The Story of the Stoic Father (Fiction)

Hello, I’m Jeff Whitman. I’m a university professor, who teaches Global Studies in Denver, Colorado.  My wife Victoria is professor who teaches Gender Studies for an online university.  We both have been lifelong liberal progressives and have been involved in several social movements together in our early college days.  We actually met at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccoti Park.  When Victoria and I decided to have kids we promised each other we’d raise them with a liberal attitude towards life and would give them plenty of resources to learn and remain open minded to new ideas.

Years after Victoria and I had kids, I became interested in Stoicism and became a Stoic.  I decided to apply Stoicism to my life and try to live as hard as I could to put virtue first in all of my goals.  My wife thinks I’m funny for being so dogmatic.  She’s one of those people who like to have a smorgasbord of ethics.  She likes utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics but won’t settle for any particular ethical system and just uses what she likes given the situation.  That kind of attitude can drive me crazy sometimes but it is what it is and I accept it.

Our youngest child is Vicky.  She is in 8th grade and is doing well in school.  She is really bright and is actually quite familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.  She’s decided she’s a nihilist.  In her mind, there are no real values and no morality.  She still acts on her moral sentimental instincts and is definitely a good kid but she thinks there’s no way to rationally justify her views.  She laughs at anyone who believes in principles and values.

Frank is just starting high school and he’s doing all right.  He’s a B student, kind of like me in high school.  He spends a lot of time at the library alone and considers himself an Epicurean.  I often discuss a lot of different issues with him because he’s always wondering what a Stoic would do and it gives him some ideas on how he can approach the problem from an Epicurean point of view.

Our eldest child is Britney and she’s a senior in high school and she’s already scored high enough in ACTs and SATs to go free-ride to any major American university of her choosing.  She’s thinking about Princeton, which is pretty damn cool.  She’s into computer programming and tells me all the time about programming languages.  I’m often zoning out because programming is so dreadfully boring to me.  She considers herself a Skeptic.  No, not a scientific skeptic, although she is one of those.  But she considers herself an ancient Greek Skeptic.  She often laughs at me and considers my ethical viewpoints to be no more real than optical illusions.

With the different viewpoints my children express and even my wife, it makes for interesting discussion around the dinner table.  We don’t always have to agree on every single thing but we do agree on the important issues like when it’s time to go to bed and turn off the TV.  I’m pretty happy with our family because we are good people despite our different outlooks on life.  I never would’ve thought I’d have a nihilist daughter and I would’ve never thought about a nihilist being such a good person.

I think the main reason why we do so well as a family is because my wife is sort of a control freak.  Sometimes when she’s laying down the law of the house, I can’t help but to jokingly think of her as a fascist.  But I never say it out-loud because she’s only doing what she thinks is good for the well-being of everyone.  She’s pretty much the glue that holds the family together.  If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if anything would get done.

Why don’t I assert myself as the family man and drill Stoicism into everyone’s heads?  For one, it’s never that easy.  Tyrants always create opposition.  For two, I can only do what’s in my own control, I can’t do what’s not in my control, like attempting to control my family’s belief systems and values.  The Stoics taught us long ago that we should try to use reason and Socratic dialogue to persuade others to our beliefs.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I hope you can too.  I’m just one person among many trying to do what I think is best for everyone.  I hope my experiences can teach you how to be a truly good person even if your philosophies are disagreeable to mine.

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Why is virtue the only good?

It’s kind of an axiom why virtue is the only good for any Stoic.  There’s not a perfect proof for why virtue is the chief good.  You usually bite the bullet when you commit to any particular universal ethical theory.  With Epicureanism, the chief good is pleasure.  In utilitarianism, it usually means maximizing the everyone’s preferences or happiness.  In Kantian deontology, it means not violating the categorical imperative.

But why choose virtue as the only good?  Well, there are a plethora of reasons to do so.  But first let’s say why you wouldn’t choose other ethical theories.  Utilitarianism and Kantian deontology imply all sorts of ethical decisions that we might not be comfortable making.  Utilitarianism is often thought of as as easily calculating the best decision for the most but it’s not always practical to know what’s the best for the most or even possible to know what’s the best for the most.  Could utilitarianism condone slavery if slaves are unhappy or not having their preferences met but everyone who benefits from slavery are very happy or are definitely having their preferences met?  That’s just one sort of problem with utilitarianism.  The problems with morality in the name of utility can’t even be summed up in a single book while some have tried.

What about Kantian deontology?  Immanuel Kant actually tried to sell his Metaphysics of Morals as rational foundation of morality that would actually be inline with our common sense.  But is it common sense to have to tell the truth always even if it means you can never lie even if it’s to selflessly help another soul?  That doesn’t strike anyone as common sense.  Also, there are many times in our life where it seems sensible to do the utilitarian thing over the dignity of one individual.  How many of us would pull the lever to save 5 lives over 1 life from a murderous Trolley?  Probably a significant amount.

And what about making pleasure as the chief good?  This seems sensible enough at first.  But most people know you should follow pleasure and avoid point within limits.  Limits of what?  Usually within certain moral guidelines?  So then pleasure isn’t the source of the good.  Pleasure is actually being limited by something people view to be a higher good than pleasure itself.  But we certainly want to allow for pleasure but only within certain constraints.  The Epicureans attempted this project but it’s not certain they ever really succeeded because even though they managed to practice virtue, they still did not set it up as the chief good but as a way to not feel guilty when one has erred morally.  Feeling guilty caused displeasure, so it’s best not to err morally.  But why feel guilty in the first place if one has erred morally or contradicted virtue if virtue isn’t the chief source of the good?  It really doesn’t seem to add up.

The Stoics didn’t actually care about feeling guilty if one had erred ethically.  In fact, they’d really rather have you just learn from your mistakes rather than feel guilty about them.  They knew that people make mistakes all the time, whether attempting to live the good life or being mistaken about what the good life was.  There’s a lot of humility in Stoicism.  We all make mistakes, so let’s try to fix them and then  move on.  No sense living in guilt or remorse.  Sure, we can feel a little remorseful at first but no sense in grieving over our prior faults.

What’s more is Stoicism makes plenty of room for pleasure.  It allows for pleasure, wealth, health, education, reputation, and many other preferred qualities in life we’d like to pursue so long as they don’t contradict the pursuit of the chief good virtue.  Since most of these things don’t all the time contradict virtue, then pursuing virtue as the chief good is going to make for a pretty normal life.  In fact, pursuing virtue for its own sake won’t make you stand dramatically out from the crowd of people you surround yourself in your daily life.  People may wonder what makes you seem a little different than them though and they may want to emulate your behavior but that’s about it.

Virtue is also a pretty morally popular idea when you get people to thinking about what it is and what it entails.  Most people, when you get them to think about it, would say that the soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of other soldiers did something truly remarkably good.  Virtuous in fact.  Most people would also say that the person who risks their life drowning to save two other kids from drowning did something truly noble.  It’s because people have this moral sense in their minds that seems to confirm the importance of virtue.  That’s not to say that everyone is right about everything all of the time.  But when you get people to think about what’s truly important, they’ll usually think someone doing something virtuous rather than something expedient is the right course of action.

Why would people have this moral sense?  Perhaps it has to do with Hierocles’s Circles.  Hierocles was an ancient Stoic who presumed that all humans began their infancy in self-love.  And then as they grew and matured their self-love began to point outward towards their siblings and parents.  And then as they grew older they loved their friends.  And then they grew to love their community, and then love their society, and then finally humanity.  It’s true that not everyone matures fully or matures the same.  But there seems to be a general trend in humanity to go from self-love in infancy to love of everyone or philanthropy in adulthood.

What does this development of philanthropy have to do with virtue?  Well one of the main virtues of the four cardinal virtues is justice.  Justice has to do with fair dealings, equitability, and compassion.  The Stoics knew this.  They knew virtue was just an extension of love into the realm of universal love or justice.  And they knew that temperance, courage, and wisdom all assisted in this universal love.

So this is why it’s worth biting the bullet for the axiom that virtue is the only good.  There’s not a lot to lose like you do in all the other plethora of life philosophies out there and there’s plenty of things to gain from one philosophy: Stoicism.

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Stoicism and the Trolley Problem

We’re all familiar with the Trolley Problem.  A Trolley comes barreling down the tracks.  Do you let it run over 5 people or do you switch the track to make it run over 1 person.  The Utilitarian says to switch the track.  The Kantian says to let the Trolley run over the 5 people, at least you didn’t deliberately make it kill one person.

So what would the Stoic do?  Virtue ethics is less about the consequences or act itself and more about the intentions and character traits of the agent.  Honestly, the Stoic in my opinion is free to let Kantian or Utilitarian intuitions take over.  In the case just mentioned, I imagine that the Stoic Sage would switch the tracks to save the five people.  So I think Utilitarian intuitions would take over in that case.

Now would you push a fat man off a bridge in front of the Trolley to stop the Trolley from running over 5 people?  This situation seems intuitively different than merely switching the tracks.  So I think the Stoic Sage would err on the side of Kantian intuitions and not push the fat man to his death in order to save the 5.

Honestly, the Stoic in my opinion will just do what seems the most ethically intuitive when character traits traits are too vague to be useful in determining what to do in such ethical dilemmas.  Just do what you’re compassion tells you to do in each situation and you’re safe.

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Stoicism: The Answer To Today’s Nihilism?

Friedrich Nietzsche warned that with the death of God (the intellectual collapse of Christianity) that it would lead to a state of nihilism.  Basically, for years Christianity had been the answer to everyone’s question, “how should I live my life?”  Without the intellectual fortitude of Christianity anymore, where would people turn to for their values?  Nietzsche took it upon himself to try to help us try to construct a value system that would help answer our question of how we should live our life.  Unfortunately, Nietzsche never got to complete his system.  He fell into madness and left only breadcrumbs of how we might live our life.  It’s also not clear he was even up to the implausible task of answering how we might live our life.

Secular forms of morality seem difficult to logically support especially after David Hume demonstrated it’s probably not possible to get an ought from an is.  Utilitarian theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill tried to make a scientific form of morality but when Mill tried to derive an ought from an is, it turned out he was just equivocating between wanting pleasure and morally having to seek pleasure.  Utilitarianism, despite its empirical/scientific nature, just wasn’t able to support itself.  Ultimately you just had to bite the bullet whether you wanted to seek pleasure for the multitude or not.

Immanuel Kant thought that if he could just support ethics in pure practical reason itself, it would would be enough to keep a secular version of moral Christianity intact.  Unfortunately, Nietzsche later knew that this wasn’t going to help things because it was dependent on the concept of transcendental faculties divorced from our common everyday experiences.  Immanuel Kant cut humans into two realms divorced from each other, the trascendental self and the phenomenal self.  It came at a cost because Kant was asking us to postulate an afterlife and a God to judge us.  What started out as a secular attempt to ground morality just turned into the same thing that doomed the Christian faith in its assumptions of an afterlife and God.  Also, Kant promised that his ethics was going to be intuitive and commonsense but instead his categorical imperative led to all kinds bizarre consequences.  You couldn’t lie selflessly to save other people’s lives.  So much for common sense.

Existentialists of the 20th century weren’t really up to the task to answer how to live our lives.  They were essentially just replacing divine command theory of ethics with ego command theory.  Basically, everyone’s values emanated from their choices they made in life.  Essentially, they were inviting millions and millions of varying moral systems created by the authentic choices of each and every single human being.  This seemed disastrous.  Jean-Paul Sartre tried to ground his existentialism ethics in a form of Marxist solidarity but this certainly didn’t convince Albert Camus, another existentialist, who was quite critical of Sartre as a philosopher and as a person.

So what should we do?  How should we proceed?  Existentialism seems truly scary and bizarre.  Millions of ethical systems based on everyone’s unique “authentic” choices just sounds like chaos.  It sounds like an ethical nightmare.  Well….what if we turned back to the ancient Greeks and Romans?

It turns out that the philosophers of the past might have actually had all the answers after all.  In fact, if we look to the Stoics and even the Epicureans we might find a way to truly live our lives.  The Stoics believed that only virtue was good and only vice was bad and everything else was indifferent.  In fact, if one lived a life of virtue one would be promised a life of eudaimonic happiness.  Basically, not only did the Stoics propose a value system but they proposed a value system that implied a form of therapy.  If you follow virtue as your sole good, you would be promised a life of excellence and contentedness.  This doesn’t mean you’d live happily ever after like in a Disney movie once you married your prince or princess.  It meant that you’d achieve a noble state.  You’d be worthy of praise, be generally untroubled, and free of negative passion.

The Stoics might’ve been onto something empirically true with their ethical system because years later in 20th century Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy by Albert Ellis was built on Stoic ethical premises and it seemed scientifically promising as a psychotherapy.  Later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was derived and is doing great empirically as a therapy.

What’s more is it turned out that the Stoics had an argument for how their ethics might actually be founded in something empirical.  The Stoic Hierocles essentially argued that ethical forms of love spread out from the need of self-preservation to the need of the preservation of the offspring, which spread out further to the preservation of the tribe, and further to the preservation of the society, and further to humanity itself.  I still haven’t carefully read all of Larwence Becker’s A New Stoicism but in his book he argues very logically convincingly for how Stoic ethics is founded in the initial need for self-preservation that spreads outward towards preservation of the human cosmopolis.

So is Stoic ethics what we need as an answer to today’s nihilism?  I think so.  Am I absolutely convinced its the answer.  I’m not sure.  But I’m not sure of anything.  As Socrates once declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.”  But I certainly do think that I have rationally warranted beliefs in Stoicism as a coherent ethical system.

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Picture used from the article Sustainable Development, Wellbeing and Material Consumption: A Stoic Perspective

Are there any Stoic utilitarians and what would that mean?

Some people believe in having good characters for the sake of creating good consequences.  But what if we reversed that and cared about promoting the best consequences because to do so would be virtuous.  Could one be simultaneously a Stoic and a utilitarian?  Also can one be a utilitarian for the sake of virtue?

Well, I think it would all depend on how you define virtue.  One of the key virtues that helps you morally interact with the rest of humanity is justice.  I suppose that a Stoic could just forego the word justice, as a virtue, and replace it with utilitarianism.  So instead of having a good justice virtue, you’d have a good utilitarian virtue.

It’s kind of hard to understand all what is entailed in Stoic justice.  Usually an act of compassion, empathy, fairness, equal distribution of resources.  But suppose we replaced that with the virtue utilitarianism?  What would that entail?  Well, what things would a Stoic want to promote for individuals?  Perhaps preferred indifferents!

A Stoic utilitarian might want to maximize the greatest amount of preferred indifferents for the most amount of people.  What are some preferred indifferents?  Wealth, health, reputation, pleasure, and education.  So a Stoic would try to help a person maximize these particular preferred indifferents.  So to increase people’s health, you should donate blood.  To increase people’s reputation, you’d want to say good things about them to others if they’re behaving well.

Would a Stoic utilitarian try to maximize the greatest amount of virtue in others?  Only if people will listen.  Education in virtue requires not only you to teach it but the other person to learn it.  If there is a lot of unwillingness of the other person to learn, then it’s going to be difficult to teach virtue to another person.  So it’s probably more realistic in everyday life to focus on helping people maximize their preferred indifferents.

So let’s review.  What would a Stoic utilitarian be?  A Stoic who tries to increase their own virtues such as  wisdom, courage, temperance, and utilitarianism (instead of justice).  How does a Stoic utilitarian act on their utilitarian virtue?  By helping others maximize their preferred indifferents, also help them maximize their virtue if possible.

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham

5 Reasons Why Stoicism Is Better Than Sam Harris

  1. Sam Harris spends most of his time attacking Islam.  He seems to hate the religion more than any other religion.  He spends an unnecessary amount of time trying to prove that Islam is not the religion of peace and tries to make it out to be the religion of strife.  Stoicism doesn’t really attack anything or hate anything.  It just wants to focus on virtue which is the only good.  Stoicism is compatible with Islam and its followers and hopes that everyone can work together to become more virtuous human beings.
  2. Sam Harris admits that he’s bored by philosophy and basically ignores it.  Stoicism spends considerable time thinking about other philosophies and learning from other philosophies and adapting.  The Stoic philosopher Seneca frequently quoted Epicureans and tried to learn from their philosophy as well as he understood their philosophy.
  3. Sam Harris stole his ethics from utilitarianism and doesn’t credit any of the utilitarian thinkers for his ethics.  Stoicism always credits other thinkers and doesn’t steal their ideas and make them worse.
  4. Sam Harris, because he doesn’t care about philosophy, wrongly asserts that free will isn’t compatible with determinism and so he rejects free will.  Stoics on the other hand agree with a significant number of philosophers who have convincingly argued well for the compatibility of free will and determinism.  Stoicism has always believed that free will is compatible with determinism.
  5. Sam Harris is a cult of personality who has fervent followers who defend him no matter what he does wrong or thinks wrong.  Stoicism is an open philosophy with many of its own followers critiquing it and its thinkers.  Seneca, for example, is critiqued a lot as being a Stoic hypocrite and out of touch.

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Are Vulcans Natural Stoics?

Short answer, No.  Human beings tend not to repress their emotions compared to Vulcans and it’s not recommended that humans do so.  In fact, Stoicism as a philosophy of life is about understanding your emotions and how to deal with them logically.  Stoicism distinguishes passions from proto-passions, while we have no control over proto-passions, we do exercise some control over our passions if we work at fixing our internal judgments of the world.

Vulcans are naturally more violent than other species so they have to be more repressive of their emotions than other species. For a Vulcan, letting go of one emotion can let go of all of them. Plus they have the neurobiology to handle so much emotional repression and live a healthy life.  Humans just couldn’t live a healthy life repressing every single emotion.  Human beings would probably lash out when they were at their weakest or be in strong denial of having acted irrationally while supposedly exercising their emotional repression.

It’s not clear entirely what meditative techniques Vulcans use to repress their emotions but Star Trek makes clear that Vulcans meditate quite a lot to exercise complete repression of their emotions.  There are exceptions to Vulcan emotional repression like when they have a pon farr, a strong sexual need to reproduce.  They tend to become very horny and angry during this period of time and it tends to happen every 7 years.

Vulcans similarly to Stoics do seem to care about the concept of diversity and cosmpolitanism.  Vulcans also exercise vegetarianism which is similar to some ancient Stoics.

Vulcan philosophy is a complicated mix of utilitarianism and virtue ethics.  One one hand, they’re virtue ethicists following the life of Surak.  On another hand they’re utilitarian always caring about the needs of the many over the needs of the few or the one.  There’s also a small smidgen of deontology going on because supposedly Vulcans cannot tell a lie.

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