Is being a good person all you need to be happy?

Stoics say the goal of being a good person will help you achieve your other goals.

Near Globe, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

What would Stoicism be like today if it had continued without interruption as an applied philosophy? It’s a challenge modern Stoics are addressing.

I haven’t read Lawrence Becker’s A New StoicismIt’s a technical and abstruse work of formal rather than popular philosophy, so I rely on Massimo Pigliucci’s unpacking of Becker’s arguments.

Two (of many) questions modern Stoics face are:

On what basis do you claim that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia (i.e. human flourishing, or happiness)? Personally, I find this difficult in practice because I feel I also need certain basics—food, shelter, and safety—to flourish.

And if, as Stoics claim, you’re either virtuous or you’re not (hint: you’re not) then how does it make sense to say we can make progress toward virtue?

Pigliucci addresses the latter question by stating that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent. It offers us a continual challenge. He compares virtue to a perfect circle. Almost no one can draw a perfect circle by hand, but with practice our circles can improve even if there’s always more room for improvement.

But the first question about why virtue is sufficient, not just necessary for human flourishing, is more difficult.

Again, an almost impossible ideal helps us avoid complacency and the arrogance of thinking we’re somehow more virtuous than the average person. Becker developed a more elaborate explanation, however—one intended to make Stoicism a serious philosophy by twenty-first century standards.

My interpretation of Pigliucci’s interpretation of Becker should be looked at critically. It’s likely that on some points I’ve misunderstood them both.

Becker asserts that virtue is the perfection of agency—that is, acting consciously and deliberately. But he points out that this assumes that being a good person is of primary importance to you.

Who among us doesn’t care about injustice? Well, psychopaths don’t. So Becker’s argument doesn’t apply to psychos. Who among us thinks pleasure is the greatest good, even to the point of sidestepping courage and justice to avoid pain? Epicureans are unlikely to agree with the Stoic perspective.

Becker breaks his argument down step by step:

Goals require certain steps for completion. We all have multiple goals, and sometimes the steps in different goals conflict with each other. I might want to go hiking and attend a blues festival. But if they’re scheduled at the same time then I can’t do both.

Becker says we must look at the big picture. I can optimize my goals by going hiking later. That’s thinking globally (all my goals considered together) rather than locally (looking only at one goal without considering the rest).

Beck then claims that the goal of agency perfection—being the best person I can be—will optimize all other goals. Again, this only applies to people who value ethics above all. Ted Bundy just wanted to kill—ethics wasn’t a consideration. Or valuing pleasure above all puts ethics in a secondary position.

Being the best we can be includes positive values. Stoics prize wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Further, because these virtues are necessary for being the best we can be, virtue should be a Stoic’s number goal.

Virtue, therefore, optimizes all of our other goals because these goals are secondary to virtue.

If something neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue then it’s indifferent (though we may prefer or disprefer certain things). For example, money is indifferent because it’s neither inherently good nor bad. What you do with it makes the difference.

Becker makes a solid argument. But I still can’t say that virtue is all I need to flourish. And I certainly can’t say I’m a living example of virtue. But even if practicing Stoicism doesn’t help me become a Sage—and it won’t—at the very least it might prevent me from becoming a scoundrel.

 

 

Advertisements

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

Being civil doesn’t mean you have to hide your contempt for someone.

© Dave DuBay

The latest addition to the growing body of modern Stoic literature is William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure. A series of personal reflections, it’s a book in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

I’ve just begun reading it, so in this and future posts I’ll highlight passages that catch my eye. In book one part six Ferraiolo writes,

Do not pretend to respect other persons either more or less than you actually do respect them. You owe no one a pretense of deference… You should have nothing to do with sham collegiality or faux civility. Some persons are worthy of your contempt… Do not allow yourself to be pressed, bullied, or cajoled into relations that strike you as unhealthy or pointless.

Ferraiolo isn’t advocating uncivil behavior. He’s against faux civility. It’s a call to sincerity. No one likes phonies. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “Well, he doesn’t like me but at least I know where I stand.”

Other people may create unhealthy dynamics, but that’s beyond your control. Whether you choose to allow yourself to be pressured into such relationships is within your control.

Reading this passage though, it occurred to me that respect can mean different things. “I respect you” could mean I hold you in high esteem. “Treat others with respect,” however, isn’t necessarily a demand to think highly of someone. It could simply be a more polite way of telling someone not to be rude—that is, to be civil.

Put differently, there’s respect in the active sense (conferring high regard on someone) and respect in the passive sense (refraining from uncivil behavior). Ferraiolo’s passage seems to refer to respect in the active sense.
It’s insincere to pretend to hold someone in high regard if you don’t. While contempt is the opposite of respect in the active, high esteem sense, contempt is not necessarily in conflict with respect in the passive sense of refraining from incivility.

Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

© Dave DuBay

Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.

After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:

When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”

At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.

Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.

This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.

By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.

Marcus says we should

See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.

This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.

Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.

Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.

What is the future for “once and future liberals”?

Democrats have to come to terms with populism.

IMG_1363
Somewhere in northern Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?

Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.

Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.

Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.

Meanwhile, Democrats are doubling down on their support for the establishment, purging Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Convention.

Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.

Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,

Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.

He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”

As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.

But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.

What’s up with male feminists?

Authenticity is a challenge.

Carefree, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

There’s no shortage of news items about male feminists who have fallen from grace. It’s infuriating and puzzling for people on the left. It’s schadenfreude for the right. Some commentators have noted how similar this is — with left and right reversed — when an evangelical preacher falls from grace.

But other people aren’t surprised. Even ordinary male feminists can come across as pandering and sycophantic. Feminists often distrust male feminists’ motives. Some feminists seem to think men should be seen but not heard (unless they’re checking their privilege or confronting other men about their behavior). And male feminists must accept that women in the movement may mock them.

What’s happening here? The observations that follow are not excuses for bad male behavior. We should all know what appropriate behavior is and is not. No excuses.

Nor are these observations comprehensive. The reality of sexism and misogyny are well articulated elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on other factors.

Seeking women’s approval

We all crave attention, and negative attention is better than invisibility. I doubt I’m the only man who has felt a deep desire for female approval. For most of us this starts in childhood with the need for our mother’s approval, which some mothers manipulate. Though men often talk about father wound, mother wound is discussed far less often. Emotionally it’s a much more difficult discussion to have.

Further, women have immense sexual power over men. And this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and resentment.

It can also lead to a sense of entitlement. A man who fancies himself as one of the good guys may start to think he deserves women’s approval . If that’s not forthcoming then he may feel entitled to punish women.

Pandering

The desire for women’s approval may lead some men to call themselves male feminists or allies (though that’s far from the only reason for choosing these labels).

But feminism is a movement of women for women. It presents a one-sided rather than a comprehensive view of gender. So a man who calls himself a feminist or an ally must take his talking points from women, restricting his ability to speak authentically about gender issues.

Particularly, he must overemphasize the negative aspects of masculinity and focus on women as victims of masculinity while ignoring female privilege and entitlement, including situations where women take advantage of men. This can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment, which often manifest passive-aggressively.

Getting past pandering

I support gender equality, but I’m not a feminist. This phrase is really annoying to many people. But I think it’s important to make it clear that my labels are my choice. I don’t believe feminism is the only perspective on gender equality. I also distance myself from reactive identitarian groups like the men’s rights movement.

I try to understand what feminism gets right and what it gets wrong . My goal is to develop a proactive perspective on gender equality that’s more comprehensive and non-identitarian.

Today’s gender myth implies that the dark side of human nature is masculine, which oppresses the feminine. It claims that gender is purely a social construct.

But I acknowledge that biology also plays a partial role. And I think it’s more accurate to say that masculinity can be both benevolent and tyrannical while femininity can be both nurturing and smothering.

Self-reflection

Then there’s introspection. It’s important for men to examine the mother wound, acknowledge feelings about women’s power over us, and how this may contribute to a dysfunctional seeking of female approval.

But putting women on a pedestal is a particular problem. Of course, today’s version of the pedestal differs from yesterday’s. It’s understood that it’s sexist to say women shouldn’t be firefighters because they’re so delicate.

But women who wish to remain on a pedestal must maintain their innocence, which means having someone to blame. Men can become scapegoats.

I try not to enable this. This means accepting responsibility for my failings but refusing to accept responsibility for other people’s failings. And failing to realize that we’re not entitled to anything is one of the biggest failings at all.