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):
- 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.
- 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.
- My normative practical reasoning about my endeavors, done serially, routinely generates a welter of conflicting requirements and oughts.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Any normative proposition that is sound in my case is sound also for anyone who is relevantly similar to me.
- 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.
- 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.