Preferred Indifferents and Stoic Ethical Theory

The stoic ethical system is based on the idea that we should strive towards living in accordance with nature. As humans develop reason with adulthood, they need to become virtuous to achieve this and by extension happiness. I argue that prima facie there is nothing inherently incoherent about Stoic ethics. I begin by explaining the Stoic ethical system by looking at the good and virtue, then the indifferents, impulses and nature and give an idea of how these terms interconnect. This post shall then move onward to Aristo’s challenge of indifferents and try to respond to Aristo. It will conclude that although the arguments from Stoic ethics are not inconsistent, a prima facie account of their coherence is insufficient.

As a philosophy, Stoic ethics has been argued to be “marvellously systematic” (Cicero, fin. 3.74; Schofield, 2002: 235). A set of a few definitions are sufficient to produce normative statements and guidelines. In which order and how these are supposed to be discussed and interconnected is of dispute among Stoics (Schofield, 2002: 237-8), which is not surprising for a theory that has survived for as long and has been discussed so often with different terminology. However, since we shall only focus on a simplified set of premises indigenous to most Stoics, this shall not be of concern for us. Still, one ought to note that the version of Stoic Ethics that this essay brings forward is not a generally accepted one among Stoics.

Zeno defines virtue as the only good. Its opposite, vice, is the only bad and all in between are indifferent to us. The virtues include in some accounts wisdom, temperance, courage, justice et cetera; vices are injustice, intemperance, cowardice, et cetera. (see Stobaeus, Ecl. II 57.18-58.4; Plutarch, virt. mor. 440e-441D & St. rep. 1034C-E) Among the indifferents is everything else, even those things commonly thought as good, for instance health, sickness, life, death, wealth poverty, reputation et cetera (Schofield, 2002).

What are these indifferents? According to Zeno they are such that they have no effect on happiness and misery (Schofield, 2002: 241). They are merely to be put up with and not in themselves of any value immediate to us (they do however have planning value, more on that later), which is why one ought to avoid great attachment to them (Schofield, 2002: 255; Epictetus, diss. III 24.84-7). There are preferred and dispreferred indifferents such that preferred are those that are in accordance with nature (see Ecl. II 76.6-8) while dispreferred are not. For example, life is not good in itself since it is no virtue. It is indifferent but preferred to its opposite since it is natural to do so.

What does “in accordance with nature” mean? Let me try to explain through the Stoic theory of impulses. These are at the core of Stoic theory. All beings act on impulses, but for humans the animalistic impulses are superseded by the rational impulses of our species (Brennan, 2002: 265). All desires, motivations and emotions and their resulting actions are reducible to these impulses in Stoic theory. Therefore impulses are a “necessary condition” for any action (Brennan, 2002: 265; see St. rep. 1057A). One subsection of impulses are emotions, which are distinct in their assignment of moral value to their real life referents. That means that an agent that has a particular emotion towards something finds it good or bad. They are not knowledge since they are usually false, i.e. an agent will have an emotion towards an indifferent. They can be divided in assigning good or bad in the short run (pleasure/pain) or long run (desire/fear). The Stoics claim that most people are in intellectual error when choosing what they believe to be good things, which are in fact indifferents (see Socratic intellectualism for instance in the Protagoras) and only sometimes do we have emotions towards virtues by moral luck.

A person who never chooses incorrectly is a Sage. This perfectly virtuous person, who is more an ideal than anyone who actually lives, is through rationality able to distinguish between indifferents and virtues and hence only has “good emotions”. What this means for the picture is that the sage has a great “immunity to error” (Brennan, 2002: 271) in that she will always assign goodness to virtue and badness to vice. Hence pain must fall away since it would require the Sage to reference vice immediately present to him, which is inconsistent.

Some impulses are selections. That means that an agent examines future indifferences and selects among them, i.e. assigns planning value or preferences to them. For example, I think of a future meal as preferred indifferent, therefore I have an impulse of selection. What follows that only indifferents that lie in the future can have planning value and be preferred (Brennan, 2002: 264). Whatever we possess immediately has no future relevance and is therefore completely indifferent to us. What this means is that when looking at current health or disease we ought to accept it without concern, however, when looking at the future, health has greater planning value than disease and should therefore me pursued, i.e. we have an impulse of selection that assigns it the status preferred (see Ecl. II 83.10-11). Laeritus differentiates between absolute indifferents, e.g. whether the number of hairs on one’s head is odd or even that do not initiate impulses, and those weaker indifferents, which do (Diogenes Laertius, VII 104). The next question to ask is what gives an indifferent planning value. To say that some indifferents are always preferred is insufficient since there are counterexamples (more of that later as well). The answer is that that an indifferent is preferred iff it is rational for us to pursue it. When is it rational? If it is in accordance with nature, which has “normative standing” (Barney, 2003: 309-10). Consequently a Sage will always assign planning value correctly, hence select preferred indifferents and behaves appropriately.

Which brings us back to concerns over nature, which ties in with goal of Stoic ethical theory, which is to live in accordance with nature (DL, VII 87; see Schofield, 2002: 242). (Note that this is not undisputed or unproblematic: Striker states that it is “not evident” that this follows (1991: 4). However, we shall for the purpose of this essay assume that it does.) Nature is to be understood in a wide sense i.e. not in its ordinary notion of self-benefit and acting on animalistic impulses. We require a notion of nature as whole: In some circumstances appropriate behaviour requires us to act counterintuitively to the narrow notion: In a choice between serving an unjust tyrant and self mutilation the latter may be appropriate since it has greater planning value (see for instance DL, VII 109; Sextus Empiricus, M. XI 64-7). This ties in with the concept of nature as whole or great plan. We embrace fate of the “divine reason” (Schofield, 2002: 246): Nature leads to virtue so living in accordance with nature necessitates living in accordance with virtue. (DL, VII 87).

Let me bring all these terms back together in an example. Suppose a Sage deliberates on whether to have lunch. That action needs to be caused by an impulse, but rather than having it caused by bad emotions, he realises that lunch is indifferent. However, it has positive planning value since it promotes health and longer life which is of greater value than starvation in his circumstances. Alas, he eats after his impulse of selection and this is appropriate behaviour since it is in accordance with nature. This arises out of nature’s “programming” (Schofield, 2002: 243) for agents to be rational and having the tools to become a Sage, virtuous and discover what the appropriate actions are (Ecl. II 62.9-12). This seems all reasonable prima facie: We ought to become Sages and virtuous. For that we must realise that everything except virtue and vice is indifferent and not pursue indifferents but select the preferred ones as to act in accordance with nature and virtuously. Indifferents therefore play a great role in Stoic Ethical theory since they provide the material through which virtue and vice express themselves.

However, there are many problems associated with this explanation. In this essay we shall look at one in particular by Aristo: How can indifferents be at all preferred? If they are truly indifferent, surely they should be in every circumstance (S.E., M. II. 64-7; Schofield, 2002: 247). Aristo argues for this position by leading indifferents ad absurdum: “In writing people’s names we put different letters first at different times, adapting them to different circumstances […] so too in the things that are between virtue and vice no natural priority for some over others arises but a priority which is based rather on circumstance.” (S.E., M. II 67). What Aristo is trying to underline is that there cannot be any preferred indifferents as such, just priorities in specific circumstances.

The Stoics responded critically by arguing that if indifferents were purely so as Aristo wishes, then there would be “no rational basis for action” (Barney, 2003: 311). Cicero is representative here in stating that on Aristo’s view the consequence would be “chaos” (fin. 3.50). This is because it is conceivable that an agent that needs to select among purely indifferent choices has no motivation at all to choose under Aristo. Suppose I have to choose whether to eat lunch. If it is purely indifferent, than neither having it nor not has any planning value, I would be stuck with no technique of choosing. Here a great tension within the Stoic tradition arises among rival conceptions of indifferents: 1) The Platonic argument that indifferents cannot be good or bad and ad absurdum be preferred and 2) The practice of assigning value to indifferents in order for us to be motivated to pick them. Fortunately the Stoics have a forceful way of responding to this tension.

Let us examine the Stoic analogy of life with sports. Just like games, living has a technē according to Plutarch: An archer does not shoot to hit the target, but to “correctly exercise his craft” (Comm. not. 1071 B-F). This is a higher level end in exercise just like social reasons, fitness and the “love of the game” as opposed to the lower level end of winning, which is not even a means to correct exercise. What exactly this entails is dependent on the sport. In life, correct exercise means living in accordance with nature. What this means for indifferents is that we are happy when we live “skilfully” (Barney, 2003: 317). Indifferents are not lower level ends like winning, also not instrumental but are just required for correct exercise. So what the fitness is in the game is rationality and agreement with nature in life. Hence, selection of indifferents is simply the appropriate exercise. It does not matter if they have intrinsic planning value, choosing them is simply exercising life. Therefore there is no problem with indifferents since there is no formal inconsistency with this analogy (Barney, 2003: 319).

Cooper insist that under this reading virtue is to be understood as “formal” condition: The Sage has a “list” of preferred and dispreferred indifferents in his mind which he uses for a weighing process (Cooper, 1999: 534). Preferred indifferents as for instance clothing are not chosen because of their goodness, but because they are in accordance with nature and their selection is good, explains Seneca (Ep. 92.11-12). The becoming Sage will make the good selection more often, which is why for her appropriate action and selection become overlapping. Next selection becomes continuous and lastly stable in accordance with nature (fin. 3.20) which is a higher level goal just like exercising a sport.

Hence, for Cicero indifferents play a central role to moral philosophy since all action is determined by the “balance of indifferents” (Barney, 2003: 314). In every deliberation one measures preferred against the dispreferred to reach a conclusion. For example in suicide: If the preferred outweigh the dispreferred indifferents in life, then suicide is the inappropriate action and vice versa (fin. 3.60). Therefore all rational action “may be parsed as selection of indifferents” (Barney, 2003: 314). Is this a satisfying response to Aristo? Barney would answer with no and only use this as a starting point for further examination of the Stoic ethical theory. However, I find this response quite compelling and would argue that it shows a deep logic behind Stoic theory. This entails that Stoicism is at least prima facie consistent. However, as previously mentioned, the Stoic system has been discussed and written about by many in sometimes conflicting ways and there is much about Stoicism that is unknown to us for historical reasons. Any examination further than this prima facie explanation is hence required to truly show whether the Stoic view of indifferents is coherent.


Ancient Sources

Cicero. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum [OnEnds = Fin.]. 2001. trans. Woolf, R. and J. Annas. ed. Cambridge University Press.

Diogenes Laertius. Vitae Philosophorum [Lives of the Philosophers = DL]. 1964. trans. Long, H S. ed. Oxford University Press.

Epictetus. Dissertationes ab Arriano Digestae [Discourses = Diss.]. 1919. trans. Schenkl, H. ed. Teubner. Leipzig.

Plutarch. Notitiis Adversus Stoicos [Common Conceptions = Comm. not.]. 1959. trans. Pohlenzand, M and R Westmann. eds. Teubner. Leipzig.

Plutarch. De Stoicorum Repugnatiis [On Stoic Self- contradictions = St. rep.]. 1959. trans. Pohlenzand, M and R Westmann. eds. Teubner. Leipzig.

Plutarch. De Virtute Morali [On Moral Virtue = Virt.mor.]. 1929. trans. Paton, W R. eds. and M Pohlenz and W Sieveking. Teubner. Leipzig.

Seneca. Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales [Ep]. 1965. trans. Reynolds, L D. ed. Oxford University Press.

Sextus Empiricus. Adversus Mathematicos [Against the Professors = S.E. M]. 1912-1954. trans. Mutschmannand, H. and J Mau. eds. Teubner. Leipzig.

Stobaeus. Anthologium [Ecl]. 1958. trans. Wachsmuth, C. ed. Weidmann. Berlin.

Contemporary Sources

Barney, R. 2003. A Puzzle in Stoic Ethics. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 24: 303-40.

Brennan, T. 2002. Stoic Moral Psychology. in Inwood, B. The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Cambridge.

Cooper, J M. 1999. Greek Philosophers on Euthanasia and Suicide. in id. Reason and Emotion. Princeton University Press. 515-41.

Nussbaum, M. 1994. The Therapy of Desire. Princeton University Press.

Schofield, M. 2002. Stoic Ethics. in Inwood, B. The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Cambridge.

Striker, G. 1991. Following Nature: A Study in Stoic Ethics. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 9: 1-73.


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