Ethical Realism

October 19, 2011

A Second New Kind of Stoicism: Common Sense Stoicism

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 8:12 am
Tags: , , , ,

This is part 2. Go here to see part 1.

I have created a new form of Stoicism that doesn’t require a god that I call “Neo-Aristonianism.” I will now present a second new form of Stoicism (that doesn’t require a god) that I call “Common Sense Stoicism.” Neo-Aristonianism is a skeptical form of Stoicism that requires as few assumptions as seem necessary for a potentially comprehensive virtue ethics. Nonetheless, many assumptions are very plausible and many of us will prefer a more ambitious virtue ethics that involves some of these assumptions. (In particular, the existence of certain intrinsic values.) That’s where Common Sense Stoicism comes in.

What is virtue?

Common Sense Stoicism will define virtue in the following way:

Being willing and able to (1) promote goods that are necessary for any form of virtue (survival, sufficiently high levels of consciousness, sufficient health, and sufficiently tolerable levels of pain) and (2) promote intrinsic values. Common Sense Stoicism rejects the belief that “virtue is the only good,” but it agrees that “virtue is the greatest priority and must never be compromised.” Common Sense Stoics will reject Neo-Aristonianism because they think it’s incomplete—intrinsic values can make a big difference to virtue and Neo-Aristonianism ignores intrinsic values. (At a minimum, “intrinsically good” refers to something we can rationally value for its own sake.)

Common Sense Stoicism states the following have intrinsic value at the very least (because I find it plausible that they have intrinsic value):

  1. Pleasure (and happiness)
  2. Pain (and suffering)
  3. Consciousness (human life has value insofar as it is conscious)

I also find it plausible that the following has intrinsic value, and Common Sense Stoics is compatible with that possibility:

  1. Higher levels of consciousness
  2. Knowledge
  3. Good will
  4. Virtue

However, the following things could not have intrinsic value:

  1. Food
  2. Laws
  3. Power

How does the belief in such intrinsic values differentiate Common Sense Stoicism from Neo-Aristonianism? A Neo-Aristonian would be willing to promote consciousness, happiness, and pain-avoidance insofar as such goals could be good-for-virtue. However, such goals are not always good-for-virtue. For example, eating chocolate and spending time joking around with friends might not be particularly “good-for-virtue” but a Common Sense Stoic would find these acts to be consistent with virtue—as long as we don’t have other more important obligations that conflict with such behavior. A Neo-Aristonian might have no reason to enjoy themselves in these ways and might think they conflict with virtue insofar as such acts might be seen as having no value whatsoever.

What are appropriate emotions?

Common Sense Stoics endorse the same moral psychology as Ancient Stoics, but it has different implications based on the new conception of virtue and the existence of intrinsic values. Since Common Sense Stoics don’t claim that virtue is the only good, it can be appropriate to be emotionally invested and to suffer in various ways.

Common Sense Stoics agree with the other Stoics that losing your wallet isn’t a good reason to suffer because it is not important in the grand scheme of things and it doesn’t have intrinsic value. However, a loved one who is lost from an untimely death can be a good reason to suffer grief because it can be appropriate for us to realize that “something horrible has happened.” Additionally, Common Sense Stoics can agree that it’s appropriate to suffer from compassion when we find out people are unjustly harmed or unjustly denied happiness.

Both Neo-Aristonians and Common Sense Stoics face a challenge in life—They must not allow their suffering to detract from their virtue. We can’t allow ourselves to suffer to the point that we are prevented from being better people. We can’t just wallow in our misery and we need to find a way to control our suffering to keep it from getting out of hand.

Final Thoughts

The importance Stoic ethics can be illustrated if we contrast it with the current popular moral theories, such as utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative:

First, Stoic ethics is potentially more comprehensive than those other moral theories because these theories typically don’t tell us (a) how to behave ethically or (b) how to identify a better kind of person. The Stoics not only have an ideal to reach for, but a practical thought process to help us evaluate our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Second, Stoic ethics is not primarily concerned with differentiating moral right and wrong. It’s not obvious that utilitarians are right that morally right actions are those that “maximize happiness”—even if happiness is the only intrinsic good. We can quibble endlessly about the semantics of the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even after we agree that certain goods are worth promoting, but such quibbles don’t necessarily answer the big questions that we really want to know—What should I do with my life? How can I become a better person? How can I become motivated to help people more? Stoic ethics is less abstract and it’s primarily concerned with flesh and blood people who want to improve their lives and make the world a better place.

Third, the Stoic moral psychology is informative. We should believe something because it’s true. It’s appropriate to desire good things, and to suffer when we lose good things. We are likely to act to acquire a good when we know it is a good and desire it. A utilitarian might argue that we should believe something only if it maximizes happiness, that we should desire a good only if it maximizes happiness, and that we should only act if it will maximize happiness—but these answers are much less intuitive than the Stoic ones; and they certainly don’t seem like answers that most flesh and blood people would find as helpful.


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