Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman, Lobsters and Stoicism

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/

Why is virtue the only good?

It’s fundamental that virtue is the only good for a Stoic.  There’s not a perfect proof for why virtue is the sole good.  As my philosophy professor at Drury U used to say, “you just have to bite the bullet when deciding to commit to any particular ethical theory.” People at times despair that if an idea doesn’t have a proof for it, then it’s pointless to commit to such an idea. I think with that kind of attitude, you won’t get far in life. Sometimes you believe in a position based on the best evidence and best reasons you have. I have the best reasons I can think of for why Stoic virtue is the sole good . I’d like to share those reasons. I’d like to discuss the popular modern ethical schools hedonistic utilitarianism and deontology and explain how they fail as viable ethical schools. I’ll also discuss hedonism and, specifically, Epicureanism and why hedonism and Epicureanism fail as life philosophies. In doing so, I’d like to explain why virtue by itself is worthy of pursuit. Finally, I’d like to discuss the Stoic Hierocles and his theory regarding animal and human development and how that supports Stoic virtue as the only good.

In hedonistic utilitarianism, the good is maximum pleasure of the most people. Hedonistic utilitarianism often requires decisions that we wouldn’t be comfortable making.  Utilitarianism is supposed to necessitate calculating the best decision that serves the most good for the most people. One problem emerges that it’s not plausible to know what’s the best for the most amount of people.  For example, does utilitarianism permit slavery if a few slaves are unhappy versus the happy multitude who benefit from slavery?  That’s just one sort of problem with utilitarianism out of the multitude of increasing problems. 

What about Kantian deontology?  In Kantian deontology, the good is an action that comports with the categorical imperative, a dutiful action. Immanuel Kant asserted that his moral system outlined in Metaphysics of Morals  was in congruence with our commonsense.  But is it commonsense to always be honest and to always keep a promise no matter what and when? Is it commonsense that justice must be served even if it means the whole world’s destruction? Also, there are many times in our life where it seems sensible to sacrifice the one for the many; just think of war as an example.  Also how many of us would pull the lever to save 5 lives over 1 life from a murderous Trolley in ethical Trolley dilemmas?  Probably a significant amount.

Consider hedonism. In hedonism, pleasure is the sole good. Hedonism is appealing because prima facie, we do often seek pleasure and comfort and we avoid discomfort and pain. Pleasure as the sole good seems sensible enough. However, everyone knows that one should follow pleasure and avoid pain within limits. So what are these limits?  In terms of commonsense, we constrain our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain within an ethical apparatus not aimed at pure pleasure.  So then pleasure isn’t the sole source of good.  Pleasure is actually limited by a higher good than pleasure itself.  Epicurus sought to deal with the virtue and pleasure issue. In Epicureanism Ataraxia is the sole good (Ataraxia: tranquility due to total lack of pain).  The Epicurean’s ethical project was assigning virtue as one path to total lack of pain. This wasn’t successful because despite endorsing the practice of virtue, the virtue rang hollow. Epicurus believed that we should be virtuous because if we behave viciously, we’ll be troubled by the legal consequences or even if we don’t get caught we’ll fear that we will be caught later. Virtue as an instrument to tranquility doesn’t mesh with our conception of justice and courage. We should be just and fair to one another because it’s just and fair and not because we’ll be without pain. Being courageous in itself is a desirable ethical goal. Being courageous as a path to freeing oneself of pain is not courage at all. Also, no Epicurean could argue consistently that one should sacrifice one’s own life for the lives of others. How would that be a path to long-term pleasure or the complete lack of pain?

The Stoics didn’t see pain and pleasure as relevant to virtue and vice. Yes, sometimes doing what’s right will result in some pleasure and doing what’s wrong will result in pain. But pain and pleasure do not always correlate with virtue or vice. If you err and you get yourself into trouble, the Stoics would say that you should learn from your mistakes and do not regret your mistakes because regret is an unnecessary passion to have. The Stoics knew that people make mistakes throughout their life, whether attempting to live the good life or being ignorant about how to live the good life. Stoicism entails humility.  We all make mistakes, so let’s try to fix them and then move on.  No sense living with remorse.  Sometimes, we are ashamed but there is no sense in extending our grief over our prior faults.

What’s more is Stoicism allows for pleasure but regards it as neutral.  Stoicism allows for the pursuit of wealth, health, education, reputation, and pleasure and regards them as preferred although “indifferent” or ethically neutral. Stoics can pursue preferred externals so long as they don’t interfere with the pursuit of virtue.  Since Stoics can pursue externals without interfering with virtue, then Stoics might seem like regular people. Pursuing the same externals that everyone else prefers allows for Stoics to live in harmony with people around them. However, Stoics will stand out if there is an injustice and no one but them has the courage to stand against it.

Virtue is popular when people think about what virtue entails.  When people reflect on the virtue courage, they’d think that the soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of other soldiers did good.  Most people would think that someone that risks their own life saving two kids from drowning is a brave person .  People have an ethical sense that corroborates virtue is the sole good.  That’s not to say that everyone has a perfect sense for what is virtuous but when people do take the time to reflect about what a good person is, they’ll think of someone behaving virtuously rather than a person who chooses what’s expedient as the right course of action.

So we know that people value courage and fairness. Couldn’t we be fooling ourselves and we only act courageous or treat others with fairness for pleasure? The Stoic Hierocles observed animals and humans and noted that all humans begin their infancy with self-love.  Eventually as people grow and develop their love expands outward from their self to their family, then later outward from their family to their community, and then finally outward from their community to all of humanity.   Hierocles also observed that animals were not merely motivated by pleasure and pain. Often animals would put themselves in harms way to protect their young. Human beings also endanger their lives for loved ones on a frequent basis. So humans aren’t purely motivated by pleasure, they’re motivated by protecting their own physical constitution in infancy and then later their own rational constitution. Humans and animals are motivated out of a concern for their own constitution and their own offspring’s constitution than they are with their own pleasure or pain. As humans learn to value their rational faculty, they can extrapolate their own love for themselves and friends outward towards all humanity. Love for one’s own rational constitution is to treat one’s reason as an end. Valuing one’s own reason means valuing wisdom, the ultimate virtue. That’s why virtue is the end.

So it’s worth biting the bullet for the axiom, “virtue is the only good.”  It’s because there’s just a smidgen to lose biting the bullet for virtue compared to the super-sacrifice of biting the bullet for utilitarianism, deontology, hedonism, and Epicureanism.

My Stoic Way of Dealing with Alcohol

I’ve never been exactly an alcoholic.  But no one really is.  I mean, it’s really more of a continuum than a simple categorical statement like, “I’m an alcoholic.”  For me, I had a drinking problem but not enough to interfere too much with my life.  But it was still a concern so here are some things I did to figure out how to deal with this.

1.  Whiskey was too much for me.  So I switched to beer.  You don’t have to completely quit alcohol but you should try to make it more manageable.  Drink beer instead of hard liquor so that your belly fills up faster and you don’t get as inebriated.  This isn’t exactly a Stoic technique but it is rational and it will save you some trouble.

2.  Remember, to drink water between beers.  This helps to make the effects of alcohol even less potent than otherwise.  Drinking water will also fill your belly faster and keep you from drinking as much and as often.  It will also keep you more hydrated and you’ll avoid feeling nearly as hungover in the morning as you normally would without pacing yourself.

3.  Never drink on an empty stomach.  Also make sure you eat something as well as drink something in between beers.

4.  Now that you’ve done 1-3, you’ve definitely achieved some success; you might be drinking more than a moderate amount but you’re helping your liver a lot more and your liver is thanking you.

5.  If alcohol is still a problem by this point you’re probably still drinking too many beers even though you’re taking water and food breaks in between.  You should probably not be drinking 12 beers in a day, even beers that don’t seem to have much more alcoholic content than water like Budlight.

6.  If you’re drinking too many beers, here’s where the Stoic advice should come in handy.  You’re not drinking too much because of weakness of will, you’re drinking too much because you’re suffering from a lack of wisdom.  You think alcohol is the ultimate good in your life and it can really seem that way because it feels like a shortcut to tranquility.  But really, the best way to tranquility is virtue.  That means you should know what’s truly in your control and not in your control.  Your choices are in your control but whether those choices yield actionable results is not truly in your control.  You should also know that less alcohol means you can do more good for those around you.  If you let alcohol be your only good in life, you’ll forget the true good you can do for others.  Instead of staying home and drinking you can go to your daughter’s soccer game.  That does so much more true good for you and your daughter than sitting at home drinking alone.

7. If you’re drinking too many beers, it could be because you’re avoiding something.  You have social anxiety, you have depression, you might even have generalized anxiety.  If any of these are the case, seek professional help.  Psychological therapy can go a long way to helping you get over your issues, especially when a psychologist is helping you.  You can also practice Stoicism.  All our fears tend to be magnified because of our judgment that externals are bad.  Try to help yourself get rid of the judgment that things external to you are bad and you might find that some of your fears dissipate.

8.  Remember, you’re never a failure if you find yourself running back to the bottle.  Don’t ever hate yourself.  You’re mistakenly covering up for fear or depression by pursuing something you misjudge as a good way to dissolve those fears or depression.  The best way though is often through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy used by a sufficiently trained CBT Ph.D. Psychologist.  And, of course, supplementing CBT with a life philosophy like Stoicism.

9.  You are not an alcoholic.  You may have a drinking problem but you are not defined by that problem.  You are simply drinking beyond moderation.  It’s interfering with your desire to pursue virtue.  Don’t let it.  Try to remember your last taste of what it was like to do good and do that thing.  Do the good.  Be the good.  You can be a good person.  But you are not an alcoholic.  You just drink too much.

I hope this helps someone like it did me.