The following is a transcript of a memorable discussion on Facebook. Henry van Wagenberg poses a question to Massimo Pigliucci, noted Stoic, and then to his friend, the Transhumanist David Vincent Kimel. Jimmy Daltrey and Donald Robertson, Stoic experts, are also on hand.
Henry: Massimo Pigliucci, how do you get around the problem of Hume’s Is/Ought Problem or Naturalistic Fallacy and Stoic Philosophy? The Stoic argument, as for so many of the Greek schools, building on Socrates, is that Nature is the good. The Stoic virtues are all built on this foundational argument. But Hume demonstrated that this is false – that what is natural and what is good are not the same – thus paving the way for modern philosophy. How do you reconcile this foundational problem?
I’ve been able to read the chapter in Becker’s book on Stoicism which addresses this question. His answer is that “agency” is the true good. He writes, “As biological organisms we arc through the processes generation, growth, development, reproduction, and degeneration… We ceaselessly organize and re-organize our biological lives into endeavors… We hold that, considered as an end, Virtue consists in perfected agency. To the extent that this activity — the exercise of our agency — is our maximally comprehensive and controlling endeavor, its end is our final end” (Chapter 6: Virtue). This is an intriguing solution to the problem. I will reflect more on it. However one obvious problem is that if “perfecting our agency” is our goal, what should we use our agency for? If, as Becker argues, “agency” is the “final end”, then by this reasoning we should use it… to increase our agency. So we should increase our agency in order to increase our agency. It certainly seems to me that becoming an active, free agent, which the Stoics sort-of call for even if we are in a determinist universe, is likely a part of a virtuous life. However my question would still be… to what end?
Massimo: Henry, Hume did not demonstrate the falsity of going from is to ought, he only pointed out — reasonably! — that if one does that then one needs a justification. The Stoics provided a justification in their developmental theory of morality and their concept of oikiosis….
Henry: Thanks kindly. I’ve read parts of the developmental theory in Julia Annas’ “The Morality of Happiness” and I read the summary in your book. Unfortunately I think there is a huge problem, which is that there is extremely strong and convincing evidence that violence is also an element of our species’ nature. Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, for example, offers a survey of archeological evidence for how murder was more commonplace among our distant pre-settlement ancestors than it is today. Freud’s “Das Unbehagen in der Kultur” and his general investigations raise questions about the connection, for example, between violence and sexual pleasure. Camille Paglia in her “Sexual Personae” raises deep questions along these lines, and writes “Rape and sadism have been evident throughout history and, at some moment, in all cultures. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. The rapist is created not by bad social conditioning but by a failure of social conditioning. Sex is power. Nature is a hard taskmaster. Sex has always been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture. Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges. The Indian nature-goddess Kali is creator and destroyer, granting boons with one set of arms while cutting throats with the other. She is the lady ringed with skulls.” Recently a book about sexual dominance, submission and power called “50 Shades of Grey” sold more copies worldwide than Harry Potter. It seems far too common for violent elements in pornography across cultures for it to be an accident. What percentage of films watched by young men all over the world contain violence? 90%? 100%? I absolutely agree that there is also strong evidence that we are also a cooperative species, but if we argue from the empirical side as you do in your book, then I think we have to acknowledge that our Nature also includes a strong propensity to violence. And then our argument for Stoic Philosophy along empirical lines is broken, because now we can no longer argue for cooperativeness in Nature, without arguing that violence is also a virtue. Therefore if we want to argue for Stoic Philosophy we do need an excellent deductive argument for it. Thoughts?
Massimo: Henry, any philosophy is established on axioms. The Stoic ones are good enough for me. One can argue that different axioms yield a better philosophy, like Epicureanism. Maybe, but there are good arguments developed by the Stoics against other philosophies. Moreover, I think the quest for a philosophy that is universally true and based on indisputable axioms is a fool’s errand, and we shouldn’t waste our time with it.
Henry: David Vincent Kimel, thoughts?
Kimel: Thanks for thinking of me, Henry. You always throw out the most provocative questions, and you are never satisfied with anything less than the truth, or at least a clarifying approximation of it, which is the best philosophers can provide balancing upon each other’s shoulders like the world’s ugliest but most thought provoking cheerleading squad. I think that in the evolutionary scheme of things, my species of Transhumanism is closer genetically to Epicurus, Bentham, and Hume than the beasts of the Stoic school and its offshoots. But as a good Romanist, I’m fascinated by the Stoics, and always find something interesting to think about when I engage with their texts, especially on the subject of freedom and its limitations (more on this later).
The classic formulation of Stoicism is of course that one should live in harmony with Nature. But why? Perhaps Epicurus can help us. Well, first, what is Nature? One possible definition is “the Natural order of things,” which I take to be the realm of real world outcomes that are at the mercy of Fortune. If this is how we understand Nature, it’s clear that it’s actually an extremely harsh environment and far from “good” by many metrics—volcanoes erupt, free republics become tyrannies, etc. The justification for living “in harmony” with its brutality is that from an existential perspective, we are dogs being pulled by our master, Fortune, and if we don’t keep up with her punishing pace, our collars will start to choke us and she’ll drag us over the rough road; so, we’d better keep up in harmony with her, if we can. The only entity that we can personally control in the face of adversity is our reaction to adversity—hence, reasons the Stoic, we should detach ourselves from emotional attachment, and find true freedom in a kind of indifference as we accept whatever Fortune brings us. Under this reasoning, perhaps the argument in response to Hume would be something like, “Nature is actually full of evil from a human perspective because it’s bound to random Fortune, but at least we have the power to control our emotional reactions to its outcomes, which are the true origin of suffering; given that real world outcomes are all we have to work with, a good philosopher should focus on moderating his or her emotional reaction in ‘harmony’ with Nature if he hopes to avoid pain.” For the Stoic, this is our only chance for freedom in a world of bad outcomes—and freedom is better than slavery to an emotional attachment connected with a worldly outcome, because any worldly good can always be taken away, and if it is the sole source of your spiritual sustenance, you will be lost. For the Transhumanist, of course, there exists hope of a higher kind of freedom.
However, there is a tension here leading to a kind of puzzle. Can’t this attitude lead to passivity in the face of the horrors of reality? (In other words, if Fortune’s domination over natural outcomes is so terrible, why should we be in harmony with it if this leads to the perpetuation of unjust outcomes—which goes back to the spirit of your original critique, Henry.) At the same time, what about all the Stoics who wrote about living in harmony with Nature not from the perspective of “we’d better be in harmony with Fortune because it’s all we’ve got, and by ‘harmony’ we mean the numbing freedom of indifference,” but, “Nature is actively noble and synonymous with God’s plan, so we should live in harmony with it”—hence, for example, we see Seneca going to great lengths struggling to try to prove that men should live in harmony with their natures (marked by wisdom, reason, prudence, etc.) , but that anger is UNNATURAL—strange, considering how universal it is, and how easy it is to fall prey to it without the vigorous training of Stoic philosophy to help arm us against it.
There’s no easy response to the debate at this point. The truth is, the Stoic, like the Zen Buddhist, seems to be in danger of falling prey to apathy rather than crusading in the name of Progress, for he mistakes spiritual numbness for the greatest good, when the elimination of pain and the promotion of the imagination through attempts to understand and control nature leads to more capacity for love and happiness for human society at large (to say nothing of the benefits of sometimes losing oneself to passion for the sake of an existential thrill). At the same time, because “Nature” was simultaneously hugely brutal but at the same time the source of the argument that humans were different from animals because we were “naturally” endowed with the capacity for virtue and logic, I’ve always thought there was a tension at the heart of the Stoicism when it comes to the proper attitude toward Nature, Nature’s relationship to Fortune (are they synonymous?), and the relationship of Nature to the Nature of Human Nature. There’s so much equivocation it becomes difficult to sort it all out.
However, in my opinion, no philosophical lens is equally clarifying in all situations, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stoicism emphasizes the freedom that comes from controlling our reactions to the tortuous aspects of Nature, and the importance of embracing Nature’s noble aspects, like our natural capacity for Reason. The suggestion is that with emotional freedom in the face of the harshness of Fortune, humans can become AUTHENTIC, since this is an actualization of their natural Reason, which dictates indifference to losing anything worldly as the only rational stance to take, since it will surely be lost in the end. This can provide a great clarifying lens when you’re in situations beyond your control, when you are becoming too passionate about something transitory, etc. It is perhaps less helpful a clarifying lens when thinking about other situations, like the need to increase justice in the world and the importance of existential abandon for true happiness. It’s not good to be a Stoic at all times, but there are times when it can be hugely emancipatory.
As a kind of afterward, I also wanted to mention that in Roman history, far from being passive, the Stoics were the most courageous senators who often had the balls to commit suicide rather than live under the tyranny of the worst autocrats. They refused to live “unfreely” and silent in the face of evil—they “embraced their natures” as free men and died courageously (think Cremutius Cordus, Seneca, the Stoic martyrs of the Flavians, etc.) There was a strong emphasis on fulfilling one’s duty, on rejecting worldly materialism, and on realizing the fundamental spiritual unity of all humans, regardless of their rank. It brought hope to the oppressed, from senators to slaves, and by the looks of this message board, it continues to inspire people to this day.
Massimo: Well, David appears to be under a number of (common, I must say) misconceptions concerning Stoicism. First, “living according to (or in harmony with) nature” doesn’t mean that nature is kind to human beings or that anger is not “natural” in the sense of being an instinctive reaction to certain situations. It means living in accordance to the best of human nature, i.e., that of a social animal capable of reason.
Nature for the Stoics isn’t good or bad, it just is. Yes, the ancient Stoics believed in “Providence,” but they didn’t mean anything like the Christian variety, they meant whatever happens as a result of cause and effect. So I don’t see the tension that David sees.
Second, no, Stoicism is in no danger to become a philosophy of apathy. It should be very clear from pretty much everything the Stoics wrote. Buddhism doesn’t risk that either, if I understand their tenets correctly.
I honestly don’t see why Stoicism isn’t helpful in terms of social justice. One of the four virtues is that of justice, and the Stoics affirmed the principle of cosmopolitanism that they inherited from the Cynics. Did they go out fighting revolutions in the modern progressive sense of the term? No, but then nobody did at the time, so this isn’t a problem specific to Stoicism.
Finally, I don’t have a particularly good opinion of transhumanism: Why we don’t need transhumanism.
Kimel: Massimo, LOL, there is no misconception because there is no single version of Stoicism. My engagement with the core ideas of the philosophy were both sound and valid, and that’s where the real debate is–not how “real” Stoics define these terms, according to you. Also, you can’t have it both ways–you can’t simultaneously say “Nature isn’t good or bad, it just IS” and at the same time say that the “good” is living in harmony with it–where did “the good” come from (especially if Nature can be changed and we’re not necessarily stuck with it?) I actually provided Henry a reason that we should live in harmony with Nature from a certain perspective bound to maximizing freedom and avoiding pain, and I think many Stoics would not have disagreed with me. I also admit the reality of its unfortunate/tragic aspects of Nature, which are actually central to Stoic thought when it comes to avoiding their emotional repercussions. And finally, I show that living “in harmony with Nature” can end up down problematic roads. As for Transhumanism, we’ll see which of is is on the right side of history after a millennium of genetic engineering and cyborg technology.
Jimmy: David, when you say, “Also, you can’t have it both ways–you can’t simultaneously say “Nature isn’t good or bad, it just IS” and at the same time say that the “good” is living in harmony with it–where did “the good” come from (especially if Nature can be changed and we’re not necessarily stuck with it?),” you misunderstand what the Stoics meant by Nature. In modern parlance it would be the algorithms that lie behind the laws of nature, would be the laws of nature…you can’t modify them, unless you pop next door across the mulitiverse and see what they’ve got going on over there. And I said this to Henry : you have misunderstood what the Stoics mean by nature. It doesn’t mean nature as sharp in tooth and red in claw, rather the apparent rational order within the cosmos. More understanding the algorithms behind physics and applying them to ethics, not letting it all hang out like apes.”
Kimel: I don’t think I have misunderstood anything. I think I have pointed out that from a rational perspective, Nature can mean different things to different people, and its ambiguous relationship to the injustice of random outcomes from a human perspective is actually one of the central themes and challenges of Stoicism (though its negative aspect is sometimes relegated to “Fortune”). Massimo’s line of thought seems to erase the reality of evil in the “physical outcomes of the universe” by detaching it from moral significance (I’m not surprised he’s not a Transhumanist, since we believe in the inherent good of Progress in defiance of random physical outcomes); Jimmy’s line of thought tries to say that Nature isn’t something changeable and organic like “human nature,” but the general laws of physics, which evidently can give us moral insight all of a sudden. But neither of you actually answered Hume or Henry’s queries.
Jimmy: How can something random be unjust? How can something without intention be evil?
Kimel: Think of a baby being born with a genetic illness we could have eliminated with medicine. From a HUMAN perspective it is unjust. I know what a Transhumanist would say about the proper attitude to the randomness, but what would a good Stoic say? I also want to point out that sometimes the Stoics use Nature to mean the laws of the cosmos, but sometimes they equivocate and use it as a shorthand for human nature, and often as a further shorthand for “the best in human nature.” There’s not a stable or coherent single definition. Also there’s no one version of Stoicism!
Jimmy: Genes are evil?
Kimel: Yes, ones causing outcomes leading to curable physical torment are evil from a HUMAN perspective.
Jimmy: So you believe in Satan or by evil do you mean undesirable?
Kimel: I define evil as curable physical torment that leads to no utilitarian ends. Progress is its elimination and the creation of the capacity for more art, love, health, and scientific understanding. Evil is always undesirable in some ways but not in all ways by all people; and the undesirable is not always evil (as anyone on a healthy but yucky diet knows). Evil and undesirable are related ideas but are not synonyms. Imagine the Roman Empress Livia poisoned the heirs to the throne Gaius and Lucius, which was certainly undesirable to them and arguably an evil act, but it wasn’t undesirable to her since it fulfilled her selfish ends of making her own son emperor. She tries to justify it to her grandson Claudius in Graves’ novels by claiming it was for a utilitarian rather than a personal end–ie it was for the good of the empire–and thus tries to exonerate herself.
Jimmy: Can we row back to there being evil without agency? A coconut falling out of a tree is not evil, if it falls on someone’s head or not. Similarly a genetic mutation is blind. Neither good nor evil.
Kimel: I think we’re getting into a battle of semantics here. Permitting the evil effect to continue is what’s evil, if agency must come into it. But also… an event or gene can have evil effects, and to that degree it is evil even without autonomous human agency guiding it. Sir, if this is leading down a road where you try to use rhetoric to deny the importance of human agency in the relief of physical torment, I think you’re kind of proving some of the points in my original argument about how the Stoic attitude toward “Nature” is not always helpful.
Jimmy: We agree that human inaction could be evil. If you were walking under the tree and I failed to warn you that a coconut was about to fall, that would be wrong, evil if you like. Would you cure sickle cell anemia?
Kimel: I’d leave it up to parents to weigh the risks of using the medicine, which will lessen over time as the medicines get better. At first there will be linked genes, etc., that make genetic engineering riskier, but insofar as we empower parents to force their children to be born in the first place (and to be born with genetic illnesses at that) and to make major health decisions all the time, it will lead to progress and less sickness in the long term. (For example, sickle cell anemia has anti malarial properties, doesn’t it? Parents would be unwise to remove the gene in some circumstances. But in the future we can perhaps eliminate the disease and still keep the linked benefit.)
Massimo: David, it’s a bit hard to take seriously a comment that includes LOL, but I’ll try. Stoics didn’t equivocate between human and cosmic nature, they clearly meant both. It’s also clear that the latter is to be used as guidance in human life. So there is no contradiction at all in saying that Nature (the Cosmos) just is, but that it is also good to act in certain ways for human purposes. The fact that ancient and modern Stoics disagree on some aspects of the philosophy is neither surprising nor problematic. Do you know of any philosophy (including Transhumanism) for which that’s not the case Transhumanism itself means a lot of different things to different people, and “ending up on the right side of history” is hardly a litmus test for being ethically right. And no, cancer is not evil, by any reasonable definition of evil. It just is. But obviously we, as humans, try to counter it if possible. Again, no contradiction.
Jimmy: The gene that causes sickle cell gives immunity to malaria. I thought you might know that.
Kimel: Obviously I know that. I mentioned it in my answer! And Massimo, please see the whole preceding discussion about how I define evil and progress. I go into it in my article too. Also, it’s Facebook, not the Ritz. Who cares about LOL. Do you think Socrates would have cared about how people spoke? It’s the content of an argument that makes it serious or not, not the style, and not how many Likes it gets. The Stoics did not always mean a single cosmic and human nature which was all one thing and all morally neutral–why else did Seneca work so hard to show anger was UNNATURAL? We disagree about the definition of evil. If your definition leads you to the conclusion we don’t need Transhumanism, I’m not very compelled by the relevance of Stoic philosophy to our modern world as you understand the philosophy. Luckily, though, there is no one Stoicism. Anyway, peace out! Off to party with the Epicureans…
Jimmy: My bad David.
Kimel: Sorry if this got heated–I’m a debater by training. You guys are clearly very brilliant and have great insights, and I think there are ways to reconcile Stoicism and Transhumanism.
Jimmy: Not at all heated.
Massimo: David, no worries about getting heated, though I do think calm conversation, rather than debate, is what’s useful. Okay, the LOL thing is trivial, but just because we are on Facebook that doesn’t mean we can’t have a conversation as adults. No need to be at the Ritz… I did *not* say that the Stoics always meant the same thing by cosmic and human nature, on the contrary. But just because those are separate concepts they don’t need to be contradictory. Both the cosmos and humans are “natural,” which means not intrinsically good or bad. They just are. But as human beings we care about certain things (“good”) and want to stay away from others (“bad”). Seneca thought that anger is unnatural in precisely the sense that I meant: not that it doesn’t “naturally” (i.e., instinctively) occur, but that it is contrary to reason. *That* is what the Stoics meant by human nature: the nature of a social animal capable of reason. It’s not just that we disagree about the definition of evil, I know few people who think that natural phenomena deserve moral labels. Morality is a human invention, so for me it makes no sense to talk about evil cancer. And perhaps you are under some misunderstanding about my issues with Transhumanism, which is why I linked the essay above. I certainly don’t object to curing diseases.
Kimel: Sir, first you said: “Stoics didn’t equivocate between human and cosmic nature, they clearly meant both. It’s also clear that the latter is to be used as guidance in human life.” But then you said: “I did *not* say that the Stoics always meant the same thing by cosmic and human nature, on the contrary…” So did they mean the same thing or not? The answer is, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. Depends on the author and context; fortune, nature, and the best in human nature stand in an ambiguous relationship to each other. Your intuition that it’s impossible to assign moral categories to physical outcomes which stand beyond human autonomy (like plague, pestilence, war, etc.) is not universally held. Events can be evil in light of their effects and the subjective repercussions they bring. But whether we define the event as evil or inaction in its face as evil is perhaps a moot point. Also, I like using informal language. It makes philosophy more accessible. If it’s good enough for Catullus, it’s good enough for me. A conversation, like a poem, isn’t a treatise.
Massimo: I’m afraid we are running quickly toward the end of a useful thread. Still: despite your protestations to the contrary, there is no contradiction in either the Stoic or my position: human nature is a subset of cosmic nature, obviously. So a Stoic may refer to one or the other. If to the broader, then the narrower is implied, if to the narrower, then that stands on its own and doesn’t imply the broader. You can call it an “intuition,” but it makes no sense to attribute moral valence to things that don’t have agency. It’s a category error. But of course you do that by bringing in the “subjective repercussions” brought on by natural phenomena. So it’s not really the phenomena in themselves that are evil, but our judgment of them. Which is precisely the Stoic position, incidentally. And I think there is a huge chasm between Catullus and LOL…
Kimel: Didn’t Catullus use the language of the street, even specific verbs for different kinds of sexual gratification? So LOL indeed. Of course an act in itself can have moral valence without autonomy in light of its relationship to pleasure and pain, depending on how we define the act itself. Consider “murder” versus “killing.” Isn’t one definitionally evil? Isn’t the other only potentially so? If Stoics equate nature with either everything that happens (which includes bad stuff from a human perspective) or human nature (which includes very destructive urges, many of which can be rationally justified), then saying “live in harmony with nature” as a first principal isn’t a very persuasive starting point. (And that’s why Henry started this thread). But my formulation actually provided a valid response to Hume informed by certain Stoic perspectives, while acknowledging the limitations of a Stoic perspective in some other contexts.
Massimo: Use all the LOL’s that you like, it’s a dispreferred indifferent to me. ”Murder vs killing”? Those are *obviously* human judgments. Do you think a lion kills or murders the cubs of another lion whose harem he has taken over? It’s not an either/or, it’s a both! But they are not identical. If it’s not a persuasive philosophy to you that’s fine, that’s outside of my control. But it is a beautiful and meaningful one for lots of people. The Stoics already had a response to Hume (so to speak), in their developmental account of morality.
Kimel: Well, you try to argue that murder and killing are hard to distinguish so it’s just a value judgment, but it’s like saying the color orange doesn’t exist because it’s an illusion between red and yellow in a rainbow with no clear beginning or end. But “orange” is still “orange” despite attempts to explain it away. Murder is an example of evil in action because we define it as an unjust killing (and injustice in the world increases pain and diminishes happiness). Actions can be evil in themselves depending on how we define the action. I think a better approach to railing against transhumanism is to try to find ways to reconcile traditional philosophies with a progressive and futuristic outlook; the link between Transhumanism and the Stoic’s ideal of a universal city, for example, is intriguing, as others have pointed out. I never said Stoic philosophy didn’t persuade me. I said the answer to Hume on this thread was insufficient, and I provided an alternate one (albeit one that could be further refined along more Transhumanist lines). Every philosophy is a prism that is helpful in some circumstances and less so in others. It always helps to consider the Stoic approach, but there are situations where it’s not good to be a Stoic. We have to be passionate sometimes about taking nature into our own hands to crusade against evil outcomes.
Jimmy: Hume thing is easy. Smoking is a cause of cancer, you ought not to smoke (assuming you don’t want cancer as an a priori) It isn’t rocket surgery. All the Stoics are saying is “if you want to live well, you ought to live wisely, courageously, prudently.with temperance.” That it is in our human character to aspire be be wise, to tend to a greater understanding of ourselves and our place within the cosmos isn’t really a ridiculous hypothesis and is well argued by Stoic thinkers..
Donald: I actually agree with a lot of the comment from David. I disagree with the interpretation of Stoicism (?) in his first para. The Stoic goal isn’t to live in agreement with nature in order to “avoid pain”, rather living in agreement with nature is conceived of as an end in itself. The reason Stoics believe anger is unnatural (para 2) is that it’s not in accord with reason, being, according to their analysis, a value-judgement holding that some external thing is morally bad. (Their premise is that only our own actions can be judged good or bad.) Para 3: It seems to me that Stoic apatheia is not the same as “apathy”. It’s the overcoming of unhealthy/irrational passions, not complete indifference toward external things or total lack of desire and emotions. It’s perfectly compatible with human affection and a desire for justice, etc. See the numerous references in Marcus Aurelius, on every other page, to natural affection, brotherhood, philanthropy, cosmopolitanism, justice and kindness.
Kimel: My first paragraph provided an answer to Hume by marrying Stoicism to some Epicurean thinking; many of the arguments are variations on real Stoic arguments, though. The whole point of the thread is that saying be in harmony with nature as an end in itself isn’t sufficient for Hume as a first principal for a phisophy. Violent urges can also be justified by reason and lead to horrific outcomes. As for apathy and indifference… it depends on the author. Some Stoics said to practice not loving things, even your own children. EDIT: They didn’t say not to love, they said not to care when something is removed, which is kind of paradoxical if you really think about it, and really means not to fully love.
Jimmy: I think you might find it was rather practicing imagining their children having died, to learn the impermanence of all things. The Roman Stoics at least are shot through with love and kindness. Marcus in particular.
Massimo: I don’t think any Stoic said you should not love your children. They said you should accept that they are mortal and are going to die. As for merging Stoicism and Epicureanism, it’s impossible, they are mutually exclusive. As Dan often puts it, they both valued virtue and avoidance of pain, but the Stoics put the first on top, the Epicureans the second. It’s either one of the other.
Kimel: I think it’s disingenuous to say you can love something truly and not regret its loss. I think Epictetus said to begin training yourself to be detached at the thought of loss by thinking about your attachment to a jug and then working up to your attachment for your family. I don’t deny that Stoics like Marcus Aurelius emphasized love and compassion, but to be fair, Stoics can’t completely have their cake and eat it too–telling us to love something passionately, but not to care when it’s ripped away from you.
Stoicism and Epicureanism are not mutually exclusive in all ways; as you mention, they even value many of the same ends. Implicit in in my opening post was the idea that we need recourse to a discussion of pleasure, pain, and its avoidance and an honest appraisal of the evils of nature from a human perspective in order to answer Hume’s objection to Stoicism. Otherwise you are left with the problem that Nature and human nature (whether they are the same or not–I believe you shifted your opinion on this a bit) might be “natural” but are not necessarily good to embrace. I thought your attitude toward Transhumanism (whose practitioners are surely the heirs of Bentham and Epicurus) was telling, and might speak to it being problematic to use a Stoic lens in all situations–sometimes, it’s better to rail against Nature, or transcend it.
What is virtue? If someone read this thread from the beginning, it would be hard to say “be in harmony with Nature” instead of “be a transhumanist and eliminate unwanted torment.” The elimination of torment IS a high form of virtue.
Donald: This line of argument surprises me. People try to argue that it’s simply self-evident that to accept the loss of something is incompatible with love but it seems to me there are a great many ordinary people (non-Stoics) for whom that just seems like common sense or facing up to the realities of life.
Kimel: I guess a lot of people don’t permit themselves to love something to the point of being really dependent on it, then. Kind of sad in a way–it’s being so ruled by fear of loss, you don’t let yourself get really lost in emotion.
Henry: Great to read this debate. Many fun thoughts. I have just caught up on it with the time delay across the Atlantic.
David, as you point out, my question is still unanswered. Isn’t the empirical argument for Stoic philosophy broken because — while cooperation appears to be a part of our nature — violence is, too?
Therefore, the argument “it is our nature empirically” fails as a justification for the Stoic virtues and for the purpose so often cited by, for example, Marcus Aurelius, “The fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good” (6.30).
I suspect, however, strongly that Marcus Aurelius is in fact correct and that living rationally, i.e. with integrity, i.e. with “good character”, is the right way to live, and furthermore that this will entail cooperation with all other reasoning beings. I propose that we need a strong deductive argument. I propose no less audacious a claim than that, in order for Stoic philosophy to live again, for us to truly live out its claim to live rationally, we must discover or invent a rational argument bridging Hume’s observation that he has never found an argument between is and ought.
Jimmy: Henry, we have visited this already. That there is violence in nature does not make it a virtue. Humans discriminate between what is desirable, and what is not. It is not a blank appeal to nature wherein we should be violent because there is violence. Virtues can only be good and pursued as ends in themselves. The pursuit of wisdom or love of our neighbor as an end in itself will not result in badness, whereas violence at all is badness, regardless if it being pursued as an end in itself. The pursuit of virtue is synonymous with pursuing nature as our nature is virtuous. If you want to pursue the Stoics for holding virtue as an end in itself, you will have to take down Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as well. You misread Hume, he says oughts are frequently derived from is without justification, not that it is impossible, in fact it is perfect banal when qualified. Yellow snow is dogs’ piss. Is it desirable to drink dogs piss? Depending on your view you ought or ought not to eat yellow snow.
Henry: You write, “Humans discriminate between what is desirable, and what is not.” How many millions of people throughout the history of our species have concluded, as a result of that discrimination, that it is their desire to kill? That it is their desire to commit an injustice? That is their desire to act with violence? Just last night here in Berlin I walked past a park and caught a glimpse of a a group of teenage boys drunkenly attacking a public construction sign with punishing kicks.
In fact, as the great Martha Nussbaum describes in her Neo-Stoic explorations of the Hellenistic schools in “The Therapy of Desire,” the Stoics want to use rational argument to guide our behavior – not to follow our desires. In many cases this leads to (from the outside) bizarre behavior from the Stoics in terms of “what is desirable” and “what is not” — for example, Cato committing suicide, Socrates drinking the hemlock, or Seneca eating only crusts of bread and a glass of water despite a great fortune and all the food he could want — in other words, a philosophical therapy of their desire based on reason.
You write “the pursuit of virtue is synonymous with pursuing nature as our nature is virtuous”. What is the reason that life “red in tooth and claw” as you write is excluded from your definition of nature? Why is that rational to exclude it?
As for taking down Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – yes, tragically, that is exactly what Hume did. Hume showed that this foundational idea of the Greeks, that what is natural is good, is false / irrational — or at least he showed that we haven’t found an argument for it… yet.
Jimmy: One thing at a time. Here’s Hume. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given. A reason should be given, not that the project is impossible.
Henry: I totally agree. I don’t see a reason why it’s impossible. Has an argument been discovered or invented for it yet, that you know of?
Jimmy: If you are truly interested Henry, look into Socrates and see how the thinking developed. The Stoics are kind of an offshoot of the Cynics.
Henry: Socrates and the Cynics believe that what is natural is good. This Ethical Naturalism article you cited explains, “Ethical naturalism encompasses any reduction of ethical properties, such as ‘goodness’, to non-ethical properties; there are many different examples of such reductions, and thus many different varieties of ethical naturalism. Hedonism, for example, is the view that goodness is ultimately just pleasure.” In other words, apparently, Hedonism can be justified just as easily by ethical naturalism as the Stoic philosophical life and its virtues. How can you use this “Ethical Naturalism” to defend the Stoic virtues?
Jimmy: This is the core of your misunderstanding. Only human intentions, human actions can be good or bad. Nature/Cosmos/Logos is rational and providential. This is general nature. Let’s use logos as a synonym for nature, they are one and the same.
Our particular logos is a subset of the general logos, so to accord with the logos we should (if we so desire) align our particular logos with the general logos. Then we will experience eudaemonia, spiritual well being.
That people are violent is true but violence is neither rational nor does it act towards the general good and is thus against the logos, is against our true nature.
These people are acting in error, they think they are doing good, as they see it, but this is the opposite of wisdom, Amathia (great word) disknowledge, unlearning.
Henry: I think this is all beautiful but I think we’re just back to the same problem as before. If the general logos is the source of reason, and the general logos has imbued its subsets, including ours, with violence, then why shouldn’t violence be rational? Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge is also a system of virtue ethics, I suppose. Teachers working in the fields until they die is one of their virtues. I’m reluctant to use such a strong example, but perhaps you get my drift – there are lots of possible systems of virtue ethics, i.e. seeing particular things as ends in themselves. What we’re after is a reason-based virtue ethics. That’s the original promise of Socrates and Stoic philosophy.
Jimmy: The Epicureans “follow nature/follow virtue” no less than the Stoics. There is simply that the Epicureans think virtues necessary for pleasure, whereas the Stoics find them sufficient.
Henry: Both the Epicureans and Stoics, and all the Greek schools, are undermined by Hume’s argument
Jimmy: Hume says is that an explanation is required and having goals provides explanations. Hume is a caveat to moral arguments, not a divine law forbidding them….
Henry: What is the reason to pick one goal over another? What is the reason to pick one of the four Stoic virtues as a goal instead of the goal “kill that person” over there?
Jimmy: I have to go, that we don’t pick goals that fuck things up is the key, and we can learn how to do that. Killing people generally turns out badly in terms of personal guilt, harm to other people and harm to society. Stoicism is all about not fucking up. It’s supposed to be practical. Should you run people over when driving to work? If not, why not?
Henry: Socrates was given the opportunity to leave Athens rather than face the trial. It would have been practical for him to do so. Instead, he stayed in Athens, and he drank the hemlock. Cato, too. Seneca, too etc.
Yes, Stoic philosophy is practical in the sense of “living out a practice,” but its ends can be extremely impractical, demanding that we act according to virtues like courage that require great difficulties and dangers. And it relies on the argument that its particular and (to outsiders) peculiar ends, its virtues — which can even entail suicide — are good and rational.
Is your argument that I wouldn’t run people over while driving to work that Stoic Philosophy is, so to speak, common sense? It seems to me that “common sense” is exactly what Socrates, the Cynics and the Stoics attack in their drive to live a reason-based life.
Jimmy: Nobody said it was easy. You asked why we don’t decide to kill people and I replied. It is generally common sense, we consider our actions, the urges that push us to action.
Massimo: Henry, I see lots of comments already, but the answer is actually simple: the Stoics were concerned with the *best* attributes of human nature, which are cooperation as social animals and ability to reason. They were perfectly aware that human beings are also naturally violent, angry, etc.. But they thought it empirically obvious that we do great things when we cooperate and use reason, not when we destroy things out of anger and greed.
Henry: Massimo Pigliucci… Thanks kindly – good thoughts.
In this crazy-long comment-chain — I have never been in a longer one in my life I think — we did already touch on this question of *best* attributes.
I absolutely agree with you that the ancient Stoics believed this as you describe, that violence was a part of our nature, but not the *best* part.
The question is, is the argument behind that crucial judgment correct / reasonable?
Moreover even if it is correct / reasonable, how do we discriminate between the things we do through cooperation that we might suspect are “not great” (Pol Pot’s soldiers cooperating to sweep away the teachers of Cambodia to the countryside, for example) and the ones that are?
More important though is the first question. Why is it empirically true or obvious that the things we do through cooperation and reason are “great things” and the ones we do through, say, violence are not?
One idea that comes to mind would be that empirically human beings are able to do, create, build, grow, etc. more by cooperating.
It certainly does appear that from nature, cooperation is the true killer app / naturally selected trait. By certain measures, we are the most successful species on the planet. By the measure of pure biomass, its ants. But either way, ants or humans, it’s a species that thrives on cooperation.
But that still seems flawed, because then the argument is that the root of Stoic philosophy is cooperation because it enables our species to grow more. First of all, that would not make cooperation an end in itself — our species growth would be the true end. But if that was our true end, then there might be all sorts of weird logical consequences: for example, maybe each man should marry 6 women, as suggested in the imagined bunkers of Dr. Strangelove; birth control should be abolished, or other such measures.
Jimmy: The two Stoic axioms are that
a) Humans are rational
b) Humans are social.
Never ending population growth after a point would be an irrational goal as it is not sustainable and would ultimately be harmful.
Massimo: Any philosophy is established on axioms. The Stoic ones are those listed by Jimmy above. They are good enough for me. One can argue that different axioms yield a better philosophy, like Epicureanism. Maybe, but there are good arguments developed by the Stoics against other philosophies. Moreover, I think the quest for a philosophy that is universally true and based on indisputable axioms is a fool’s errand, and we shouldn’t waste our time with it.
Henry: Thank you for your words that Stoic philosophy for you is established on axioms. I acknowledge that, just as a Christian philosopher can develop arguments from a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” so, too, can a member of a Hellenistic school. And they can have a certain circumscribed integrity on the other side of that leap, acknowledging that it is held on the other side by faith or a decision to believe.
Nevertheless I charge that the great strength of Socrates and the Stoic philosophy that followed him is that they did not say, “just do it because it’s listed in my axioms on this tablet (from god, or from myself)”, but rather used arguments and reasoning to discover axioms that were, so far as they knew at the time, true.
Through that they won a true integrity (wholeness) – acting rationally, acting in the way that is right – that it’s hard for us, in this post-modern age where picking a philosophy or a religion might as well be a trip to the shopping mall, to even imagine.
If the axioms on which we build Stoic philosophy are false – i.e. not “universally true” and “indisputable” then how can we build “good arguments” against Epicureanism, Hedonism, racism, or any other type of system?
If it isn’t true that the Stoic virtues are ends in themselves, but rather a matter of preference, then how can a system of philosophy that argues virtue is the true good help us to live with integrity?
Jimmy: Nobody said Stoicism wasn’t falsifiable in principle. It is scientific in that regard. You are free to argue that a life lived foolishly is superior, by whichever criteria you choose, to one lived wisely. Stoicism is very robust and above all coherent.
Kimel: What I want to suggest to you here is that Bentham was right, and every great philosophy is secretly built on an Epicurean basis—that is, they all come down to assertions about “the Good” from a human perspective based on unnecessary torment being “the Bad” (and I want to suggest to you that its elimination is at least “the Good” even if whether Pleasure is the only Good is another story.) In this case, from a deductive framework, I could argue that virtues are Good from a rule utilitarian perspective because when people act bravely, wisely, judiciously, etc., there is more happiness overall and less pain in society. Virtues are “good” because of their effects.
I think that until now in the history of philosophy, different schools have dueled each other trying to prove that each was the One. But the truth is, the world is complex, and just as we can view reality through a telescope, a magnifying glass, or even a distorting lens, we can consider human relations from the perspective of different philosophical schools, and only act after weighing the pros and cons from a variety of different frameworks. E.g., while one might not be a Marxist, applying a Marxist lens to questions about social change can help to illuminate specific dynamics associated with, for instance, class struggle. This is why so much of the work of people like Freud remains interesting and relevant despite the fact that few psychiatrists today subscribe strictly to his specific model of the human spirit; applying his model, however bizarre it sometimes appears, can help to emphasize and clarify the role of forces like family interaction in early childhood and repressed memories in shaping character. Ideally, scholars should use a variety of thematic lenses to examine a subject from different vantage points; many, however, stick strictly to their favorite set of glasses, stubbornly ignoring the microscopes and binoculars of the world and complaining that such apparatuses blur vision because they cannot learn to refocus their vision. You know my interest in using the lens of complexity theory, which accentuates the role of the unexpected, the contingent, and the probabilistic on history.
If we use this model, I think that the argument I gave in my first response provides an answer to Hume, even if we need to use a little Epicurean logic. To me, there are two separate but related themes of Stoicism. One emphasizes the importance of enduring adversity with a calm mind, and the other talks about being in harmony with Nature. The Stoics draw the conclusion you should endure adversity with a calm mind from the principle we should be in harmony with Nature, and that is why the two branches exist—they’re interrelated. But an Epicurean is perhaps the opposite—he begins from the deductively defensible position that pain is the bad (“because it just is”), and then shows that by enduring adversity with a calm mind and being balanced in our dealings with existence, we reduce pain. From here, I tried to bridge back to Stoic arguments; the way to endure adversity with a calm mind and be balanced in our dealings with the world is to detach ourselves emotionally from the idea of loss and practice virtue ethics. I don’t know if any Epicurean philosopher ever put it quite like that, but that line of reasoning actually seems pretty implicit in this school of thought—and this, Henry, is the reason that in practice, the Stoics and Epicureans behaved in the same way, even though they argued about first principles.
But according to the model I just presented, we can provide a deductive basis for major themes in Stoicism from an Epicurean foundation, and the philosophies aren’t at odds. The only people who think they’re at odds are the insistent people on this thread who won’t let go of the idea that “being in harmony with nature is good” doesn’t need to be questioned as a first principle. The first principle I give you is better—pain is bad from a human perspective and its removal is good. Unnecessary torment being bad (at least in part) is the only question to which the answer “it just is” is sufficient–it’s how we feel.
Jimmy: The big axiomatic difference between Stoic and Epicureans is that Stoics thought the principle of all life was self preservation and that pleasure was secondary, a marker if you like, roughly equating to pleasurable stuff is likely to be helpful… My favorite quote by Epicurus:
Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy ; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.
Kimel: There are other pleasures beyond those accessed through virtue, no matter what the ancient Epicureans said. The idea that Nature/virtue are synonymous might be a Stoic axiom, but it’s an unsound principle, no matter what the ancient Stoics said. Henry and Hume’s challenge was to defend Stoicism on first principles, which requires more than presenting the arguments of ancient authors. The closest I’ve seen is a vague reference to the idea of oikeiosis and the idea that survival is a better first principle than eliminating pain and maximizing virtue. But I think my “neo-Epicurean” answer to Hume is more effective.
Jimmy: We’ve been through that, Hume’s challenge is surmounted by postulating goal directed behaviour.
In order to achieve X we ought to Y.
It is no different for Utilitarians or Stoics or Transhumanists in fact….
Kimel: You’re just reasserting that nature is the good. It’s not a sound argument.
Jimmy: Nature being synonymous with wisdom, the axiom is that being wise is better than being dumb….Would you take issue with that?
Kimel: Yes, because nature is not exclusively synonymous with wisdom. And notice how you Stoics use “nature” in this slippery way where sometimes you refer to the laws of physics, sometimes to human nature, and now evidently to wisdom.
Jimmy: Phusis is the ancient Greek word for “nature,” cognate with the verb “to grow” (phuein ); as in English, it can be used both for the natural world as a whole and for the “nature” (i.e., the essential or intrinsic characteristics) of any particular thing, which it has “by nature” (phusei ). We are Homo sapiens.
Kimel: Yeah, a species that murders, lies, etc. Its nature isn’t exclusively to be wise, and the nature of the world around it is hugely cruel. Your only answer now must be, we must maximize the wise to maximize the good. But honestly, what is the good? I define it as the elimination of pain and maximization of love, etc. You seem to think virtues are good in themselves (Milton’s Satan must be an exemplar for you, as he is brave, wise, independent, ambitious, etc.) Truly, the virtues are not good in themselves unless married to ends that maximize happiness and minimize pain. Yet whatever the case, the idea we should “be in harmony with nature to maximize survival” leads to Machiavelli, not virtue ethics. Another thing Stoics now try to do is show that things like anger are “unnatural” to get away from the idea that our nature is anything less than the Good, which they define as the logical and unemotional.
Jimmy: You are throwing out a lot of stuff there. The onset of anger is natural, to give in to it, to nurture it unwise…
Jimmy: Have you not read Seneca?
Kimel: Yeah, but he’s wrong.
Jimmy: Is that your whole hypothesis? Under which circumstances is it best to nurture anger? To be carried away by it?
Kimel: There exist circumstances in which it is right to be angry, like perceiving deliberate cruelty for its own sake being perpetuated and doing nothing about it. The initial spark of anger can inspire efficacious action to best correct the injustice. Anger needn’t be untempered by wisdom. So Anger too has its place. Also, when you get carried away by anger, there’s sometimes cathartic value. The momentary release of anger perhaps creates scope for more moderation later.
Jimmy: You have just paraphrased Seneca.
Kimel: I don’t disagree with everything in Seneca. I just disagree with him that anger is unnatural.
Jimmy: But you are saying the same thing as Seneca… Protopassions.
Kimel: Did he say anger is natural and it leads to a cathartic release potentially making more moderate and wise behavior more likely afterwards? I don’t think so. Also even if anger is manifested viciously, it is still 100% natural.
Jimmy: Honestly David, I might suggest that you find out what the Stoics actually thoughts before you attack what you think they thought.
Kimel: Cool. Nice chatting!
Kimel: The way to answer me from a Stoic perspective wasn’t to argue about ancient authors and who is better read and understands them better, but to try to derive deductive arguments for being in harmony with nature from first principles without recourse to pleasure and pain.
Jimmy: Because the individual is defined by the society in which they live. Harm to the one is harm to the whole, harm to the whole is harm to the one…
Kimel: Nature is more beautiful than good.
Jimmy: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” J S Mill
Massimo: I really don’t think Bentham was right, and an Epicurean philosophy is highly problematic, as it includes a withdrawal from public and political life.
As for the Stoic axioms, they did defend them with arguments, they didn’t just pluck them out of nowhere. But philosophers tend to agree these days that every argument at some point runs into a floor below which there is no further justification. Like in geometry, either the axioms are self evidently true or useful or they are not. I find the Stoic ones to be both true and useful, but of course opinions vary.
Kimel: That sounds like an excuse not to provide justifications for being in harmony with nature from first principles without recourse to pleasure and pain, and somehow deriving virtue ethics from that.
Jimmy: You might try somes scholarly sources for that: I’m not an academic. It is a very robust philosophy that held sway for around 500 years, it would be a shame to write it off as bollocks before having a good look. You might even find inspiration. https://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Companion…/dp/0521779855
Kimel: I never, ever said it was bullocks. Read over my original comments again. Sometimes a Stoic prism is useful, but to try to provide it with a deductive basis, you need recourse to pleasure/pain. Good discussion!
Jimmy: Are you simply saying that any ethics that isn’t utilitarian is impossible? Bit dogmatic. Utilitarianism itself is far from without criticism.
Kimel: I’m saying that all philosophies involve “the good,” the elimination of unnecessary pain and the maximization of virtuous pleasure is clearly “the good” from a human perspective, and pain and pleasure (broadly defined, including love, a free imagination, a fully articulated and varied existence, etc.) are the correct first principles to work with.
Jimmy: All? Only consequentialist ethics. Not virtue ethics or deontological ethics. Locke and Kant didn’t work like that.
Massimo: David, again, most philosophers don’t think there is such thing as “first principles”. Try to provide an example and you’ll see I can always come back and ask “why?”
Kimel: Virtue ethics can only be justified from a utilitarian perspective in the end, I think. The virtues are good because when generally applied, they make society have a greater capacity for love and happiness. But let’s not get into it. Anyway, I’m not interested in rehashing the arguments of the old philosophers. I’m interested in truth. Intense thread! Massimo, if that’s your answer to Hume and you’re sufficiently confident, then that’s dope (by which I mean chill, not dumb), but it requires a leap of faith.
Massimo: David, maximizing pleasure is very obviously not the highest good.
Kimel: Depends how we define pleasure, doesn’t it…? Aren’t love and contribution to the maximization of artistic and scientific progress examples of some of the highest pleasures, and the elimination of unnecessary pain a virtue? And anyway, Transhumanism increases the capacity for the Good by increasing the potential for pleasure, wisdom, and sundry other virtues.
Massimo: David, if you want to play sophistic games with the definition of pleasure I’m not joining you. But to claim that virtue ethics can only be justified on utilitarian grounds is to profoundly misunderstand both virtue ethics and utilitarianism.
Kimel: Then please justify virtue ethics for me on the basis of first principles other than pleasure and pain. But when you say be in harmony with “nature,” don’t play the same sophistic games you suggest I play with “pleasure.” Also, the idea that all people inspired by Epicurean philosophy should withdraw from political life because some ancient Epicureans did is bad logic. We can debate about how to maximize and experience different forms of pleasure, including the pleasure of participating in a democratic community (as a Transhumanist I identify pleasure with the elimination of unwanted torment and the maximization of progress through art and science), but you can’t provide any justification for virtue or Stoic principles without recourse to pleasure and pain. At least not on this thread.
Jimmy: What are your thoughts on Kantian ethics?
Massimo: And David, did you miss the part where I said that nothing can be justified from first principles? As for my allegedly bad logic, we agree that a modern Epicurean doesn’t have to accept everything Epicurus said, though I would then like you to extend the same courtesy to the Stoics.
Kimel: That’s why I’m a Transhumanist, not an Epicurean, but we and the Utilitarians are their evolutionary descendants… Jimmy, the categorical imperative is unsound. There is no justification for why universalizing an action and its hypothetical effects should decide whether it should be morally permissible to me as an individual. It’s based on the intuition that it’s bad to make moral exceptions for ourselves, but as a general formula for deciding on an action’s morality, it clearly fails–think of the example of lying to a murderer to prevent his killing his next victims. That example always causes Kantians a lot of trouble… however, given that I think we should use different philosophies non-mutually exclusively to gain insight on how to act, and it’s worth considering Kant’s perspective too. Also please see earthasitis.com for my refutation of Kantian aesthetics (it’s under “philosophy”)
Henry: One thing I will say, this thread is the most intense that I’ve ever been in.Massimo you write of Stoic axioms, “they are good enough for me” and “I find the Stoic ones to be useful.” What is the measure you use for useful and good enough? It can’t be happiness. That is, we both agree, not the measure that the Stoics use for themselves. It’s a more Epicurean measure and as you write, and I agree, “Epicurean philosophy is highly problematic.” It can’t be reason, because we’ve already ascertained that they are not “universally true” or “indisputable” – i.e., in more simple words, they are not true. One of the great insights of Stoic philosophy is that we cannot hold two contradictory impressions in our mind at the same time. We must waver between them in a kind of painful cognitive dissonance. This is one of the reasons that reasoned integrity can bring us joy. Thus we cannot find something to be both true and not true at the same time. Either the logic behind Stoic axioms is true, or it is false. Our mind cannot handle a middle ground there – at best it could waver between them. What is the measure by which you determine that Stoic philosophy’s axioms, in light of Hume, are good enough or useful?
Massimo: Henry, because they resonate with my understanding of human nature, and if followed provide meaning to my life and make me more useful to society. What else would I want?
Kimel: Problem is, I can say that any philosophy or religion “resonates with my understanding of human nature;” it’s subjective, and dependent on my life experience and upbringing. The idea of Stoicism adding value to life through more meaning and leading to more “usefulness” for society sounds pretty Epicurean/utilitarian to me–the reason it’s “good” is that it leads to more happiness for you and society.
Henry: Yes, I agree with you David. “Resonates with my understanding of human nature” – do you mean it subjectively or objectively? It sounds subjective to me. And “more meaning” sounds like a term that, when carefully scrutinized and broken down, would turn out to be “happiness.”
Massimo: Okay people, please give me an example of any philosophy that doesn’t resonate “subjectively.” What, are we talking math now?
Kimel: Massimo, I agree with you–but some philosophies have stronger rational foundations than others, and are hence more appealing to logical thinkers across cultures–they “resonate” more strongly because their foundational principles are rigorously sound.
Massimo: Indeed, and the Stoic one is one of the strongest I know of. That’s not at all mutually exclusive with its tenets “resonating” with me at a subjective level, no?
Kimel: Well, it speaks highly to your character that you took the time and energy to engage in a multi-day debate on this topic examining the underpinnings of your belief system. We might not agree on lots of things, but I think that your participation shows great depth of character and patience on your part, and I thank you for it. Without question, this is one of the most thought provoking discussions I’ve been involved in…
Henry: Massimo, I can absolutely respect and honor that as a leap of faith as David referred to it earlier, just as I respect my best friend who is a Catholic, and who has many reasoned arguments built upon his leap of faith. It seems to be problematic philosophically though for two reasons.
First, it seems to me that we cannot capture the deep and profound sense of integrity that the ancient Stoic philosophers lived out. To them, their virtues were “absolutely true”, the fruit of pure reason. That integrity of being empowered them in all kinds of ways. It made them into teachers. Above all, I think it really motivated them. For our minds, as mentioned above regarding contradiction, there is all the difference in the world between, “in my opinion cooperation is a good thing, but I respect your opinion that non-cooperation is good” and “Cooperation IS the good. I respect you as a reasoning being. And while my reasoning may be incorrect, would you like to reason-out together whether cooperation is good?”
Second, there seem to be real reasons to question your understanding of human nature — as much as I really want to share it (and in many ways I do share it, because I do believe that cooperation plays an enormous and beautiful role in our being). It appears that violence / power, as I described at the beginning of this thread, is a major element in us that plays a role in all kinds of ways, even in our fundamental sexuality. If we are going to call our reasoning cooperativeness higher than that, the increasingly decadent post-modern world is going to ask us why. And we should go out to them with beautiful reasons.
Jimmy: To quote Marcus Aurelius, If thou findest in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude, and, in a word, anything better than thy own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason, and in the condition that is assigned to thee without thy own choice; if, I say, thou seest anything better than this, turn to it with all thy soul…
Henry: Jimmy, this is probably my favorite passage from Marcus Aurelius. Thanks for quoting it. As he summarizes, “and, in a word, anything better than thy own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason…”
No, I haven’t found anything in human life better than that, better than “my own mind’s self-satisfaction” in the fruits of “right reason.” That is exactly the reason why I am here, participating in this argument: because my “right reason” demands reasons for my actions. Only then can I enjoy my “mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables me to do according to right reason.”
Justice, truth, temperance, fortitude – all depend on each other, and all depend on truth. Are the axioms behind Stoic philosophy true? Or are they just a subjective matter of opinion?
Jimmy: It’s a bit of a tough question to answer since you don’t appear to want to do the heavy lifting yourself.
If you had an end of year exam question, “What did the Hellenistic philosophers mean by Phusis” I strongly suspect your reply might be “Well I didn’t read any of the big books and those assholes on Facebook wouldn’t give me a straight answer”
If you want a logical proof you can look to Becker’s work, which you can get now on Kindle.
Is virtue true?
The Greek word is Arete, which I think is better translated as “excellence”, excellence of one’s kind.
Should we try to be “better people”, I think so, what is the counter argument?
If you want to know what that means, to be a “better human”, I think once you have asked the question you are on the way to being a Stoic.
That as axioms the stoics have
a) Humans are capable of rationality: Pretty self-evident
b) Humans are social animals: Pretty self evident.
The body of Stoic philosophy is a mish-mash of deduction, observation, a dash of logic, but the thing, epistemologically, that makes it all hang together is its coherence.
Kimel: Henry is exceptionally well read and no dilettante, and he’s brave enough to interrogate the logical underpinnings of the philosophy instead of taking them for granted. Why are the virtues good? I argue that when applied from a rule utilitarian perspective, they maximize happiness and minimize the unhappiness of injustice. Obviously you guys don’t agree with me (and neither does Henry.) But there’s no easy answer to Hume’s objections in any of the writing of this thread, though a lot of condescension. (For example, you say Henry and I are unread and don’t understand, and Massimo even wrote an article trashing my entire philosophical school when it’s clear he’s not very familiar with actual Transhumanist thinking–imagine I wrote, “Why we don’t need Stoicism” and actually wasn’t informed at all.) If ya’ll want to preach to the choir, go for it, but Socrates would not approve.
Jimmy: David: we discussed Hume, if there is a telos is to ought is easy.
Basketball players ought to be fit.
Where is the problem?
Kimel: Because that statement is not logically equivalent to “Humans ought to live in harmony with nature as a first principle.”
I think what Henry was looking for is probably something like this. Let’s define Nature in the broadest sense—encompassing both human nature and the natural order of things.
Take it as a given that self awareness + logic = will to preserve oneself OR, Take it as a given that self preservation = “the good” (Jimmy was on the right track that this is a workable first principle, even if a problematic one–a machine could become conscious and logically conclude it wants to die, for all we know.)
How is one best able to preserve oneself? Let’s say the answer is, “One should live in harmony with one’s nature and the nature of the world around it.”
Well, humans are civilizing, logical, and virtuous by definition (that is, humans are distinguished from “Creatures” qua their humanity by these virtuous tendencies; they are what it means to be a human and not a beast—the other aspects exist, but they are held in common by lower beings, and only humans by definition civilizing, logical, and virtuous)
Hence, humans should live cooperatively, rationally, and virtuously in harmony with their nature and Nature.
We could even take it further and say that to act virtuously is in harmony with the natural order of things, which are often random and cruel from a human perspective. But by cooperating, we minimize that randomness and maximize the potential for freedom and virtue.
I do not agree with the above, but it’s at least a start. (Rationalism is not always the appropriate response if you hope to lead a fully textured emotional existence; self preservation as “the good” is a subjective judgment; I think that happiness and the elimination of torment are much better first principles than the mere will to survive, which actually leads down a Machiavellian road; the idea that what makes human human is their unique capacity for virtue is not only problematic, but ignores the refined wickedness of which we are not only uniquely capable, but can sometimes actually helps us to survive from a rational perspective; at the same time, under an honest lens, the virtues are really such because they inherently maximize happiness and minimize pain from a rule utilitarian perspective–that is a more satisfactory answer as to WHY they are good than “they just are.”)
Jimmy: You missed “all acts should be directed towards the social good”
Kimel: I disagree with that idea so strongly I didn’t even want to mention it. I think it’s been used to justify a lot of evil historically. I could argue that one of our primary obligations is to our own imaginations and maximizing the capacity for its freedom, etc. The Stoics take too much for granted. What about “fun” as an end in itself?
Jimmy: What about cocaine and pizza?
Kimel: I prefer onions on my pizza.
Henry: David I think that the Stoic philosophers were on to a major discovery about happiness which undermines Utilitarianism, roughly speaking the Hedonistic Paradox. The Stoic argument to pursue what is right & good, i.e. virtue, and that through that, as a side-effect, we will experience happiness or joy – appears to be correct and is, in my opinion, one of their wisest insights. As Thoreau, a great reader of the Stoics, writes from Walden Pond, “Happiness is like a butterfly. If you chase it, it will fly away from you. But if you put your mind on other things, it will come and land gently on your shoulder.” More specifically the Stoics your mind shouldn’t just be on “other things”, but on virtue. The Wikipedia page for it has a wonderful collection of observations along these lines. I am going to paste them here below because they are delightful. Even John Stuart Mill noticed this effect.
Kimel: I’m afraid I don’t have time to get into a defense of Epicurus or Utilitarianism today, but I’m a Transhumanist and recognize we belong to the same evolutionary family. I can give you arguments starting from the first principle that unnecessary torment is “the bad” to build up to a philosophy which endorses not only virtue ethics, but the promotion of scientific and artistic progress as one of the highest goods. And I can do it from sound first principles.
Ben: Your first principle is problematic for a few reasons. In fact nearly every word in the sentence is problematic in a first principle…
‘Unnecessary’ is only a straight forward matter in toy cases. As soon as rubber hits the road, you may have a problem justifying this prescription without reference to some far more fundamental principles.
Secondly, ‘the’ bad, rather than ‘a’ bad is a very hard position to defend. I can think of many bads that are unrelated to physical torment.
Thirdly, why specify physical? it seems that the most painful situations for us humans are often psychological.
Fourthly, why torment itself, rather than the wilful inflicting of torment? This would certainly make more sense if, as you claim, you wish to develop frmo this principle into a for of virtue ethics.
Kimel: You’re right, it’s “a bad,” but one we all agree upon as rational humans, so it’s a hot starting point. Unnecessary means things like the pain of disease–some things are more unambiguously unnecessary than others. Eliminating the pain of illness is a great place to start. Also, torment can be physical or emotional. Finally, torment can be inflicted by inanimate things like genes. I don’t buy the Stoic argument that non animate things cannot be evil–they can be evil to the degree they participate in the torment of humans.
Ben: Why is disease unnecessary, out of interest? You mean treatable diseases? That seems to lead to a position in which pharmacology is the most ethics route one can take with one’s life. Should we also remove the possibility of physcal harm whenever that possibility arises, seeing how it avoids such a big evil in the world?
Why do sane and happy people put themselves in positions to hurt themselves every day? Why do kind and brave people die every day, willingly? Must it be a hedonic calculus, whirring away underneath the conscious mind, as a final cause?
Would we say that a kind woman, who had been brave and reflective in her convictions, who had loved and cared for many people in her life, but who dies of Hepatitis C at the age of 60 has lived a bad life? If not, what countervailing forces of good are at play, which render the bad so ineffectual? Wouldn’t these forces, then, be a better place to start in our inquiry into the bad and the good?
Would we say that a kind woman, who had been brave and reflective in her convictions, who had loved and cared for many people in her life, but who dies of Hepatitis C at the age of 60 has lived a bad life? If not, what countervailing forces of good are at play, which render the bad so ineffectual? Wouldn’t these forces, then, be a better place to start in our inquiry into the bad and the good?
Kimel: You pose some great questions. I don’t want to hijack this thread, since this is super off topic at this point. So let’s agree to fight this out another day. But this is what I’ll say.
Pain is bad, but boredom is a kind of pain too, etc. And a society with everyone involved in one kind of job, for which many are unsuited, would not be a very happy or interesting one. The idea isn’t just to eliminate torment (for then I could blow up the planet and it would be free of torture), but to maximize the capacity for love and the freedom of the imagination. And I can argue that this only comes from maximizing the production of inspirational art, science, etc–we value “meaningful contributions to progress,” progress being defined as an increasingly lucid understanding of reality forged from the insights of autonomous contributors whose imaginations are liberated (high IQ, curable diseases treated, etc) .
Self sacrifice is beautiful because it comes from love, which is another good in itself in many circumstances. By cultivating the freedom of the imagination, I can argue we will maximize chances for love in the long term.
The woman who died lived an existential life–the whole thing wasn’t good or bad objectively, that’s a subjective judgment. But the circumstances of her ending were bad qua unwanted pain.
The last thing I’ll say for today is that Bentham was profoundly right about at least one thing–all philosophies talk about “the good,” and insofar as that’s true, it follows we should think about how to maximize it. The question is how to define the good–physical pleasure is one good, but not necessarily the only good in all circumstances. But Transhumanism maximizes the capacity for the good in general by liberating the human imagination from the constraints of the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune, empowering us to understand the world and manipulate its parts to good ends (ends maximizing the power of the imagination and minimizing physical torment) with increasing power and efficiency.
Jimmy: Is L Ron Hubbard involved?
Kimel: Why are you so intolerant of transhumanism? This is the cliff notes version of my formulation.
The first principle has to involve a quale, because that’s a unique entity where it is sufficient to say “because it just is” as an answer to why it is what it is. And unwanted unnecessary physical and spiritual torment being bad from a human perspective is the result of its identity qua being a quale. Then, think about how nature is bad from a human perspective to the extent that there is a lot of unwanted torment that serves no good end for humans, and also because the imagination is enslaved to the circumstantial and genetic wheel of fortune, which leads to more torment, and less ability to maximize the good (less pain and more possibility for freedom, love, imagination, and happiness) through virtue, etc. But man’s nature is logical, artistic, and cooperative–so he should use his intellect to maximize the power of science to eliminate unwanted pain while simultaneously liberating the imagination from the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune, leading to more scientific progress, art, love, and freedom in the future.
Jimmy: I’d never heard of transhumanism before you mentioned it. At first glance it strikes me as more Marvel than Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Mandela. It has echoes of Buddhism no? Life is suffering, salvation from the wheel of life, transformation into superior beings.
Kimel: The way I see it, part of it is about making sure all people get access to the amazing advances in medicine unfolding now, not just elites. No one is superior to anyone, but some people are lucky to be healthier and have more active powers of imagination than others… It’s a very noble philosophy at its best, but like all schools of thought, I’m not the only Transhumanist, and to be fair, my understanding of the movement is unique to me. I didn’t read that defense of it somewhere, I just thought it up.
Jimmy: The pessimism is very Buddhist. I think life is great.
Kimel: So do I! That’s why we should maximize everyone’s chances to pursue happiness in their lives with as little torment as possible. Funny, how we both “accused” each other of Buddhist principles on this thread. The truth is, I’m no expert in it.
Jimmy: I’m no psychoanalyst but you seem to be rather more dark in your views. Not too hot, not too cold, water falls from the sky, food comes, out of the ground, we are here to support each other. La vie est belle.
Kimel: Again, nature is more beautiful than good. Perhaps not thinking about the torment of existence is an example of philosophical privilege… but anyway, Transhumanism is the philosophy that leads to the most happiness and fun through scientific progress, amazing simulations, great conversations between geniuses, etc. There’s a whole lot to counterbalance the bleakness we are fighting to overcome.
Jimmy: I take it you know the anthropic principle. Bleakness? Where do you live?
Kimel: New Haven, Connecticut! I am a human being, so the welfare of the human imagination and its capacity to contribute to progress is what concerns me. On earth as it is, there’s a whole lot of bleakness that we take for granted bound to our enslavement to the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune. Stoics are good at smiling through thunderstorms. Transhumanists dare to imagine controlling the weather. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.