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I’ve been thinking a lot on a recent exchange I had with Seth Segall, in the comments on my post about terminology to use for karma. Seth’s comment specified a distinction that is important elsewhere in my exchange with Thompson, on how eudaimonism works. This is a distinction between external goods, on one hand, and on the other – what exactly?

The term Seth used in contrast to “external goods” was what one might take to be its obvious opposite, “internal goods”. I used the exact same term, “internal goods”, in my own later post. Yet in response to Seth’s comment I told him we had to be really cautious about using that term. This indicates to me that my own thought on the topic has not yet been sufficiently clear, and I want to take some time to clarify.

A starting point for my caution here is that Aristotle, from whom the term “external goods” is typically drawn, does not use the term “internal goods”. Rather, he draws a contrast between three types of goods one can seek: external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. Of course, we don’t have to follow Aristotle in this: we can speak of internal goods even though he doesn’t. But we should be clear about what we mean by that.

External goods and bads are goods and bads that we, the ethical agent, do not control; they are what Boethius would call “fortune”. Nussbaum’s explicitly Aristotelian account in Fragility of Goodness and Upheavals of Thought defines them as “activities and relationships that are, in their nature, especially vulnerable to reversal”; the term “external” is “a metaphorical way of referring to the fact that these elements are not securely controlled by the person’s own will…”

The contrast, then, would seem to be with something that is securely controlled by our own will; such a thing would be an internal good. Typically (at least within virtue ethics), this is what we take virtue to be. The Stoics (including Boethius on this score) are particularly explicit on the point: virtue is that which we have control over and cannot be taken away from us. Epictetus makes the point clearest: prohairēsis (choice or volition) is “by nature unimpeded”, and the “good of humankind”, virtue, consists in “a certain disposition of” this prohairēsis. (Aaron Burr in Miranda’s Hamilton channels the Stoics when he sings, “I am the one thing in life I can control.“)

The big problem, as I see it, is that the Stoics are wrong.

They’re not wholly wrong. We have a significant amount of control over our virtue, and overall we have more control over it than we do over external goods. But it turns out that being virtuous is a lot harder than it looks. We are often our own worst enemies. This point is at the heart of Augustine’s Christian critique of Stoicism, taking to heart Paul’s lament that “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

The modern era drives home Augustine’s point in a variety of ways. The most vivid is the case of Phineas Gage, who became rude and irresponsible entirely – so it seems – as a result of a brain injury. More mundane examples are provided by situationist psychology and its application to ethics by the likes of John Doris: in many cases our behaviour is itself shaped by external situations more than by dispositions of character. And anyone who’s struggled with depression knows how hard – perhaps at some points even impossible – it can be to act in ways that are beneficial to oneself and others. There are various ways, then, in which virtue itself can be beyond our control. The habits that constitute it are not “by nature unimpeded”; a large number of external factors can impede it. Recognizing this point may be the single biggest change in my philosophy since I started this blog.

All of this means that, to some extent, virtue can itself be an external good. The question is what that point then implies for a eudaimonist virtue ethics like mine (or Seth’s).

Above all, I don’t think I can do without the concept of external goods – and some contrast between external goods and virtue. Core to the argument I want to make in a book is that external goods matter less to our flourishing, and virtue more, then we tend to think. At a general level of application I think this remains absolutely true: most human beings tend to place a high value on things like material wealth that don’t make us happy, at the expense of practices of self-cultivation that do. The question, perhaps, is the extent to which the latter are actually under our control.

The latter raises some significantly bigger questions about who “we” even are. For most Buddhists, of course, ultimately there is no real “us” in the first place, so the question is in some respects misplaced. I’m not willing to go quite that far: I do think it’s helpful and in some sense even accurate to speak of a self. I agree with traditional Buddhists, though, that that self is divisible, mutable, and – particularly important in the present discussion – not autonomous. In that respect Augustine’s critique of the Stoics doesn’t go far enough, since he still wants to believe in an absolutely undetermined free will. But if we don’t accept a Stoic or Augustinian free will, we still do need to think about who the agent of virtue is – and that includes from a Buddhist perspective, the one who suffers, perceives suffering as bad, and strives to get out of suffering. I am generally sympathetic to Paul Williams’s argument on this score: without some sort of self you have no Buddhist path. So a Sellarsian conception of conventional and ultimate truth is attractive: we need to retain some concept of self that is nevertheless informed by the reality of its heteronomy. In the present context, I think, it remains the case that the goods of virtue are more important than the goods of fortune, even though the latter can have a direct impact on the former.