I wrote this article in 2022 as part of my effort to inspire constructive conversation among students of modern Stoicism, the Stoic-curious, and those who consider themselves to be Stoics. I encourage my readers to favor “living the questions”over marshaling arguments to advance or defend cherished or conclusive points of view. Living the questions keeps us honest and helps us continue growing as philosophers and as decent human beings.
I was stymied. Two weeks ago a podcast interviewer posed to me the question that arouses some of the strongest criticism, as well as some of the staunchest passionate defenses, of Stoic virtue and the Stoic enterprise as a whole.
The moment this ticklish question was uttered, dead air resulted. The silence of unrushed contemplation is anathema to maintaining audience engagement. Scrambling to fill the silent void, I sputtered a partially thought-out answer — I don’t even remember what I said — because I was flustered and knew my words, as they were leaving my mouth, were an insufficient response to a legitimate, important challenge.
Before lobbing the question, the show’s host had asked me to give her listeners an introduction to Stoic ethics geared to the intellectually curious unfamiliar with Stoicism’s fundamentals. So, I led our listeners through the basics. I described the Stoic ideal of living in agreement with logos, with nature. I explained the Stoic conviction that virtue, all said and done, is the only good, and that directing one’s life towards it leads to eudaimonia, to serenity, to a flourishing life. I outlined the four cardinal subdivisions of the Stoic conception of virtue: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. I talked about the specifically human endowment of reason, that separates us from animals, and if properly trained, allows us to skillfully investigate our own thinking to discern the difference between what we can control and what we can’t. I breathlessly explained that our power of reason is also used to sort the worthy from the unworthy and, especially, to see our passions clearly for what they are, so that they don’t emotionally impair us.
I further explained that our trained ability to reason helps us clearly recognize the often difficult, but imperative moral choices and actions we must take if we are to achieve our potential as human beings and live with dignity and as assets to the commonweal. I introduced the Stoic emphasis on personal and civic duty, and its spirit of cosmopolitanism, and how these too are an essential component of the Stoic virtuous life. And so on.
I needed to catch my breath and it was then that she pitched the question. “But who decides?, she asked. What she meant was, who or what is the arbiter of what are or are not virtuous words or virtuous deeds or virtuous choices? In other words, it’s all well and good to speak of “virtue”, of “choiceworthiness”, and to divide these things into categories to chit and chat about. But, how do we really know for sure when we have acted with courage, temperance, wisdom, or justice? Is it just up to us, to ourselves to decide? From where, whom, or what do we get our moral authority, and how can we be sure we aren’t being self-serving or delusional?
Who hasn’t heard of someone deciding they are the second coming of Jesus or who believes and leads their followers to believe, that their superior insight into the cosmos or the human condition gives them a free pass when it comes to their own morally dubious behavior? Somehow the regular laws don’t apply to these folks. Are we so different from them? How do we know — for sure?
In many ways virtue is simpler to understand within a framework of some organized religions. Thou shalt do this. Thou shalt not do that. Besides the sacred books and clerical leaders to remind you what virtue is and what it isn’t, you have a community that regularly meets in worship or ceremony to reinforce the religion’s definitions of virtue.
Virtue, however it is prized or expressed, be it as courage or wisdom, for example, is always situational. We make and enact our moral decisions within the context of what is actually happening. We can imagine, for example, without too much difficulty, a situation in which yelling “Kill him!” would actually be the righteous choice, because a heartless psychopath is poised to torture and take the lives of some innocent children.
There are no moral absolutes, except we also know that there are. To live a moral life is to toggle between formulations of virtue that are absolute and those that are proximate. This is as confusing as it is real. A group of ordinary people of moral maturity will tend to agree that certain moral principles and behaviors predicated on consideration of others, the desire for a functional society, and for our own sense of self respect, are self-evidently virtuous and universally applicable.
Meanwhile, we also know there are people, eminently rational, though perhaps heartless, who deeply believe their thoughts, words, and deeds are guided by virtue, and yet they are evil autocratic tyrants. I don’t need to name names.
And so, I put the question to you: How do you know what is good? What incontrovertibly determines that which is virtuous and that which is not? Who decides?
Copyright © 2022 by Sharon Lebell
Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of Epictetus’ teachings, which on its appearance in 1995 (with many subsequent editions) offered the first contemporary treatment of Stoic teachings. She co-founded, with Simon Drew and Kai Whiting, an online philosophical society, The Walled Garden. Please come visit us. https://thewalledgarden.com/