Virtue as ideal agency

the cardinal virtues, Louvre Museum
the cardinal virtues, Louvre Museum

It appears that part I of my “ancient to modern Stoicism” essay has generated quite a bit of controversy (part II, by the way, is here). Both several commenters on this blog and others over at the Stoicism Facebook page have taken issue with my second suggestion: that we should replace the ancient concept of virtue with Becker’s idea of virtue understood as maximization of agency.

Some of the comments were clearly off the mark (even made by people who publicly admitted not having read either Becker or my essay, basing their “criticism” on the figure accompanying my post). For instance, a number of comments kept arguing that serial killers and tyrants would be virtuous Stoics according to the updated conception of virtue — despite the fact that I had very clearly said in the opening essay that that was not going to be the case, and tried to explain why.

Nonetheless, many of the comments were instructive, first because they told me how much the Stoic community cares about some of the fundamental precepts of Stoicism, and second because they strongly suggested that I didn’t have enough of a clear idea of what Becker was after, or I would have done a better job at explaining it.

With that in mind that, and with a couple of important caveats, below I present a blow-by-blow analysis of the pertinent section of Becker’s book, the bit in chapter 6 entitled “Virtue as ideal agency.” The two caveats are: i) I will return to this after I’ll interview Becker in person in a couple of weeks; ii) none of the below should be construed as me accepting in toto what Becker says. I am just trying to get clear myself, and in the process perhaps help others along the way. So, ready, set, go:

I am going to start with some preliminaries that may be a bit hard to follow, but I will then conclude with a summary of Becker’s individual steps in building his argument, which will hopefully make things clear. He begins with the statement that ideal agents will also be virtuous, which he derives from the fact that they will apply reason to their natural impulses toward self-interest and social bonding. This, it should be recalled, is the standard Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis.

He then adds that ideal agents will frame their deliberations in terms of what is best for their whole lives, again something that even Aristotle would have recognized: eudaimonia is a life project, not a moment-to-moment type of “happiness.”

An important background notion to really understand where Becker is coming from is that in previous chapters he developed an analogy between agency and physical health. He recognizes, broadly speaking, three stages of agency, which he calls health, fitness and virtuosity. Most normal people are physically healthy. Some of them, if they regularly go to the gym, or engage in other exercises, become fit. An even smaller number may become so proficient — acquiring virtuosity — that they would be able to compete in a given athletic discipline at the Olympic level. The same goes for agency: we can be merely healthy with respect to it, or fit, or even achieve virtuosity about it. An ideal agent (a Sage?) has, obviously, achieved virtuosity.

An important step in Becker’s reasoning (though, again, I will summarize his complete formal argument below) is to propose that an ideal agent will come to value “getting it right,” for whatever “it” she applies herself to, for its own sake, not just instrumentally. That is, ideal agents are after the perfection of agency (virtue) itself, as a final end.

To make things a bit clearer, Becker brings up the classic example of the archer who aims at hitting the target: the archer will have “succeeded” — in terms of agency/virtue — even if she misses the target, as long as the shot was the best that she could possibly deliver. Conversely, she will fail even while hitting the target, if the hit is the result of a chance gust of wind in the right direction, rather than her own abilities.

Becker also suggests that if virtue is thought of as ideal agency, then it is unified, just like the Stoics were saying. That is because the endeavor of the ideal agent unfolds in a way that integrates all sub-endeavors and sub-goals to the only goal that matters: getting it right. As he puts it: “The separately named virtues (justice, wisdom, courage, temperance, and so forth) are dispositions that are likewise coordinated in ideal agency; and conflicts that are generated by them are resolved in deliberation and choice.”

And now for the big one. Here is Becker’s full argument, step-by-step, presented in the first person. I am not quoting the full text (you will have to check the book!), but only the bits that I find crucial to understanding the whole (the boldface is mine):

  1. I have many endeavors — many things I want to do — and each of those endeavors warrants normative propositions about what I ought (or am required) to do or be, nothing-else-considered.
  2. One of my endeavors is practical reasoning nothing-else-considered — practical reasoning devoted solely to the task of implementing any occurrent endeavor I might have — including itself.
  3. My normative practical reasoning about my endeavors, done serially, routinely generates a welter of conflicting requirements and oughts.
  4. However, none of my endeavors, considered separately, routinely claims all of the resources available for the exercise of my agency — even for a single day.
  5. Thus even the sequential application of practical reasoning nothing-else-considered to a long, arbitrarily selected series of target endeavors will routinely face local optimization problems — conflicts between two endeavors that can be solved by integrating them so that both of them can be pursued successfully.
  6. The indefinitely repeated, stepwise solution of local optimization problems eventually results in global optimization, but as I reflect on this process in the course of integrating any two projects, I see that I may fail in my local endeavor if I do not now consider matters globally.
  7. When I reason all-things-considered, however, I am no longer engaging in an endeavor whose aim is local optimization. Rather, every endeavor that I consider (because it defines an aim for me; is normative for me) becomes a target for the optimizing work of practical reasoning.
  8. Further reflection reveals that even if my most comprehensive and controlling endeavor is solely to perfect the exercise of my agency based upon the sort of practical reasoning I ought to do, and if I succeed in that endeavor, then I will by definition succeed in optimizing the success of all my endeavors — over my whole life.
  9. Any normative proposition that is sound in my case is sound also for anyone who is relevantly similar to me.
  10. As noted in the account of the development of virtue, 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.
  11. Finally, since any normative proposition warranted by the endeavor to perfect our agency is ultimately traceable to a requirement that we make this our most comprehensive and controlling endeavor, it will dominate any conflicting requirement from any other endeavor.

So this is it, in a nutshell. Becker does present more details within each step, and in the Appendix to his book he actually develops a formal logical calculus that can be used to plug the argument above and check it for consistency.

Overall, I think what Becker is proposing is that a rational agent will want to perfect her ability to act by moving from health to fitness to virtuosity. But virtuosity means that the agent will have to consider all her (possibly conflicting) goals and (limited) resources globally, and across her lifespan. In order to do that, the agent will require the development of the Stoic virtues. Which means that maximization of rational agency — for an agent with the characteristics of a normal human being — coincides with the best possible practice of virtue.

Discuss…

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18 thoughts on “Virtue as ideal agency

  1. I can see why the argument that maximizing rational agency requires virtue might be a useful argument that a Socrates might want to make in a dialogue with a certain type of person.

    But the question is, is “virtue”, or “ideal agency”, best achieved when we think of it in our daily lives as consisting of “virtue” or “excellence of character”, or when we think of it as “maximizing rational agency”?

    Becker and you make a logical argument that “maximizing rational agency” requires aiming for all the virtues. But this is an abstract and hard-to-follow argument.

    In particular, argument 10 above appears to be incomplete to me, and not immediately persuasive.

    “As noted in the account of the development of virtue, 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.”

    The above paragraph is not an obvious proposition. It might be established by a lengthy argument, but lengthy arguments are not optimal for any daily spiritual practice.

    To put it another way, since agency is the capacity of an agent to act, “maximizing rational agency” seems to imply we are mainly aiming to maximize our ability to act.

    I don’t know if I improve myself as a person if I go around each morning saying I will try today to do everything I can to maximize my capacity to act freely. This doesn’t seem particularly conducive to improving my character.

    In addition, the emphasis on ACTION seems to me to get away from one of the advantages of virtue ethics over modern theories such as utilitarianism and deontology ethics, which focus attention on evaluating individual actions. I know you’re talking about maximizing agency, but the emphasis on action tends to lead one to start talking about the freedom to act freely in each and every action.

    What is wrong with modernizing virtue by describing it as “excellence of character”?

    Then one can make an argument that this necessarily implies that this excellence of character will maximize rational agency.

    However, personally, I would prefer to avoid the term “rational agency”. It sounds too much like you’re focusing on trying to appeal to the most narrow egoist in the world. Which is one type of person that a modern book might address, but not the only one. There are also people who hunger for something more inspiring than rational agency, something more beautiful and more concrete than “ideal agency”.

    What about adopting some of Martha Nussbaum’s language about capabilities? Maybe we could describe virtue in a modern world as developing one’s capabilities as a human being to the highest possible extent, so that they are truly excellent? Development of capabilities does not have the same overtones of Ayn Rand and economic man as “maximizing rational agency”.

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  2. “ideal agents will also be virtuous” It seems to me that Epicureans, Sceptics as well as Stoics could claim this statement. I have not read this book for a long time but it doesn’t seem to capture the idea of virtue as the only good. A perfection of athleticism could be any of hundreds of Olympic sports so are there unlimited numbers of virtues?

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  3. Adding a few thoughts.

    The problem is, the language, “maximizing rational agency”, or “perfecting one’s ideal agency”, is ugly. It doesn’t sing. It’s not inspiring. It’s not noble or beautiful.

    Would we want to modernize Solon by saying, “call no man happy until after he’s dead you can say that in his life he maximized rational agency”?

    Or, if the minister invited members of the congregation to share memories of the recently deceased, would anyone think it a good idea to get up and say:

    “Well, one thing great you can say about Bill, he sure knew how to best perfect his ideal agency”.

    Now, maybe one could say that if it was accompanied by a 20 minute philosophy lecture on how this is really great praise. But isn’t the goal of modernization to make the language more immediately understandable and intuitively inspiring and attractive to modern sensibilities.

    Now, if one were praising the recently deceased, one might say:

    “Bill was a real free spirit. He didn’t cater to popular prejudices, and he wasn’t a slave to fashion or care about material wealth.” So freedom is something that the modern world praises, in a certain way. But then one would want to go to say:

    “Bill truly cared about his family, his friends, his community, and the world at large. And he didn’t just care, he did something about it. That was just the sort of person he was.”

    So praise would NOT solely focus on freedom as the be-all and end-all.

    You might want to argue that virtue maximizes rational agency to Thrasymachus in the Republic or Callicles in the Gorgias, but these are folks who are too far gone to ever find some form of virtue ethics to be appealing.

    From a philosophic perspective, it is natural to respond to the arguments of people who start farthest away from one’s perspective. But are those the best arguments to make to appeal to most people?

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  4. Hi Massimo,

    I have just finished reading Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and found both texts to be very illuminating. I was left wondering where humanity might be had this strand of thought continued uninterrupted in the mainstream; then I read the last few posts on your blog about reviving and modernising Stoicism. I have subscribed to the blog with keen interest!

    Personally, I would love to see book as the end result. Have you considered combining the book with a MOOC (I understand MOOCs can take a lot of time and effort but they can benefit everyone involved – Yuval Harari’s MOOC on the history of mankind was very well received and helped spur sales of the subsequent book, ‘Sapiens’, which made its way into the best seller lists…have I convinced you?).

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether the ‘broad tent’ of new Stoicism as you see it could even make room for a hypothetical existential hermit, whose life is one in which decision making is driven by bounded rationality instead of complete rationality. I’d like to think that the new Stoicism could at least be tweaked to accomodate this outlier individual and would like to hear if you think there is a fundamental obstacle that can’t be overcome.

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  5. Lawrence Becker is fabulous. His approach is helpful and refreshing … until I find myself lost in the wilderness of his abstractions. From that point on, as the Quakers might say, “He does not speak to my condition.” And Stoicism is nothing if not a philosophy that speaks to the human condition. Could it be useful to consider terminology that is neither traditional nor abstract? For example, something like “effective human being” instead of “sage” or “maximized rational agency”? In case it helps, Sharon Lebell presented a very accessible interpretation of Epictetus in her 1994 book, “Manual for Living.” Though it may verge nearer to ‘self help’ than a self-respecting philosopher would want to go. Be well, Massimo. You are truly fighting the good fight.

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  6. Tim,

    “But this is an abstract and hard-to-follow argument.”

    Indeed, but recall that Becker was addressing Stoicism from a formal / philosophical perspective. His book is certainly not for people without background in philosophy.

    “The above paragraph is not an obvious proposition. It might be established by a lengthy argument, but lengthy arguments are not optimal for any daily spiritual practice”

    Right, but that wasn’t Becker’s objective. He does, by the way, present a lengthy argument in support of that point, it takes a whole chapter.

    “”maximizing rational agency” seems to imply we are mainly aiming to maximize our ability to act”

    Well, by now I would hope it’s clear that that isn’t what’s meant here, regardless of whether one buys Becker’s argument or not.

    “What is wrong with modernizing virtue by describing it as “excellence of character”?”

    Probably nothing, and I may go back to that.

    “What about adopting some of Martha Nussbaum’s language about capabilities? … Development of capabilities does not have the same overtones of Ayn Rand and economic man as “maximizing rational agency””

    Indeed. Yes, maybe Nussbaum’s language would be more convincing.

    jbonni,

    “”ideal agents will also be virtuous” It seems to me that Epicureans, Sceptics as well as Stoics could claim this statement”

    True, but the same can be said for eudaimonia, all those schools were eudaimonic. The differences are in how they told us to go about it.

    Riz,

    “Have you considered combining the book with a MOOC”

    Not at the moment, as you say, that’s a lot of work, and right now my primary objective is to write a book on Stoicism due to the publisher by the end of August…

    “I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether the ‘broad tent’ of new Stoicism as you see it could even make room for a hypothetical existential hermit, whose life is one in which decision making is driven by bounded rationality instead of complete rationality”

    Not sure, on the basis of what you write. I guess much hinges of what sort of existentialism we are talking about. After all, we don’t want to make the tent so big that it doesn’t mean much anymore. In a recent post I described what, to my mind, are essential elements of Stoicism that cannot be done away with without ceasing to call the result “Stoicism”: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/the-essence-of-stoicism/

    Seneca,

    “Be well, Massimo. You are truly fighting the good fight.”

    Thank you, and I’ll keep working on this and tweaking things. More on this specific issue after I interview Becker in a couple of weeks!

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  7. Massimo,
    I have a really hard time digesting your argument while there continues to be a collusion of two things that I just don’t understand why you are allowing it to persist, because their collusion does not appear to be central to your argument and if you would just de-collude them, then your argument is at minimum coherent as far as it goes.
    The two things you go on colluding are “maximum” and “ideal”. The image on the Facebook page says “maximal agency is the only intrinsic good”, then you re-state as your thesis in this piece, “…my second suggestion: that we should replace the ancient concept of virtue with Becker’s idea of virtue understood as maximization of agency”.

    Then you go on to explain Becker’s argument and it’s all about the virtue as being ideal agency. If you just stick with virtue as ideal agency, we can take this apart, but nowhere do I read that you peal “maximum” away from it so it’s confounding because you aren’t even advancing an argument for why they should be together, but by keeping them together you undermine what is otherwise a reasonable argument for the latter.

    I think I can totally address your argument about virtue and ideal agency, but if you mean to keep the word “maximum” in it I think you need to state what you mean by that and why it’s important and if not, try the whole argument without using that word, seems to me it will be a good argument.

    I think you may even be able to argue that by placing the cultivation of virtue in the center of agency, then one likely product may turn out to be a maximization of agency … but if that’s your claim it’s an empirical one and its subject to hypothesis testing – so it’s corollary at best and doesn’t seem fit for a central principle.

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  8. Sorry, I have to quote a bit of Becker here to make my point.

    “…agents are fully responsible for their acts if and only if they (a) are aware of what they are doing; (b) are aware of the causes of their actions; (c) assent to acting in those ways from those causes–that is, are acting in accord with the norms they recognize as their own; (d) are aware of the causes of their assent–that is, the causes of their own norms; (e) thereby introduce new causal factors into the determination of their actions through their awareness of the causal conditions that shape it; (f) are aware of this iterative, self-transformative causal process; and (g) assent to that, in the sense that they recognize that this process is normative for them. (1998, p. 66)

    So, here is one more quote, and I will then add my thought:

    “We hold that, considered as an end, virtue consists in perfected agency, something that does not admit of degrees. This is the end toward which agency, considered as an activity, is oriented. To the extent that this activity–the exercise of our agency–is our maximally comprehensive and controlling endeavor, its end is our final end. To the extent that this activity achieves its end, we may call it virtuous. Virtuous activity, unlike virtue itself, thus is a matter of degree.” (ibid., p. 82)

    My thought:
    the point above

    (e) thereby introduce new causal factors into the determination of their actions through their awareness of the causal conditions that shape it

    is the most radical aspect that I can see in the Stoic philosophy of life, and also a statement on what Stoic “free will” means.
    The “training” through discipline of daily Stoic practice allows one to usefully introduce new causal factors (thus, “maximizing” the agency of the agent) through a self-aware “iterative, self-transformative process.”

    Hic et nunc; meaning that humans only have one moment to act freely, and that is always Right Now.
    So use it wisely, as Socrates instructed.

    I do agree that the terminology may be dry and difficult for many people, but I trust that Massimo and Larry will work this out and find some excellent, virtuosic new words for us to use (or it looks like some re-vitalized ancient Greek ones). In any case, it’s the theory and the practice that make this philosophy life-changing. Thank you for working on it, and much luck at the meeting.

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  9. Tim, I want to endorse your comments pretty much wholesale.

    But it’s interesting you bring up the capabilities approach. There’s an intimate relationship between the CA and virtue ethics, but I think it would be very difficult for (neo)Stoicism to incorporate the CA without turning into (neo)Aristotelianism. The necessity of some sufficient level of external goods was one of the big disagreements between the Stoics and the Aristotelians. I think of the capabilities framework as fleshing out a really ambitious list of external goods (both social and material) a person requires to achieve flourishing.

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  10. Daniel,

    “The two things you go on colluding are “maximum” and “ideal””

    Well, again, this is mostly Becker’s stuff, not mine. I’m simply trying to explain it and propose it for wider discussion.

    But I don’t think there is any confusion here. If you Becker’s argument is correct (and I’m not entirely sure about this), then the ideal agency turns out also to be maximal in the way he defines the terms. Again, one may reject the argument for a number of reasons, but if one does accept the argument then there is no contradiction.

    Seneca,

    “could Beck’s abstractions serve as a kind of metaphysics for modern Stoicism? Just an idea”

    That is certainly part of his project. Now, a number of people over at the Stoicism Facebook page are saying that this is too technical, too esoteric, too far removed from practice, etc.. That may very well be, but the ancient Stoics did think that their philosophy needed solid foundations in logic and metaphysics, so from that point of view accusing Becker of irrelevance (not something you are doing!) is equivalent to hurl the same accusation to Chrysippus…

    vienna,

    “Virtuous activity, unlike virtue itself, thus is a matter of degree.”

    Exactly, thank you!

    Paul,

    “the capabilities framework as fleshing out a really ambitious list of external goods (both social and material) a person requires to achieve flourishing”

    Interesting point. I need to go back and read Nussbaum, but I’m certainly not attempting to move from Stoicism to Aristotelianism, so that option is out for me. Still, one could use “capabilities” talk in either an Aristotelian or a Stoic sense, just like we can and do use the word “eudaimonia” in both senses. Or do you think this is for some reason impossible with capabilities?

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  11. I think either Stoicism or Aristotelianism need to deal with the seeming contradiction, or at least tension, between two intuitively plausible propositions.

    First, it seems plausible that virtue should matter more than material goods in some absolute sense, not just in a sense of having a greater weight, in how one judges whether a life is well-lived. For example, one would not want to argue that a person should be willing to choose to be unjust if this led to a gain of $x, if $x is great enough. Also, as Massimo has argued, it seems quite biased against democracy and low-income persons to view low income as inherently preventing someone from achieving human excellence, as Aristotle appears sometimes to do. Stoicism deals with this by having lexicographic ordering with virtue in the first position.

    Second, it seems plausible that the existence of poverty, particularly poverty through no fault of one’s own, in an otherwise affluent society is an affront to our sense of justice. In my view, this is a concern about at least some possible interpretations of Stoicism. If virtue is the trump card, does this tend to reduce our concern about issues such as poverty? After all, a person’s poverty does not matter as much as their virtue in the Stoic lexicographic ordering. Is there a danger of Stoicism being a philosophy that implicitly leads to less intense concern about an unjust status quo?

    I think one way to reconcile the Stoic approach with both of these plausible propositions is the following:

    (1) Stoicism does place some value on material goods as “preferred indifferents”, although less than virtue, so ending poverty would have at least some value based on that.

    (2) Injustice would be an affront to Stoicism even if it was only in the allocation of material goods that are preferred indifferents.

    (3) But I think a more powerful argument is that material goods, although they do not ALWAYS contribute to less virtue, can lead to conditions that in practice empirically tend to contribute to a person being less likely to pursue a life of virtue. For example, suffering through low income as a child may in some cases harden a person in various ways that are hard to overcome in order to pursue virtue, although this may be due to the instability and family stress that often accompany poverty, not just the lack of material goods.

    Although point (3) might be seen as in part moving towards an Aristotelian position, there is a difference between saying that both virtue and material goods somehow are necessary components of achieving eudaimonia, and saying that material goods can sometimes empirically tend on average to be correlated with processes that lead to more or less virtue.

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  12. “If virtue is the trump card, does this tend to reduce our concern about issues such as poverty? After all, a person’s poverty does not matter as much as their virtue in the Stoic lexicographic ordering. Is there a danger of Stoicism being a philosophy that implicitly leads to less intense concern about an unjust status quo?”

    Yes, that is one of the things Stoicism has often been accused of. In a sense, this is true, since, as you say, virtue trumps everything else, and we get constant reminders from Epictetus that we really shouldn’t care about preferred indifferents (though he was significantly more extreme than most other Stoics on that point).

    But, also as you point out, justice is one of the cardinal virtues, associated to the discipline of action. In my mind that is sufficient to rescue Stoicism from the accusation of supporting the status quo. But it is certainly debatable.

    “But I think a more powerful argument is that material goods, although they do not ALWAYS contribute to less virtue, can lead to conditions that in practice empirically tend to contribute to a person being less likely to pursue a life of virtue”

    Indeed. And in fact the early Stoics at the least saw some of the indifferents to be preferred precisely because they facilitate the pursuit of virtue.

    “there is a difference between saying that both virtue and material goods somehow are necessary components of achieving eudaimonia, and saying that material goods can sometimes empirically tend on average to be correlated with processes that lead to more or less virtue”

    I think you got it exactly right.

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  13. Others have stated their concerns with the issue of changing our goal from Virtue as the ONLY good to Maximizing Agency as the ONLY good more eloquently than I can. But I’ll add my 2c.

    My premise is that: According to the Stoics, virtue is Necessary and Sufficient for Eudamonia. And you appear to agree, because you agree that the Ancient Stoics were of the opinion that Virtue is the ONLY good. So, my conclusion is that for someone to propose another philosophy with something other than Virtue as the ONLY good? Then that philosophy is not Stoicism.

    I wish Chrysippus were here to guide us. Because I’m not quite sure if your argument is that we need to change to another philosophy where Maximizing Agency is the ONLY Good, or if you’re arguing that Maximizing Agency IS virtue. I’m not convinced that having a goal of Maximal Agency will result in much virtue. If the goal IS Virtue as the only good, then it’s difficult to see how that goal won’t result in at least some virtue.

    If I’m correct in my assumption that this new philosophy that you are proposing is not Stoicism, then I wonder what figures from history would represent the Ideal for this new philosophy? The ancient Stoics saw Socrates as an example to follow. Was Socrates maximizing his agency when he allowed the leaders of his day to condemn him to death?

    Was Seneca interested in helping Nero maximize his agency when he tried to give his advice to Nero? (if anything, I’d argue that Seneca was trying to get Nero to put some limits on his Agency).

    Was Epictetus maximizing his agency when he lived the life of a poor school-teacher?

    So my questions for you are:
    1. Is this new philosophy that you are proposing much different than the Ancient view of Stoicism you are comparing it to?
    2. What is the Ideal Sage of your new philosophy like? Who would you point us to as examples?
    3. If maximizing agency= Virtue….Why not keep Virtue in place as the ONLY Good?

    As the examples from history show us, a philosophy with the concept of Virtue as the ONLY Good worked well for several hundred years. Let’s keep the concept of VIRTUE as the ONLY good in place. It is that concept that defines Stoisicm.

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  14. vintage,

    well, apparently I haven’t been clear enough on this: no, this is most definitely not an attempt to introduce a new philosophy. It is an attempt to update Stoicism.

    I think too many people are getting hung up on the words “maximization of agency,” without considering or reflecting on Becker’s actual arguments.

    Clearly, if I pursue this further, the wording will have to be different. But I still think there is quite a bit of value to his argument.

    As for what’s the need for this, it is that the original Stoic argument for the centrality of virtue is interesting, but far from compelling. Becker is simply trying to improve on it.

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  15. I’m just not sure I accept that premises that 1. Stoicism needs to be updated from “Virtue” to “Maximizing Agency”, and 2. That Becker is correct when he claims that Maximizing (ethical) Agency is (or will even lead to) Virtue. 3.A philosophy that sees Maximal (ethical) Agency as the ONLY Good is still Stoicism.

    And it appears from your comments here and on the facebook page, that you’re not quite sure, either.

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  16. What viennahavana writes here stikes a chord with me:

    “thereby introduce new causal factors into the determination of their actions through their awareness of the causal conditions that shape it

    is the most radical aspect that I can see in the Stoic philosophy of life, and also a statement on what Stoic “free will” means.
    The “training” through discipline of daily Stoic practice allows one to usefully introduce new causal factors (thus, “maximizing” the agency of the agent) through a self-aware “iterative, self-transformative process.”

    Hic et nunc; meaning that humans only have one moment to act freely, and that is always Right Now.”

    I think I could replace ‘Stoic’ with ‘Zhuangzi style Taoism’ and it would fit almost perfectly. Virtue becomes the ‘good’ when self-actualization through practice leads one to act in accord with situational context and become an effective part of a larger whole. So agency as actualization then is no longer motivated by self promotion but the betterment of the whole.

    As a marathon runner I like the fitness example. At first there was some intrinsic motivation to be more fit, but I was also motivated in competition with others and goals like qualifying for the Boston marathon were upfront. Now of course I still enjoy performing well, but the primary fulfillment comes from the practice which becomes like an art (balance the stress and the recovery, staying injury free, adapting to the aging process, etc….).

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