Goods comprise the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, temperance, and the rest. The opposites of these are evils, namely, folly, injustice, and the others. Neutral, that is, neither good nor evil, are those things which neither benefit nor harm a man. These include life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fame, noble birth and also their opposites,….They [the Stoics] say that such things as these are not in themselves goods, but are morally indifferent, falling under the subdivision of things preferred. For…wealth and health do no more benefit than injury, and therefore neither is a good. Further they say that nothing is good of which both good and bad use can be made. But both good and bad use can be made of wealth and health. Therefore they are not goods.
I take this statement of the Stoic position, for the sake of its succinctness, from Diogenes Laertius’ epitome of Stoic Ethics appended to his life of Zeno. I have been examining in previous posts the anti-Stoic argument that the absence of wealth and health are evils because they do us real harm. They harm us by either rendering us incapable of assuming the natural roles of parent, friend, citizen, etc, or , if we’ve already assumed those roles, forcing into shameful derelictions when we lack the means or ability to meet our responsibilities. Poverty is an evil because it renders us morally deficient or derelict with respect to these roles. ( A destitute person can of course decline all these roles, but then what sort of life remains? )
The second argument in the passage from DL says health & wealth aren’t goods because they can be used for good or bad purposes. But this is not credible test of what is good or bad because courage and temperance and self-discipline are equally useful to a bad man. Virtually any excellence can be misused. It would follow on this test that virtues are not goods.
A much better test asks whether the external in question is indispensable to fulfilling the duties & obligations we have chosen ( or aspire to ) . Health and moderate wealth, I fear, are indispensable to most of our natural roles. Those externals that we must have to live a valuable, responsible life and avoid dereliction seems to me to be goods.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Diogenes Laertius VII. 102-03 ( Zeno)