Lawrence Becker on the Centrality of Virtue

Lawrence Becker's book A New Stoicism (Princeton U. Press, 1998) is an important book. What I shall try to do is to discuss parts of it that I think are important, and in the process I shall try to put it into language that is a bit more accessible than Becker's.

Tonight I shall try to explain the section beginning on pp. 114-17 entitled "The Argument for Virtue as the Perfection of Agency." As I see it, this is Becker's version of the ancient Stoic idea that the proper goal of the ethical life is virtue. The proper goal for an animal that exercises its power of rational choice is not maximizing pleasure, as the vulgar hedonists claim, or minimizing pain, as the Epicureans claim, or maximizing the adulation of all possible audiences, as some politicians seem to believe, or owning the world, as Bill Gates seems to think . . .

Becker says that the argument is one that particular agents (persons as rational choosers) make from the inside, in the first person.

1. "I have many endeavors [or projects]--many things I want to do." Each of these justifies propositions about what I ought to do or be, "*nothing*-else-considered." There are always many things I ought to do or be in this sense.

2. One such project is practical reasoning (reasoning about choosing or acting) "nothing else considered," that is, reasoning devoted to the task of carrying out any project I might actually have, including itself. The point about "including itself" is that you can reason about becoming a more effective and complete practical reasoner as well as about staying profitable in your business or getting along with your spouse.

Practical reasoning about projects leads to the production of norms governing the effectiveness of pursuit of the ends involved. These norms then come to dominate further reasoning about the projects. "What I ought to do to pursue a given to follow my normative practical reasoning about it."

3. Normative practical reasoning about projects normally creates a group of conflicting requirements and oughts. Many are mutually incompatible with some range of my other projects. They will stay that way unless I sequence them or otherwise modify some of my projects.

4. Yet no endeavor by itself normally absorbs all the resources at my disposal during a given day. Each project claims only a part of the resources and is indifferent to the rest.

5. Thus conflicts will arise between two or more projects that can be solved only by integrating them so that both can be pursued successfully. A norm that more success is better than less is built into the endeavor of practical reasoning itself. "What I am required to do, as a necessary condition of exercising my agency, is to (try to) optimize the success of multiple endeavors."

6. I might proceed by trying to resolve conflicts as they arise, but reflection on the general process of resolving such conflicts suggests that I am more likely to fail in my local or small-scale projects if I do not take steps in advance to consider things more generally. By trying to optimize practical reasoning on local problems I am led to widen the scope of my concerns to everything that might be relevant to them. Which is to say, I am led "to do my practical reasoning *all*-things-considered.

7. But when I reason all-things-considered, I am no longer practicing local optimization. Every project I have becomes a target for the work of optimization in general. Now my reasoning is dominated by the proposition that I ought to optimize "over the full range of" my actual projects. Soon I am forced to try to consider all the projects I might reasonably pursue over the various paths my life may take. I am required, as a condition of being an agent at all, to aim at the total optimization of my projects present and future.

8. Reflection reveals that if I make my most comprehensive and controlling endeavor the perfection of my agency based on the practical reasoning I ought to do, and succeed at it, then I will succeed in optimizing success in all my projects--over my whole life. In fact, if I have any other ultimate aim, practical reasoning in pursuit of it will undercut the optimization I am required to seek. The conclusion is that I am required, in exercising my agency, to make the perfection of my agency based on reasoning all-things-considered my most comprehensive and controlling project.

9. Any proposition about what I ought to do that is correct in my case is sound for anyone else who is relevantly similar. Thus, those whose agency (rational capacities, modicum of patience, etc.) is similar to mine should make perfection of their agency their most comprehensive and controlling aim.

10. Healthy agents will acquire strong norms approximating the using notions of wisdom, justice, benevolence, etc. that are typically called virtues. The proposition that all such agents should make perfection of their agency their most comprehensive and controling aim implies that they are required to develop the traits needed to pursue that endeavor, some of which are commonly called virtues.

11. Since the duty to acquire virtues is based on the duty to perfect our agency, and the latter has been shown to be our most comprehensive and controlling project, the duty to acquire virtues will dominate any conflicting requirement arising from another project.