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.

 

 

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Stoicism & the problem of Nature

Ancient Stoic beliefs about Nature face challenges in the modern era.

Carefree, AZ. © Dave DuBay

Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance after fading away with the fall of the Roman Empire. But modern Stoicism departs from its ancient ancestor in important ways. Modern Stoicism is effectively agnostic. That is, some modern Stoics believe in God while others are atheists.

Contrary to the stereotype that Stoicism is about repressing your emotions, virtue (or being the best you can be) is the core of Stoicism. Emotions are okay but losing control is not because you’re at your worst when you lose control.

Ancient Stoics believed in living in accord with Nature. They were pantheists—the universe is God, which is a reasoning entity. To live according to Nature is to live in accord with Logos, or reason. And this leads us to the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

But critics of Stoicism often ask how Stoics define Nature and how they know that certain virtues are in accord with Nature.

The God question

Despite fake internet quotes attributed to Marcus Aurelius, ancient Stoics did not look at agnosticism favorably. Fake Marcus is alleged to have said:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

In contrast, real Marcus wrote:

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening—the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us.

Many modern Stoics are atheists, however, while others believe in God. I’ve previously written that atheism creates a vacuum. Human beings seem to need a comprehensive framework that provides a sense of moral order. Whether you think that moral order arose from evolution or from a transcendent source is another question.

But if you don’t believe God then on what basis can you equate reason with Nature? Does attributing reason to Nature imply that Nature has consciousness? If so does this mean that Nature is God, or is this universal consciousness not divine?

These questions might seem like a distraction, but Stoicism is philosophy and these are philosophical questions.

Morality without gods

Earlier I argued for a basis of universal human rights even without deities. In a nutshell I wrote that culture can build upon human psychology, which is the product of evolution.

We survive in groups, so being good team players evolved as part of our psychology. But human psychology is flawed. Our most basic moralistic impulse is selfish—”you shouldn’t do that to me.” The cultural concept of universal human rights is necessary to protect every individual’s hardwired sense of personal boundaries.

This argument is pragmatic, however. It asserts that virtues like justice are cultural concepts—tools, if you will—that are instrumental in creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

In other words, my framework doesn’t deny the importance of virtue or human excellence, but it’s not in total agreement with ancient Stoicism. Of course, modern Stoicism is free to update itself based on modern views of the world.

Virtue and modern Stoicism

This doesn’t mean that modern Stoicism has to abandon virtue. For many people modern Stoicism’s appeal is the idea of keeping your cool and putting things in perspective by distinguishing between what’s under your control and what’s not under your control. Perhaps it makes sense to start with the practical usefulness of Stoic ideas and to extrapolate from there that reason, wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation are the most effective values for maximizing the benefits of Stoicism.

Morality without deities

Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.

Near Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.

Species evolve then die out. And things go on.

An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.

Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.

Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.

Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.

Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:

  1. You shouldn’t do that to me.
  2. You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
  3. I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.

We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.

This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.

But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.

Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.

An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.

And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.

That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.

The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.

On what basis can say this is wrong?

If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.

To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.

Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.

If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.

Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.

Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.

Nietzsche vs Stoicism

Stoics talk a lot about living according to nature. But what exactly does that mean?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche calls the Stoic phrase “according to nature” a fraud of words.

He writes that living according to nature and living according to life are the same thing. And he rhetorically asks, “how could you do differently?”

It’s a good question. Human beings are products of nature. Evolution produced the human brain, which is the basis for human behavior. So human behavior follows the laws of nature just as rocks follow gravity.

Saying human behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Bad things are a product of nature just as much as good things are.

When someone says something isn’t natural—take cannibalism for example—they really mean that’s it’s morally wrong.

But that’s the naturalistic fallacy—incorrectly assuming that whatever is natural must be good. Nietzsche claims Stoicism falls into the naturalistic fallacy.

Further, he says Stoics wish to dictate their morals and ideals to nature. That is, Stoics are creating the world in their own image, which is not only arrogant but self-tyranny.

This self-tyranny is found in the Stoic call to regard anything that neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue as a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

Nietzsche writes that to live is to resist indifference. Living is “valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different.” He says Stoics imagine that indifference is power, but he doubts anyone can truly live in accordance with indifference.

 

Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”

What’s my philosophy?

I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?

The short of it is:

  • Ethics: Stoic with some modifications
  • Physics: Materialism
  • Logic: Empiricism

Ethics

I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics and reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.

Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.

But I’m not a Sage. Stoics say the mythical Sage only needs virtue to flourish—and no one has ever achieved Sage status.

While I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), for me it’s not sufficient. I need basics such as food, shelter, and safety to flourish. Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends support to this view.

Physics

In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods—what we call metaphysics today.

Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Ancient Stoics also believed in divine providence. Based on this Marcus Aurelius concluded that everything that happens is just. But like many modern Stoics I don’t agree with this. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.”

In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe—a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.

With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.

I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck—good and bad—but no providence.

Logic

How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.

But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.

In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.

David Hume on Stoicism

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona

Interest in Stoicism didn’t end in ancient times only to be revived today. David Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher who had a lot to say about a lot of things. And one of them was Stoicism.

Instead of focusing on Hume’s essay “The Stoic” (which Massimo Pigliucci has addressed), I’m going to look at a few passages from Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

The characters in Dialogues are loosely based on certain Greek philosophers. Ancient Sceptics (unlike modern scientific skeptics) claimed that we can’t really know anything. But Hume notes that it’s “impossible to persevere in this total scepticism… External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him…”

But he finds Stoics making the same mistake of thinking that because they can pull it off in some situations they can pull it off in every situation. Hume describes the Stoic ideal by saying that,

When the mind, by Stoical reflections, is elevated into a sublime enthusiasm of virtue, and strongly smit with any species of honour or public good, the utmost bodily pain and sufferance will not prevail over such a high sense of duty; and ’tis possible, perhaps, by its means, even to smile and exult in the midst of tortures.

Inevitably, however, “the bent of his mind relaxes [and]…misfortunes attack him unawares.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in Stoicism. Hume goes on to say,

that though the mind cannot, in Stoicism, support the highest flights of philosophy, yet even when it sinks lower, it still retains somewhat of its former disposition; and the effects of the Stoic’s reasoning will appear in his conduct in common life, and through the whole tenor of his actions.

In other words, progress is possible even if perfection is not—a point Stoics like Seneca made thousands of years ago. Besides, even Epictetus didn’t claim to be a Sage.

But Cicero portrays Cato’s uncompromising Stoic ideal in stark terms:

Just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water…than if he were actually at the bottom already, …similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is nonetheless in misery than he that has made no progress at all.

If the Sage is an impossible standard then is Stoicism pointless? Buddhists probably have the same question about enlightenment.

It’s Stoic practice to offer a continual challenge. Pigliucci interprets Cato as saying that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent: “I take this to be a humility check on ourselves: …there is no sense in feeling smug about those people who are not making progress.”