Stoic q&a: shouldn’t a Stoic be something of a dick to get things done?

Figs in Winter
Jan 25 · 6 min read
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[image: Steve Jobs, a dick, not a Stoic, Wikipedia; this is essay #267 in my Patreon/Medium series]

T. writes: There are many “vices” that I have the power to correct but that according to modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) need not necessarily be corrected. CBT would even re-frame these vices as strengths because they make a person less effective if corrected.

For an extreme example think of Steve Jobs, he was a colossal dick by many accounts, but that colossal dickiness maybe got people to do amazing things really fast. Another extreme example would be the greedy, arrogant, workaholic, unhappy, cut-throat businessman that gives millions, to charity at the end of his life Is he a good person according to virtue ethics?

A personal example: I worry about what my co-workers are thinking and doing and get angry and yell at co-workers when they do something that is not up to my standards of workmanship. From a modern CBT perspective this breaking the rule of the dichotomy of control and the vice of showing anger inappropriately, ignoring the virtue of justice, also shows positive qualities about me, such as having high standards and valuing hard work and having a sense of fairness. My vices are “adaptive”: they spur people on to work harder.

So my argument is: many “vices” in themselves are not completely harmful, and may even be re-framed as good. Therefore saying that virtue is the only good is not correct.

I’m glad you asked this question, because it goes straight to the heart of what Stoicism is. To begin with, let us make a distinction between Stoicism and CBT. It is true that CBT was initially inspired by Stoic techniques, and colleagues like Don Robertson have written extensively about this connection. But Stoicism is a philosophy of life, CBT a type of psychotherapy. Their goals and domains of application are significantly different.

You go to a CBT practitioner, or any other kind of therapist, if you have a specific issue related to a type of mental pathology, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, bipolarism, and so forth. The therapist, especially a CBT one, will address the particular problem — and only the particular problem — for a limited period of time, attempting to give you the tools to correct the undesired behavior. That’s it. The CBT practitioner is not in the business of instructing you about your life’s philosophy, and a philosophy of life is something that you (i) use always, throughout your life, and (ii) applies to everything you do, not just to specific issues.

Having made this distinction, let us return to Stoicism. All the behaviors you describe are unacceptable within a Stoic perspective, regardless of the (alleged) positive consequences they may trigger. I’m going to examine each of your examples in a minute, but first let me clarify the relationship between virtue ethics (of which, as you know, Stoicism is an example) and consequences.

People often criticize virtue ethical approaches because their followers don’t care about consequences, only about intentions. That is simply false. A virtuous agent very much contemplates the possible consequences of her actions, because she has a duty to improve the world, and that’s possible only if one’s actions have the intended consequences. However, we also recognize that outcomes are not (entirely) up to us. We may begin a course of action with the best intentions, and yet we may fail, through not fault of our own (because of circumstances, or other people’s actions). That’s why the emphasis in virtue ethics is on motivations. It doesn’t mean that consequences don’t matter.

Now let us consider your first example: Steve Jobs. He was indeed a dick, I am told. And I say this as someone who admires some of Jobs’ qualities, and moreover someone who is very much embedded in the Apple ecosystem he helped create. However, I think your implied premise, that such ecosystem could have been created only by engaging in dickish behavior, is faulty. It is perfectly conceivable that Jobs could have gotten the same results, or even better, by acting nicely and cooperatively with his colleagues and employees. We just don’t know for sure.

More importantly, from a Stoic point of view it doesn’t matter. The Stoic project is to make us into better human beings, not into more effective CEOs (hence my skepticism about “Silicon Valley Stoicism”). If by acting virtuously we end up with less money, success, and so forth, too bad. Our priorities are different. Here is how Epictetus puts it:

“If I can make money while remaining honest, trustworthy and dignified, show me how and I will do it. But if you expect me to sacrifice my own values, just so you can get your hands on things that aren’t even good — well, you can see yourself how thoughtless and unfair you’re being.” (Enchiridion 24.3)

The exact same reasoning applies to your second example, that of the billionaire who is a son of a bitch and yet donates millions to charitable causes. From a utilitarian perspective he may be doing the right thing, though even that remains to be seen, as it depends on the balance between the suffering he imposes on some people and the happiness he may bring to others. But from a virtue ethical perspective he is to be pitied because he hasn’t figured out what is really important in life: being good, loving other people, being helpful to the human cosmopolis. He is, Epictetus says, like a blind man:

“This [is a] man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad.” (Discourses I, 18.3)

Your third example concerns your own behavior at work. Forgive me, but it really ain’t Stoic. First off, your worry about what your coworkers think and do is misplaced, since it isn’t your job to supervise them. Your standards of workmanship are irrelevant in that setting, unless you are promoted to a supervisor position. Second, anger is never an appropriate response to anything, according to the Stoics. Here is Seneca:

“Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance.” (On Anger, I.1)

Anger isn’t appropriate primarily because it undermines your own character. Acting on the basis of anger means acting while throwing reason out of the window, and the practice of reason is one of the two pillars of Stoic philosophy (the other being prosocial behavior, which you also forgo when you get angry at your coworkers).

You talk about having a sense of fairness, but toward whom? You think that your coworkers don’t do enough of a good job, and that therefore it falls on you to pick up the slack. Even assuming that this is indeed unfair, there are other ways to redress the issue, like going to your supervisor and calmly explaining the situation. Of course, whether this will have the desired effect or not remains open, since you don’t control outcomes. Then again, that’s true also of your current course of action, except that it is bad for your character’s health and antisocial with respect to your coworkers.

Finally, let me comment briefly on this business of virtue being the highest good. The basic argument is provided by Socrates in Plato’s Euthydemus. Virtue (or wisdom, or right reason, these terms being interchangeable in the Stoic context) is the chief good because it is what allows you to handle everything else properly. Other things, like money, or property, may be good if used in a certain way, and bad if used in another way. Epictetus says:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

Virtue, or right reason, therefore is in a sense a meta-good, or a good of the highest order. Other things may have value, but their value depends on the circumstances. For a Stoic, there are no circumstances under which virtue does not apply.

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Figs in Winter

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Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

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Figs in Winter

Written by

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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