Two members of the Modern Stoicism team, Chris Gill and Tim LeBon, began a “Socratic Dialogue” about Stoic values as part of their workshop on Stoic Values Clarification in Stoicon 2017 in Toronto. The dialogue proved so fruitful that they decided to continue it here. . .
Tim (continuing his role as everyman): Chris, it’s good to meet up again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation … I agree with your Stoic view that without the virtues, a life pursuing happiness is fragile. I also agree that the virtues are very important in their own right. The thing I’m struggling with is this idea of “preferable (or preferred) indifferent”. I just can’t head my head round it. How can I be indifferent about something I prefer to happen? If I care about the well-being of my children, for example, how can I be indifferent?
Chris (the Stoic): Good to follow up our earlier conversation.
The Stoic idea of “indifferents” has always been controversial, but I think it contains some valuable insights. The point is not about you or me being indifferent. It is about things being indifferent or not. Rephrased, it is about what makes the difference (or not) as regards happiness or the good life. Virtue, the Stoics think, really makes the difference between being happy (in their sense) or not, whereas other things do not.
Of course, people naturally want well-being for those they love. And Stoics think that, other things being equal, we should do all we can to promote this. But in the end what makes the difference, as regards our happiness and those of others, is whether we act virtuously or not. For instance, if we try to combine promoting our children’s welfare with acting criminally, we will not bring about our happiness or theirs, the Stoics think.
Does this help?
Tim: I think it may. It’s the “indifferent” part I was having problems with. So it’s not about me being indifferent, it’s about the thing being ultimately irrelevant to my moral worth? Is that right? Could I replace “Preferable indifferent” with “Preferable but irrelevant to my moral worth?”. If so, that would make a lot of sense. Being healthy, wealthy, and having friends and relatives flourishing are all preferable but clearly not relevant to my moral worth.
Chris: Yes, that is more what the Stoics think. “Moral worth” is what the Stoics would have called what is “good”, whereas being healthy and so on are not good in themselves but rather things we would reasonably prefer to have or to experience.
Two qualifications, however. “Moral worth” in modern terms suggests acting on behalf of others, rather than oneself. Stoics think that virtue does not just make you act well towards others but also makes you act well on your own behalf. Virtue benefits you as well as others.
Also, preferable things are not entirely irrelevant to moral worth. How you decide to act as regards preferable things is a key part of exercising virtue. But preferable things are “indifferent” because they do not determine your happiness or the opposite, whereas virtue does.
Tim: Before we go on to other things, a point about terminology. Chris, the phrase “preferred indifferents” is very unnatural in English. Can you tell us something about its origins in Greek or Latin, and what various other translations might be possible (perhaps less literal ones).
Chris: Yes, the ancient critics of Stoic ethics said this too about the Greek terms. Well, the term “indifferent”, as I have just explained, stems from the idea things like health and wealth do not determine happiness or its opposite, i.e. they do not make the difference between them, whereas virtue does. So they are “indifferent” in this sense. But some indifferents have positive value (it is natural to want to have them) such as health, wealth and the well being of our families. So the Stoics call them “preferred” or “preferable”, that is, things it is natural to prefer to have rather than not. All a bit clumsy, I’m afraid, but I hope the meaning is clear enough. Any other terminology, such as “bodily and external goods” (the Aristotelian phrase) gets the ideas wrong.
Tim: This is rather subtle, isn’t it? Time for a recap I think. After our earlier discussion, I was happy with the idea that without virtue happiness is fragile. I also agreed that the virtues are intrinsically good. I am not sure I am quite there yet with the idea that virtues are the only thing intrinsically good thing.
In particular I was struggling with the idea that things other than virtues, such as our family and friends faring well, are just “preferable indifferents”. I am reassured by the clarification that the Stoic is not indifferent to the welfare of their friends and family. I still have a bit of a problem with the notion that friends faring well and my health are pretty much irrelevant to my happiness. I think this may be because I have a modern understanding of the term “happiness”, as by definition implying feeling good. I was more comfortable saying these things make no difference to my moral worth. You then reminded me that it’s not just about benefiting others, as “moral worth” implies. So what if I say that I agree that having or not having the preferable indifferents makes no difference to my ability to excel at living well ? Is that a bit closer to the Stoic view?
Chris: That is much closer to the Stoic view. Happiness is living well, in fact, living the best possible human life; part of this is what we call “feeling happy”, but the Stoics think the “mood” part of happiness depends on the “life” part, that is, how you actually live. Virtue is expertise or knowledge in living well. And if you have virtue, you will be able to live well, whatever the situation you find yourself in – that is part of your expertise.
This may help with the “preferred indifferents”. A happy (good human) life will normally include caring for others, such as one’s partner and children. Stoics think it is natural for people to do this, and natural to want them to flourish. The virtuous person will do this expertly, in the way a good human being should. But his or her happiness (i.e. leading a good life) does not depend on their flourishing. Even if they suffer illness or, at worst, death, the virtuous person will deal with this as well as anyone can (that is, expertly). That is why their flourishing is a “preferred indifferent”, which does not mean it has no value (it does). Happiness (i.e. living well) depends on virtue (expertise) and not on things that just happen to us and which we cannot influence.
Tim: Thanks, that’s helpful. I was thinking about this the other day just after playing bridge at my club and thought of an analogy – I wonder if you think it could be useful. At some card games, like bridge, you often have a trump suit. When there are trumps, the lowest trump beats the highest card of any other suit. I was wondering if we could think of virtues as being like trumps, and the indifferents as being like cards in the other suits. If, for example, spades are trumps, then the two of trumps beats the ace or king of diamonds, in the same way that being virtuous (even in a small way) is more important than, for example, becoming very rich or very famous. We could think of life as a game where the purpose is to live well, the virtues are the trump suit, and the indifferents are of value, but not as much value as the virtues. Could that work?
Chris: That’s an interesting suggestion. Certainly, Stoics think that any exercise of virtue “trumps” acquiring any preferred indifferent, however great, if acquired without exercise of virtue. I’m a bit worried, however by your final suggestion: that both virtue and indifferents have value but the virtues, as trumps, have more. What the Stoics actually said was that preferred indifferents have value (they are worth pursuing), but that the virtues are good; that is, the value of virtue is different in kind not just in degree.
Why different in kind? Part of the reason is the difference between virtues as executive skills or forms of expertise and indifferents as conditions of life (being rich, famous, healthy, having a flourishing family or not). But also virtue/expertise is good because it always benefits us and other people, and exercising it makes life go well under any circumstances. That is not true of indifferents; their contribution to a happy life depends on how they are used. That is why the value of virtue differs in kind from that of indifferents.
Tim: Are you saying that we have two things here – things that are good and things that are of value? Or is it that living according the virtues is reliably and always good, whereas pursuing the indifferents is only good if done in a virtuous way?
Chris: I think the key point is that “good” means “beneficial”. The virtues (always) benefit us because they enable us to achieve happiness. The preferred indifferents are not in themselves beneficial; they have a positive value, but whether they contribute to a happy (well-lived) life depends on how they are used. So there are two different kinds of thing: virtues (good) and preferred indifferents (valuable but not good). The good human life may have preferred indifferents within it but they do not make the life good; that is the role of the virtues.
Tim: When you say preferred indifferents are valuable, is it more accurate to say “potentially valuable?”
Chris: Yes, I think that is right. In general, preferred indifferents, such as health and property, have value in themselves – natural value, the Stoics say, that is, value for human beings in general. But whether or not that value is realised in any given situation depends on whether it is used in a virtuous way or not. If we decide to gain money in a criminal or exploitative way, the money does not have value, in the Stoic sense, and does not contribute to a good life.
Tim: Can I take you back to an earlier point you made. You said “Happiness is living well, in fact, living the best possible human life; part of this is what we call ‘feeling happy’, but the Stoics think the ‘mood’ part of happiness depends on the ‘life’ part, that is, how you actually live”. Is this an empirical claim about mood depending on virtue? If so, that would be something that could be tested by modern empirical science in a way that was not possible for the ancient Greeks or Romans?
Chris: For the Stoics this claim was based on philosophical grounds. They defined happiness in a certain way (the best possible human life) and saw having good emotions (including joy) as a corollary or by-product of leading this kind of life. They did not conduct empirical studies to support this claim. However, they did think it was true and that it corresponded to human nature and human behaviour as they saw it in real life. In the modern world, of course, we can conduct such empirical studies and the questionnaires and surveys that we carry out in connection with Stoic week aim to bring out the link between adopting Stoic ethical principles and our pattern of emotions and moods. I guess we should bear in mind that for the Stoics virtue and happiness are ideal states, rarely if ever reached, and the achievable aim is to make progress in the right direction. But the Stoics thought it makes a big difference which direction we point our lives in – towards virtue or vice – so making progress certainly matters for them.
Tim: This has been very helpful, Chris, I wonder if we have time today for just one more thing. What does Stoic decision-making look like? Conventional decision-making might involve weighing up all the consequences of a choice and choosing the one that has the most overall benefit. For example, if I am choosing between two jobs, I might weigh up money, fringe benefits, travel time and perhaps, if I am ethically minded, the benefit the work may bring to others. In other words, the conventional decision-maker would give a large weighting to preferable indifferents. How would a Stoic make this decision? How much would the indifferents count for? And does the Stoic use practical wisdom when making the choice between two indifferents?
Chris: In many ways, Stoic decision-making is just like conventional deliberation as you describe it. Stoics should take account of the relative value of things like health and money and status, and they should also take account of the impact of the decision on themselves and on others. So they do give weight to preferable indifferents, and to the value they have for us and for others. But they also know that what really matters is making the decisions virtuously – that is, wisely, justly, bravely, and with self-control. That is what they are aiming at – not just to pile up preferred indifferents for themselves. The overall aim is to lead the best possible human life, which they also see as the happy life. And the way to do that is to make practical decisions virtuously. Of course, this depends on learning about what makes for virtuous action, and what counts as a good human and happy life. But that’s what Stoic ethics is all about!
Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism.