Workshop in Ancient and Contemporary Philosophy: Vicious Character Traits as Rational Mistakes

Simon Shogry
University of Oxford
Philosophy Hall 716
Monday, March 25, 2019 - 10:00am to 12:00pm

Vicious Character Traits as Rational Mistakes: The Early Stoic Explanation of the Diversity of Moral Error                                                                                         

Simon Shogry (University of Oxford)

Commentators: Natalie Hejduk (Columbia), Anna Schriefl (Bonn) 

The meeting is part of the Workshop in Ancient and Contemporary Philosophy, sponsored by Columbia University’s Division of Humanities, Classical Studies Program, and Philosophy Department.

This paper investigates the early Stoic explanation of the diversity of moral error. Why does one vicious agent love money and pursue a life dedicated to the acquisition of wealth, while another seeks political office or sexual pleasure at all costs? Like Aristotle, the early Stoics hold that as a result of differences in upbringing and past experience, vicious agents differ in their character traits. But in light of their psychological monism, the early Stoics cannot adopt an Aristotelian strategy of identifying these character traits as conditions of non-rational spirit or appetite, habituated tendencies for desires and feelings centered on bodily pleasure and social standing that arise independently of reason. Stoic psychology recognizes no such non-rational parts of the adult human mind, and so must understand character traits as states of reason. In this paper, I call attention to two hitherto neglected dimensions of the psychological functioning of vicious character traits that are recorded in our Stoic sources – both of which the early Stoics regard as a kind of intellectual or rational mistake. The first is that vicious character traits control which action-guiding (or ‘hormetic’) appearances the agent forms. For instance, when offered a glass of Merlot at breakfast, only the lover of wine forms the thought that gulping it down is an appropriate practical response. Second, vicious character traits inhibit the agent’s access to evidence she would ordinarily have that would undermine her confidence in the truth of her occurrent action-guiding appearance: she fails to notice genuine conflicts between her existing cognitive commitments and the advisability of the action she is presently considering. In this presentation, I will focus on the second of these rational mistakes brought on by vicious character traits and explore its connection to larger themes in Stoic moral psychology.

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