Ethical Realism

February 8, 2010

Two New Stoic Ethical Theories (Free Ebook, updated 12/11/10)

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 3:46 am
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If you want to know the meaning of life, then my master’s thesis is relevant. My master’s thesis, Two New Kinds of Stoicism, was on ethical theory. In particular, I developed two new sorts of Stoic ethics without the need for a reference to God (Universal Reason). Such a theory is meant to tell us what has value, and it is meant to help us identify right and wrong, and make moral decisions.

Although my thesis has not been peer-reviewed by loads of professional philosophers, it was accepted as my master’s thesis by three philosophy professors at San Jose State University. (That doesn’t mean they agreed with it. It just means that it was good enough to help me get a degree.)

The thesis can also be downloaded from the San Jose State University website. It was published in 2008.


This thesis introduces two new kinds of Stoic ethics: Neo-Aristonianism and Common Sense Stoicism. Although Ancient Stoicism requires us to accept the existence of divine reason (God), the two new kinds of Stoicism were developed to avoid such a requirement. Ancient Stoic ethics insisted that everything that happens has equal value because everything is part of the divine plan. This theory of values coupled with a moral psychology that states that desires are caused by value judgments lead Ancient Stoics to reject passions. Anger, for example, is caused by the belief that someone has done something of negative value. Neo-Aristonianism and Common Sense Stoicism reject the fact that everything that happens has equal value, and will consequentially find that passions can be appropriate.

Why Stoicism?

Stoicism offers us an answer to the question, “How do I know what is right or wrong?” as well as help to enable us to actually do what is right. Stoicism has a great deal of credibility, but it seems to be quickly dismissed by many because of the references to God. However, Ariston of Chios, an ancient Stoic philosopher, did not find metaphysics (God) to be necessary for ethics. Additionally, Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault believed that the Stoics to offer us a competitive ethical theory that does not have to refer to God at all. It was never fully explained how this could be possible, so I decided to give it a try.

I found out that Lawrence Becker also developed a version of Stoic ethics that doesn’t require God in his book A New Stoicism. His version of Stoicism could be considered to be competition to my proposals. I find his ethical theory to be abstract, he doesn’t discuss moral psychology in detail, and I don’t know if his ethical theory can be applied to everyday decision making.

Why Two Theories?

People have different levels of skepticism, and Neo-Aristonianism will appeal to those who have higher levels of skepticism than Common Sense Stoicism. Neo-Aristonianism might be acceptable to an anti-realist, for example. Some disagreement is expected when we are dealing with uncertainty and I don’t think everyone should have to agree about something this important unless moral truth becomes certain (which might never happen).

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is the philosophical life of a group known as “the Stoics.” They believed themselves to be the “Socratics” (followers of Socrates). They believed that virtue is the greatest priority. There could be no overriding reason to reject virtue. (Unlike Aristotle and the Epicureans, we can’t reject virtue if we find out that virtue causes suffering.) The Stoics argued that everything that happens is part of the divine plan, so everything that happens has equal value. Nothing that happens could be evil.

Additionally, the Stoics agree with Socrates that knowledge is virtue, ignorance is vice, and knowledgeable thought causes virtuous action. If you think that something is good, then you will want it. Then your actions are more likely to lead you to try to attain it. In other words, their moral psychology roughly states the following:

  1. Thinking X is good causes you to desire it.
  2. Desiring X causes you to try to attain it through action.

What About the Meaning of Life?

I understand the “meaning of life” to refer to what “really matters.” If anything really matters, it has what philosophers call “intrinsic value.” For example, I argue that consciousness has intrinsic value, so the meaning of life is (in part) to promote consciousness. We could promote consciousness just by saving lives because each person has consciousness.

No matter what has intrinsic value, virtue will be our greatest priority (to be willing and able to do good). Becoming virtuous, helping others become virtuous, and saving lives of people (who have some virtue) can all be appropriate to promote virtue.

If we for some reason can’t know (or agree upon) intrinsic values, then our most important priority will still be virtue. Additionally, we could identify various “goods” that are essential for virtue, such as health, knowledge, and consciousness.

More Free Ebooks

I put all my free ebooks here. If you like my thesis or you are interested in whether or not anything really matters, you might want to take a look.

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