Category Archives: Stoicism

The rise of sentimentalist ethics: Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury


Ashley Cooper was not just a character on Lost, he was a well respected, very influential philosopher, often known by his title, Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

The core of Shaftesbury’s philosophy is the belief that a person generally disposed to harm and never to help, a bad person, cannot be considered good just because he finds some reason to behave. For a person to truly be good she must be earnest in her desire to contribute to the world around her. Not for selfish reasons, but for objective reasons.

For Shaftesbury earnestness is measurable by the level of immediate emotion directed purposefully toward doing good and against evil. That means that a bad person isn’t just a person who never helps, or never helps from affection, but who lacks the right emotion; a bad person lacks “force enough to carry him directly towards good and bear him out against evil”. For the positive formulation – the truly good only earnestly mean to do good – to follow Shaftesbury will have to give a clear account of what the emotions are, and which are good and bad. Some of his assumptions are going to get in the way of that, but first a word on Good and Bad.

Good and Bad 

A natural temper is only good if all the emotions are “suited to the public good or good of the species”. A person who lacks a “requisite passion” or has one that is “contrary to the main end” of the natural temper, is in some sense “corrupt”. He means this so strictly that selfishness, even if it creates good, is an “ill affection”. Every good is a public good.

Real actions, or at least interesting ones

Shaftesbury has a unique take on what counts as a real act, as opposed to something more like a reflex. He starts out by asking what we’re supposed to think about a person who has an epileptic fit on one hand, or on the other a person who remains seated, hands tied, and doesn’t steal a sack full of money left in front of them. In both cases, the person is clearly not acting of their own volition, their intentions are irrelevant or masked; the person can’t help but act the way they do.

He thinks that these situations are analogous to absentmindedly walking down the street, or even absentmindedly helping an elderly person across the street. They all lack moral worth because they don’t reflect or reveal any thing about your true volitions. Only acting from the emotions does. Only emotionally based actions reveal what you really want. For the same reason, chastising someone for an ‘unaffected’ act is pointless.

This is novel and counter-intuitive. Even people who think emotion-based actions are chosen to some degree or another would probably stop short of saying that all emotion-based actions are chosen, and only such actions ‘count’.

Still, the basic point here has the ring of truth to it: you simply don’t call a creature who is naturally gentle ‘bad’ because of  a “breach of temper”, because such creatures usually return to their normal disposition. And it seems sorta fair to suggest that what is really ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ in a creature is what comes from its “natural temper”. The complication is that if a temperament is natural in a strong way, in what way is behavior stemming from it chosen?

Shaftesbury is pretty committed to the idea that emotional actions flow out of us by our natural temperament, that they are unmediated and don’t correspond to our conscious judgments. Yet he also seems to think they are not examples of a lack of volition or intention. They are instead our pure, wholly unfiltered intention. How does he square these seemingly incompatible ideas?

Unraveling the confusion

He has an explanation, and its implications for ethics are profound. The basic idea is that “natural behavior” done “earnestly” is the proper type of behavior to judge a person on, so you can only be correctly considered good if her “natural temper or the bent of her affections, primarily and immediately” leads her to good and against bad. But is there any room for choice, judgment, or cognition in being a good person?

If not, then holding an ethical theory such as utilitarianism, Aristotelianism, or Kantianism, which greatly value conscious judgment, would be self-deception. There’s not really any room for thinking as a guide to your own morality, or that of others, if ‘natural’ reaction is the key to goodness.

It seems that Shaftesbury’s thought is that an observer of an agent’s actions must be able to analyze why that person was motivated to act in the way they did, regardless of what the agent himself ‘knew’ or ‘could explain’ about their motivation. Reflecting about motives is not needed to be moral but to determine whether a person is moral, whether a person deserves praise or blame. On this account, for you to be good a third party must be able to see that you’re acting out of a benevolent character and for no ulterior, considered motive.

It strikes me as odd to think that an action we can’t “choose” is representative of our character, our true selves. But Shaftesbury didn’t made this up out of whole cloth. It follows pretty directly after Descartes’ jumbling of the power of the soul with respect to the body.  And beyond Descartes himself, the Cartesian philosophy’s influence in standardizing the mechanistic view of the body as the view from which to begin theorizing about metaphysics and morals is hard to overstate. The Cartesian philosophy butchered the job of explaining how the soul could have any power over what the body does.

The Cartesian philosophy’s failure to explain at the same time how the soul/mind could effect behavior and how the body itself could effect mentality of any kind practically forced thinkers to ask anew how in the world it could be that we know what is the right thing to do and how we actually come to do the right thing.

With Shaftesbury, we’re reaping the first fruit of that goal. Let’s continue in the next post.


What Everyone Ought to Know about Stoic Thought on the Emotions pt IV of IV

Was I being too hard on the Stoics?

I have strongly criticized the Stoics, concluding that their assumptions about the fundamental difference between the mind and the body, coupled with the insistence that you really must choose to ignore anything most people would say is ‘bad’ lead to impossible recommendations for how to act among people. You might think I’ve been too harsh, but I saved the best for last.

At §20 Epictetus makes the utterly stoic claim that “foul word or blows” are only an outrage because you judge them to be. §29 makes sure you get the point is serious, warning the would-be stoic that there are real costs to choosing the stoic life: grueling hours, you will have to “abandon your own people” and suffer the social humiliation of being looked down on by slaves and “ridiculed by those who meet you”. In fact, according to Epictetus, a true stoic gets the worst of every type of social good such as honors and offices, and even justice. And the reward for losing out on everything social is “peace of mind, freedom and tranquility”. So they shouldn’t care in any way about social norms or insults etc and they shouldn’t ditch their ‘stained’ friends.

So you see the Stoic position is simply a lost cause when it comes to the emotions and socialization. The two go hand in hand. And as we’ll see below the ad hoc revisions later Stoics make are nice only in the context of their assumptions and are intellectually spurious when viewed from outside the theory.

Theoretical & methodological problems

So I’ve made a lot of hay by attacking the core Stoic idea that emotions are judgments, and by pointing out how difficult it is to hold on to other key Stoic principles while still trying to account for proper socialization. But in fact, it seems even the early Stoics were aware of the problem. They just didn’t do very much convincing theoretical work to address it.

Chrysippus, who I mentioned before, and the Roman Stoic Seneca, whom Dante, among others, thought very highly of, did try to patch up the Stoic issues with emotions. Sort of.

Chrysippus tried to change the view to the idea that each emotion involves two separate value judgments. The first that there is a good or bad at hand, and the second is that it is appropriate to react to it. What type of emotion you experience will be determined by whether the thing is thought to be good or bad. So, when you decide that someone smearing gunk on your shirt deserves punishment, you experience the emotion anger, even if you can’t or won’t actually act on it. Chrysippus thought that this showed that it’s the second judgment – that its appropriate to react – that is the very bad judgment. He does this, of course, because you tend to lose trust and interest when you argue that awful things such as your wife dying in childbirth, or genocide, aren’t “actually” bad. But this was the original Stoic position.

So since the Stoics started with the goal of convincing you emotions are bad – which they had to – they need something to be wrong about you being upset about the truly bad things that are happening to you. They separated the mind from the body in an irrevocable way by saying you can only control your mind and that you must control your mind. The orthodox Stoic view held that your emotions are functions of your reasoning power, your ability to figure out what to do in a given situation. To the extent the emotions look like bad thinking, they must be fixed. (And if the emotions had a physiological (body) component and were able to overcome your mind, well that’s just awful).

In philosophy we call changing your core theory for the sole purpose of saving it from a killer objection ad hoc reasoning. It’s considered very poor arguing and thinking to do so. If the new additions to the theory are true, or make the new theory true, that’s fine. But you shouldn’t go around trying to argue that your original theory was correct. And its very often the case that these theoretical refinements are simply made-up and have no supporting evidence, don’t fix the problem or are undone by other problems.

I think their ad hoc move fails and I’ll take a moment to explain why. First, let’s keep in mind that the Stoics lean heavily on the idea that human emotions are voluntary. Their best piece of evidence for that is that emotions are eradicable; they felt that because we can get rid of an emotion, this proves that emotions are by their nature voluntary.

Of course, this absolutely does not follow logically. Here’s an analogy: Imagine that for no reason that you had anything to do with you got selected as the winner of a prize. But you can get rid of the prize by refusing it or giving it away. Does that mean you chose to win it? It’s silly, but the Stoics need it to be true. So they insist it is.


Plato, Seneca and Aristotle. I can understand why the artist made them look like twins.

Seneca, famous for his work on anger, gave a better argument for how Stoics should understand the emotions. He explained that the initial appearance (“first movements”) of anger or shocks of anger don’t have to lead to full anger because full emotion requires acts of assent and will. His idea is that since you can question appearances and not accept them, you don’t have to become angry. If it looks like someone is stealing your laptop you don’t automatically get angry, you can stop the process and see whether or not the person really is stealing it and then get angry for real or not. But if you let the initial ‘anger shock’ guide you to act out, it’s your own damn fault.

I kind of like this idea, but it’s far away from orthodox Stoicism. It seems to leave the possibility that some emotional action is justified. But it has the flaw of not realizing that in some cases this “initial” part of anger could be the difference between life and death. And it’s changing the concept of anger by somewhat arbitrarily cutting it up between the ‘initial’ shock and the rest of it; why isn’t the heat I feel in my chest when I’m bumped harshly on the subway steps ‘actually’ anger?

What I like best about Seneca’s kinda Stoic view is that it really comes close to agreement with P-A-L; that line of thinking says that time to reflect often enables us to halt our emotions too. But at the end of the day the Stoics want and need to say that emotions are voluntary judgments through and through if they really want to convince people that they can and should get rid of their emotions. But this “two-part judgment process” that equals one emotion isn’t very convincing – or practical.

Final thoughts on Stoicism

In the end, advocating that people lose all their sentiments, leave their family and give up any chance at a meaningful social life simply is absurd. It’s ridiculous to suppose that human beings ought to follow this plan in order to be happy. Humans, our minds and bodies, are social creatures. At the bottom, Stoics believe this, even if they overtly try to deny it. That’s why they are so inconsistent about whether social concepts such are reputation are truly good or bad. It’s as simple as realizing that if you really believe that when someone makes you angry it’s simply always “just you” who has angered yourself, you’ve created a hopeless situation. The extent to which stoic psychology denies that emotions exist at both hot and cold levels and that some emotions can and must be experienced and acted on, is the extent to which Stoicism is useless as an ethical theory.

At the end of the day, because of its misunderstanding of emotions, Stoicism offers some great thoughts on strength of character but is severely flawed when it comes to how to deal with other people. And lets be honest, that’s the major part of ethics.

In the next post I’ll discuss the rise of materialism and introduce you to the father of Modern Philosophy, René Descartes.

Materialist and Mechanistic philosophy created the modern world