Stoic Serenity 1.3: The Indifferents
March 24, 2015
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In the previous blog post “What is Good?“, we concluded that there are two groups of goods: conventional goods and Virtues. We saw that conventional goods are not intrinsically good because they can actually be used for evil if they aren’t used under the guidance of Virtue. Virtue alone is the only thing that is intrinsically good, and Virtue must guide our actions to use conventional goods for good.
So these conventional goods are in and of themselves neither good nor bad. Their value depends on whether they are used according to Virtue. For example, society generally considers power to be a “good.” But we know from history that if one uses their power to commit a genocide or to torture entire peoples, well, that is actually producing harm instead of benefit. The only intrinsic goods are those qualities of character, the Virtues: self-control, justice, courage, and wisdom. The “conventional goods” are referred to by Stoics as the indifferents because they do not have any intrinsic value. Their value and effect depends on how they are used with Virtue. In addition, the indifferents are such because they really aren’t necessary at all in order to live a good or “fulfilled” life.
It is important to consider, however, that the indifferents, although they are unnecessary for true well-being, we should not be indifferent to them. Does it seem like a paradox? Food and shelter, basic items necessary for sustaining life, have no intrinsic value. Therefore, we actually need some of the indifferents in order to live. But they are considered indifferents because their value is determined by whether they are used with Virtue, or if they are used rightly. Food can be good if it is used with self-control and wisdom. By eating in moderation or considering nutrition, food is used to sustain life and allow us more time to do good things and live “according to Nature.” But food that is eaten without self-control or without wisdom (for example, over-indulgence), would cause us to fall obese or ill and would hinder our efforts. Or food that is intentionally poisoned and given to innocent people (therefore lacking justice) would be used for evil. Thus you can see how basic items necessary for life are considered “indifferent,” because their value depends on their use. But we cannot live without them.