Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Thursday-Friday

This is the third post in my series, Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015!  Stoic Week is an international event in which you can use a handbook to try to live like a Stoic for a week.  Sci-Fi Stoic Week is my take on it.  Find out more in my first post in the series.

Thursday: Virtue

The ancient Stoics thought that virtue is the highest good.  In fact, virtue is the only real good.  Other things, like wealth, health, fame, and so on, aren't really valuable in themselves.  The only thing that really matters to Stoics is being a good person.
Bill and Ted: Proponents of virtue as excellence

Like most ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the Stoics are virtue theorists: what matters in ethics is character, which is different than many modern ethical theories, like utilitarianism and deontology, which tend to focus on the rightness or wrongness of actions.  Virtue ethics has made a come back in the discipline of philosophy in recent decades (see this article on Julia Annas, one contemporary philosopher who has been part of this come back).

The Thursday Lunchtime exercise in the 2015 Stoic Week Handbook introduces the idea of values clarification.  If virtue is so important, you should try to be clear about what counts as virtuous.  You should also try, as far as possible, to make sure that your values match up with the way you live your life.  The Handbook suggests that asking questions like the following is one way to do this.

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to ‘stand for’ or ‘be about’?
  • What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your time doing?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g. as a parent, friend, at work or in life generally?
  • You could also ask how far your core values match what the ancient Stoics meant by ‘virtue’, especially character traits such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. 
- 2015 Stoic Week Handbook, p. 32
Science fiction is also a good way to think about values.  One of the best examples is Ursula Le Guin's short, but philosophically rich, story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."  In this story Le Guin imagines a utopian city where everyone is incredibly happy -- everyone, that is, except for one poor child who is kept in miserable circumstances, which somehow secures the happiness of everyone else.  The story is usually read as a critique of utilitarianism, in particular the idea that good actions are those that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

The Stoics would ask: is this the kind of thing that people of good character would do?  Even if you could be happy by keeping one person miserable, is that really virtuous?  Is pleasure the most important thing in life?  Is pleasure really happiness? (The Stoics would unanimously say, "no.") Is happiness satisfaction with one's life, as most contemporary psychologists define it?  Or is happiness something deeper that's intimately bound up with virtue, as in the sense of the ancient Greek word, eudaimonia (human flourishing, living well, well being)?  How would all of this impact our ideas of a virtuous or happy society?  Is Omelas really a "utopia"?  What about other science fictional societies, like Star Trek, the world of Samuel Delany's Nova, or the Culture of Iain M. Banks?  Should we aim to be more like them?

Speaking of virtue, the ancient Greek word for virtue is aretē, which literally means "excellence."  So, the Stoics would agree with Bill and Ted that we should be "excellent to each other."  (They may not agree as much with the second half added by Abraham Lincoln).  This leads to Friday's topic.

Lincoln in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Friday: Relationships with Other People and Society

Stoics, Vulcans, Buddhists, and artificial intelligences alike are often accused of being emotionless and not caring about other people.  In all four cases, this is a mistake (although in the case of AIs, it may depend on which AI you're talking about).  See my philosophical tribute to Leonard Nimoy for more on this point.

As any sufficiently nerdy Star Trek fan knows, Vulcans actually have emotions, but, in many of the same ways as Stoics, they train themselves to move beyond being controlled by negative emotions and they cultivate positive emotions like compassion.  Vulcans like Spock do care about their friends.  The deep friendship that Spock feels for his crew mates, especially Kirk and McCoy, is unmistakable, as illustrated most poignantly near the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (whether Spock is a utilitarian or virtue ethicist is hard to say.)

Marcus Aurelius realized that cultivating compassion for everyone is often hard, especially when other people are obnoxious (as they so often are, even more so now that we have internet trolls).  The Stoic Week Handbook gives another of my favorite quotes from Marcus.
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognized the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1
The most obnoxious thing about obnoxious people is that you sometimes have no choice but to deal with them.  But this fact can also be the key to reducing your feeling of annoyance.  Marcus points out that reminding yourself of the fact that we're all in this together, and of your own striving for virtue, can help you to work more effectively with them.  Think of this good this attitude could do for any group that lets its contentious bickering stop it from functioning, from annoying meetings at work to the current US Congress.

The Stoic Week Handbook also discusses an exercise known as "The Circle of Hiercles" (p. 36-37).  Much like Buddhist loving kindness (metta) meditation, this exercise encourages us to begin by imagining kindness toward ourselves and then slowly moving outward -- to friends and family, to acquaintances and colleagues, to strangers, and eventually to the entire human race.

As a science fiction fan, I have to ask: why stop there?  Should we include animals in this circle, especially animals like apes, dolphins, and whales?  See Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home for one answer, and philosopher Peter Singer for another.  What about artificial intelligence?  Could it be that the way to avoid a robot apocalypse is to treat AIs as members of the moral community?  (See my review of Ex Machina for my thoughts).  Why not simply make AIs with benevolence (like Asimov's three laws of robotics), or even better with a great sense of humor as in Interstellar and the Culture series of Iain M. Banks?

If we ever meet extraterrestrials, should we include them in the circle of morality?  Could our compassion be the deciding factor between Independence Day and Star Trek: First Contact?  For that matter, do we even currently include all human beings in our circle of morality?  Consider racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobic attitudes toward immigrants, etc.  Does this demonstrate that some people don't even place all human beings in our circle?

It's worth noting that there were women Stoics, such as Porcia Catonis, and Epictetus was a former slave, although most ancient Stoics fell short of actually including everyone in the circle.  Nonetheless, can the ideas within Stoicism, Buddhism, and science fiction help us do better today?

Stay tuned for my fourth and (probably) final post on Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015!

1 comment:

  1. The End! Part Four: