Stoic virtue vs Objectivist virtue

Ayn Rand could be characterized as a virtue ethicist. Rand claimed her virtue theory was inspired by Aristotle.  Ayn Rand reinterpreted Aristotle’s eudaimonic virtue theory as rational egoism. Rand explained her virtue theory as selfish and she had in mind an enlightened selfishness. So let’s consider Rand’s selfish virtue theory.

Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy is called Objectivism. She said her philosophy Objectivism asserts the importance of human rationality and affirms objective reality. Rand highly valued the preservation of an individual’s existence both physically and rationally. She said she would’ve called her philosophy Existentialism because of her concern with existence but the name was already taken. In the area of ethics, Objectivist virtue includes rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride.  These virtues might fit well with enlightened egoism if one defines justice outside its definition within mainstream philosophy. One wonders if productiveness is a virtue since it requires a lot of externals outside of one’s control. Rand seems to have in mind an artist or businessperson making goals and completing them. It seems like she had a certain personality in mind that not everyone can fit. With productiveness being a virtue, one can easily understand why some individuals are attracted to her philosophy. Rand made it clear that her egoism is categorically opposed to altruism. Ayn Rand suggests that one should never live for another but only for oneself and another should only live for themselves and not for another.

Living for oneself sounds alluring. Wouldn’t one want to be their own person, taking control of one’s life, and not allowing other people to determine one’s fate? It’s all incomplete. Objectivism is incomplete because sometimes a person must sacrifice one’s time for another. Sometimes a person must sacrifice a great deal of their time and even life for others. Sure, it’s reasonable to want time to oneself and to have one’s own projects. But don’t we care about others? Don’t we wish to help advance other people’s lives or projects just as well as ours? Never living for another but oneself as a categorical principle is simply uncaring of other’s needs and experiences. Selfishness as a virtue, even if enlightened, doesn’t agree with people’s notions of what a highly virtuous act would look like. Many find it virtuous for a soldier to jump on an enemy grenade to save the lives of other soldiers from being killed by the shrapnel and explosion.  That kind of virtue is not consistent with enlightened egoism. How about someone who gives up all their belongings to 20 people who absolutely need the belongings? Many of us could not conceive of ourselves acting so charitably but it would be an act of virtue. It would not be a virtue concordant with Objectivism.

Ayn Rand was once asked if one should save a drowning person and she replied affirmatively.  Rand’s own ethics undermine her reply.  Living for only oneself means that one should never sacrifice oneself for another. Clearly, by Rand’s philosophy, one shouldn’t save a person drowning. It’s because following Rand’s ethical advice means if saving someone’s life is a threat to one’s own, then one shouldn’t bother.

The Stoic virtues wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage are concerned with acting in one’s own interest and the interests of others.  Sometimes doing good will require a person to give up a significant amount of time to her own interests.  Helping others doesn’t mean the helper becomes a doormat. It’s important to stand up for oneself and one’s interests and principles. Acting courageous doesn’t mean a person should act selfish without fear of consequence. Acting courageous is doing what’s good for everyone and oneself despite the fear one might feel while doing so.   It’s often a Stoic duty to help others when their needs outweigh one’s own needs.  Being Stoic doesn’t mean always having to give up one’s life for others needs but it does mean giving up some private time. Ancient Stoics believed in philanthropy, which means love of humanity.  Remember what the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius said:

For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away (Meditations II, 1).

Stoicism and how politics should be to ethics like biology is to physics

I admit I’m little frustrated.  Not with politics.  But mostly with how people treat it.  People can’t just talk about it with each other without attacking the person either indirectly or directly.  More frustrating is that Stoics can’t seem to be above the personal attacks.  The Stoic Facebook Groups are just filled with people hiding their political prejudices that they then project on others who are questioning them.  They have agendas but when someone talks about anything political, no, it’s not them who have the agenda, it’s the other person talking about the political situation that has the agenda.  I’m just going to go ahead and call out the elephant in the room: if you think you’re not actually political you’re just rationalizing your comfort with the political status quo.

Let me make it really easy for people who don’t understand how politics relates to Stoicism.  Think of physics.  Physics is the bedrock of science.  You can then build chemistry on top of physics.  Further still you can build biology on top of chemistry.  And you can build up higher and higher until you get to sociology.  So this analogy works the same way with ethics.  Ethics is kind of the foundation of all ought claims.  All prescriptive claims.  You can go a little lower into the basement and give a meta-ethical description if you want.  But ethics is basically the bedrock.   What can you put on top of ethics?  Public ethics.  Otherwise known as politics.

So did the Stoics end at just furnishing an ethical theory?  No, in fact, we have evidence of Zeno’s Republic.  Most importantly though, we have an excerpt from Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics were proponents of a Republic with a combination of a Democracy, Aristocracy, and Kingship.  It’s a very small fragment but it’s very telling.  Basically in the contemporary world, we have hundreds of governments throughout it that the Stoics would’ve approved of.  The United States, the UK, Canada, the rest of Western Europe, there are Republics all with a balance of Democracy, Kingship, and Aristocracy.  Exactly what the Stoics would’ve wanted.

So that’s what we want as Stoics, ancient and modern.  We want a society that is Democratic vs Aristocratic vs Monarchical.  We want there to be that kind of balance.  Whether it’s Parliamentary with a Prime Minister or American with a President.  Is there anything else that can be added to this?  Well, we probably want leaders that are cosmopolitan.  We don’t want to elect leaders that are against liberal and tolerant values.  If you don’t agree with any of this then you might just find yourself siding against Stoicism.

I don’t know how else to make this any clearer.  If you’re interested in living a life of Stoic virtue, then you’re going to have to be political.  Don’t act so naive or mean spirited about it.  Just embrace the political nature that we all have.  Aristotle was not a Stoic but he was definitely right when he said, “man is a political animal.”

All I ask is stop with the whole, “ugh, politics” mentality when anyone in the group mentions their political beliefs and is attempting to justify it using Stoicism.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Where people might be going wrong is when they try to change Stoic principles to meet their politics.  And even then, just correct them where they’re going wrong and explain to them where they’re bending the principles.  Don’t say, “don’t bend Stoicism for your politics!”  Think past that and just explain to them where they’re wrong.  Use reason.  Stop with the cynicism.  Stop it and learn.

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