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From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022

The Stoic approach to virtue: Who decides?


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“Favour “living the questions” over marshaling arguments to advance or defend cherished or conclusive points of view.”

‘Living the questions’ vs. marshaling arguments

The following words are meant to inspire constructive conversation among students of modern Stoicism, the Stoic-curious, and those who consider themselves to be Stoics. I encourage my friends and colleagues – my readers – to favour “living the questions” over marshaling arguments to advance or defend cherished or conclusive points of view. Living the questions, I believe, keeps us honest and helps us continue growing as philosophers and as decent human beings.

I was stymied. Two weeks ago a podcast interviewer posed to me the question that arouses some of the strongest criticisms, as well as staunchly passionate defenses of Stoic virtue and the whole Stoic enterprise. At the time, this pointed question resulted in dead air. The silence of unrushed contemplation is not suited to keeping a listening audience engaged. Trying to fill the silence, I regret I sputtered a partially thought-out answer – I don’t even remember what I said – because I was flustered and knew my words the moment they left my mouth to be an insufficient response to a legitimate and important challenge.

Before lobbing the question, the show’s host had asked me to give her listeners an introduction to Stoic ethics geared to the intellectually curious unfamiliar with Stoicism’s fundamentals. So, I laid out the basics. I described the Stoic ideal of living in agreement with logos, with nature. I explained the Stoic conviction that virtue, all said and done, is the only good, and that directing one’s life toward it leads to eudaimonia, to serenity, to a flourishing life. I explained the four cardinal subdivisions of the Stoic conception of virtue: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. I talked about the specifically human endowment of reason, separating us from animals, that if properly trained, allows us to skillfully investigate our own thinking and to discern the difference between what we can control and what we can’t. These powers of reason can also be used to sort the worthy from the unworthy and, especially, to see our passions clearly for what they are, so that they don’t emotionally impair us. Our trained ability to reason further helps us clearly recognize the perhaps difficult, but imperative moral choices and actions we must take if we are to achieve our potential as human beings and live with dignity and as assets to the commonweal. I introduced the Stoic emphasis on personal and civic duty and its spirit of cosmopolitanism and how these too were an essential component of the Stoic virtuous life. And so on.

Who decides what is virtuous?

After I stopped to take a breath, she delivered the question. “But who decides?, she asked. What she meant was, who or what is the arbiter of what are or are not virtuous words or virtuous deeds or virtuous choices. In other words, how do we know for sure that we have acted with courage, temperance, wisdom, or justice? Is it just up to us, to ourselves? From where do we get our authority and how can we be sure we aren’t deluding ourselves.

We all know stories of people who decide they are the second coming of Jesus or who believe and lead their followers to believe, that their superior insight into the cosmos or the human condition gives them a free pass when it comes to their own morally dubious behaviour. Somehow the regular laws don’t apply to them.

In many ways virtue is much easier to understand within the framework of some organized religions. Thou shalt do this. Thou shalt not do that. And you have not only sacred books and clerical leaders to remind what virtue is and what it isn’t, you also have a community that regularly meets together in worship or prayer to reinforce the religion’s definitions of virtue.

Virtue is always situational

Virtue, however it is prized and expressed, be it as courage or wisdom, for example, is always situational. We make and enact our moral decisions within the context of what is actually happening. One can imagine, without too much difficulty, a situation in which yelling “Kill him!” would actually be the right choice, because perhaps a heartless killer is poised to torture and take the lives of some innocent children. There are no moral absolutes, except we also know that there are. It’s confusing. A group of ordinary people of moral maturity will tend to agree that certain moral principles and behaviours that are predicated on consideration of others, the desire for a functional society, and for our own sense of self respect are self-evidently virtuous.

Still, we also know, that there can be people, very rational, though perhaps heartless people, who honestly believe their thoughts, words, and deeds are guided by virtue, and yet they are evil autocratic tyrants. I don’t need to name names. You know who I’m talking about.

And so, I put the question to you: Who decides what is good? What incontrovertibly determines that which is virtuous and that which is not?

Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of Epictetus’ teachings, the first contemporary treatment of Stoic teachings. She cofounded, with Simon Drew and Kai Whiting, an online philosophical society, The Walled Garden. Please come visit us.