Stoic advice: what’s the Stoic attitude toward virtual reality?

LT asked me the simple question that gives the title to this essay. It’s a good question, and its simplicity is deceiving. To begin with, as I’ve written in the past, it is a bit misleading to ask a general question along the lines of “is X Stoic?” The reason being that Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, as distinct from the other two major frameworks in moral philosophy: Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism. Unlike the other two, in virtue ethics the focus is on the character and intentions of the individual, and the goal is not to seek universal answers, because situations are different, and so are people.

To consider a controversial example for a minute: “is abortion Stoic?” is a problematic question. Abortion may be bad for a particular agent and acceptable for another one, depending on the effect it has on the agent’s character. If someone gets an abortion because she couldn’t be bothered with the nuisance of a child even though she could afford it and she got pregnant out of her own (or her partner’s) negligence, that may be bad for that person’s character (I say may because I would need to know more about the individual, not just the situation). By contrast, if a woman were to get an abortion because she is in desperate financial conditions and realizes that she could not possibly give a decent future to her child, then that may (again, notice the conditional, pending further details) actually improve her character and be the virtuous thing to do.

Since I don’t know anything about LT’s character, I’m going to use myself as a proxy, for the sake of discussion, considering the question of whether the use of virtual reality (VR) technology is virtuous for me. Even there, the answer depends on a lot of specifics. What am I doing this for? How frequently, and for how long? For instance, I am a scientist, and there are plenty of good uses of VR that a scientist may engage in, for research or teaching purposes. But I’m going to assume that LT’s question concerned recreational use of VR, similar to the very popular activity of video games.

Here I can speak from first person experience, as I’ve both played video games and used VR technology — though both for a limited period of time. I’m afraid that neither did anything to improve my character, on the contrary. I found both activities to be addictive, and ultimately to result in a colossal waste of personal time, time that could have been far more profitably employed in reading a book, having a conversation with a friend, or even watching a good movie. (For more on Stoicism and entertainment, see here.)

Seneca is pretty clear on this matter (time, not virtual reality):

“Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it.” (Letters CXVII.32)

And:

“[We] never regard [our]selves as in debt when [we] have received some of that precious commodity – time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.” (Letters I.3)

One could argue that playing video games or using VR falls into the category of “preferred indifferents,” that is, things that are not good or bad in themselves (like, respectively, virtue and vice), and yet have value (axia), like education, health, or wealth. But this is somewhat of a misconception: indifferents, which basically means everything except one’s own judgments, values, and decisions to act, have value (or dis-value) in proportion to how they facilitate (or get in the way of) the practice of virtue.

So, for instance, we may think that wealth is obviously a preferred indifferent, while its opposite, poverty, a dispreffered one. But Seneca clears that matter up when he writes:

“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.” (Letters II.6)

And:

“Money, I say, ever since it began to be regarded with respect, has caused the ruin of the true honor of things; we become alternately merchants and merchandise, and we ask, not what a thing truly is, but what it costs.” (Letters CXV.10)

Wealth, then, is preferred insofar if it is not accumulated by unvirtuous means, like exploiting others, and long as it makes it possible for us to help people. But it may become downright dispreffered if either or both of those conditions do not hold. To be wealthy and use one’s position of power in order to oppress others is most definitely not virtuous.

And it gets worse: despite the currently in vogue $toicism, if accumulating riches (or any other external) is our main goal in life then we are definitely not in synch with Stoic philosophy. Our main goal, and the one that overshadows all others, ought to be to improve ourselves as human beings, to become better members of the human cosmopolis. So someone who thinks that Stoicism is a “life hack” that will help him become a successful entrepreneur has gotten Stoicism completely wrong.

Back to video games and VR, then. There are plenty of people — I’m told — who enjoy such activities as a way to rest and relax. That is not only not at odds with Stoic philosophy, but is, indirectly, something that does help us being virtuous. Again, Seneca tackles this explicitly in one of his letters to his friend Lucilius:

“‘What, then,’ comes the retort, ‘if good health, rest, and freedom from pain are not likely to hinder virtue, shall you not seek all these?’ Of course I shall seek them, but not because they are goods — I shall seek them because they are according to nature and because they will be acquired through the exercise of good judgment on my part. What, then, will be good in them? This alone — that it is a good thing to choose them.” (Letters XCII.11)

And that really hits the nail on the head: “through the exercise of good judgment on my part.” I happen to have the kind of personality that finds good R&R in reading books, having conversations with friends, or watching (good) movies (bad ones frustrate the hell out of me). But I tend to slide into addiction if I engage video games or VR. So those are out, as far as I’m concerned. Should they be out also for LT, or for you? Only individual agents can answer that question. But the criteria should be clear by now: (i) Is this something that helps, even indirectly, your work as a seeker of virtue? If the answer is negative, then it is not a preferred indifferent. It could still, however, be an entirely neutral choice — like picking chocolate over vanilla as a gelato flavor. So ask yourself the second question: (ii) Is this something that hinders, even indirectly, your work as a seeker of virtue? If the answer is positive, don’t do it.

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