Imagine a widescreen oil painting from the Romantic era, depicting a bridge that serves as a boundary between two vastly different realms. On one side, the bridge begins in a realm of pure forms, where abstract geometry, forcefields, neon glass, and fractals dominate the landscape, creating an ethereal and surreal atmosphere. This side is characterized by its vibrant colors, glowing elements, and a sense of otherworldly beauty. The bridge itself is an architectural marvel, with no support pillars, appearing to float effortlessly. As it spans across, it transitions into the Roman Empire, where the environment shifts dramatically to a more down-to-earth setting. Here, the landscape is adorned with marble structures, classical Roman architecture, and lacks any form of abstract geometry. The bridge seamlessly blends these two contrasting worlds, symbolizing a connection between the mystical and the tangible. The overall scene is depicted with the lush, dramatic lighting and emotional depth characteristic of Romantic era oil paintings, capturing the viewer's imagination and inviting them to ponder the bridge's symbolic passage between the abstract and the concrete. The painting's wide format enhances the grandeur of the scene, emphasizing the vast distance the bridge covers and the profound impact of its existence.

I have been a practising Stoic for over 10 years. I adopted Stoicism before I encountered the sequences and LessWrong-style rationalism. To me, Stoicism and rationalism serve complementary purposes, tackling different aspects of life.

Rationalism, to me, is related to getting a better understanding of the world, and how the mind functions. It’s generally descriptive, attempting to make models that accurately describe aspects of existence.

Stoicism, to me, is all about the nitty-gritty aspects of self-improvement. It’s more about instruction than explanation, featuring perspectives and explanations that are conducive to embodying a set of character traits commonly referred to as “virtues”.

This post will start by analysing utilitarianism, the most common ethical approach among rationalists, followed by a pragmatic integration of utilitarianism, Stoicism, and rationality.

But first, a bit of background.

Stoicism vs Utilitarianism

Stoicism is a type of Virtue Ethics, focused on the workings of your cognition — an action is “good” if it develops a set of desirable character traits (virtues). A bad action, on the contrary, is an action that builds bad habits (vices). In this view, committing genocide is bad because you don’t want to train yourself to be a person who commits genocide.

Consequentialism is all about the consequences of your actions — an action is “good” if its positive consequences outweigh its negative consequences. An action is bad if the downsides outweigh the upsides. In this view, committing genocide is bad because you cause a lot of suffering to a lot of people, robbing their agency by killing them, and causing a bunch of negative secondary effects.

At first glance, these are two very different ways of looking at ethics. Stoicism is sometimes presented as incompatible with utilitarianism. Let’s illustrate this gap through a story I heard from a friend. My friend attended an ethics course at university, and told me about his professor’s view of virtue ethics (paraphrased):

“Utilitarianism is about looking at the result of actions and judging the outcome. Virtue ethics is about acting like a ‘good person’, whatever that means!”

Arguing for the superiority of one view over the other misses the point. Why argue about “who is right”, when you can aim for an integration, getting the upsides from both views? Let’s move on to a pragmatic integration!

The Implicit Virtue of Utilitarianism

You are an expert utilitarian. You have trained your predictive capacities, turning yourself into a superforecaster, able to accurately model the outcomes of most decisions you make. You have decided on how you want to aggregate values, how you want to weigh negative vs positive outcomes, researched population ethics and done due diligence on all the relevant desiderata.

Your ability to weigh courses of action is unsurpassed amongst your kin.

QED? Not really.

Knowing the right course of action is meaningless if you don’t act on your knowledge. Without action, utilitarianism is nothing but a reduction of real-world issues into ivory-tower logic puzzles.

Utilitarianism carries an implicit virtue — acting to make the most good happen. The implicit virtue of utilitarianism is out of scope for consequentialist ethical reasoning. Utilitarianism can tell you that it is a good idea to become such a person (high expected value), but it doesn’t give you a roadmap for how to get there.

Knowing what to do without being able to get to it is all too common. I think of this as the intention-action gap. Let’s see what we need to add to the mix if we want to get something going.

Some Complimentary Virtues

We start with the implicit virtue of utilitarianism — being a person who acts to make the most good happen. This virtue is about having a direction/target, a sense of how we want things to be. For reasons that will be obvious soon, let’s call this virtue Justice.

Besides embodying Justice, we need to know a lot of things about the world and ourselves. If we don’t, we risk fucking up our expected value calculations. We need knowledge of the world if we want to act in it. We need knowledge of ourselves to work on motivation, biased thinking, and hang-ups that block our way. This is the domain of LessWrong-style rationality practice. Let’s call this virtue Wisdom.

Besides Wisdom, we need a bit of oomph. We need to be able to commit and push ahead, acting according to our ethics even if it’s uncomfortable, dangerous or awkward. We need to cultivate a “go get them”-attitude, a primal energy that helps us get shit going, make a move, and enjoy action. Let’s call this virtue Courage.

Besides Courage, we need to be able to resist temptations. Eradicating malaria is tempting, but so is netflix and chocolate. We can force ourselves to go against our immediate preferences by shaming and “shoulding” ourselves into the right course of action. This is likely to backfire, causing friction and wasting processing cycles on inner conflict. A better approach is to reprogram our desire/aversion responses so that we desire good things, and feel aversion towards things that distract us. The Greeks had a nice word for this virtue, calling it Sophrosyne.

Stumbling Upon Stoicism

The virtues presented in the last section are the traditional Stoic virtues. You can reshape your cognition to embody these virtues through Stoic practice. Stoicism has inspired great people throughout history to achieve their goals. One of the main Stoic Philosophers had a side-gig as Roman Emperor.

There is much material written on Stoicism, both primary materials and derivative takes. There are mental models, practices and techniques, mindsets and frameworks. Reading Epiktetos’ Enchiridion changed my life. He is a grumpy/prude old guy, but I can heartily recommend him anyway.

Stoicism is all about cultivating virtue, integrating thoughts, emotions, value judgements and actions into a better-functioning cognitive machinery. The virtues all tie into each other, forming a coherent system focused on navigating life with skill and grace.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is inspired by/derived from Stoicism. It has been the dominant therapeutic modality for a long time at this point.

Paradoxical Perspective Shifts

Stoic practice involves a reframing of experience that shifts your “ethical focus”. When engaging in Stoic practice, you stop putting moral weight on the consequences of your actions. Instead, you shift the moral weight to being a person who acts virtuously.

This is a paradoxical stance, captured perfectly in a classic Stoic maxim:

“1. Virtue is the sole good” - Paradoxa Stoicorum by Cicero

This outlook is paradoxical because Justice usually involves things that are external to your cognition. If you base Justice on utilitarianism, you put moral weight on acting according to utilitarian expected value calculations.

Stated simply, the paradox is:

  • Focus not on the world, but only on becoming a good person.
  • Part of being a good person is wanting to do good in the world.

Personally, I resolve this paradox by treating “Virtue is the sole good” as an invitation to shift my focus. My cognition, my actions and their consequences form a system. It’s natural to focus on the action/consequence part of this system. Stoicism invites us to shift our attention “upstream”, focusing on the cognition/action part of this system.

This ethical perspective shift highlights the role of our conditioning in the outcomes of our actions. Shifting ethical considerations to target the state of your own cognition is a key stoic practice.

This perspective shift doesn’t mean that you grow apart from the world, far from it! Since the early days, Stoics have been engaged with society, working to make the world a better place. Stoicism emphasizes action aligned with Justice.


In this post, I’ve shown how Utilitarianism, with its focus on what to do, needs a complementary answer to how we go about the actual “doing”. I’ve shown how Stoicism is one such answer, deriving the Stoic virtues out of utilitarianism’s implicit commitment to action.

Here are some resources for getting into Stoicism:

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