Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

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Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

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Drifting deeper into agnosticism

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Certainty and agnosticism are about what we think we know or don’t know, while religion and atheism are about what we believe or don’t believe. My position for the past 20 years has been agnostic atheism, or “weak atheism”: I don’t know if God exists, but I doubt it. Lately, however, my emphasis has leaned more heavily toward agnosticism.

Few people are really moral relativists

There are two reasons I can’t be certain that there is no God. One is the observation that most people, myself included, reject moral relativism. If you agree that a murderer did nothing objectively wrong because what’s right or wrong is up to the individual (or to the culture) then you’re a relativist. But most of us think certain actions are wrong no matter what some people might think, which implies objective morality.

Further, Arcdigital.media editor Berny Belvedere points out that the idea of progress implies a standard of higher and lower morality. If there’s no objective moral standard then the abolition of slavery was a horizontal shift rather than a vertical incline toward a higher morality.

In my opinion, God is the most straightforward way to assert objective morality. But there’s widespread disagreement on what God’s moral standards are. You could even argue that God’s morality is relative because God could have a divine change of mind (though most religions say this wouldn’t happen). But even then God’s morality would still be the final standard.

An alternative is to use observable suffering as a metric—including the fact that in most circumstances we all wish to avoid suffering. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind, avoidance of suffering is inadequate to fully explain human morality. In other words, avoidance of suffering is a type of relativism, albeit a robust one.

Something must exist without causation

The second issue is that most of would agree that some things can exist without having been caused. The question of who created the universe (or multiverse) leads to the question of who created God, and an infinite regress. Theists say God is self-existent, but many scientists say it’s the universe that is uncaused.

But what’s the difference between an uncaused God and an uncaused universe? Conscious intelligence is a deeper question. If God exists then presumably God acts intentionally. But the universe is not conscious. Cause and effect is mindless.

The scientific challenge of claiming the universe is without a cause—even that cause and effect didn’t exist before the big bang—is falsifiability. But neither can God’s existence be proven. If God is infinite then quantification of the divine is impossible. Besides, if God could be proven like a geometry problem then faith would be unnecessary.

Deism

The belief in a conscious intelligence that created the world, including moral standards, is emotionally appealing to me. But I’m cautious about believing something just because I want to. And I cannot honestly believe all the details of Christian belief, such as the virgin birth, resurrection, and other events that suspend the laws of nature.

My inclination is to shrink God to something more palatable: a God who is powerful enough to create the initial conditions for a life sustaining universe but not powerful enough to control every detail of how it unfolds; and a God who is primarily a morally inspirational force rather than one who intervenes directly. But to a certain degree this approach seems contrived.

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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© Dave DuBay

Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Stoicism might not be a bummer after all

I’ve heard the Dude is Epicurean. He follows the pleasure principle. Take ‘er easy.

And he’s anything but unemotional. I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Spock is a dude.

But wait a minute. The Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is a tale of the Dude being very unDude.

A carpet pisser ruins his rug. And that’s a bummer, man. That rug really tied the room together.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis. The Dude is an unemployed aging hippie. The other Lebowski is a millionaire (sort of) whose young trophy wife owes money to known pornographers. It takes the goons a while to figure out they’re at the wrong Lebowski residence.

The Dude was about to realize it’s all part of the durned human comedy. Except his bowling buddy Walter convinces the Dude that he’s entitled to compensation. And the Dude gets uptight and decides to confront the Big Lebowski.

A Stoic dude would have been like, “Amor fati, man. It’s just a rug.”

But in the Dude’s mind the rug is not a preferred indifferent. The soiled rug didn’t mess with his eudaimonia. The Dude’s belief that he was done wrong did that.

The serenity prayer is Stoicism in one sentence: change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change.

Stoicism isn’t emotionless. That’s just being a human paraquat. Calmer than you are. Shoosh.

So someone peed on your favorite rug? Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A wiser dude once said, “Life is change, but that’s only a bummer if you think it is.” Is that some kinda Eastern thing? Far from it. It’s Marcus Aurelius. Maybe I paraphrased a bit. Whatever, man.

Back in the day, Stoics and Epicureans were bowling for different teams. Maybe we still are. But it’s not about winning the semi-finals. It’s how we play the game.

Putting negative emotions in perspective makes us chill. Anger, greed, lust, fear, jealousy are just different words for uptight. In the final estimation Stoicism is about being a good person. And it’s hard to be dudely toward other people if you’re uptight.

But not freaking out over stupid stuff takes a little self-discipline. The Dude wouldn’t have had to put up with all those ins and outs if he hadn’t been greedy for a cut of Mr. Lebowski’s money in the first place.

Stoicism and Dudeism are compatible. Parts, anyway. Some guy peed on your rug? Forget it. Let’s go bowling.

Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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© Dave DuBay

Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”

Maybe we can’t get past our pain, but we can get past our tunnel vision

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Roosevelts. Eleanor Roosevelt is known to history as a kindhearted person, a woman of character who treated others with human dignity. She was the primary mover behind the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And there’s Mr. Rogers who taught the inherent worth of every person. And people who knew him say, yes, he was really like that.

Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Fred Rogers lived a charmed life, however. Mr. Rogers had a lonely childhood and was bullied by his peers. As a child Roosevelt’s mother would tell her how ugly she was. Her father’s alcoholism killed him, and she lived with abusive, drunken uncles. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt (so her maiden name and married were name the same). He was repeatedly unfaithful to her.

But Roosevelt and Rogers were forces for human dignity because of their pain. Not because they somehow got over their pain, but because they got past their tunnel vision. Their pain was the source of their empathy—even when personally attacked they could see the pain inside the other person and respond with compassion.

It’s something many of us aspire to but fail to achieve. And people who can’t get past their tunnel vision not only can be destructive—they often think their abuse of other people is morally justified.

They see themselves as the real victims. Hitler, for example, was abused as a child and claimed he was defending Germans against their Jewish oppressors. Stalin was once a political prisoner who subsequently sent millions to the gulag in the name of economic justice.

Abuse is often excused as a justified punishment for a moral transgression. When we feel the desire to punish someone we should stop and ask ourselves what our true motives are. Setting healthy boundaries with people or not bailing people out from the natural consequences of poor choices aren’t the same as punishment. And punishment is sometimes necessary, as when someone commits a crime. But other times it’s revenge we’re after.

The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed called “Why can’t we hate men?” The outrage and the defenses it sparked were predictable. There’s a petition to sanction gender studies professor Suzanna Danuta Walters for writing the piece, but I don’t think that will accomplish anything. There are too many calls to fire or punish people instead of genuine efforts for dialog.

Men too often take the bait with articles like this. Their anger and defensiveness gives others the opportunity to laugh at them. Instead we must simply observe the fact that misandry has always been a thing in feminist circles. I’m not saying that all feminists hate men, or that misandry is a central aspect of feminism. But it is tolerated.

Far too many women have been subjected to gender based abuse, and this is the source of much misandry. And though we as a society rarely talk about it, women’s gender based abuse of boys and men is the source of much misogyny.

But none of this is an excuse for hate. Yet, we have no control over what other people do. The starting point is oneself. Promoting human kindness and avoiding hate is the most powerful thing I can do. It’s my responsibility. Look at what Eleanor Roosevelt and Mr. Rogers accomplished for humanity compared to Hitler and Stalin.

This is a challenge for every age, and ours is no exception. Every day brings a mean tweet from President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, millionaire Bill Maher hopes for a recession so Trump won’t be reelected, despite the harm this would cause for millions of working families.

Over at the New York Times David Brooks advocates “personalism.” He notes that, “We talk in shorthand about ‘Trump voters’ or ‘social justice warriors,’ but when you actually meet people they defy categories.” These labels ignore “the uniqueness and depth of each person.”

Personalism, Brooks continues, is about seeing each “person in his or her full depth.” This approach is I-Thou rather than I-It: “get to know their stories” instead of seeing them as data points.

Punishing people like Professor Walters won’t defeat the hate she promotes. Recognizing her humanity while also setting firm boundaries—including her responsibility to recognize the humanity of others—is a better approach.

And this can start with the question: “What do you think increased hatred will achieve for the equal human dignity of all people?”

A perspective on gender equality: neither feminist nor red pill

We need a more comprehensive perspective on gender that isn’t biased against particular genders.

© Dave DuBay

I began writing about men’s issues a few years ago because I wondered why mass shooters are almost always male.

In one article for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald I wrote that social pressure to be a “real man” can push some men and boys—especially if they feel insecure—toward violence. And the hazing men experience in all-male groups and frequent lack of deep male friendships can lead to social isolation.

The “real man” trope also creates problems for women. The chivalric notion that men must protect women can lead some men to feel like they’re entitled to control women, which can result in domestic violence. On top of that, increased gender equality can feel like a loss of status for some men, resulting in what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement.”

But a deeper problem is that we scold men instead of taking men’s issues seriously. Over three-quarters of suicides are male, but when gender is mentioned the focus is usually on women and girls. Females attempt suicide more than males, but a cry for help shows they believe someone might listen. Males commit suicide more often because they don’t think anyone will listen.

I pointed to our culture’s zero-sum approach to gender as part of the problem—talking about men’s issues means excluding women, except when moralizing at men about “toxic masculinity.” Instead, I wrote that “one way to encourage men to be more empathetic is to be more empathetic toward men.”

I’ve also pointed out that masculinity is multifaceted. I wrote two pieces saying we don’t need to redefine masculinity because positive masculinity has always existed.

In the second piece I questioned the agenda of redefining masculinity. I accused academia of having an anti-masculinity bias. Some academics even call for the abolition of men as a social category. But even mainstream academia finds little good in masculinity. I noted that,

The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory has some positive descriptions of masculinity, but mostly negatives concerning things men to do other people. According to the Inventory, masculinity is about violence, dominance, being a playboy, having power over women, disdain for homosexuals, emotional control, self–reliance, winning, pursuit of status, making work primary, and risk taking.

The Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory also describes femininity in positive and negative terms. The negatives, however, are the effects of masculinity on women and girls. Femininity is about self as mother, being relational and connected, being silent and dependent, being married, looking young and thin, being ornamental, pleasant, relying on and deferring to men, and being virginal while also being sexy.

In contrast, I quoted Dr. Martin Seager’s nuanced statement that it’s not gender that’s toxic, but “gender influences the way and the pattern that damaged people (of either gender) follow when responding to their damage.”

And I quoted writer Rick Belden who observed that healthy masculinity is often defined as how men treat women. But how would we respond to someone saying that healthy femininity is about how women treat men? Belden concludes that we’d do well to shift our thinking: healthy masculinity starts with how well a man treats himself.

Instead of redefining masculinity I said we should focus on a man’s self-determination to be the man he wants to be so long as he respects the equal rights of others.

Though I had written several pieces for the Good Men Project, they decided not to publish this piece. GMP is a male feminist website, and I realized that feminism is too narrow.

In retrospect, I’m surprised I got away with as much as I did at the Good Men Project. I wrote that men are not second class citizens, but a group need not be oppressed for us to take their concerns seriously. Our failure to sometimes even acknowledge male victims of domestic violence is one example.

Part of the problem, I wrote in another GMP article, is that research shows that society has significant bias for women over men. This bias often manifests as a lack of empathy for men. For example, feminists tell men to show their vulnerability but also mock men with hashtags such as #masculinitysofragile.

In yet another article for for GMP I wrote that telling men to show their vulnerability is problematic when there’s little support offered when men do. I noted that the international concern for the girls Boko Haram kidnapped was matched with silence about the boys they’ve killed or kidnapped.

And I pointed to a Department of Justice study which found that a significant number of boys in juvenile detention are sexually abused—almost entirely by female staff—but the media and sexual assault prevention activists have largely ignored them. A bigger problem than acknowledging male vulnerability is talking about female perpetrators.

In this same piece I questioned

the popular belief that men arranged society to privilege men at women’s expense. But this doesn’t account for the reality that throughout history the common man was used as a beast of burden and as cannon fodder. Or that even today when most world leaders are men, the bottom of society — the chronically homeless, victims of violence, prisoners, combat deaths, etc. — is overwhelmingly male.

Concluding that,

Rather than privileging men over women, patriarchy is more accurately a small group of powerful men exploiting both women and men. An important distinction is that while men have had greater opportunity for power and status, this power and status is not automatic or guaranteed. Instead, it must be earned with correspondingly higher risk. Failed men are disdained while successful men are lauded and rewarded.

On my personal blog I have rejected the claim that believing in gender equality means one must be a feminist. I think feminism is about left-wing women’s self-interest. Mostly that means equality, but not always. But because feminism is a movement of women and for women, a male feminist must take his talking points from women. Otherwise he’s “mansplaining” women’s issues to women. But this limits a male feminist’s ability to speak authentically about gender from his own perspective.

Despite my criticisms of feminist misandry, though, I also think the men’s rights movement is the wrong approach. I’ve criticized the MRM for its right-wing identity politics. While noting that MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized, I concluded that both the MRM and feminism are focused on self-interest to the point of diminishing the concerns of the opposite sex.

I also criticized MGTOW—male separatists, or “men going their own way”—for playing the victim, promoting misogynistic stereotypes about women, and not really going their own way if they’re still preoccupied with women.

MRAs seem to blame feminism for almost every difficulty men face. But feminists didn’t create the modern world (though they have contributed greatly to it). However, we do need a more comprehensive perspective on gender that isn’t biased against particular genders and which takes the concerns of all genders seriously.

The perspective I’ve been promoting hasn’t yet accomplished that. I’ve been writing almost entirely about men and boys in an attempt to articulate a male perspective on gender that takes men’s issues seriously without portraying men as victims, which doesn’t promote sexism against women, and which promotes equality.

I do this because I believe that the well being of men and boys matters to society as a whole. For Arc Digital I wrote that men’s roles are changing in unexpected ways, including record numbers of men dropping out of the workforce. The job market has changed greatly, but expectations of men’s earning power—which relates directly to men’s ability to find love—haven’t changed. So young men are increasingly dropping out. Further, Warren Farrell and John Gray recently wrote The Boy Crisis about boys falling behind on several measures in 63 developed countries, and the role that father deprivation plays.

Our first concern should be to promote men’s well being. And that directly supports concerns about the impact of men and masculinity on society at large, including decreasing violence and supporting economic growth.