Why Virtue Is the Only Good

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It is fundamental that virtue is the only good for a Stoic. There is not a perfect proof for why virtue is the sole good. As my philosophy professor at Drury U used to say, “you have to bite the bullet when deciding to commit to any particular ethical theory.” People at times despair that if an idea does not have a proof for it, then it is pointless to commit to such an idea. I think with that kind of attitude, you will not get far in life. Sometimes you believe in a position based on the best evidence and best reasons you have. I have the best reasons I can think of for why Stoic virtue is the sole good. I would like to share those reasons. I would like to discuss the popular modern ethical schools like hedonistic utilitarianism and deontology and explain how they fail as viable ethical schools. I will also discuss hedonism and, specifically, Epicureanism and why hedonism and Epicureanism fail as life philosophies. In doing so, I would like to explain why virtue by itself is worthy of pursuit for its own sake. Finally, I would like to discuss the Stoic Hierocles and his theory regarding animal and human development and how his theory of development supports Stoic virtue as the only good.

In hedonistic utilitarianism, the good is maximum pleasure of the most people. Hedonistic utilitarianism often requires decisions that we would not be comfortable making. Utilitarianism is supposed to necessitate calculating the best decision that serves the most pleasure for the most people. One problem that emerges that is that it is not plausible to know what the best is for the most amount of people. For example, does utilitarianism permit slavery if a few slaves are unhappy versus the happy multitude who benefit from slavery? That is just one sort of problem with utilitarianism. Another problem is time. Is my action best for the happiness of the multitude tomorrow even though it is best for today? Could my action be good today but bad later and then good even later? If you decided to stipulate a segment of time to be the time that matters, how would you determine when the temporal cutoff should be non-arbitrarily?  The whole dream of utilitarianism being a scientific ethical theory is found wanting because utilitarians have great difficulty in explaining what truly the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is without it raising red flags for our ethical intuitions.

What about Kantian deontology? In Kantian deontology, the good is an action that comports with the categorical imperative, a dutiful action. Immanuel Kant asserted that his moral system outlined in Metaphysics of Morals was in congruence with our commonsense. But is it commonsense to always be honest and to always keep a promise no matter what and when? Is it commonsense that justice must be served even if it means the whole world’s destruction? Also, there are many times in our life where it seems sensible to sacrifice the one for the many; just think of war as an example. Also, how many of us would pull the lever to save five lives over one life from a murderous Trolley in ethical Trolley dilemmas? Probably a significant amount. Because Kant’s ethics cannot have exceptions from ethical rules, it undermines Kant’s assertion that his ethics is commonsense.

What about hedonism in general? In hedonism, pleasure is the sole good. Hedonism is appealing because prima facie, we do often seek pleasure and comfort and we avoid discomfort and pain. Pleasure as the sole good seems sensible enough. However, everyone knows that one should follow pleasure and avoid pain within limits. So, what are these limits? In terms of commonsense, we constrain our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain within an ethical apparatus not aimed at pure pleasure. So, then pleasure is not the sole source of good. Pleasure is limited by a higher good than pleasure itself. Epicurus sought to deal with the virtue and pleasure issue. In Epicureanism ataraxia is the sole good (ataraxia: tranquility due to total lack of mental pain). The Epicurean’s ethical project was assigning virtue as one path to total lack of pain. This was not successful because despite endorsing the practice of virtue, the virtue rang hollow. Epicurus believed that we should be virtuous because if we behave viciously, we will be troubled by the legal consequences or even if we do not get caught, we will fear that we will be caught later. Virtue as a mere instrument to tranquility does not mesh with our common conception of justice and courage. We should be just and fair to one another because it is just and fair and not because we will be without pain. Being courageous is a desirable ethical goal. Being courageous as a path to freeing oneself of pain is not courage at all. Also, no Epicurean could argue consistently that one should sacrifice one’s own life for the lives of others. How would that be a path to long-term pleasure or the complete lack of pain?

The Stoics did not see pain and pleasure as relevant to virtue and vice. Yes, sometimes doing what is right will result in pleasure and doing what is wrong will result in pain. But pain and pleasure do not always correlate with virtue or vice. If you err and you get yourself into trouble, the Stoics would say that you should learn from your mistakes and do not regret your mistakes because regret is an unnecessary passion to have. The Stoics knew that people make mistakes throughout their life, whether attempting to live the good life or being ignorant about how to live the good life. Stoicism entails humility. We all make mistakes, so let us try to fix them and then move on. No sense living with remorse. Sometimes, we are ashamed but there is no sense in extending our grief over our prior faults.

What is more is Stoicism allows for pleasure but regards it as neutral. Stoicism allows for the pursuit of wealth, health, education, reputation, and pleasure and regards them as preferred although “indifferent” or ethically neutral. Stoics can pursue preferred externals so long as they do not interfere with the pursuit of virtue. Since Stoics can pursue externals without interfering with virtue, then Stoics might seem like regular people. Pursuing the same externals that everyone else prefers allows for Stoics to live in harmony with people around them. However, Stoics will stand out if there is an injustice, and only they have the courage to stand against it.

Virtue is popular when people think about what virtue entails. When people reflect on the virtue courage, they would think that the soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of other soldiers did good. Most people would think that someone that risks their own life saving two kids from drowning is a brave person. People have an ethical sense that corroborates virtue as the sole good. That is not to say that everyone has a perfect sense for what is virtuous but when people do take the time to reflect about what a good person is, they will think of someone behaving virtuously rather than a person who chooses what is expedient as the right course of action.

So, we know that people value courage and fairness. Couldn’t we be fooling ourselves and the reason we act courageous or treat others with fairness is for pleasure? The Stoic Hierocles observed animals and humans and noted that all humans begin their infancy with self-love. Eventually as people grow and develop their love (or concern) expands outward from their self to their family, then later outward from their family to their community, and then finally outward from their community to all of humanity. Hierocles also observed that animals were not merely motivated by pleasure and pain. Often animals would put themselves in harm’s way to protect their young. Human beings also endanger their lives for loved ones on a frequent basis. So, humans are not purely motivated by pleasure, they are motivated by protecting their own physical constitution in infancy and then later their own rational constitution. Humans and animals are motivated out of a concern for their own constitution and their own offspring’s constitution than they are with their own pleasure or pain. As humans learn to value their rational faculty, they can extrapolate their own love for themselves and friends outward towards all humanity. Love for one’s own rational constitution is to treat one’s reason as an end. Valuing one’s own reason means valuing wisdom, the ultimate virtue. That is why virtue is the end.

So, it is worth biting the bullet for the axiom, “virtue is the only good.” It is because there is just a smidgen to lose biting the bullet for virtue compared to the super-sacrifice of biting the bullet for utilitarianism, deontology, hedonism, and Epicureanism.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

1 comment

  1. I really appreciated this piece but something I wanted to chime in about that I thought might interest you. While I love Stoicism and it’s ethic, I’ve always been rather fond of Kantian Deontology. I would even go as far as to suggest that I did find his view to be common commonsensical. Moreover, it wasn’t necessarily that his view was common sense and therefore it’s true but that his view was grounded in reason and was accessible to all persons because it’s apriori true.

    Again great article! Keep it up!

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