Emotions and Values in Turbulent Times

by Dr. Jan Garrett

October 25, 2001


Considerable experience as a teacher of ethics and an observer of human interaction on a small and a large scale has convinced me of an important truth. Our capacity to make good and just choices is limited by our chaotic moral and emotional lives. It is not as if our culture lacks the intellectual resources to address this problem. They have been available in outline at least since classical Greek antiquity. This article is an attempt to convey some of those important ideas at a basic or introductory level.

This article began as a presentation to a local group more than two years ago. A slightly modified version was placed on this website and is still available there. (See An Introduction to Stoic Ethics.) The present version is a result of modifying the other web version to move as far as possible from the paradoxical vocabulary of classical Greek philosophy. It has been rewritten so as to be more accessible. I hope by doing this to respond in a small way to the urgently different situation we now face in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. The starting point immediately below may seem at first to be far removed from those events. I assure you that all these things are connected. Please bear with me.

A Starting Point: Moral Development

The young child naturally wants to preserve itself. It is proper that it should learn how and, with the help of older persons, it normally does. As we become older, we become aware that we operate in various roles: son or daughter, brother or sister, friend, student, etc. And this goes on into adulthood: we learn what it means to be a citizen, a mayor, a client, a professional, a teacher, a technical expert in one or another area, a husband, a wife, a parent, etc. Corresponding to each of these roles is a set of prima facie duties and there's no particular mystery concerning what they are.

Generally speaking, what should be going on at these two stages is the promotion of the "primary things that accord with [our human] nature"--things like life, health, technical knowledge, possessions, beauty, etc. A child's choices for self-preservation and a person's selection of actions appropriate to his or her roles are both guided by prima facie duties. The child's prima facie duty is to try to stay alive, the doctor's prima facie duty is to assist that process if the child is injured or gets ill; the student's prima facie duty is to learn knowledge in a discipline, the teacher's job is to teach it well. And so on.

Gradually, the individual may come to see how all his or her role-related duties fit together and have to be adjusted so that they fit together harmoniously. Her loyalties may even transfer to the system of duty as a whole. The final stage is reached only rarely, but it is the goal a person who is learning ethically will strive to approximate even if she cannot quite reach it. This goal is the ethically wise person who lives consistently from within a sensitive appreciation of all her duties considered as a system of duty.

Now, this is a person who can observe in practice, not merely in words, the distinctions on the Values from the Stoic Perspective chart. She can distinguish between unqualified goods, unqualified evils, advantageous things (qualified or apparent goods), and disadvantageous things (qualified or apparent evils).

Advantageous and Disadvantageous Things

From the perspective of the morally excellent person, only the moral excellences, actions that express these excellence, and feelings inseparable from the excellences are good. By contrast, and that phrase cannot be overstressed--by contrast, by comparison, things like life, health, possessions, good reputation, etc. are not unqualifiedly good but (compared to unqualified goods) "of little account." The term "of little account" does not imply that we should not care about these things. It only implies that we should not give them significant weight when they conflict with right living (what is morally right all things considered) and lead us toward evil (what would be wrong all things considered).

Now, let us look at the opposites of these "advantageous" but (compared to true goods) "of little account" things. These are "disadvantageous" things, such as bodily and external conditions like death, disease, poverty, and disgrace. When they compete with moral error or evil (things like acting unjustly, in a cowardly manner, negligently, etc.), these bodily and external conditions must be considered also "of little account."

We do not ignore the usual distinctions between life and death, health and disease, possessions and poverty. We call things like life and wealth "advantageous," things like death and disease "disadvantageous." The "advantageous" things are normally to be preferred over the "disadvantageous" ones. But their value is "of little account" whenever they have to be weighed against good things, such as virtuous action.

A person who becomes ethically wise and morally excellent virtuous will undergo a shift of perspective. Much of she once called good or bad will be reinterpreted. Whereas earlier she may have regarded wealth or popularity as an unqualified good, it will now be understood as an merely "advantageous" thing, no longer on the same scale with true moral excellence. In comparison with goodness or moral excellence, wealth is essentially "of little account."

Can we be more specific about ethical wisdom and moral excellence? The latter includes character traits like courage, fidelity, fairness, and honesty, plus the mental ability to make wise moral choices. Ethical wisdom (sometimes called practical intelligence) is an art that governs selection among the "advantageous" and "disadvantageous" things. For the wise person, a grasp of the unqualified good provides a way of making proper selection among the qualified things. Practical intelligence is an art of living.

AN EXAMPLE. Consider a parent's relationship with her child. Naturally, the parent would like the child's good will, but duty and moral excellence demands that the parent discipline the child when the child does something very wrong. Now, the "good will" of another person is not really a good, but an "advantageous" thing. Losing the good will of another person, by contrast, is a "disadvantageous" thing. If the parent selects the "advantageous" thing on this occasion, retaining the child's good will in the short run, she will neglect excellence and act in an inferior way. In this case, acting excellently means overriding the attraction of an "advantageous" thing. The wise person always chooses excellence over what is merely advantageous. Moreover, she will not be in mental turmoil torn over the issue.

The key to ethical wisdom and moral excellence is its consistency--courage, wisdom, justice, proper loyalty, proper generosity, proper friendliness--are all consistent with one another. And what is just in one circumstance is consistent with what is just in another circumstance. By contrast, pursuit of advantageous things is not always consistent: one person's pursuit of power or fame or money or erotic pleasure may clash with someone else's.

The "Passions"

How one relates to the qualified goods or evils ("advantageous" or "disadvantageous") is inseparable from how she relates to the "passions" (violent feelings).

Passions, said the old Stoics, involve excessive attachments to merely advantageous things. When we "lust for" the pleasures associated with fame, high social status, possessions, money, etc., we are regarding these things as good. Yet they are ultimately, in comparison with unqualified goodness or evil, "of little account."

If we fear losing or not getting these things, we are regarding their opposites--low social status, poverty, etc.--as (unqualifiedly) bad or evil. Yet these too are ultimately "of little account."

Thus "fear" and "lust" are wrong because they involve a false belief. And likewise with distress (including grief) and delight.

We feel the passion of "distress" when we get what we fear (a "disadvantageous" thing misjudged as unqualifiedly evil).

We feel passion of "delight" when we get what we lust for (an "advantageous" thing misjudged as unqualifiedly good).

These terms "fear," "lust," "distress" and "delight" should be understood in relation to the other somewhat technical ideas to which you have been introduced. Just as "energy" in ordinary life means one thing, and in modern physical theory something a bit different, so "lust" in ordinary English is not quite the same thing as "lust" in this modified Stoical ethical theory. You can "lust" after longevity, possessions, the praise of others, and even health as well as after another human being.

"Passions" are mental upsets or disorders. They may be in one sense physical events but they are also mental events. As a mental event, each emotion involves a compound belief, one part of which is "fresh."

Here's an example: Suppose someone whom I know passes me on the street and seems to ignore me. I might feel hurt or angry over this. In this case, there is a background belief (BB):

(BB) So-and so ignored me.

BB is presupposed by this emotion but not part of it.

The "passion" itself is composed of two beliefs:

(1) So-and so's ignoring me was a (unqualifiedly) bad thing.

(2) I ought to be distressed over So-and so's ignoring me.

(2) is the "fresh" part. Typically events in our more remote past no longer sting, even if we still regard them as bad. I might still think (1) ten years after the event but no longer think (2). In that case I would no longer be angry.

Note that in terms of our approach (1) and (2) are both false. (1), however, is the main problem since (2) is largely based on (1).

According to our approach every belief can be analyzed into two components ((a) and (b)):

(a) The thought itself, without endorsement.
(b) Assent, endorsement, of the thought.

We can all the first component (a) an "impression." For example, the impression in (1) is:

(1a) "So-and-so's ignoring me seems to be a bad thing."

One might say to herself:

(1b) "Yes, it is."

Unless we assent to false impressions such as this one, we do not experience a "passion." It is our power to assent or withhold assent that enables us to avoid "passions." Unfortunately, most of us have not developed the skill to use this power correctly, so we tend to endorse the false impressions that lead to "passions."

"Passions" and Immoral Actions

We ought not to leave this topic without saying, at least briefly, how the "passions" are related to actions. "Passions" are not merely turbulent "movements of the soul," sometimes with bodily side-effects. Like good feelings that correspond to correct judgments, they are ways of disposing ourselves toward persons and things outside us. Passions and the judgments involved in them typically lead to morally wrong actions. The "passion" of "lust" for popularity or power, for example, may lead one to distort (unfairly describe) the record of her rivals. The "passion" of anger involves a "lust" to "get even" with somebody for a perceived slight. This can produce further expressions of hostility and increase the level of distrust.

In fact, every action that is motivated by values perceived through a "passion" is morally flawed even if it causes no injury to others, because the passion involves an erroneous belief regarding values. Even if my "passions" today do not lead me to treat another person unjustly, unless the false beliefs associated with those passions are corrected, these beliefs "set me up" tomorrow to injure others.

Objections and Responses

OBJECTION 1. You say that life and health are "of little account" and suggest that we should think that way in order to eliminate the violent feelings. How can a good person, who is, say, a parent, think that way about the life or health of her child? And isn't it a bit extreme, we want to say, not to care about one's own life or health?

OBJECTION 2. You imply that we should eliminate the passions. But psychological counselors today tell us to get in touch with our feelings. Dr. Bill DeFoore, for example, is author of a recent popular psychology paperback entitled Anger: Deal with It, Heal with it, Stop It from Killing You. He tells his readers to say to themselves "All of my feelings are OK with me" (p. 77). DeFoore holds that at the core of each of us is an "inner child," which is either identical to, or "associated with [,] the more vulnerable emotions of fear, pain, and the need for love." We are supposed to affirm this inner child and to protect it (DeFoore, p. 67)

OBJECTION 3. Without passion, nothing creative or progressive ever gets done. College students in the 1990's were sometimes described as apathetic by people who would have liked to see them more concerned about racism, peace, the environment, or other social problems. If that's what your theory leads to, well, we don't need it, we've got enough.

These objections are based upon misunderstandings, as we will see below.

Reply to Objection 1

Will a person who accepts these views be indifferent regarding the life or health of her child?

Strictly speaking, when weighed in the balance against moral excellence, the life or health of every person is "of little account." But a good parent chooses her acts because they are the right (morally excellent) thing to do, and the right thing for a person to do normally coincides with the role-related duties.

The main difference is the spirit in which the action is done--the morally flawed person does it so as to promote his own or somebody else's advantages. The morally admirable person does it because it is right to do it. And doing the right thing may--indeed usually does--involve promoting somebody else's advantages as well as one's own.

The right thing lies in the striving, not in the external success. You can only do what is in your power. If, having strived rightly (seriously, to the very best of your capability), you fail to save life or health, you have no reason for grief, which is a kind of distress.

Reply to Objection 2

Aren't we supposed to affirm our feelings?

We should not be misled by the term "passions." This category does not cover all the feelings. The view advocated here is that the wise person will have some feelings. The wise person avoids irrational delight but experiences "joy" (at living a wise life). She avoids fear but relates to what is to come through the feeling of rationally aware "caution." Caution corresponds to her care not to endorse false impressions but to select reasonably among advantageous and disadvantageous values. She does not "lust" after advantageous things but she does relate to what is to come through calmly and wisely selecting among these values. In so doing she chooses and wishes for what is good. This kind of a person will feel tranquillity, pervading her life. The "happiness" of such a person is not altogether devoid of feeling.

Another important point is that our theory recognizes what we might call "anticipations of the passions," which fall short of the passions themselves. These are physical twinges that are sometimes but not always followed by a violent feeling. Even a good person may feel an "anticipation of passion" (say, a foretaste of "lust") when he sees a certain attractive individual. But this is not the "passion" lust; lust is not present unless the first person endorses the false impression, say, that having intimate relations with that attractive person would be an unqualified good instead of the "advantageous" thing that it might be.

Earlier I mentioned an apparent conflict between modern therapies and the view that the "passions" are bad. But when we examine more closely the views of modern therapists, we do not find such a big conflict. When the statement that anger can be a good thing (made by the therapist whose book I cited, Dr. Bill DeFoore) is examined in context, it turns out that its author is really talking about the "emotional energy" behind anger, which he claims can be diverted into nondestructive uses.

When psychologists today tell us to affirm our feelings, they do not mean that our emotional selves are just fine the way they are--people don't usually end up in psychologists' offices if they believe that, and psychologists are not going to put themselves out of business. What they mean is that we should not hide our emotional selves from ourselves; that it is better to be aware of our present feelings than not to be aware. But this awareness is also a starting point for change. None of this is in conflict with what the theory presented in this article maintains.

Even the goals of contemporary psychological therapy are largely compatible with the practice that those who favor this view endorse. DeFoore says that the emotional energy which fuels rage can be redirected--towards acquiring skills that enable one to take responsibility for oneself.

Now this notion of emotional energy, which is loosely borrowed from the notion of energy that physicists use, is misleading. It suggests that our emotions are not what they are because of the judgments that we make. It suggests that they are brute forces in us and threaten to make us act contrary to our wishes. It suggests that they could compel us to do something independent of our judgements, our "true" selves. (We see this in quips like "the devil made me do it." As the "church lady" character on the old Saturday Night Live routine would have put it, "How convenient!")

We recognize that people sometimes do something that is contrary to their best judgments. But we claim that at the moment of so acting they are judging that the "advantageous" thing they are desiring is unqualifiedly good (note 4). This is so even if before and after that moment they were able to recognize that the "advantageous" thing was not unqualifiedly good or the thing that the morally wise person would select in the present situation (note 5)

Reply to Third Objection

"Without passion nothing gets done." Our view technically disagrees with this statement, but grants a partial truth it contains. Our view is that nothing important gets done without a biologically rooted movement-toward or aversion-to something. But we insist that in "rational" animals this sort of movement is transformed when it becomes emotions or mental feelings. It now always depends upon judgments that we make. The commitment and the "energy" in this sense are not independent of, prior to, or below, the judgments that make up the emotion or wish.

The person who chooses wisely is not devoid of commitment or resolve. In fact, because she has eliminated the violent movements from her "soul" she is more effective than the "passionate" person (understood in terms of "passions" as explained above) in achieving things in her social environment.

Final Words

Our view says that if a person could be successful in eliminating the "passions" (which are irrational judgments and "violent movements of the soul"), that person too would enjoy tranquillity.

We admit that of those (especially among the ancient Stoics) who professed this approach and tried to live it, to the best of their ability, few claimed that they had reached the goal themselves, and most frankly admitted that they had not.

This approach, however, has at least one advantage. Because we don't strictly rule out reaching the goal, we spend considerable time trying to think clearly and explain what it would be like to live that way. And it does not seem to be a bad idea to have a clear target where one's own happiness and ability to live justly is concerned.


1. Prima facie duties are rules of duty that hold for the most part. Unlike W. D. Ross, who also speaks of prima facie duties, I would stress their conditional nature: "If I am an R of X, then normally I should or should not do A relative to X." (For instance, "if I am a parent of so-and-so, then normally I should keep an eye on his state of health.") This allows us to link such duties with the classical Stoic notion of role-related appropriate actions.

2. The version of this chart now available has been developed for user-friendly use with this article. (The original version is at Values in Stoicism.) The student of the history of philosophy will realize that I refer to "preferred" things as advantageous and have adopted the term "qualified good" also to define them; that I have referred to dispreferred or rejected things as disadvantageous and have adopted the term "qualified evil" to define them. What the Stoics called good I call unqualified good. The term "qualified" and "unqualified" come from Immanuel Kant, a modern philosopher much influenced by the classical Stoics.

3. "Of little account" is my attempt to capture, without being overly paradoxical, the defensible aspect of the classical Stoic notion of being "indifferent." We still have to keep in mind that something is properly called "of little account" in this sense only when it has to be seen as competing with true or unqualified goods as possible motives for our action or with unqualified evils as possible motives for our aversion.

4. Or they are judging that the "disadvantageous" thing they were trying to avoid is unqualifiedly bad.

5. Or they could recognize that the "disadvantageous" thing was not unqualifiedly bad.

For Further Reading

Epictetus, Handbook of Epictetus (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers)
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers).
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters from a Stoic (Penguin).

(Be prepared for an occasional remark in these ancient male writers that would qualify as sexist by today's standards.)

Julia Annas, Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind (University of California Press, 1992).

Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton University Press, 1994), chapters 9-12. An excellent scholarly (but not dry) study, sensitive to the practical aspects of ethics.

Terence Irwin, Classical Thought (Oxford University Press). Situates Stoicism in the broader context of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

See also An Imaginary Conversation on Ethics Between a Stoic and an Aristotelian, available on this website.

Except for single copies for personal reference, this essay may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

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