Ethical Realism

October 16, 2011

A New Kind of Stoicism: Neo-Aristonianism

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:25 am
Tags: , , , ,

Stoicism is one of the most neglected philosophical traditions, but I think it’s informative and helpful. I also think it’s likely that Stoicism’s been neglected in recent times because the Stoics believed in a deity, and now philosophers shy away from any philosophy involving God. For these reasons I will present a new form of Stoic ethics I call “Neo-Aristonianism” that doesn’t require us to believe in a deity.

Ancient Stoicism

Ancient Stoicism can be summarized in the following words:

  1. Virtue is the only unconditional good, and it is of the greatest value. Everything else is “indifferent” but some indifferent things (such as health) are “preferred.”
  2. Virtue requires us to behave in accordance with “human nature”—to be rational and social.
  3. Our nature is revealed by our natural impulses, which was given to us by “Universal Nature” (also known as “God” or “Zeus”) to help us know what goods are preferred over others.
  4. Beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and actions are all connected. If you believe or think something is good (such as money), then you’re likely to desire it and suffer when you lose it. If you desire something, then you’re likely to seek it out. If you suffer from a loss, you are more likely to seek revenge.
  5. Everything happens for a reason as part of the “divine plan.” Everything that happens is the best thing that we could hope for. Therefore, we have no reason to suffer once we realize that nothing bad ever happens in the grand scheme of things.
  6. Many emotions or “passions” are forms of suffering—grief, anger, rage, hatred, fear, greed, and sadness. There is no reason to feel these emotions once we realize that everything is part of the divine plan. Virtuous people realize this (by definition) and will never suffer.

The main virtues of ancient Stoicism involve the discipline of assent (truth/knowledge), the discipline of desire (temperance), and the discipline of action (justice). If we “assent” to reality, then we have moral knowledge (or at least reasonable beliefs). If we attain moral knowledge, then we will likely have appropriate emotions (temperance). If we have appropriate emotions, then we will likely have appropriate actions (justice). A virtuous person who loses their home will accept it as part of the “divine plan;” will not be struck with grief; and will not seek revenge against those responsible. A virtuous person who sees a drowning child and can easily save the child will see the child’s survival as preferable; will feel empathy towards the child; and will act to save the child.

A deity plays a dual role in Stoic ethics: One, she determines human nature and helps teach us appropriate behavior (based on our natural impulses). Two, she assures us that everything that happens is for the best in the grand scheme of things. The deity is therefore important to knowing how to be virtuous and to knowing that suffering is inappropriate.

Can Stoic ethics exist without a deity? If so, we need to know (1) what it means to be virtuous and (2) what emotions are appropriate. Ariston of Chios, a Stoic philosopher, rejected the need for “physics” and therefore the need for understanding the deity.1 Unfortunately we no longer have Ariston’s essays and we don’t know exactly how he understood virtue or appropriate emotions.


How can a Neo-Aristonian understand virtue? One definition of virtue is “to be willing and able to do good.” The Stoics think that virtue is the only truly good thing and everything else is “indifferent.” If virtue is the only good, then we would have to accept that virtue is “to be willing and able to be virtuous”—a viciously circular definition. We can realize that some indifferent things are good insofar as they are preferred (at least in some contexts). I suggest that we follow this line of reasoning and define Neo-Aristonian virtue as “being willing and able to promote any goals that are necessary for any conception of virtue to exist.” No matter what we think virtue is, the following goods will be needed:

  1. Staying alive.
  2. Attaining a sufficiently high level of consciousness.
  3. Maintaining a sufficient level of health.
  4. Avoiding intolerable levels of suffering.

We will be virtuous if we are willing and able to achieve these goods in general—for ourselves and others. I see no reason to think that such goods only count when I enjoy them. They are important for everyone.

If everything is completely indifferent, then it would be unclear why theft or murder would be morally wrong. However, once we realize that we should help promote the above goods, then we have a good reason to help people rather than harm them. Theft and violence would usually be contrary to virtue for that reason.

Why would Neo-Aristonians agree that virtue is the greatest good? There are at least two possibilities: One, virtue is needed for us to attain anything of value. In that case virtue is good as long as something else is good (and virtue is needed promote it). Two, virtue itself could be good for its own sake.

Will Neo-Aristonians reject suffering? I think not. At the very least I suggest that we have a reason to feel grief when virtuous people have an untimely death. If virtue is the greatest good, then it seems like a bad thing when virtuous people die before their time has come because their virtue will be lost without a good reason for it.

At the same time Neo-Aristonians would remind us that a lot of our suffering is based on inappropriate beliefs and thoughts. Crimes involving violence and theft are often based on inappropriate beliefs and thoughts. A thief who steals a wallet is likely suffering from greed based on inappropriately valuing money much more than necessary. A person who kills such a thief out of anger is likely inappropriately valuing money more than necessary as well.

Neo-Aristonians can agree that knowledge, temperance, and justice are virtues; but such virtues can be understood a little differently by them. For example, the Ancient Stoics didn’t think we should feel grief when loved ones die, but a Neo-Aristonian could agree that grief is appropriate as long as the person had some virtue.


1 Stoic philosophers treated “physics” as a combination of metaphysics and natural science similar to Aristotle.

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