CLAS 196/PHIL 196
An Overview of Stoic Ethics
- This overview will, one hopes, raise more questions than it
- Please be patient: not every question can be answered at this
- We need to note our questions and see whether in the course of
further readings, we find answers, as well as whether we think
Stoicism really is as it is described here. We may also find
that there is more than one version of Stoicism, just as there
is more than one version of Christianity or moral realism.
- some questions:
- what does the stoic say about justice and injustice in
society: can the stoic simply watch and do nothing as grave
injustices occur around him or her?
- what is the positive content of virtue and happiness: the
stoics have removed most of the things ordinary people value
from the realm of virtue and happiness: what is left?
- what is the Stoic account of human agency?
- Much of what is presented here will seem preposterous, even
ludicrous. It will take time to build up our story of the Stoics
to the point where we can see why they were attracted to these
positions. For now, we need to know about the positions, but we
do not need to agree with them or even feel as if we understand
the arguments for them.
First, a few simple concepts:
Now for the outline of Stoic ethics promised
- all humans aim at happiness as that for the sake of which
everything else is done
- That is just what happiness is as the stoics see it: the
goal of all our activities.
- IT IS NOT A GIDDY MOMENTARY FEELING: the word translated as
"happiness" is better translated as "human well-being": please
please please keep that in mind. It will avoid many confusions
- human nature
- rationality in particular is characteristic of human
- cosmic nature
- the larger system of which everything is a part
- this larger system is "governed" by god
- Stoics call that god Zeus
- the way things are: what things really are or in optimal
conditions could be is their nature
- virtue is the only good and the only thing which can make
- the word translated as "virtue" could also mean "excellence"
- one good way to think of it is that the virtue of any X
would be being a perfect/excellent X, not just any old
- everything in a human life aside from virtue is indifferent
- that is, it is neither good nor vicious
- it does not matter when compared with virtue and vice
- indifferents come in two sorts
- those which, all else aside, are preferable/promoted/preferred
- e.g. all else considered, I'd rather have breakfast,
live, have happy children, have a nice piece of art, be
- those which, all else aside, are dispreferable/demoted/dispreferred
- e.g. all else considered, I'd rather not be
hungry, vomit, die, be roasted on a
spit, watch my family die, be poor, have
- "vice" and "vicious" are just words for "bad": i.e. whatever
is not virtuous: there is no big distinction between "bad",
"sinful", "evil," and "(morally) wrong"
- Desire, Dejection, Pleasure, Fear
- emotional disturbances caused by false beliefs about good
- I fear death because I believe it is bad
- Take away the belief, and the fear itself goes away
- I take pleasure in reputation because I think it is a good
- Take a way the belief that reputation really matters,
and I won't take pleasure in it
- note that "desire" here is not completely synonymous with
how we use desire: be careful not to object based on your
own equivocation: if you object, try to object based on what
the terms really mean in the Stoic view, not what we mean by
- Selection, disselection
- technical-term translations used for how the stoic chooses
certain indifferents and rejects others
- don't think of this as the same as the ordinary English word
- the words are meant to be technical terms for a Stoic
Our challenge in the course is to be able to formulate explanations
of these doctrines and why reasonable people might want to accept
- The ultimate goal of all our activities is "happiness"
- Happiness consists in following nature
- the cosmic nature of things as Zeus directs it, within
which each of us exists
- By following nature, we will be happy
- and we will also be virtuous by following nature.
- Only the virtuous are happy: there is no other way to be
happy than to be virtuous.
- That is because virtue is the ONLY thing that is good.
- virtue is transformative knowledge
- knowing it transforms your life
- we can call this the soteriology
- Other candidates for goodness are all mistaken.
- Moments of Elation (i.e. the most common English meaning
- "Good" Fortune
- all not good
- but also
- Ill health
- "Bad" Fortune
- all also not good (AND not bad either!)
- "not good" does not mean they are vicious/bad
- Rather, they are all indifferents
- They simply have no place as factors in reckonings of good
- None of them harm us
- None of them make us unhappy
- So what makes us unhappy?
- and everyone is vicious
- this means everyone: Socrates, Zeno, Chrysippus, and you and
- and not only is everyone vicious, but everyone is equally
- Socrates is as vicious as the serial murderer.
- Yes, that is right. All of us, equally, vicious.
- The Stoic Sage
- Stoics speak of "the sage," who is the virtuous person
- no actual person has ever become a sage
- but the idea of a sage is useful for Stoics in their
discussions of ethics
- and virtue is possible for humans, they claim
- it is not an unrealizable goal
- rather it is extremely difficult and demanding
- (Lame?) attempt at justification: think of the ideal of
being a "true Christian" or a "true Muslim" or "perfectly at
peace with oneself" or "morally perfect" or "physically
perfect": those who are trying to do such things are never
satisfied with themselves. Just so, the stoics think
everyone falls short of the goal, but they do think it is
humanly possible to reach the goal. It's what humans are
- The stoic sage is perfectly virtuous
- all of her actions are virtuous and equally virtuous
- helping others
- saving the planet
- cutting toenails
- equally virtuous
- because they all arise from knowledge
- that knowledge creates the right intentions
- which leads to the right selections
- the selections are sufficient: it does not matter for
the sage whether or not the goals of those selections
actually come to pass
- So what are we doing when we try to follow nature?
- we are "progressing"
- Lame attempt at justification: think of the person at the
bottom of the ocean and the person one inch below the
surface: both are drowning, and equally drowning, but one is
- thus we are all vicious, and equally vicious, but some of
us are "progressing."
- "progressing," however, is not becoming more
- think of those drowning people: both are drowning, whether
1/2 inch under the surface or chained to the bottom a mile
down. One is not "more drowning."
- think of virtue like a light with a simple on-off switch:
it's on or it's off. It may reasonably be called "closer to
being on" when the switch is moved a little bit, but in a
very real sense, it is not "closer to being on," because
there is a simple fact of the matter: the switch is either
on or off. If it is off, it is just as off as any other off.
- or think of it like pregnancy: being "a little bit
pregnant" just doesn't work logically, although 1) having a
partner or donor or source of 2) viable sperm, that is 3)
put together with your egg, 4) under propitious conditions,
is perhaps like being 1/2 inch under water. Still, you're
- As vicious people
- it is vicious for us to honor our parents, give to others,
rescue children from burning buildings, save the planet, etc.
- it is also vicious for us to murder, lie, cheat, and steal
- equally vicious
- What makes all these things vicious?
- false beliefs about what is good and evil
- we think that rescuing children from burning buildings
is a good because we don't understand that their lives are
(preferred) indifferents and as such are not good or bad:
they just are
- it still might be good, for a stoic sage, to try to do
such actions: the stoic sage who tries from knowledge
and the right intentions might be doing good by trying
to do such things.
- the sage might rescue them too, but not under the
illusion that that is good: it's just a thing that the
sage selects as preferred: all things considered, the sage
selects to try to save them
- it could be that the sage distinguishes between the
goodness in the agent (which does depend on the goodness
of the goal) and the goodness of actually achieving the
goal (which is an indifferent)
- but does that really work?
- the sage's actions could be no different in outward
appearance than ours
- but if the sage failed to rescue them after trying, the
sage would feel no dejection/pain.
- think of the person who gives money to children's
charities to get access to victims
- we might say "giving the money to them is good" and yet
"victimizing them is bad": the stoics would say that
without the right dispositional knowledge, intentions,
etc., the action is not good: in fact, only actions done
by a truly good person are good
- always remind yourself that the children in this case
are "suffering" indifferents, according to the stoic:
they and we think the victimization is bad, but if they
were good little stoic girls and boys, they would be
happy anyway and would see their victimization as
- false beliefs are essential for desire, pleasure, fear,
- these beliefs are central to being good and evil because
Stoic psychology is strongly monistic: the soul is a unified
- the soul for a Stoic is the pneuma which holds you together as you and
gives you the qualities that you have that make you you
(more on this when we get to Stoic physics: for now, it's
- the soul is one thing in rational animals. Stoics
call this one thing "the commanding faculty" (hegemonikon)
- all impulses (desires, fears, selections, etc.) are
movements of this faculty and all involve assent to
propositions, and hence beliefs
- i.e. a human's desires are all acts of the rational
- knowledge of good and evil would transform the commanding
faculty and make it entirely good: soteriology (theory of
- in the absence of knowlege of good and evil, the
commanding faculty is vicious
- So how can the sage eat or do anything if the sage has no
desire or pleasure? It seems the sage has no motivation to do
this rather than that.
- desire, pleasure, fear, dejection are what motivate most
of us: we eat mostly to assuage pain or cause pleasure; we
do X to avoid dejection, etc.
- the sage's correct beliefs would banish desire, pleasure,
fear, and dejection
- sages feel no desire, pleasure, fear, or dejection
- instead, in relation to indifferents, the sage expresses
rational selection or disselection
- this is different from desire, etc. because it is
accompanied by no false belief that the thing selected is
- that thing is merely preferred
- and if the sage does not get what he/she selects, the sage
feels no dejection
- rather, whether the sage gets it or not, the sage feels a
general contentment that the cosmic order of nature is
moving along and he/she is following it
- some things the sage has simply removed from his or her
self: things like ambition, pride, etc. which plausibly do
depend on beliefs about good and evil
- other things, like thirst, hunger, need to pee, want sex,
etc. the sage is subject to and will "select" or "disselect"
depending on the preponderance of preferreds/dispreferreds,
but with the firm knowledge that they are not good or bad
- rather, they are things that are preferred
- if they don't happen, too bad, no biggie, wasn't meant
to be, tant pis,
oh well, c'est la vie,
it's neither here nor there, it's all good
- what do you want for breakfast? I'd like pancakes and
bacon, but I'd be happy with anything: that's what the
stoic says about life
- the sage observes the world
- people eat
- it generally is preferable
- people help others
- again, generally preferable
- has no dispreferable consequences
- people try to avoid injury
- people raise children
- children happen to people who have sex
- it's part of life
- generally preferable, but not for everyone
- people kill people
- generally has dispreferable consequences both
internally to the killer and externally
- so the sage selects those things, because they are
"according to human nature," but not because their
accomplishment in themselves are good
- the sage knows that irregularities occur, that fate throws
us a lot of curve balls
- some humans starve, hurt, and/or have their children die
young: there are very occasionally extreme situations
where what is legally murder might be preferable
(persistent legal spousal and child abuse?)
- that too is part of nature
- so the sage accepts them with contentment and a faith:
- the cosmic nature sometimes overrides the nature of
- cf. Job or Voltaire's Candide.
- the sage understands that things happen as they
happen, but also has faith that they are directed by
- From Epictetus' Handbook,
- Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims
ready at hand:
"Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station."
"I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven."
(Euripides, Frag. 965)
And this third:
"O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be.
Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot."
(Plato's Crito and Apology)
- Chrysippus is said to have claimed that all things
considered, he would select health, but if it became clear
to him that he was to be ill, he would select illness
- in other words, he wouldn't just make do with whatever
life throws him, he'd be happy with it: he'd make
- it seems that the sage treats life as a big package
tour: we're along for the ride, but not autonomously in
charge of our path unless we choose the path we're given:
might as well make the best of it: no use crying over
spilled milk: make lemonade
- It is the lack of false beliefs which distinguishes the sage
- sometimes the sage chooses suicide
- it might be tempting to think that the sage chooses suicide
at times of great moment, when it "makes a difference" or
there is some great moral what-not on the line
- no, the sage chooses suicide simply based on considering the
indifferents: weighing up the preferred/dispreferred, and then
opting out when there is a preponderance of dispreferred
things on the foreseeable horizon and no particular point in
toughing it out
- the sage does not choose suicide in order to do a virtuous
action, as we might think that a soldier who throws herself
on a grenade to save a platoon might "commit suicide" for a
- that sort of thing has no traction for the stoics: life is
- if it becomes impossible to be virtuous, I suppose the
sage would choose suicide, but it is hard to imagine how the
invulnerable virtue of a sage could be affected by anything
but the sage's own bad action
- Although generally humans do not choose suicide, there are
times when following nature leads to suicide
- Many find this absurd
- How can there be a preponderance of dispreferred things that
lead one to commit suicide?
- Doesn't that mean that the sage treats these dispreferreds
not as dispreferred indifferents, but rather as Bad things
- ...so bad in fact that they commit suicide to avoid
- The Stoic responds that suicide is not bad: life and death
are both simply dispreferred or preferred. They are as
nothing compared to virtue and they cannot affect virtue
(unless you let them via your false beliefs).
- Choosing one indifferent among many can never amount to
saying that that preferred is good or bad.
- And what of the non-sage Stoics?
- They can neither save their virtue nor prevent vice by
- they face the same situation vis-a-vis suicide as the
sage: the preponderance of preferred/dispreferred things may
lead them to it, and Stoics thought it was neither bad nor
good that non-sages commit suicide.
- Non-sages like us cannot be virtuous, but we can perhaps ask
"what would the sage do?" and do that. It won't make us virtuous
to do the action, however, b/c it is not a matter of simply doing the right
things: one must also have the right knowledge, motivations,
- The befitting
- Stoics define a "befitting" action as an action which,
once done, is capable of having a well-reasoned
- all the actions of a sage are befitting (but they are more
than just befitting)
- we who are not sages can do befitting actions
- it does not matter whether the justification is performed
or known by the agent him/herself.
- so this does not amount to a requirement that the sage
engage in constant, never-endable, infinite justification
of each and every action
- the definition also does not say anything about the
agent's motivation for the action: that is irrelevant for
whether the action is befitting or not.
- correct motivations are what the sage adds to befitting
- some actions of non-sages are befitting, while some are
- if they are the actions which a sage would have done in
the same situation, they are certainly befitting
- befitting actions are according to nature, but may be done
from incorrect intentions or without an actual or potential
understanding of their justification.
- we are, however, naturally attached to what is befitting (oikeios), and we can
foster that attachment.
- it might help us break through to that transformative
knowledge that is virtue
- befitting actions are done by animals and plants
- they are according to the animals' and plants' natures
- but plants and animals lack rationality and the capacity
to have knowledge
- thus the "befitting" is not a moral concept
- also, thus the person or thing doing the action does not
need itself to actually understand the justification: a
rational agent can understand the well-reasoned
justification for a plant's befitting actions, although the
- could a plant do something that is not befitting?
- one might even wonder whether a plant can really engage
in action: a rock that falls to the ground is not said to
act: are plants different?
- When it is a sage who does a befitting action, it is a "perfect" action, because it
is a befitting action done with the proper motivation and the
sage can have understanding of how the actions fit with nature,
both human and cosmic.
- does this knowledge have to be perfect?
- if so, doesn't the sage have to be god-like, or at least
super-human in cognitive capacities?
- the stoics do not seem to require that the sage be
omniscient, so they need a way out of this
- in order to make greater progress, the Stoics held that we
- stop thinking of promoted/dispromoted
(preferred/dispreferred) things as good and bad.
- select the
promoted without believing that they are good
the demoted without believing that they are bad
- try to think of what the sage would do and why
- and hence do more and more befitting actions
To do so, we will go through many topics that seem far-removed from
these ethical doctrines.