Becker’s A New Stoicism, VIII: virtue, part 2

Hercules between vice and virtue by Pelagio Palagi

Let us finish the discussion of the central concept of virtue as reconciled by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism, specifically the idea of virtue as the product of ideal agency, elaborated upon in the second part of chapter 6 of the book.

Larry begins by responding to his critics and laying out an 11-step moral argument for virtue. I will introduce each step by quoting from the text, and add my own commentary.

Step 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.”

Remember that “normative” here does not mean some sort of categorical imperative, but rather something akin to a hypothetical, or conditional, imperative. IF I wish to do X, THEN I need to do Y. And “nothing else considered” means that we are, at this stage, talking about local projects, not (yet) about the lifelong project of living as a good Stoic.

Step 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.”

This refers back to the recursive property of agency, the fact that agency, unlike, say, digestion, can be applied to itself and improve over time. What this particular step is saying is that one of the goals I wish to pursue as an agent is to implement whatever it is that I want to do locally, right now (i.e., nothing else considered).

Step 3: “My normative practical reasoning about my endeavors, done serially, routinely generates a welter of conflicting requirements and oughts.”

Of course, if I wish to accomplish goals X, Y and Z, it is inevitable that some conflict will arise between two or more of those goals. I want, for instance, to be a good partner, good father, and good teacher. But I only have so much physical and mental energy, so many hours in the day, and so forth. That means there will inevitably be trade-offs among the requirements generated by my attempt to accomplish all the goals I am after.

Step 4: “However, none of my endeavors, considered separately, routinely claims all the resources available for the exercise of my agency — even for a single day.”

If I focus on one goal at a time, then typically this isn’t going to be all-consuming, even for a brief period. We all juggle multiple endeavors, every day.

Step 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.”

So what do you do if there are conflicting demands imposed by the fact that you want to be a good partner, father, and teacher? You are now facing an optimization problem, which demands to be treated as more than just a single task nothing else considered, because you have to take into account other things simultaneously. Notice that optimizing does not mean reaching perfection, it just means doing your best given your goals and the resources you have available.

Step 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.”

Optimization is something that needs to be reiterated across all your relevant projects, with the aim of optimizing things globally. That’s why you need to move from nothing-else-considered to all-things-considered. This, let me clarify in response to some readers’ comments, does not mean that one need to be omniscient! “All-things” here just means every relevant bit of information you can assemble and that is pertinent to accomplishing your many goals. Let’s say you are about to buy a house. “All-things” doesn’t mean that you have to know everything there is to know about real estate; it just means that you need to consider the multiple tasks that you have to complete in order to file a successful mortgage application, make an offer that is likely to be considered by the seller, think about what sort of renovations, if any, you want to make and how much they will cost, and so forth. This is practical reasoning informed by practical knowledge.

Step 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.”

By this step we have expanded our concern from one goal at a time, nothing-else-considered, to all our relevant endeavors, all-things-considered. So our practical reasoning, as Becker says, now applies “globally.”

Step 8: “Further reflection reveals that even if my most comprehensive and controlling endeavor is solely to perfect the exercise of my agency based on 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.”

This is a crucial step, so we need to pay attention or something very important is going to slip by. What Larry is saying here is that even if we decide to focus solely on improving the exercise of our agency, that — by definition — will also result in the optimization of everything else I want to do, because that’s what agency does: it allows us to figure out how to accomplish our goals in the best way possible. So devoting oneself to the pursuit of agency perfection is the same thing as devoting oneself to optimize all our goals during our entire life.

Step 9: “Any normative proposition that is sound in my case is sound also for anyone who is relevantly similar to me.”

Another crucial step. All of the above, and therefore also the forthcoming conclusion of the argument, applies to agents that are relevantly similar to me, i.e., individuals who are social, capable of reasoning, wish to accomplish a number of tasks in their lives, and wish to do it well. It does not apply to, say, a psychopath, who is not sufficiently similar to me. I don’t know if it applies to Martians either, I would have to know more about them as biological and social beings to be able to determine.

Step 10: “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.”

A third crucial step: given the sort of social being capable of reason that typical human beings are, THEN (and only then) it follows that developing our agency (as Becker says, from mere health to fitness to virtuosity, if possible) is the same thing as practicing the standard Stoic virtues. (Notice that the partial list given in this step is a mix of primary and secondary virtues; the primary ones are practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. For a list of the secondary ones, see this article on Stoic virtue ethics by Matthew Sharpe, table 2.1; the original source is Stobaeus.)

Step 11: “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.”

Finally, perfecting our agency (which means practicing the virtues, which allows us to optimize across all our lifetime endeavors) requires that we focus first and foremost on the very task of perfecting our agency. That’s why in Stoicism pursuing virtue is the primary goal, and everything else falls into the categories of preferred and dispreferred indifferents.

If you don’t find the above argument convincing, perhaps that’s because you are under the mistaken impression that it applies to every agent. Not so, says Larry very clearly in a crucial caveat:

“It is important to keep in mind that this argument is sound only for agents of the sort described in our developmental story, and that it is a mistake to characterize them solely in terms of rationality. Pure practical reason, shorn of the rest of the psychology of healthy human agency, does not yield the normative propositions described in steps 1–11. … Rational agents with a significantly different psychology (for example, rational agents who are primarily pleasure seekers, or who have only a very limited and thoroughly integrated repertoire of endeavors) fall outside the scope of this argument.” (p. 131)

That is, Epicureans will be unmoved by the argument. So be it. Psychopaths will never be virtuous. That’s a fact of life. And as I said above, I’m agnostic about Martians.

Two more points to finish chapter 6: about the all-or-nothing nature of virtue, and about the unqualified good the virtue is. These are both standard Stoic doctrines, which Larry convincingly re-interprets in modern fashion.

It may seem paradoxical to say that virtue is all or nothing (as the ancient Stoics did) and yet to also state that we can make progress toward virtue (after all, we are supposed to be prokoptontes and prokoptousai — those who make progress). But virtue is perfection of agency, and strictly speaking the only beings who are perfectly virtuous are the Sages. But Sages are as rare as the Phoenix (as Seneca says). That means the rest of us can, and should, strive toward Sagehood, even if it is ultimately unachievable. In so striving, we are making progress. (If this notion sounds strange, it is no different from Buddhists attempting to achieve enlightenment, even though that feat is also about as rare as the Phoenix.)

Here is a geometric analogy I came up with last night while discussing these issues at my Stoic School of Life. Imagine a perfect circle. It is defined rigorously as a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the center). Any deviation from this makes for something that looks like a circle but isn’t (technically, it’s an ellipse). If our goal is to draw a circle, but we do not exactly succeed, then we are drawing an imperfect circle. But imperfection comes in degrees. Consider the following figure:

Only the innermost drawing is a perfect circle. All others are ellipses, but they approximate the circle more and more as one moves from the outermost one toward the center. Very few of us could draw a perfect circle by hand (as Giotto is reputed to have done), but we can presumably get better and better with practice. Every time we come closer and yet do not succeed we are making progress. But every time we do not succeed we have not reached perfection (geometrically defined as above), because perfection is all or nothing, but imperfection has infinite degrees. The same goes for virtue: it is all or nothing, and yet we can (and should) make progress.

Finally, consider the idea — again common among the Ancient Stoics — that virtue is the chief good, as also explained by Socrates in the Euthydemus. Here is how Becker puts it:

“For a healthy agent, no matter what her circumstances, virtue as a set of dispositional powers is unconditionally a good, right up to the moment of death. We can think of no circumstances in which a mature, healthy agent could plausibly hold that the ability to act appropriately, as understood here, is a bad or indifferent thing, all things considered. … It is a good in sickness and in health, war and peace, poverty or plenty, hate or love. It is a good independently of how things turn out (recall the archer). It is a good independently of others’ attitudes, actions, virtues, and vices. Moreover, virtue appears to be unique in this regard. Everything else (pleasure, for example) is only conditionally good.” (p. 134)

So there you have it, folks: virtue is the same thing as the recursive perfection of agency applied to all our endeavors all-things-considered. It is so for a certain type of agent. It is all or nothing, and yet we can make progress toward it. And it is the only thing that cannot possibly be misused by us.

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5 thoughts on “Becker’s A New Stoicism, VIII: virtue, part 2

  1. cmplxadsys

    “Rational agents with a significantly different psychology (for example, rational agents who are primarily pleasure seekers… fall outside the scope of this argument.”

    I don’t get why this is so. Can’t such an agent still have a lot of endeavors that lead to conflicting norms, even if all of those endeavors are for the aim of pleasure? And so, wouldn’t such an agent still find practical reasoning useful for resolving such conflicts?

    I’m not seeing exactly which step would fail for the pleasure-seeker.

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  2. Massimo Post author

    Cmplxadsys,

    The step equating ideal agency with virtue. That would leave both an Epicurean and a psychopath unmoved. Not that I’m implying that Epicureans are psychopaths, of course…

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  3. Lawrence Becker

    It is indeed humbling. But ideal agency is such an exacting ability that we are only likely to achieve it temporarily, or in some circumstances rather than others… Ideal agency has to yield the appropriate conduct, done as a matter of character, in the appropriate way, at the appropriate time, for the appropriate reasons, with the appropriate feelings… We can do most of that some of the time, perhaps. But most of the time isn’t a perfect circle, to use Massimo’s excellent image. And if you get everything else right in terms of doing the right thing, but find yourself doing it with just a tinge of passive aggressiveness (for example), you are still out there in an ellipse-land. And the ellipse is not sufficient for stoic virtue, and thus not sufficient for stoic happiness.

    I do think, however, that we can get close enough, often enough, to keep the effort strongly motivated and deeply satisfying. See the next chapter, controversial though it may be.

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