Is virtue ethics the way to develop meaning in one's life?
In the first part of this essay I briefly recounted my spiritual-intellectual peregrination from Catholicism to secular humanism to modern ethical frameworks like Kantian deontology (never was fond of that one, though) and utilitarianism (I must guiltily admit some flirtation thereof…). I eventually landed, a number of years ago, on virtue ethics. This requires some explanation.
Virtue ethics has its roots in ancient Greek moral philosophy, so the first thing to appreciate is that the Greeks (and the Romans after them) meant something very different by the words “ethics” (translated by the Romans into “morality”) than we usually mean today . From a modern perspective, ethics is the branch of philosophy that studies right and wrong. Specifically, whether any given action is (morally) right or wrong.
Ancient ethics, by contrast, was the study of how to live one’s life, and what to do or not to do in any particular circumstance was not the result of abstract notions of right or wrong, but rather of one’s character: the virtuous person (hence the term “virtue” ethics) is precisely that person who knows, at least most of the times, what to do in any particular circumstance — because she is well versed at the virtue of phronesis, i.e., practical wisdom.
Ah!, I thought. That’s what I’ve been looking for: not a generic idea like secular humanism, nor a very specific moral framework like utilitarianism, but an all-encompassing view of life, with an intrinsically ethical dimension. So I began to study virtue ethics, and of course I started with the main ancient exponent of the approach: Aristotle.
For a few years I flirted with the teachings of the Peripatetic (i.e., Aristotelian) school, which was based on the idea that the eudaimonic (i.e., flourishing, good, happy) life is in part the result of the cultivation of virtues (Aristotle, always the taxonomist, listed 12 of them), and in part the result of luck. To achieve eudaimonia, one also has to grow up within a nurturing family and societal environment, acquire a decent amount of education, even be somewhat good looking, according to Aristotle. If you happen to be a white man of at the least upper-middle class (like Aristotle), you are set. I do happen to be such a man, and yet I found the whole idea still somehow unsatisfactory. (For one, it smells a bit too much of aristocracy, which is a standard accusation aimed at Aristotle, though I’m not sure how fair it is, given the times and culture in which he wrote.)
So I widened the search. I looked into Greco-Roman philosophies that were distinct from Aristotelianism, chiefly Epicureanism. Epicurus taught that the point of life was to achieve a state of ataraxia, or freedom from pain (psychological, as well as physical). The Epicureans got a bad wrap throughout most of the past two millennia because the Christians really didn’t like them (you know, that business about the world being made of atoms bumping in the void and such), and mounted an effective smear campaign that has made the term “epicurean” still today synonymous with lax pleasures. That was most definitely not what Epicurus was after: yes, he did teach that a major way of achieving ataraxia is by seeking pleasure and avoid pain (an idea that was much later taken up by utilitarians like Bentham and Mill), but he meant the gentle pleasures of friendship, simple food, occasional sex and the like. No drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Still, the Epicureans clearly counseled a degree of disengagement from public life and political involvement (hard to strive for ataraxia otherwise!), something that most definitely did not appeal to me. I even looked briefly at Buddhism, which has much to be commended for, though it is based on a complex tradition that presented me with a difficult to disentangle mix of philosophy and mysticism, carrying metaphysical commitments that were either unclear or that I just couldn’t make (karma, for instance, with the related ideas of different states of existence).
Finally, recently (like, within the last year or so), I arrived at Stoicism, which is the philosophy that I am currently practicing and studying. What I like about it is that it moves away from the Aristotelian idea of luck as necessary to achieve a flourishing existence: the only thing that matters is one’s character and the practice of four fundamental virtues: phronesis (i.e., practical wisdom), justice, temperance, and courage. Everything else is, for the Stoic, “indifferent,” a technical term that means that it is irrelevant to one’s moral worth (and hence to one’s meaning of life). But these indifferents are then divided between “preferred” (e.g., health, wealth, education) and “dispreferred” (e.g., sickness, poverty, ignorance). So a Stoic may still welcome the first and attempt to avoid the latter, so long as she doesn’t mistake either for really important things.
Stoicism has its own issues, including — in its ancient version — a commitment to a teleological understanding of the cosmos which has been rejected by modern science. But a number of modern Stoics don’t think that is unavoidable, and they are working on tweaking and improving their philosophy, just like Buddhists have been doing for more than two millennia.
But this discussion is not about Stoicism, it is about the concept of developing a philosophy of life, and how that differs from a religion. To that we will turn in the next installment of this mini-series.
 While nowadays the terms “ethical” and “moral” are used pretty much interchangeably, there is an interesting etymological distinction between the two. Ethics comes from the Greek ēthikós, which means expressing one’s character. The Romans — and in particular Cicero — translated it with morality, rooted in the Latin mōrālis, which means relating to manners…
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI IS THE K.D. IRANI PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK. HIS BACKGROUND IS IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, THOUGH HE HAS RECENTLY DEVELOPED A KEEN INTEREST IN STOICISM. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK (CO-EDITED WITH MAARTEN BOUDRY) IS “PHILOSOPHY OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: RECONSIDERING THE DEMARCATION PROBLEM” (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2013). HIS OTHER WRITINGS CAN BE FOUND AT PLATOFOOTNOTE.ORG.