A New Stoicism – part V: on virtue

620x350-20121207-virtue-460x260It has been some time since we last looked at Becker’s book, A New Stoicism, so it’s time to get back to it with a discussion of the next to the last chapter, on virtue. As you might recall, Becker’s project is to establish modern Stoicism on a footing that preserves the basic insights of the early version, but also updates and, when necessary, significantly alters (or even does away completely) with whatever precepts are no longer tenable in light of modern science and philosophy.

He begins by taking on one of the hardest concepts from ancient Stoicism: the idea that virtue does not come in degrees. An analogy used by the early Stoics to illustrate the idea is that one doesn’t need an ocean to drown, it can happen in very shallow waters, meaning that as long as you are under water, you are incapable of breathing air, no matter how close you are to the surface. Since Becker reinterprets virtue as the exercise of (morally grounded) agency (see below), he says that “considered as an end, virtue consists in perfected agency, something that does not admit of degrees. … To the extent that this activity [the exercise of our agency] achieves its end, we may call it virtuous. Virtuous activity, unlike virtue itself, thus is a matter of degree.” Remember that for the Stoics only the Sage is perfectly virtuous, and perfection, of course, does not admit of degrees. But it would be silly to say that everyone who is not a Sage is therefore equally in the wrong.

The above may sound like a sophism, and if it’s not your cup of tea you can simply drop that particular aspect of ancient Stoicism and be just fine. But I think Becker is actually making an interesting move here, which is actually found already in Cicero, in book III of De Finibus, where Cato the Younger, in explaining to Cicero the doctrines of Stoicism, uses the drowning metaphor and attempts to make the same distinction that Becker draws.

Here is Cicero: “similarly [to the drowning case] a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery that he that has made no progress at all” (14). Notice the use of the word “progress”! Shortly thereafter, at #15, Cicero adds: “Yet although the Stoics deny that either virtues or vices can be increased in degree, they nevertheless believe that each of them can be in a sense expanded and widened in scope.”

This, I think, is pretty much what Becker is trying to capture, and one should resist the temptation to dismiss the whole business as a blatant logical contradiction. The Stoics were the top notch logicians of the ancient world (their system of syllogistics was more advanced than Aristotle’s), so it’s hard to swallow that they would have insisted on the truth of something that is blatantly self-contradictory.

Becker then devotes a significant amount of space to an in-depth discussion of agency, beginning with the Stoics’ “cradle argument,” meant to show that agency (and therefore virtue) gradually emerge during the course of normal human psychological development. I will not go into too much detail, but he makes a distinction between received and constructed elements of agency. Received elements include our natural endowments, like our impulses and dispositions to act one way or another. Importantly, sympathetic responses to others’ affects are part of natural human endowment (except in pathological cases).

These natural endowments are then continuously developed in a recursive fashion (by interaction with and feedback from our environment, especially the social one) throughout our infancy, childhood and beyond. We keep perfecting our agency, if all goes well, in a prosocial, virtuous manner. The more we develop, the more we begin to put together a second level of agency, what Becker refers to as the “constructed” element. This is mediated by our ability to represent to ourselves are goals and to reason about how best to achieve them. Eventually, “the process of determination and choice becomes a determinative condition of (some of) our conduct.”

Notice the parenthetical statement: Becker here is more cautious than the ancient Stoics in making claims about the range of our conscious deliberative choices (what Marcus Aurelius called our “ruling faculty”). Becker, wisely, takes on board research in cognitive science, with the evidence that it provides of significant sub-conscious processing of information and decision making, as well as of people’s ability to rationalize rather than thinking rationally. But unless we are willing to claim that reason is always an illusion (in which case, science itself would have to go out the window, including said studies in cognitive science), then the core Stoic idea that we ought to perfect our ruling faculty stands.

Let me go back briefly to the idea that the whole exercise can’t be just about agency, it has to be (morally) virtuous agency. Here is Becker: “We may begin life as greedy little egoists, but it is clear enough that we soon spontaneously develop matching affective responses to what we read as signs of others’ pleasures and pains.” Indeed, there is now mounting evidence that a natural moral instinct is present in other social primates as well (e.g., bonobos), and it is obvious that our socializing then builds on this natural instinct, expanding it, refining it, and applying it to a broader and broader circle of concern outside of ourselves.

While part of the above process is the result of habit (as Aristotle surely would agree!), it is, for the Stoics and for Becker, also the result of a re-orientation of our emotions by way of reasoning. I may, for instance, have a natural xenophobic reaction toward someone who doesn’t look like me, but the difference between myself and a racist is that I keep training myself to repress that natural instinct of distrust, and especially to not act on it, because I consciously understand that the person in question is just like me, irrespective of our superficial differences in appearance.

Becker then builds an 11-step argument to completely connect agency and virtue. I’m not sure he needed it, nor am I confident that it succeeds as a formal argument, but it is a valuable approach, so bear with me and with the unfamiliar reasoning and language, hopefully it will pay off.

He begins by saying (step #1) that as an agent I have many endeavors, many things I want to do, which imply a series of oughts, if I want to pursue my goals nothing-else-considered.

One such endeavor is practical reasoning nothing-else-considered (#2), meaning practical reasoning aimed at achieving whatever thing I want to do.

The above generates conflicting oughts (#3), since I will usually want to do a number of things, some of which will require me to engage in different, potentially conflicting, activities in order to achieve my goals.

For instance, I may want to have a lean physique, and also to eat lots of chocolate. In order to achieve the first goal, I ought to engage in exercise and a healthy diet, the latter being in conflict with my second want, and so forth.

Notice that none of these endeavors, in isolation, claims all the resources of my agency (#4).

But a series of endeavors nothing-else-considered will pose problems of local optimizations to my agency, which means I will have to find a way to integrate my pursuits in a way that I can make work with my resources (#5).

Repeating this local optimization indefinitely leads to a global optimization of all my problems. I won’t just be able to pursuit a healthy diet and eat (some, little) chocolate, but also to build relationships and friendships, hold a job, and so forth.

The big point is that I may fail in what I wish to do if I do not now consider matters globally, that is if I don’t look at all my projects and how they interact and conflict with each other (#6).

As Becker puts it: “on reflection, the norms of practical reasoning nothing-else-considered soon warrant the proposition that I am required, as a necessary condition of exercising my agency, to do my practical reasoning all-things-considered.”

But now I am no longer trying to optimize locally, I am applying my practical reasoning across the board, to everything that matters to me (#7).

But what is the best way to achieve this all-things-considered optimizations of my goals? Why, the perfection of my agency, of course! Which then becomes the main focus of my efforts (#8).

Step #9 reasonably postulates that all of the above doesn’t just apply to me, but to any other relevantly structured agency (i.e., assuming I am a normally functioning human being, then it applies to every normally functioning human being — not to psychopaths, for instance, nor necessarily to Martians who may be structured differently).

Step #10 is the controversial one, I think. Becker says: “healthy agents will acquire strong norms corresponding to the usual notions of wisdom, justice, benevolence, beneficence, courage, temperance, and other traits that are standardly called virtues. Indeed, developing such traits is a necessary condition for developing one’s agency from health to fitness to virtuosity.”

This is a crucial move, of course, because it directly connects agency and virtue (with its degrees of health, fitness, and virtuosity, which Becker had previously introduced in analogy with a progression of physical abilities: a healthy person, a fit athlete or regular exerciser, and a top notch virtuoso athlete).

Where does he get this from? From his previous reconstruction of the Stoic cradle argument, that is from the idea that we develop agency (and virtue) through time because we are both naturally disposed to it and our social interactions further build on that natural inclination.

The final step, #11, is in some sense a repetition or clarification of #8 above: “since any normative proposition warranted by the endeavor to perfect our agency is ultimately traceable to a requirement that we make this the most comprehensive and controlling endeavor, it will dominate any conflicting requirement from any other endeavor.”

As I said, you may or may not buy the above sequence of steps, but the whole thing seems a very valiant attempt to me, it provides us with good quality food for thought, and gets a lot right about Stoic thinking and how it may be updated to a modern worldview.

5 thoughts on “A New Stoicism – part V: on virtue

  1. John Bonnice

    To me the idea that may have to be tossed is perfect virtue or maybe not tossed but not given such logical weight since what I see in the realm of human action and agency is better or worse. So for a real practical reason the thought can only be where am I now and what is the next step toward the goal. The goal as an ideal rather than a reality.

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  2. empty vessel

    I think we can state that Virtue as excellence of character or an equivalent term is always going to be little more than a regulative ideal whilst reason is manifested as, and enabled as well as constrained by, a biological neural infrastructure. While I realize it is still highly speculative I would hold out that virtue is at least possible to attain with the development of synthetic intelligences.

    There is a peculiar limitedness at times evident in Stoicism, an unnecessary constriction of the pursuit of virtue to my virtue alone- at least in many treatments. We could state that while we are using the sage as a regulative ideal we could nonetheless also be assisting (to whatever degree we’re capable) of supporting the development of synthetic sagacity in a posthuman intelligence that is capable of exceeding the functional limitedness of the human organism.

    This is speculative, as I say, but it is nonetheless a real and growing possibility, and one that should at least be considered in any current attempt to update Stoicism for our bleeding edge of contemporaneity.


  3. Massimo Post author


    “I would hold out that virtue is at least possible to attain with the development of synthetic intelligences”

    Hmm, I’m not sure what that would mean. Virtue, in the Greco-Roman sense, is a result of a certain character. It’s entirely open what it would mean, or even if it is possible, for a synthetic intelligence to have (and develop) a character.

    “There is a peculiar limitedness at times evident in Stoicism, an unnecessary constriction of the pursuit of virtue to my virtue alone”

    It’s not a limit, virtue is by definition a feature of one’s character, so it can’t be anything but personal.

    “supporting the development of synthetic sagacity in a posthuman intelligence that is capable of exceeding the functional limitedness of the human organism”

    Again, even if possible, why would we want to do that?


  4. ToT

    Hmmm… Again, this post seems to highlight why I am being hesitant about stoicism. As a system, Stoicism offers a great set of tools to use to achieve one’s goals, but does not really seem to have much to say on what those goals ought to be. These tools could be used both for good and bad. To say that it is natural for a human to be good, if we just allow ourselves to be our natural selves enough, through the strategies sketched above, does not cut it for me (and it reeks not a little of the “naturalistic fallacy” that all that is natural is also good). At this stage in my understanding, stoicism is not an ethical philosophy but a set of excellent strategies and perspectives on how to cope with life (hence an efficient form of therapy). Maybe I have misunderstood things, and I would really appreciate some clarification on this.


  5. Massimo Post author


    “Again, this post seems to highlight why I am being hesitant about stoicism”

    Which of course is fine! The aim here is to understand Stoicism better, not to make converts… 😉

    “does not really seem to have much to say on what those goals ought to be”

    That’s not just Stoicism, it applies pretty much to all of virtue ethics. For my part I find this sort of flexibility to be a plus, but again it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    “These tools could be used both for good and bad”

    Well, no, there I disagree. All virtue ethical schools, and Stoicism in particular, are very clear about the moral dimension of what they are teaching, so there is no room for a virtuous serial killer.

    “it reeks not a little of the “naturalistic fallacy” that all that is natural is also good”

    The Stoics would have rejected that interpretation. To follow nature doesn’t mean to do whatever comes natural to us (otherwise that would condone violence, spite, hatred, etc.), it means to apply reason to the betterment of social living, because human beings are rational social beings.

    “stoicism is not an ethical philosophy but a set of excellent strategies and perspectives on how to cope with life”

    It is the latter too, but it is primarily a philosophy of life, meaning a general framework to deploy to judge priorities and generally arrive at decisions that are meaningful and just.


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