A Pragmatist’s Embrace of Stoicism

Do our thoughts mirror reality?  Or are they just a tool for prediction, problem solving or action?  Well philosophical pragmatists think it’s the latter.  In fact, pragmatists aren’t necessarily interested in whether they think ideas correspond to reality but are specifically interested in whether ideas serve practical purposes in our daily life.  Pragmatism originated from Charles Sanders Peirce and his pragmatic maxim:

“Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

(Peirce, 1878, p. 132)

Peirce is saying that the meaning of any idea that one has is meaningful if it has some practical effects observed in the world.  William James took the pragmatic maxim and expanded it to concern the truth of our thoughts.  Does Stoicism, as a system of thought, mirror reality?  How about all of Stoicism’s various precepts, like “virtue is the only good”?  Or is Stoicism and its individual ethical prescriptions simply part of a narrative that helps people cope in their daily lives with come-what-may?  Stoicism’s precepts could mirror reality but there’s no denying that it’s a useful system as a whole. What’s  more is Stoicism is part of a coherent worldview that mutually supports Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  It’s a plus that CBT and Stoicism can mesh well since CBT is a scientific therapy that produces effective and evidence-based results.

Stoicism as a whole is a useful system of thought.  It helps its practitioners view, interact, and use externals without morally judging them.  This allows Stoic practitioners to free their minds of the common conception that externals are either good or bad.  By regarding externals as ethically neutral, practitioners can focus on intrinsic goals.  Their cognitive resources are freed up significantly from anxiety and anger.

Stoicism is also adaptable because its metaphysics can expand with new discoveries in the realm of scientific naturalism.  Marcus Aurelius made clear in the Meditations that he could make use of Stoic ethics, whether the world was constituted of “providence or atoms.” Marcus Aurelius could adjust to these circumstances by continuing to live by the maxim that virtue is the only good.  In fact, somewhat radically Marcus Aurelius suggested that if something comes across his mind that is better than virtue, he’ll follow it (Meditations 3:6), which means that he believed the core doctrine of Stoic ethics is falsifiable.

The Stoic ethic, “virtue is the only good,” not only can help individual practitioners but it is socially helpful.  The pragmatist John Dewey thought that morals boil down to maxims that assist humans in achieving social ends that produce a satisfying life for individuals in society (Field, n.d.).  If John Dewey were alive today, perhaps Modern Stoic philosophers could convince him that Stoicism fits that social role.  After all, if society stressed virtue as the sole good and individuals en masse followed virtue as the sole end, then there should be social effects good for individuals in society.

As discussed above, from the pragmatist perspective, it matters not whether Stoicism and its precepts truly correspond to reality-with-a-capital-R.  All that matters is that it and its precepts work effectively at achieving important social ends.  It also helps that Stoicism coheres with existing worldviews that are also instrumentally good, like CBT.  Stoicism as a system works well for the individual, for society, is adaptable, and is falsifiable.  To pragmatists, it should be quite instrumental.

References

Peirce, C.S. (January 1878). “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. 12, 286-302.

Field, R. “John Dewey.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (ISSN 2161-0002). Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/

Are there any Stoic utilitarians and what would that mean?

Some people believe in having good characters for the sake of creating good consequences.  But what if we reversed that and cared about promoting the best consequences because to do so would be virtuous.  Could one be simultaneously a Stoic and a utilitarian?  Also can one be a utilitarian for the sake of virtue?

Well, I think it would all depend on how you define virtue.  One of the key virtues that helps you morally interact with the rest of humanity is justice.  I suppose that a Stoic could just forego the word justice, as a virtue, and replace it with utilitarianism.  So instead of having a good justice virtue, you’d have a good utilitarian virtue.

It’s kind of hard to understand all what is entailed in Stoic justice.  Usually an act of compassion, empathy, fairness, equal distribution of resources.  But suppose we replaced that with the virtue utilitarianism?  What would that entail?  Well, what things would a Stoic want to promote for individuals?  Perhaps preferred indifferents!

A Stoic utilitarian might want to maximize the greatest amount of preferred indifferents for the most amount of people.  What are some preferred indifferents?  Wealth, health, reputation, pleasure, and education.  So a Stoic would try to help a person maximize these particular preferred indifferents.  So to increase people’s health, you should donate blood.  To increase people’s reputation, you’d want to say good things about them to others if they’re behaving well.

Would a Stoic utilitarian try to maximize the greatest amount of virtue in others?  Only if people will listen.  Education in virtue requires not only you to teach it but the other person to learn it.  If there is a lot of unwillingness of the other person to learn, then it’s going to be difficult to teach virtue to another person.  So it’s probably more realistic in everyday life to focus on helping people maximize their preferred indifferents.

So let’s review.  What would a Stoic utilitarian be?  A Stoic who tries to increase their own virtues such as  wisdom, courage, temperance, and utilitarianism (instead of justice).  How does a Stoic utilitarian act on their utilitarian virtue?  By helping others maximize their preferred indifferents, also help them maximize their virtue if possible.

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham