Aristotelian ethics versus Stoicism


Dictionary definition of the word "ethics", in macro.

Agreements between the Two Views: 

(1) The goal of ethical philosophy is practical: the improvement of human lives, the promotion of happiness (the blessed or supremely good life). (2) hat happiness is also the ultimate end (goal) of human life.(3) That happiness is the most complete end. (4) That happiness is self-sufficient.

To say that it is the most complete end is just to say that other things are done for its sake, but it is desired for its own sake and for nothing further. Other valuable things are means to or parts of it, but it is not a means to or part of any other end. A couple examples will help: Exercise is a means to being strong; a bad-tasting medicine may be a means to a cure. On the other hand, paying your debts when you should pay them is part of acting in accord with justice; that is, it is a part of it without being all of it. But happiness is neither a means to some other end nor a part of some other end.

If something is self-sufficient, then if you have it, you lack nothing and cannot reasonably wish anything to be added. It would be nonsense to say: I am really happy but I really need this or that other thing.

(5) Happiness provides a stable target capable of being sought for its own sake. (6) Actually realizing happiness is at least to a significant degree dependent upon our efforts. (7) Virtue is a central ingredient in happiness. (8) That nobody is born virtuous, but persons become so by repeatedly acting in certain ways and not in others; for virtues are more or less stable tendencies to act appropriately and not badly. (9) That virtue is, or is associated with, something we might call an “art of life.” This “art” is a capacity to use correctly, or to relate correctly to, bodily and external things. By bodily things, they mean things like beauty and ugliness, sickness and health, life and death; by external things they mean things like friends and enemies, peace and war, wealth and lack of wealth. (10) That being virtuous has a lot to do with how we stand in relation to the emotions or passions. (11) Reason is an important human capacity for both of them. They agree that reason is closely related to virtue and must be effective if we are to bring about happiness. (12) They insist that feelings and thoughts are not two entirely separate aspects of the human soul: One will fear something just when one thinks that the thing represents an imminent evil. If one has stopped fearing something, then one has ceased to think that the thing represents an imminent evil. (13) Above all, both of them agree that happiness is a life with great inherent dignity or nobility.

Differences between the Two Views:

Primary Audiences: Aristotelian ethical philosophy was designed first for political leaders whose job is to guide the state and promote the happiness of the citizens. They need a clear idea what true happiness is if they are going to do that. In this sense, their ethics is not directly aimed at producing happiness for its immediate audience but at helping them to do their tasks more effectively.

However, Aristotelian philosophy can also help any morally decent and thoughtful person keep to the path of virtue. They believe that philosophy achieves this task by developing clear and reasonable general definitions of happiness as well as virtue and vice, and by clear and reasonable discussions of specific virtues and vices, for example, courage and cowardice, generosity and stinginess. These discussions cover how these virtues and vices are related to the emotions, to deliberation and choice, and to practical intelligence. Helping people have clear ideas about these important things keeps them on track, provided that they have a good start in life, a good upbringing.

For Stoics the aim has always been to help individuals, to provide guidance to individuals concerning the aim for which they at least unconsciously act and for which they should act consciously. Stoics try to help them in their moral decision-making. More than Aristotelian, who rely too much (in Stoics’ opinion) upon a good prior upbringing, Stoics seek to persuade individuals to upgrade their goals in accord with reason and change their values in order to promote their own well-being.

External and Bodily Values: For Aristotelian lack or loss of external goods such as friends and wealth and bodily goods such as health can prevent the full blooming of happiness. External goods also include other family members, one’s good reputation in the mind of others, and a good political environment. Bodily goods also include strength, physical beauty and biological life itself.

Stoics’ disagreement here is sharp. They refuse to call good what the Aristotelian call bodily goods and external goods. With the exception of good persons who are friends, they say that these outside and bodily things are preferred or advantageous rather than good. The positive reason for calling them preferred is that nature herself leads us to select them. But that does not mean they are really good. Lack or loss of preferred values cannot destroy or even seriously hamper true happiness. If individuals are truly virtuous, they are also wise and happy; and they cannot be happy without also being wise and virtuous. Stoics’ view is that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Virtue is a complete and self-sufficient good.

Many of the differences between Aristotelian and Stoic hinge on this issue. Stoics describe preferred things as indifferent. Stoics like to be cautious when they introduce the term “indifferent.” The fact that they say that preferred things are “indifferent” does not mean that they are not valuable. They just refuse to put them into the same class with virtue, which Aristotelian does when they call external and bodily values goods. Stoics say they are “indifferent” because even without them one can be happy –one can live well, so long as one has virtue.

External and Bodily Disvalues: The external and bodily values have opposites, which one might call them disvalues. The external and bodily disvalues include children who turn out bad, bad reputation in the mind of others, poverty, bad reputation in the mind of others, illness, physical ugliness, and shortness of life.

Aristotelians call these external and bodily “disvalues” evils, bad things. But Stoics call them “rejected” things. They want to distinguish them from the vices and the emotions, which are really evil or bad. Stoics say that rejected things, like the preferred ones, are also “indifferent.” That does not mean it is not preferable to avoid the rejected things, only that if you cannot avoid rejected things but remain wholly free from vice, your happiness is untouched. Poverty and ugliness are compatible with happiness, wickedness is not.

For Aristotelians, although they call things such as health and possessions goods, they insist that these are not the highest goods. And they never say that since these things are good we are always better off with more of them. There is, for example, a natural limit to the wealth one ought to have. Beyond a sufficiency for oneself, one’s household and friends, one needs little more. Aristotelians admit that political leaders need more than, say, philosophers who lead a more private life. The right amount must be related to one’s situation and this is not the same for everyone.

The Value of Life: One really sharp difference is that concerning the value of life itself. For Stoics, life is a preferred “indifferent” value, not a good. It’s important to realize that this is clear only to the person who is already virtuous or very close to it. Stoics are quite aware that anyone far below this moral level will find their claim absurd. A virtuous person, which is the same thing as a wise person, does not tightly cling to life because he does not regard it as a good. Granted, continued life is “preferable” to death and “to be selected” if one can have it without evils, i.e., without living badly or viciously.

Aristotelian view is closer to common sense. They think that a good life has a certain natural span and a “normal shape”–a period of maturation, a period of flourishing, a period of decline, and a natural death after, say, 60-70 years. If a person is cut off in or before his prime, that represents a genuine loss of something good. Aristotelian view helps to explain why an early death, especially of a good person, is a tragedy.

Stoics believe that the drawback to Aristotelian view is that it makes it “reasonable” for a virtuous person to fear death. Stoics deny that a virtuous person will fear death. A person’s life is complete and self-sufficient just when he or she is living virtuously. It does not require any more time after that point.

The Emotions: They also disagree about the emotions. For Aristotelians the position one takes on the external and bodily things is closely linked to the position one takes on the emotions. Differences on the first lead to differences on the second. For Aristotelians, the emotions or passions are neither good nor bad in themselves. For example, anger is bad only when it is expressed inappropriately, towards the wrong person, or at the wrong time, or to the wrong degree (excessively or deficiently).

For Stoics, the emotions are always bad. That is why they sometimes describe eudaimonia (happiness) as apatheia (freedom from the emotions): happiness is, or precisely coincides with, freedom from the emotions. Here Stoics use the term “emotion” in a somewhat strange way. For one thing, they admit that some feelings are not emotions. Stoics understand emotions as violent movements of the soul, and not all feelings fit this description. Now, the wise person will wish to do the right thing for the right reason, and wish (a good feeling) is not an emotion, though lust is. The wise person will exercise caution; the wise person will take care not to judge that preferred things are good); caution (another good feeling) is not an emotion, though fear is. And the wise person will experience joy, at living virtuously. Joy (also a good feeling) is not an emotion, though delight is.

Emotions and Judgements: Stoics use the words “fear” and “delight” in a strange way, too. Stoics consider ethics is a science and in a science specially defined terms are sometimes unavoidable. Perhaps one thinks it strange that they equate all these emotions with false judgements. The four main classes of emotions in the Stoic system are:

  1. Lust, which is aimed at preferred things, is a judgement that some preferred thing at which they aim is good. The judgement is false because a preferred thing is not a good one.
  2. Fear, which is related to rejected things, is a judgement that some rejected thing which they try to avoid is evil. The judgement is false because rejected things are not true evils.
  3. Delight, which is related to preferred things, is the judgement that a present preferred thing is good. The judgement is false once again because preferred things are not really good.
  4. Distress, which is related to rejected things, is a judgement that some present rejected thing is bad, but this is false since rejected things are not really bad.

Aristotelian view is less systematic, perhaps, but more plausible and closer to what most people say. Some delights and sorrows, appetites and fears, are appropriate and found in the lives of virtuous people. A virtuous person desires to see justice done and is delighted or pleased when it is done. Such people are disappointed when it is not done. They fear death, not least because they are aware of their own goodness, and realize that eradication of good persons is an evil; however, they will risk death and accept it if doing so is the price of doing the right thing: for they fear doing the shameful thing more than they fear death. But the emotions are not always right any more than they are always wrong. Excessive fear of death is wrong. Excessive desire for wealth is wrong. Cowardly soldiers feel too much delight when their commander orders a retreat and are too disappointed when their commander orders an advance towards the enemy.

For Aristotelian, there is also a proper amount of anger that one should feel when one is insulted. This is a striking example of the differences between Stoics and Aristotelians. Stoics deny that any anger is legitimate. First of all, anger in this case is the false judgement that a present insult is a bad thing. But while such an insult is “not nice” and can be properly called a “rejected” thing, it is not bad–what is bad is the erroneous judgement, made by Aristotelians and others, that the insult is bad. Secondly, anger makes people lose self-control; it is like very fast running–you cannot stop exactly where you want if you are in such rapid motion. That is why anger so often leads to inappropriate violence. And where it does not lead to violence against others, it tears up the insides of the person who is angry.

In any case, for Aristotelians moral virtue is a disposition to express emotions or passions (such as anger, fear, confidence, desire for food, etc.) appropriately, i.e., in the right degree, neither excessively nor deficiently, at the right time, towards the right object, etc. For Aristotelians, moral virtue and experiencing the emotions are compatible.

In Stoic’s view, the emotions are all bad. They are false and ignorant judgments regarding values, and such ignorance is a vice.

Pain: Where does pain fit in? Stoics regard pain as a false judgment. “How anyone can say that pains are simply judgements, as if one could make the pain of a spear wound go away just by thinking, while it is only a bodily injury that may kill him.” Stoics believed that there has been some confusion arising from the fact that the Greek term which one translates “distress” is sometimes translated as “pain.” It is better to distinguish between pain, a very real thing beyond our total control, and distress, which is an emotion. For Stoics, then, pain is a rejected indifferent.

Stoics here distinguish between (1) the felt physical pain, (2) the appearance or the thought that this thing (which happens to belong to the class of rejected things) is something bad, and (3) the emotion of distress. The first thing to occur is normally the felt physical pain. Next there is the appearance, an idea about that pain resulting from habit or social suggestion, for example, e.g., “something bad has happened to me.”

But to have such an appearance or thought in one’s soul is not yet to feel an emotion of distress. For an emotion to emerge, a third element is required: judgement or assent. Without assent to the appearance, without judgement, there is no true emotion, no distress in the genuine sense. Human beings can refuse to assent to appearances, and we should refuse when they are false. Of course, such refusal cannot occur without practice; indeed, it rarely occurs without both philosophy and practice; but it can be done. The problem is that it is not usually done, and when we assent to such appearances, we choose to enslave ourselves to emotions.

At the very least, the Stoics hold that a person who truly understands Stoic’s philosophy, who has fully assimilated it and tried to live by it, can be happy even in the face of pain. A wise person cannot always avoid the experience of pain, but can and will be entirely free from distress.

The Importance of Intentions: Let’s get back to the issue of external or bodily goods, such as wealth or soundness of body or preferred indifferents in Stoic’s ethics. Aristotelians believe that these things are goods, and they are often indispensable for happiness. Lack of them can hinder one’s virtuous activity, and happiness, at least as Aristotelians define it, is a complete life of activity in accordance with virtue. Now, generosity is a virtue, but a person who has barely enough on which to survive cannot exercise this virtue. Courage is a virtue, but a person who is not of sound body, who is, say, crippled from disease, cannot fight to defend his city and so cannot exercise courage where it could be most appropriately exercised.

Stoics insist that, on the contrary, that virtue can be active internally, in striving, even if nobody other than the virtuous person knows about it. On the rare occasions that we are totally lacking in the preferred things that enable us to express our virtue in overt action, striving is enough. A Stoic can be virtuous in a prison cell and in chains, even if all her muscles are paralysed. Note, however, for striving to be virtuous, it must be whole-hearted. If your aims are mixed, some good, some bad, the fact that some of them were good will not override the bad ones. And having entirely good intentions is not something that comes easy to us.

Moral Reasons and Ethical Conservatism: Now, let see when Aristotelians and Stoics develop their ethical ideas, where do they get their starting points? Aristotelians believe that ethical philosophy starts from the common beliefs of the many and/or the wise. That is, it collects received opinions and tries to find some coherent perspective embedded within them. Of course, it must remove contradictions and it does not have to pay much attention to the opinions that vicious people express concerning happiness and virtue (when they are not looking over their shoulder to see who else is listening). This method gives greater weight to nobler and wiser opinions. But we must try to “save the phenomena,” that is, we must never get too far from the spirit of the culture.

Stoics do not reject the appeal to received opinions, but they believe that philosophy must be willing to reject some doctrines held very tenaciously by most people and even by many of the so-called wise and apparently virtuous civic leaders. Received opinions may be incoherent at a fairly deep level. This is especially clear in at least one difference between Aristotle and Stoics: Aristotle tried to show that there were natural slaves, that the institution of slavery was natural and thus sometimes justified. Stoics insist on the common humanity of slaves and freemen, citizens and non-citizens, Greek, Roman and barbarian.

Finally, what role dignity plays in Aristotelians’ and Stoics’ conception of happiness? For Aristotelians, the life in accord with virtue is a dignified life in itself, but it is more dignified when accompanied by sufficient material and external goods, good health, good friends, freedom, citizenship, etc. Slavery is contrary to a truly dignified life, but a person who is not a slave by nature and who is forced to be a slave by circumstances beyond individual control may live with greater dignity than other slaves if he or she is virtuous.

For Stoics once again, external and bodily things are of essentially no significance when it comes to true dignity. For them no human is a slave by nature. Acting slavishly or not, which is to say, wickedly or not, is up to us. A poor person or a slave can live (or, if need be, die) virtuously and with true dignity. In that respect, there is no difference between rich and poor, slave and free.

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