Ethical Realism

March 23, 2010

Stoic & Buddhist Arguments Against Intrinsic Values

Nietzsche, Stoics, and Buddhists all have similar potential reasons to reject intrinsic values. Nietzsche wants to embrace all of life including pain, the Stoics believe that everything that happens is for the best, and Buddhism requires us to withhold judgment. I have discussed how Nietzsche’s amor fati (life affirmation) could be seen to conflict with pain’s intrinsic disvalue, and now I will discuss how some people could believe Stoicism and Buddhism conflict with pain’s intrinsic disvalue. However, I do not agree that these perspectives are necessarily incompatible with intrinsic values.

Stoicism requires that we believe that everything happens for the best, but that would merely require us to accept that pain is a necessary evil. Bad things can happen to individuals for a greater good.

Buddhism requires that we withhold judgment in order to avoid suffering and the belief that “pain is intrinsically bad” can cause suffering. However, I don’t think such a belief necessarily causes suffering. There might be a calm way to contemplate pain’s intrinsic disvalue.

Stoic Argument Against Intrinsic Value

The Stoic philosophers agree with Nietzsche that we should embrace all of our life including the parts we tend to dislike because they believe that “everything that happens is for the best.” The Stoics believe that Divine Reason (God) makes sure that everything happens for the best, so we have nothing to worry about and nothing worth complaining about. This was mentioned by Marcus Aurelius when he said, “No one is going to stop you from living according to the reason of your own nature, and nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of common Nature” (Meditations, V, 58).

Additionally, the stoics believed that embracing reality including its supposed faults would lead us to happiness. “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens; then you will be happy” (Epictetus, Manuel, Chapter 8). The Stoics believed that our thoughts cause our joy and suffering. By having a positive attitude, we would enjoy our life. By “rejecting reality” and thinking about injustice, we will make ourselves miserable.

We can compare and contrast Stoicism with Nietzschean amor fati in the following way:

  1. Both Stoics and Nietzsche agree to embrace reality.
  2. The Stoics think we should embrace reality because “everything that happens is for the best.”
  3. Nietzsche wants to embrace reality despite its horrors and imperfections because it’s what a healthy person would do.

Why might a Stoic think that we should reject intrinsic values? First, the belief that something has intrinsic value gives us something to lose. We often think that something bad happens precisely because something intrinsically good was lost. For example, if we believe that our child is intrinsically good, then we will think that the loss of our child is terrible. The belief that something has intrinsic value seems to lead us to a rejection of reality and misery.

Second, the belief that something is intrinsically bad, such as pain, seems to be a rejection of pain. Whenever pain is experienced, we will think that something terrible has happened and make ourselves miserable.

My objection: I don’t deny that it’s possible for intrinsic value beliefs to involve a rejection of reality, and such a rejection could make us miserable. However, I don’t think that intrinsic value beliefs have to lead to this result. We could calmly contemplate the fact that we prefer our child not to die or the fact that we prefer not to feel pain. Human life and pain are worthy of consideration because they really do matter. However, it is possible to embrace death and pain as inevitable parts of the universe. God has determined every moment of reality and assured that everything will be for the best. Bad things might have to happen to some people for the “greater good,” just like we might be willing to kill one person to save the lives of hundreds.

Although intrinsic value and Stoicism are compatible, such a compatibility is not entirely satisfying for various reasons. For example, the view that bad things happen to people “for the greater good” seems to justify all of God’s decisions when (a) we don’t know for sure God exists and (b) we don’t know for sure that all of God’s decisions are really “for the best.”

There are three interesting alternatives to Ancient Stoicism that I know about:

  1. Embrace a new kind of Stoicism that doesn’t require God.
  2. Nietzsche’s amor fati – We should embrace reality, even if it is horrible.
  3. Buddhism – We can suspend judgment regarding the horrors of life.

The first alternative is my master’s thesis. The second alternative was discussed in my recent essay, “Are Intrinsic Value Beliefs Unealthy? A Nietzschean Argument.” The third alternative is discussed next.

Buddhist Argument Against Intrinsic Value

I am not a Buddhist scholar, but my relevant understanding of Buddhism is the following:

  1. Buddhists commit themselves to avoiding suffering.
  2. Evaluative thoughts and beliefs (value judgments) can lead to suffering.
  3. We can avoid suffering by refusing to have evaluative beliefs.
  4. So, Buddhists should refuse to have evaluative thoughts and beliefs.

Buddhism can be compared and contrasted with Stoicism in the following way:

  1. Both Buddhists and Stoics agree that evaluative thoughts and beliefs can cause suffering.
  2. The Stoics think that embracing reality is appropriate considering God’s divine plan of the universe, and “embracing reality” will lead to happiness. However, Buddhists don’t think that happiness is necessarily based on an appropriate view of reality. Instead, most Buddhists decide to avoid suffering because such a decision seems perfectly rational from a personal everyday standpoint.
  3. The Stoics and Buddhists both avoid suffering by suspending certain evaluative thoughts and beliefs.

Both Stoics and Buddhists would agree that when you lose your wallet, thoughts of injustice and revenge are inappropriate. We will end up making ourselves miserable and we could decide to hurt others. Stoics would say that we could “talk ourselves” out of such inappropriate thoughts by realizing that “everything happens for the best.” In contrast, Buddhists would remind themselves that we should avoid having thoughts of “injustice.” (Perhaps we should count to 10 to calm down.)

Why should we avoid having thoughts of injustice? Ultimately because such thoughts could make us miserable. However, it might also be claimed that we simply can’t know if injustice has really occurred. We can prefer for people not to steal from others, but we can’t say that it’s “bad” when it actually happens.

Why might a Buddhist think we should reject intrinsic values? Because intrinsic values appear to involve the sorts of “evaluative judgments” that can lead to misery and should be avoided for that very reason. The thought “my pain is bad!” would certainly seem to aggravate our state of mind.

My objection: My reply to the Stoic objection can be modified to be applied to the Buddhist argument. It seems possible to have evaluative judgments without making ourselves miserable. Such “evaluative judgments” are typically about our preferences, but it is quite possible for us to “prefer to avoid pain” precisely because it’s intrinsically bad. We don’t have to “reject pain” even if we know that it’s intrinsically bad. Instead, we can embrace reality through a Nietzschean attitude of amor fati.

Although Nietzsche believed that amor fati allows us to embrace all of the supposed horrors of reality, a Buddhist might believe that such an embrace would end our suffering entirely. If we have no negative evaluative thoughts or beliefs, then we will no longer be bothered by anything. Embracing reality (including the fact that pain is intrinsically bad) could destroy all potential causes of misery and cause us to be happy. Embracing horrors would destroy the horrors in the process. Who is right will depend on human psychology, which is beyond the scope of this discussion.


Nietzsche, the Stoics, and Buddhists all endorse a sort of amor fati attitude. They all encourage us to be life affirming, and such life affirmation could be seen to be incompatible with intrinsic value beliefs, such as the belief that pain is intrinsically bad. The Stoics require that we accept reality because everything happens for the best and Buddhists require that we accept reality because it’s necessary to be happy. However, intrinsic value beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with life affirmation. We can embrace reality and the horrors of life, including pain while acknowledging that pain is intrinsically bad. We don’t have to let pain make us miserable or cause us to “reject reality.”


  1. Actually I think Buddhism believes that impermanence is permanent and everything revolves like a wheel between birth and death. Thoughts form and reveals itself then they disappear, happiness is felt but they never endure, like breathing in and out. Suffering occurs once you expect something or cling to a certain feeling and you ignore its nature of not being able to last. Pain is actually just a sensory impression that is conditioned, given a certain value. Sometime the thought of pain is more painful than pain itself. Buddhism embraces pain and happiness as ‘suchness’ of nature or ‘dharmma’ They bound to happen once the wheel revolves.

    Comment by sunny — January 7, 2011 @ 9:54 pm | Reply

    • Sunny,

      I don’t know that I disagree with anything you just said. I think we can embrace pain and suffering, but that doesn’t mean we will cut ourselves and try to feel needless pain. I think the intrinsic disvalue of pain is compatible with what you just said. You might want to see my discussion on Nietzsche and intrinsic value

      Nietzsche makes it clear that we need to embrace and even “value” suffering. The word “value” here is a little different than “intrinsically good” obviously.

      Comment by James Gray — January 7, 2011 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I have two questions for you.

    Are there any other life affirming philosophies besides the three you’ve described?

    Also have you written any more about Nietzche besides the writings you’ve listed in this piece? I would greatly like to read them.

    Comment by Aidon Tuno — January 25, 2013 @ 12:53 am | Reply

  3. Cool I appreciate the links.

    Comment by Aidon Tuno — January 25, 2013 @ 4:10 am | Reply

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