Frequestly Asked Questions (and answers) about Stoic philosophy

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Preferred and unpreferred indifferents

What is meant by a “preferred” or “unpreferred” indifferent?

The terms “preferred indifferent” and “unpreferred indifferent”, translations of the terms προηγμένα/proêgmena and ἀπροηγμένα/aproêgmena, seem inherently self-contradictory. They are less paradoxical when it is understood that the Stoics identified three distinct senses of the word “value.” In one sense, something is of value if its presence can improve (or its absence detract) from the quality of a person’s life (that it is truly good or bad); in another, it is a fair price an informed buyer will pay for something in a market; and in a third, it is something a wise person may use to select among actions. Preferred and unpreferred indifferents are preferred and unpreferred in the third sense, while indifferent in the first. Preferred and unpreferred indifferents often cause an instinctual reaction of desire or aversion, but, the Stoics thought, a wise person will only assent to the impression (that is, rationally endorse this desire or aversion) if the cause of the impression is valuable in the first sense, and not if it is only valuable in the third. So, for example, a wise person should choose to eat healthy food (because health is a preferred indifferent), but not regard being healthy as being of any significance to his or her quality of life, or rationally endorse any instinctual desire for health or aversion to illness. (Note, however, that they did not advise suppressing the instinctual desire or aversion either; they only advised that the rational mind not participate in the desire or aversion.)

A preferred indifferent is analogous to “winning the game” for an athlete who takes the attitude of “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” The attitude of a Stoic might be considered analogous to that of an unbiased spectator at a sporting event, one who wants all players to do everything they can to win (while following the rules, and within the bounds of good sportsmanship). Such a spectator would want player A to strive to win, but would be indifferent to whether or not player A actually wins. The Stoic tries to apply this attitude to everything in life, striving to attain preferred indifferents rather than unpreferred ones, but ultimately indifferent to whether or not they are actually attained.

They considered the proper use of preferred and unpreferred indifferents to be analogous to the way a marathon runner uses the course or finish line, or a baseball player the ball, bases, and bat. The marathon runner in, say, the New York marathon “seeks” the finish line in one sense, but the real goal of the marathon runner isn’t to get to the finish line. Getting to Central Park is not why people run the New York marathon (there are easier ways to get there). Similarly, events in the external world – the preferred and unpreferred indifferents – are not things the Stoic sage ever seeks, although they do work toward certain goals in the external world, just as the marathon runner runs toward the finish line.

Expressed in more technical terminology, a Stoic will endeavor to perform καθήκοντα (kathēkonta), “fitting” or “appropriate” acts, or (when translated by way of Latin) “duties.” Whether an act is appropriate depends on whether it is reasonable for achieving more over less preferred indifferents. A reasonable course of action does not guarantee any given result, however. People being unreasonable sometimes “get lucky,” while reasonable strategies often fail. To the Stoic, however, what is important is the act itself, not its consequences. An appropriate act which actually ends up with an unpreferred indifferent is no worse than one which results in a preferred one, and does not imply that the actor should have done otherwise, even if an inappropriate act would have turned out better. Hence, the actual outcome is truly indifferent. (Note that kathēkonta are not necessarily virtuous; they might not be performed with perfect reason and intention, even if the action itself is the same.)

The Stoics thought that the initial “preferred indifferent,” for humans and animals alike, was self-preservation. As humans mature, though, they undergo a process called oikeiosis in which the general wellbeing of humanity as a whole becomes the primary preferred indifferent, ahead even of self-preservation. While these indifferents were seen as preferred for their own sake, others were seen as preferred because they tended to be useful. Examples of secondary preferred indifferents are wealth and status. Some indifferents, like strength and abilities, were seen as both preferred for their own sake and also because of their utility.

Pleasure was sometimes explicitly listed among indifferents that are neither preferred nor dispreferred, and other indifferents were not considered preferred or dispreferred because of their utility relative to pleasure. (See, for example, Arius Didymus’s Epitome of Stoic Ethics, collected by Stobaeus in Anthology 2.7b, found on page 134 of Inwood and Gerson’s The Stoics Reader.)

The more practical accounts of the role of externals in Stoicism can be found in Epictetus’s Discourses II.5, book 3 (chapters 15 and 16) of Cicero’s On Ends, and Seneca’s Letter 92 11-13. Additional discussion can be found in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers VII.1.105 and Arius Didymus’s Epitome of Stoic Ethics (collected in Stobaeus’s Anthology), quoted in Long and Sedley’s The Hellenistic Philosophers Volume 1, p. 354, or Inwood and Gerson’s The Stoics Reader, p. 134. More on the different senses of the word “value” can be found in Inwood and Gerson, p. 135.