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Ethics and Morality

Cafeteria-Style Stoicism

Personal Perspective: What is the harm of Stoic ideas being made accessible?

Mark Athitakis, in the Washington Post this week, accuses popular books on Stoicism of pandering to a general audience interested in self-help. Some of these books might as well be Tony Robbins', he writes. And some are published by a business press. And we are kind of "flooded" by these Stoic books, he complains, with some selling upwards of 6 million copies.

What really, though, is the harm of this new interest in Stoicism?

It can, of course, seem silly for books to address us all as if we are in the military, or recovering from time in it, as Athitakis points out. But some of the readers are.

We do not assign self-help books in college courses, sure. But is this a fair basis for judging interest in self-help books?

Critiques like Athitakis’s usually suggest the same things. First, work for the general reader is unappealing (because the authors are pandering to the general reader with dumbed-down material). Second, unlike (I guess) religious thought, modern Stoicism does not present a "coherent moral philosophy." Third, back when Athitakis found Stoicism engaging as a young man, it was translated from Greek, and its lines were “rebarred with moral certainty.”

In contrast, today the Stoicism on offer is "cafeteria"-style. For instance, the authors of Stoicism for Dummies give readers permission to use what they would like from it, instead of being very strict. This is so "toothless," Athitakis writes, in comparison to Epictetus on fear and what is necessary to life. He suggests that the modern versions of Stoicism are “toothless practically to the point of meaninglessness.”

But, if we are going to worry about what people like to read, we might worry just as much about popular encouragements to moral certainty.

I wonder if we can usefully distinguish between types of moral certainty. If the ancient Stoics sounded firm about ethics, we might remember that they are firm in a special way. As philosophers developing an ethical theory, they did not speak in one voice or only in aphorisms. (The struggle in trying to learn Stoicism without a professor's help is that it is pretty hard to even see where the named ancient Stoics agree.)

But instead, they:

a) aimed to explain moral phenomena as it was generally recognized

b) invited their work to be checked, both against other Stoics and against other schools of ethical thought

c) welcomed the public to test out their proposals with, yes, firm commitments as to what would count as a good result

I do not see the popular books on Stoicism at odds with any of this. There are, of course, books interpreting and updating Stoicism written for philosophers where ethical theorizing is done explicitly. These remain available.

But Athitakis might find them "toothless," too. I am sure we, the general public, the overly-catered-to audience of readers, are squeamish about firm ethical judgment. Best-selling authors might be catering to our squeamishness, as Athitakis has it. But the alternative is what? It is also very difficult for ethical philosophers to analyze a person's ethics. Our most thoughtful and robust accounts of ethics today are not so great at slicing and dicing what makes a person ethical, either.

And popular writing on Stoicism can’t really be identified as some cause of our squeamishness or ethical theorists' cautious methodology, can it?

Maybe concern about general readers being spoon-fed or acting like sheep could be directed at whatever seems to encourage a kind of subservient style of thought made of indefensible second-hand pronouncements (from TV, radio, or podcast hosts that do not bother with a, b, or c). But Stoicism is part of an ethical theory, and that makes such a difference.

Ancient lines about death and the value of children are a reminder, and some kind of proof, of how theoretical Stoicism is. They would be reductios of the view if not put in the context of the necessarily concept-laden components of Stoicism, an actual ethical theory, with counter-intuitive components, aiming to account for complex behavioral and psychological phenomena.

The point of spelling out ethics to the extent that we can grasp it in an ethical theory is to encourage us to pinpoint and articulate what exactly is unethical. I can understand why we are squeamish to read books that focus on this; putting anyone’s behavior up for evaluation means we are bound to be judged ethically ourselves. We might want some theory to make use of before opening ourselves to that experience! But we also might be right to think "rebarred" ethics requires a lot more argument than can fit into anything enjoyable to read.

Maybe modern Stoicism could use more teeth. That should mean introducing more philosophy. Rather than making fun of authors who make ideas about life interesting, or making fun of their readers fitting it all together with their own lives, let's put even more work into developing moral theories that seem coherent to us in the public, please.

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