Scott Aikin | How to Argue, Preferred Indifferents and Stoic Ethics

Scott Aikin | How to Argue, Preferred Indifferents and Stoic Ethics


Scott F. Aikin is an American philosopher and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennesseewhere he also holds a joint appointment in Classics. He earned an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Montana in 1999 and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University in 2006. His principal areas of research are epistemology, argumentation theoryancient philosophy, and pragmatism. And on top of all this he's also the co-author of the book "Why We Argue (How We Should) - A Guide to Political Disagreement.





  • We talk about “the Stoics,” but we’re the Stoics now, so we need to improve upon and advance the philosophy. 
  • Stoicism is somewhat of an “aspirationalist program”. Like Christianity, there is an ideal (Jesus Christ vs the Stoic Sage), and it’s our job to try to come as close to Sagehood as possible. 
  • We’ve inherited a tradition that has a dogmatic element, but also a self-fixing system that encourages us to add to the philosophy rather than to simply accept it’s ideas. 
  • To say that “this or that makes you a Stoic or not” is disingenuous to a philosophy that was formed by healthy debate between Stoics who agreed on principles but disagreed on the details. 
  • Stoics would regularly look at the arguments and ideas of neighbouring philosophies in order to fortify or add to their own positions. Seneca would regularly quote from Epicurus and would agree, at times, with his premises. This mental flexibility is vital to good debate and proper learning. 
  • Seneca said that truth belongs to everyone, so we should only want truth - not just to win. 
  • Much of the arguments put forth by philosophers were dogmatic in nature, and this is why the Skeptics had somewhat of an upper hand in arguments - they simply pointed out that objective truth was non-existent. 
  • If you can’t understand the opposing view to yours then you don’t understand the debate. 
  • The trick is to seek to understand to the fullest extent why someone would disagree with you. 
  • “Think of all the debates you’ve won in the shower… Now imagine winning the debate with yourself in the shower.”
  • Those who don’t understand the views of the other side don’t understand their own views. 
  • The best way to be able to comprehend your own political view is to be able to see the reasons for it, and the quality of those reasons. This means understanding why your view is correct, and also understanding the opposite view and why that one is or isn’t correct. You need to understand the opposition as much as your own view if you want to be clear in your own thoughts.
  • “Understanding” means knowing what the “relevant contraries” are, and knowing why your view is more true than the contraries. 
  • We need a certain “plasticity of mind” in order to learn all of the various sides of an argument. Read, listen and learn widely so that you get the whole picture as opposed to your own limited view. 
  • Don’t be worried about being convinced by the other side. Be worried about not believing or seeing truth. 
  • “There’s a lot of arguing, but not a lot of argument.” We need to get back to a respectful discourse so that we can actually hear the other side. 
  • Seek to understand, don’t seek to be right. 
  • Don’t take things personally - it affects your judgement. 
  • Learning to argue well is like learning to be good in a relationship. It requires practice, understanding, listening and work. Over time you can approve your ability to have healthy discourses, but it takes time and attention. 
  • Don’t hold it against people when they are bad at discourse and argumentation. As long as we try to get better, any discourse should be encouraged and nurtured. 
  • We live in a time where many philosophical debates are playing out between various schools of thought like feminism, post-modernism, determinism, etc. Even debates around the threats and opportunities of our time - like artificial intelligence - are taking a popular seat in our public discourse. Now, more than ever, we need to learn what it means to have thoughtful and considered discourse. 
  • As exciting as this is, there is also a lot of online debate and even public debate which is toxic in nature, because people don’t know how to debate. 
  • In our modern times we all have “Google knowledge,” but how does this translate to real understanding? Not much. We have access to everything, and yet it seems that we don’t know that much. We’ve become lazy with our learning because we can always get the answer. 
  • Argumentation shouldn’t be about self-defence. It should only be about having a discourse with the aim at finding truth and common ground. We should argue as a self-defence against ourselves so that we keep our minds sharp. 
  • “The biggest problem is not that we believe other people’s bullshit, but that we believe our own.” We need to be open to hearing our own lies so that we can improve and learn new truths.
  • We need to find ways to value each other in a way that allows us to see their side of an argument. 
  • Stoics teach that our perceptions get in the way of truth and value. If you have poor opinions of other people who you’re talking with then this will cloud your judgement. 
  • Many other emotions can cloud your judgement, like anger and resentment. If we can learn to manage these emotions then we can see clearer in arguments. 
  • Polarisation is simply a result of a distasteful relationship between those who disagree. If we can learn to care about people in a civil manner then we can move back to better conversation and disagreement. 
  • We should understand that although wealth and the body are externals, we can still have somewhat of a “middle way” approach to these things. Research clearly shows that a healthy body is quite necessary for wellbeing, so we should work to have a healthy body. On top of this, research shows that around $80,000 per year is the ultimate amount of money to achieve equanimity, but anything over that doesn’t necessarily add or subtract from your ability to be happy. So we should be happy with an appropriate amount of money, all the while understanding that we shouldn’t desire what is more than necessary. 
  • We need a cosmopolitan approach, meaning that we see that it’s not actually all about us. It’s about everyone. 
  • The Stoics excelled at spreading the idea that we owe it to the rest of humanity (our tribe) to be the most virtuous version of ourselves that we can be. We should be charitable and we should embrace a harmonious attitude towards others in order that we might enhance our social nature. 
  • Stoicism offers us many simple solutions to some big questions in life, and for the more difficult questions Stoicism offers us a framework for healthy debate and rational deliberation. The line between helping oneself and helping others is one of those debates which Stoicism doesn’t necessarily answer, but has shown us the tools of correct deliberation. 
  • It’s important to have critical distance in any study of philosophy. The Skeptics were the real heroes in this department as they believed that there was no such thing as objective truth. This is a helpful opinion to hold when you’d like to look reasonably at various ideas. 
  • Scott pushes back at the Stoic idea of the dichotomy of control, stating that it’s unclear that the distinction between what’s ours and what’s not ours to control is not exactly as clear as the Stoics made it out to be. 
  • Plutarch argued that although it may be possible to have a Stoic sage, the sage would have to thank fate for having made him immune to it. 
  • Scott suggests that Marcus Aurelius’ first book of meditations is a large “thank you list” which shows clearly that Marcus understood the necessity of having a good family and having been put in front of excellent teachers in order to forge a sound mind. 
  • Every practicing Stoic should view the philosophy as a work in progress rather than a finished work.