Friedrich Nietzsche warned that with the death of God (the intellectual collapse of Christianity) that it would lead to a state of nihilism. For years Christianity had been the answer to everyone’s question, “how should I live my life?” Without the intellectual fortitude of Christianity anymore, where would people turn to for their values? Nietzsche took it upon himself to try to help us try to construct a value system that would help answer our question of how we should live our life. Unfortunately, Nietzsche never got to complete his system for how to live (or simply didn’t leave an easy answer). Nietzsche fell into madness and left only breadcrumbs of how we might live our life.
Along with the “death of God”, secular forms of morality are difficult to logically support after David Hume demonstrated it’s probably not possible to get an ought from an is. Utilitarian theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill attempted to create a scientific form of morality but when Mill tried to derive an ought from an is, it turned out he was just equivocating between wanting pleasure and being morally obligated to seek pleasure. Utilitarianism, despite its empirical/scientific nature, just wasn’t able to support itself. Ultimately you just had to bite the bullet whether you wanted to seek pleasure for the multitude or not.
Immanuel Kant thought that if he could just support ethics in pure practical reason itself, it would would be enough to keep a secular version of moral Christianity intact. Nietzsche later knew that Kant’s categorical imperative wasn’t going to help things because it was dependent on the concept of transcendental faculties divorced from our common everyday experiences. Immanuel Kant cut humans into two realms divorced from each other, the trascendental self and the phenomenal self. It came at a cost because Kant was asking us to postulate an afterlife and a God to judge us. What started out as a secular attempt to ground morality just turned into the same thing that doomed the Christian faith in its assumptions of an afterlife and God. Also, Kant promised that his ethics was going to be intuitive but instead his categorical imperative led to all kinds bizarre consequences. You couldn’t lie selflessly to save other people’s lives. So much for common sense.
Existentialists of the 20th century weren’t really up to the task to answer how to live our lives. They were essentially just replacing divine command theory of ethics with ego command theory. Everyone’s values emanated from their choices they made in life. Essentially, they were inviting millions and millions of varying moral systems created by the authentic choices of each and every single human being. This seemed disastrous. Jean-Paul Sartre tried to ground his existentialism ethics in a form of Marxist solidarity but this certainly didn’t convince Albert Camus, another existentialist, who was quite critical of Sartre as a philosopher and as a person.
So what should we do? How should we proceed? Existentialism seems satisfying until you realize that millions of ethical systems based on everyone’s unique “authentic” choices just sounds like chaos. Well….what if we turned back to the ancient Greeks and Romans?
The Greeks and Romans, it turns out, had the philosophers of the past that actually had all the answers, after all! In fact, if we look to the Stoics, and even the Epicureans, we might find a way to truly live our lives. The Stoics believed that only virtue was good and only vice was bad and everything else was indifferent. In fact, if one lived a life of virtue, then one would be promised a life of eudaimonic happiness. Basically, not only did the Stoics propose a value system but they proposed a value system that implied a form of therapy. If you follow virtue as your sole good, you would be promised a life of excellence and contentedness. This doesn’t mean you’d live happily ever after like in a Disney movie once you married your prince or princess. It means that you’ll achieve a noble state. You’ll be worthy of praise, be untroubled, and free of negative passion.
The Stoics belief system that had a big grain of truth truth to it with their ethical system because years later in 20th century, the Stoics whole premise that negative emotions are based on incorrect judgments became the foundation of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy by Albert Ellis. Later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was derived from REBT and is the scientific gold standard in therapy.
What’s more is it turned out that the Stoics had a naturalistic and scientific falsifiable argument for how their ethics. The Stoic Hierocles argued that Stoic ethics is based on how humans and animals all have an instinctual need of self-preservation and then develop a need of the preservation of their offspring. This love (okeiosis), for humans, can be spread out further toward the preservation of the tribe, and further to the preservation of the society, and further to humanity itself.
So is Stoic ethics what we need as an answer to today’s nihilism? I think so. Am I absolutely convinced it’s the answer? I’m not sure. But I’m not sure of anything. As Socrates once declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.” But I certainly do think that I have rationally warranted beliefs in Stoicism as a coherent ethical system.
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