On Philosophy

September 11, 2008

A Struggle With Stoicism

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 10:46 pm

Stoicism, broadly construed, is a philosophical perspective that encourages the abandonment of outwardly directed desires and expectations. The aim of adopting a stoic perspective is usually assumed to be to lead a better, happier life by avoiding those things that cause unhappiness. But can stoicism really deliver on what it promises? Is the stoic perspective superior?

Stoic: The central attitude of stoicism is non-attachment. Non-attachment means not wanting any particular thing or state of affairs. To be non-attached is to not care about things that are going on in the world around you. Now this may sound like a bad thing, but really non-attachment is the ultimate freedom. Without attachment any action is possible because you are no longer driven by your desires in a single direction to the exclusion of whims or other possibilities. And, most importantly, non-attachment is a way to escape the unhappiness that plagues most lives. Unhappiness is caused by things not going your way; by frustration at not getting what you want. But if you don’t want anything then you can never be frustrated by not having it, and so unhappiness is removed from the picture, leaving only happiness. Thus stoicism leads to a happier, freer, life.

Anti-stoic: The problem with stoicism, so described, is that it simply can’t deliver on what it promises. Stoicism is held up as the key to a happier life. But isn’t happiness caused by getting what we want, as much as unhappiness is caused by not getting that? If we give up on wanting things then it would seem that we give up on happiness as well. Sure, that we may be occasionally unhappy is a bad thing, but isn’t the happiness we experience worth it?

Stoic: Well, admittedly stoicism does involve giving up on happiness from external sources. Still, we could derive happiness from internal sources. We could be happy at being a good stoic for example. And this attachment to internal things is permissible because they are under our control, and hence not potential sources of unhappiness.

Anti-stoic: The idea that we can control who we are or what we think or feel is naïve – we can only work at making changes. For example, Jjst because someone commits to stoicism doesn’t mean that they will simply give up all attachments immediately. Even the best stoic will probably find themselves with the occasional minor attachment that they feel is “safe”. And thus even attachment to internal things, such as being a good stoic, can never be guaranteed to never cause frustration and unhappiness, because whether you are a good stoic is not perfectly under your control.

Stoic: Ok, well perhaps stoicism can’t be motivated by appeal to happiness and unhappiness. Perhaps we must grant that happiness and unhappiness are two sides of the same coin, and that the possibility for one brings with it the possibility for the other. And if that is the case some people may genuinely accept unhappiness so long as it pays for happiness. But there is still something wrong with attachments that stoicism is the cure for. Perhaps it’s not unhappiness but frustration. And not the frustration at not getting what you want, but the frustration of being driven by your attachments into an endless cycle of work, a red queen’s race. As long as you are attached to something you will need that thing to be happy and to avoid unhappiness. And since few things in life are really free that means that you will have to constantly work for that thing, and to work at avoiding unhappiness. If you are attached to a roof over your head you must work to maintain that roof. This process may appear not to be worth its rewards. Do we really want to be engaged in a constant struggle for the possibility of happiness and to ward off unhappiness? The struggle itself may be a source of unhappiness and simple exhaustion with life. It’s like running endlessly in place on a treadmill – and stoicism presents a way off that treadmill.

Anti-stoic: I will grant that the treadmill analogy is a better motivation for stoicism than a simple fear of unhappiness. Perhaps some people may feel that running on the treadmill is worth it, but others won’t, and stoicism may be aimed at them. However, this non-attachment business seems to be a solution that raises more problems than it solves. Doesn’t non-attachment give rise to amoral behavior? Valuing good and abhorring evil is as much a form of attachment as anything else, and so the good stoic should apparently give up on those values. But without those values what motivates the stoic to do good? Additionally, stoicism seems to give rise to a kind of prisoner’s dilemma problem. If someone is motivated to get off the treadmill by stoicism that is good for them. But it is probably bad for society, and thus everyone else, because society is built on getting its members to be productive as possible. If everyone was a stoic society might fall apart. And so stoicism seems to be self-defeating, in a way. It is a perspective that can only be adopted in practice by a minority. Now if stoics truly aren’t attached to society and its products this might not seem like a problem to them, but it certainly looks like a problem to the rest of us who are perhaps entertaining stoicism.

Stoic: Both the problems you have raised for stoicism arise from the same fallacy: that of supposing that when you have given up attachment to something that you also give up on that thing, that you effect changes to rid yourself of it. But if you immediately give up the thing you are just displaying a different kind of attachment: attachment to not having that thing, or possibly even attachment to non-attachment. The idea that adopting a stoic attitude should lead to changes in behavior stems from a misunderstanding of non-attachment. Directed changes only arise from attachment, not non-attachment. And so the stoic will, in all likelihood, stay on the treadmill.

Anti-stoic: I think I see what you are driving at. People may adopt stoicism because they are frustrated with the treadmill of endless work. Stoicism doesn’t promise to motivate them to get off the treadmill and be happy with being off the treadmill, as I initially thought, but rather gives them a perspective from which they don’t care that they are on the treadmill. Since they aren’t trying to get anywhere the fact that they are running in place doesn’t bother them. Is this essentially right?

Stoic: Yes.

Anti-stoic: Then this raises another question: how does one recognize a stoic? Or, in other words, what kind of life does a stoic lead?

Stoic: Since the stoic has given up on attachments the only thing that remains is “going with the flow”. In other words they open themselves up to simply following whatever inclinations they find themselves with; this is part of the freedom of stoicism. And a second part of going with the flow is not fighting the situation you find yourself in, but instead going with that situation in a way that promotes harmony with it and harmony in it. This is why stoics aren’t unethical people. First of all unethical behavior is caused by attachments. Stoics lack attachments and thus lack the desire to act unethically. Secondly, living in harmony with your society means getting along with other people and doing what you can to make sure others can live in harmony with it too.

Anti-stoic: Ok, now you seem to be contradicting yourself. I could see this “harmony” business as being the core of an ethical system. However, what you have described seems very much like an attachment to harmony. Suppose that I was a stoic and that my natural inclinations were to arson. I don’t have an attachment to fire, I just find myself naturally burning things down. Maybe I enjoy it, but that’s ok if I’m not attached to it, I assume. So what’s wrong with the stoic arsonist?

Stoic: Well consider what the stoic arsonist is putting himself through. At every step he must be covert, he must always be on the run from the law, he constantly goes against the accepted dictates of morality and community standards. In doing all that he demonstrates attachment, because what else but attachment could motivate such efforts?

Anti-stoic: That response doesn’t cut it. As you yourself have argued, him being a stoic means that he won’t be bothered by the effort it required to be an arsonist. Secondly, you say that since the arsonist is required to put in all this effort that there must be something wrong with his approach, that he is going against the stoic ideals in some way. But consider what you yourself have recommended. You said that a stoic should go about promoting harmony in the community, which I assume includes things like giving money to the poor, helping those in need, and so on. That seems like it requires a lot of work. Less work would be required if the stoic looked out only after himself and his own needs, and let everyone else fend for themselves.

Stoic: I’m not so sure being selfish is the least work. Consider that the stoic lives in a community, and that community has standards and expectations. A selfish stoic probably violates those expectations. And so, if the stoic is really pursuing the path of least effort, it probably makes sense to put up the appearance of adhering to those standards. And it is easier to just adhere to those standards than to make a show of it and secretly defect from them. Thus a stoic should be a largely ethical person for the same reason that the average stoic should remain on the treadmill: it is easier to remain on the treadmill, and it is easier to remain in harmony with the community, than it is to depart from those standards.

Anti-stoic: I don’t think you can appeal to the standards of the community to defend stoicism as you do. Your defense seems to depend in a key way on the fact that there are existing standards within the community that lead the stoic to be a good person. However, if we had a community composed solely of stoics, starting over on a desert island from scratch, there is no reason to suppose that these standards would emerge. Thus it is not stoicism that promotes ethical behavior, it just doesn’t actively oppose it. In fact stoicism seems to have no necessary connection, only an accidental one at best, to being an ethically upright person.

Stoic: But we don’t find ourselves in such a hypothetical scenario; standards exist in all actual communities, so this supposed failing remains hypothetical, and that’s good enough for me.

Anti-stoic: It isn’t enough for me. I grant that stoicism has some attractive things to offer, not the least of which is a perspective that makes a life of what can seem like pointless work from an objective standard tolerable. However, until proven otherwise there is no reason to think that these same benefits can’t be achieved under some other philosophical system that provides more robust guidance about how to live and which actively promotes ethical behavior.

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