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August 13, 2017 at 3:37 pm #2557
This post is a challenge to traditional stoicism and its virtue ethics.
Stoics distinguish between three classes of things:
- Virtue – καθήκοντα (kathekon) – the only good
- Vice – ἁμαρτήματ (harmatemata) – the only bad
- Indifferent – anything that is not subject to virtue or vice.
This leads to the awkward classification of judging even great suffering like injuries, diseases and death as indifferent. The Stoics therefore introduced the following distinction of indifferent things:
- Preferred indifferent – pleasure
- Dispreferred indifferent – pain
To tell somebody who was just diagnosed with cancer that it is totally indifferent would certainly not be of much help for him. But it is important to understand that a Stoic only judges, if there is need for action. If something is beyond his control and does not require any action (e.g. being diagnosed with a fatal disease), then judgement is unnecessary. It is therefore indifferent. Of course he would prefer that it would not have happened, but his preference is irrelevant for the course of action.
And at this point many ancient Stoics got it wrong. They placed the virtue of an action above the result.
When Cato Minor lost the battle at Utica against Caesar, he committed suicide, because he believed that this was what was virtuous. He would never surrender to the "tyranny of Caesar", even if his death did not achieve anything. He placed virtue above results. He thought that his death was dispreffered indifferent, but the need to resist Caesar the only virtuous thing to do.
What he forgot is that indifferent is only what is beyond one’s control. His death however was very well under his control, so it was not indifferent. He should have asked himself, whether he could achieve more, when he was alive or when he was dead. Since ancient Stoics believed in fate and determinism, this question did not arise for them.
But today we know that there is no such thing as fate and that the world is not determined like a clockwork. We can change more things than the ancient Stoics believed.
So we should not simply follow an abstract concept of virtue, because our gut feeling tells us that it is a positive value, we have to consider the outcome of our action.
Then Cato’s virtuous suicide, because of his refusal to submit to tyranny, becomes rather cowardice, because he did not want to face the consequences of his defeat and made no effort to continue his life and doing good things even under Caesar’s rule.
We should not judge an action, because we can associate it with an abstract concept that has a positive sound to it; we have to judge it because of its result. This means we have to judge the result, not the action.
I have outlined the only correct means of judgement in another thread about logical pragmatism.
We cannot just say this is the correct course of action, because it is just or compassionate; we have to ask what is the outcome and is it desirable. Correct judgement must be based on reason, not on abstract concepts that have a pleasing sound to them. We cannot say: "This action is virtuous, because it is selfless." An action becomes correct, only if the outcome is desirable. The traditional Stoic antagonism of virtue and vice is therefore often not very helpful, because it is short-sighted. A true Stoic sage has to look beyond the momentary appearance of a certain action and consider its result in a rational way.
Reason and logic should therefore be our only guides. There is no other virtue but reason. If it is reasonable, then it is correct and virtuous; if it is unreasonable, then it is incorrect.
The true Stoic guideline has been summarized by Zeno of Citium with the words:quote :
No action itself can be judged as right or wrong, as virtue or vice; only the outcome can be judged and the action is either correct or incorrect to achieve the desired outcome.
Reason is the only way to eudaimonia.
When we know that we have made the optimal and logically correct decision under the given circumstances, then we do not need to regret it later.
If we act according to an abstract virtue and later regret the results, we will certainly not reach eudaimonia. The supposed virtue of the action is of little consolation, when we are faced with the suffering that it caused.
The ancient Stoics had their belief in a predetermined fate as consolation for suffering. They believed that things could not have been avoided anyway. We know that there is no such thing as fate and that more than one outcome is possible. But we also know that there is always only one logical course of action in any situation. And this course of action is therefore determined by logic. If we got it wrong anyway, we know that we had no means to know it better. So for a rational being there is no reason for regret.
A modern Stoic should therefore follow ethics based on reason, not on virtue or better accept that virtue is equivalent with reason. If we have reason, we do not need anything else.
C. Florius Lupus
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