’t mean a person should act selfish without fear of consequence. Acting courageous is doing what’s good for everyone and oneself despite the fear one might feel while doing so. It’s often a Stoic duty to help others when their needs outweigh one’s own needs. Being Stoic doesn’t mean always having to give up one’s life for others needs but it does mean giving up some private time. Ancient Stoics believed in philanthropy, which means love of humanity. Remember what the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius said:
For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away (Meditations II, 1).
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.
The Stoics believed in virtue and, in particular, the chief one among them, justice. The Stoics also believed in preferred indifferents, for example, health, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and education. What did they believe about autonomy though?
The Stoics believed that autonomy was something within our possession. In fact, if we worked hard at it, we would achieve freedom from everything. The only path to freedom was to focus on what was truly in our power: virtue.
In all honesty, virtue is only freedom if you are truly virtuous. Since none of us are truly free, like the Sage, we need a form of autonomy that is lesser in nobility but still carries weight. We need a life of self-determination. We also need a life where we can pursue our preferred indifferents in order to help us work our way to virtue. Our natural preferences for health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation are where we derive our rights. We have a right of pursuit of preferred indifferents, so we ought to have a society that allows for our ability to obtain them. Where does this lesser form of autonomy fit? The lesser form is being free to participate in health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation within reason. We’re free when we can do this. And these preferred indifferents give us a chance to find the true autonomy: virtue.
Where does a woman’s right to an abortion fit into this? She has autonomy over her own health. She can determine what is best for herself, even if that means terminating a pregnancy. People will debate this point because they feel “life” might begin at conception. I presume these people are wrong because zygotes hardly represent a person in the way we can conceive of them. It becomes almost pointless to discuss pain and pleasure that the fetus would experience because the Stoics would just say, “they don’t have proper use of impressions.” We can maybe agree as a society of Stoics that we can terminate pregnancies up to 9 months. It’s kind of arbitrary to make this determination but we have some historical reasons for doing so. Many of the ancients, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans believed abortion was permissible and that human life began at first breath. The ancient Stoics in general believed that the fetus was plant-like and became an animal at birth as it took its first breath (pneuma) and so they generally regarded abortion as morally permissible (Sellares, 2003). There were exceptions to this rule, Musonius Rufus did oppose abortion (Lecture XV) but for population reasons not necessarily having to do with respect to the fetus and its interests. With this conception in mind, we have some historical precedent to base our determination on what distinguishes infanticide from a mere abortion. There’s never going to be some perfect philosophical argument for why people have the right to an abortion.
Of course, as a society, if we really want to do away with abortion, one way is to make all forms of contraception free for everyone. This also means educating people about sex and contraception as early as we can.
Not every follower of Stoicism will agree that abortion is a right but maybe we can all agree that access to contraception is a right. One thing is for sure, contraception is certainly worth talking about as often as the taboo topic of abortion arises.
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.
Sometimes life can take a turn for the worst. Let’s say all these scenarios happen: You lose your close family in an accident, your friends stab you in the back, you fall into a fire and melt your beautiful face, and you suffer from intense chronic pain throughout your body coupled with drug and therapy resistant depression. If such a situation was to occur and you couldn’t bear the thought of living anymore, would it be acceptable if you wanted to take your life? Would taking your life be forfeiting a virtuous life?
The Stoics didn’t believe taking your life would necessarily forfeit virtue. If they saw your situation so dire and you had such crippling depression and intense chronic pain, they’d understand if you took the path of euthanasia. Largely because chronic pain and crippling depression coupled with all these ill circumstances is going to make it difficult for you to be virtuous. And without virtue, then there is no eudaimonia. There is no praiseworthiness. So the only thing virtuous left to do would be to take your life.
Zeno of Citium famously took his life because he broke his toe. This may seem ridiculous to us moderns but a broken toe in the ancient days for an old man could’ve been difficult to treat. Plus the pain associated with the broken toe would’ve made it difficult to live a life of virtue and excellence.
Another thing to bear in mind is that we’re only human. None of us are Sages. Remember that before judging anyone too harshly when they decide on euthanasia.
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.
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.
The difference between Kant and the Stoics is sharp. Kant thinks you can act without desire from pure reason alone.
The Stoics believe you should moderate your desires until they comport with reason. You still act out of desire but desire in line with virtue.
Kant, by dividing humans between their desires and virtue has unfortunately created an unnecessary dualism of the human being.
The Stoics avoided dualism making humans purely material monistic beings.
“Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways. To act virtuously is not, as Kant was later to think, to act against inclination; it is to act from inclination formed by the cultivation of the virtues.”
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981), p. 149.