Stoic Ethics - some Pros and Cons

For the second year philosophers from the University of Exeter and Birkbeck, University of London, together with psychotherapists, are calling on people to live like a Stoic this week:  @StoicWeek  People from all around the world are taking part (over 18,00 so far) and you can still sign up until midnight Monday 25th November.  The experiment will culminate in a workshop this Saturday 30th November at Birkbeck exploring Stoicism for Everyday Life.  This is an extremely interesting and potentially very valuable project, conceived and led by respected academics, such as Professor Christopher Gill at Exeter and Dr John Sellars from Birkbeck, and I shall study the results with care and, I hope, an open mind.  It is a Good Thing that this experiment is happening.  For reasons I outline below, I doubt if many, if any, people will succeed in living up to the Stoic ideal in its entirety but - as I also touch on below - I think this is for the best.  Although ancient Stoics would disapprove, arguing that their ethics forms a coherent whole based on the foundations of their metaphysics and held together by their logic, I think it is best to cherry-pick Stoicism today and adapt a few of its values and precepts to contemporary conditions.  In my view their ethical system in its purest form contains real dangers.

Professor Christopher Gill and I had a brief discussion of the project and some of the pros and cons of Stoic ethics on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning: (item starts at 2.28), but time was, inevitably, at a premium.  So I am listing here a few of my concerns and questions about the Stoic ethical system - while also acknowledging some of its benefits.  And let me say again: these concerns do not mean that I am questioning the value of the 'Live Like a Stoic Week' experiment itself.

1) I remain unconvinced by the view that, if only we humans could see the full picture, we would realise that even those events that appear to us now to be bad are actually for the best, that they are either in fact good in themselves or a necessary by-product of a grand design that is good in itself.  While I agree that in some cases it is both accurate and therapeutic to change our view of something, I certainly do not think this is  always the case: I find it distasteful to view the recent catastrophic events in the Philippines, for example, as part of a good overall design.  This approach could also lead people to adopt an attitude of unhealthy political passivity; whereas it seems to me that some things (maybe not events such as those in the Philippines, but others of human agency), can and should be resisted and changed.  Professor Gill made the point in the Today debate that many ancient Stoics did take part in political life, and this is true, particularly of Roman Stoics; nevertheless, I still think the dangers of excessive passivity are inherent in the system.

2)  I have similar views about the Stoic goal of extirpating the passions.  The four main passions, they hold, are desire (a subdivision of which is anger), fear, pleasure (as in a conscious evaluative attitude, not the non-evaluative sensation, which is classed as an  'indifferent') and distress.  These passions are, in effect, false value judgements of an object's worth.  This does not mean that the Stoic should seek to be without all feelings (correct affective states are allowed and, despite the stereotype, Stoics can be warm, affectionate and generous).  And of course you can say that if passions are actually to be defined as false judgements then, by definition, they are dangerous and you should seek to get rid of them.  But I still think this view of the passions is too sweeping.  I agree with Aristotle that in some circumstances anger, for instance, is the appropriate response (though, again, arguably not if you define anger, as the Stoics do, as the desire for revenge).

3) Seeing oneself as part of a community of rational beings has merit in that it can cut through barriers of class, race and gender.  But I still think it places too much weight on rationality.  What about non-rational beings such as (most) non-human animals and plants?  What about humans whose rationality is impaired by accident or illness or disability?

4)  It is an extremely tough and uncompromising ethic: you are either completely good or completely bad, no matter how far you are on the path towards goodness.  As the Stoics liked to put it, a man drowns just the same whether he's  deep under water or just below the surface.

5)  And, as I mentioned above, ancient Stoics might well protest at a project which concentrates on the more immediately palatable aspects of their ethical thinking, arguing that their ethics forms an integrated whole, based on their metaphysics and logic.

There is much more to be said on all these points, and some of the complexities are discussed by the ancient Stoics themselves.  Not all specialists in ancient philosophy will agree with my interpretations.  Stoicism is certainly a philosophy that repays careful study and none of my concerns detracts from the fact that some aspects of Stoic ethics are attractive and potentially therapeutic: in some instances it is indeed helpful to change our attitude towards things which we cannot change in themselves.  As the Stoicism Today literature points out, Stoic thought is an important influence on cognitive behavioural therapy, and this link is one of the main features that this week's experiment is designed to test.  Mindfulness, fortitude and self-discipline will usually benefit the agent.  Concentrating on the cultivation of virtue rather than wealth or status is refreshing and liberating.  But study other philosophies, including other ancient philosophies, too.

For the reasons above, I am not myself taking part in the project, though I am paying it the serious attention it deserves.  My plan is to try to live like an Epicurean this week as some kind of control - though Epicureanism is also tougher than it sounds ...