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.