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An Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Imposed Morality and Inculcated Ethics, Fundamentalism as the Central Problem, and the Choice of Stoicism 5 Years Ago (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/01/15


Prof. Pigliucci has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism. Prof. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudo-scientific attack.” In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national and international outlets such as the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Contributing Editor to Skeptical Inquirer. He writes a blog on practical philosophy at At last count, Prof. Pigliucci has published 162 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 12 books, including the best selling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books). Other titles include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press), and The Philosophy of Pseudoscience (co-edited with M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press). He discusses: the impacts of the dual-phenomenon of extreme external reliance on authority as opposed to internal dynamic changes based on certain ethical principles built bottom-up; the problem as being about fundamentalism, at root, while also some issues extant with the term “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism”; and communicating over 5 years ago into the present and the reason for selecting Stoicism.

Keywords: Discourses, Enchiridion, Epictetus, external authority, fundamentalism, Massimo Pigliucci, Marcus Aurelius, mega-churches, philosophy, Stoicism.

An Interview with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci on Imposed Morality and Inculcated Ethics, Fundamentalism as the Central Problem, and the Choice of Stoicism 5 Years Ago: K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York (Part Three)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You mentioned internal change to change others. What about populations grounded in dependency on external authority figures well into their lives? For instance, we see this in a rather prominent phenomenon in your country in the form of mega-churches.

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci: Yes.

Jacobsen: These forms of worship are very simplistic, very colourful, and very vague and, often, lacking in content, but [Laughing] having quite a lot in terms of emotive content. Positive sayings that one can get every week.

How does that impact political discourse and social life when you are talking about virtuous people and making changes in society through internal change? How do those two rub when you are seeing this dual-phenomenon of extreme external reliance on authority as opposed to internal dynamic changes based on certain ethical principles built bottom-up?

Pigliucci: If we had an answer to that question, then [Laughing] we would have a much better society than we do, [Laughing] unfortunately. The danger there, with the situations you are talking about – mega-churches and so on – is what Marx pointed out: ‘Religion is the opium of the people.’

If you follow authority for authority’s sake, on the basis on simplistic reasoning, you, essentially, check out your brain and your ability to think critically. Early on, that is where the trouble starts. But to be fair, it is not just religion.

Jacobsen: Sure.

Pigliucci: There are political ideologies that fall into that category. That is how totalitarianism comes about, very often. I am reading now a fascinating and disturbing book on Mussolini and the rise of Fascism in Italy in the early 1920s, immediately after WWI. You can see people – little by little –  rallying around simplistic ideas and the figure of a charismatic leader.

That has happened over and over in the history of the world. So, I do not think it is fair to blame just religion. Religion is one type of ideology, if followed blindly. But not all religions are like that. There are a lot of religions without charismatic leaders, that do not have a hierarchical structure, where people embrace them in their own personal ways and in a more dynamic.

Again, I think that is why the Stoic project or similar projects are important. Although it is true that going bottom-up is a very slow and painful process.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: But it also works. If I learn something on my own, and I develop something based on my own will to improve as a human being, it will stick. If I learn to simply repeat something that someone else told me, it is not going to stick, because it is not going to be a deep part of my being.

I do think that the bottom-up approaches are good ones. Whether they’re ever going to scale up to all society or not, that remains an open question. Then again, as the Stoics would say, “That is out of my control.” I can only control decisions in my life, not other people’s.

As you know, I put a lot of stuff out there about Stoicism and critical thinking. All sorts of stuff. However, I have no control over how people think or act on these things.

2. Jacobsen: In that expanded sense, does the problem seem as simple as fundamentalism?

Pigliucci: Yes, I think fundamentalism is one label that you can put on that. The problem is the word “fundamentalist,” nowadays means a very specific thing. So, I never, for instance, hear that word applied to political ideological positions. But it does.

In terms of origin, the word “fundamentalism” goes back to the publication of several books in the early 20th century in the United States, called The Fundamentals. They were meant to bring back a basic Christian religion: forget about those sophisticated things the theologians tell you, let’s go back to the basics.

In that sense, I like going back to the basics. If they mean: basic critical thinking, basic philosophical meanings of what it is to have a good life.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: I do. One of my favourite books is one by Epictetus, called the Enchiridion. It is going back to the basics [Laughing]. In this sense, it is a [Laughing] fundamentalist text. However, as I say, today, that word means something different. So I would stay away from it.

Narrow ideology, or blindly following an ideology, whether political or religious, is what the real problem is.

3. Jacobsen: Why pick Stoicism? We communicated, originally, 5 years ago. That is about the time that you began to take on Stoicism. Why?

Pigliucci: It was a combination of things at a stage in life at the time. It was a period where I was emerging from a mid-life crisis. Personal things happening, normal things, like my father dying and my wife divorcing me, a new job, moving to a new city.

However, all those things happened in the same year. Any psychologist will tell you that one of those is disruptive enough. All of them in the same year is a serious blow. Obviously, there are worse things in the world, but still!

That put me in the mood of looking for different answers to my question about how to live my life and make the best of it, the best of my time on Earth, answers that were different from what I had assumed before.

I started my life as a Christian, a Catholic. Then I left the church as a teenager. After that, I considered myself a secular humanist. Secular humanism has been a background condition for me. But it never provided guidance on how to live my life day to day, or in general, frankly. It was there. But it was not very useful.

That point in life also happened to be the time when I switched careers, from science to philosophy. So I started looking into philosophies of life more seriously. It was obvious to me, at least, that a satisfactory answer would come from the general area of virtue ethics, because it focuses on improving your character, making sure that you are making decisions that are meaningful to you. Virtue ethics teaches you how to interact with others in a constructive, positive way. So I started looking into it more seriously.

The first author to consider was Aristotle. He had a lot of interesting things to say, but he did not really click with me. He came across as a little aristocratic, based on if you had health, wealth, and even a bit of good looks, then your life is fine.

It did not seem right. Certainly, if you have those things, then your life is better. But to say that if you do not have those things then your life is not worth living, that seemed a bit much to me.

So I moved on to Epicurus, who is popular among secular humanists, and whose philosophy is also a type of virtue ethics.

The reason for his popularity among humanists is his treatment of religion. He was skeptical of gods, an afterlife, and so on. He was not an atheist. But he was still very skeptical of the whole thing. He was a materialist, an Atomist.

Epicurus does have a lot of good things to say. He resonated more than Aristotle. Then I hit the big snag, which is: the major goal of an Epicurean life is to stay away from pain. People often think of Epicureanism as a pleasure seeking philosophy but it is mostly about avoiding pain. Epicurus defines the highest pleasure as the complete avoidance of pain.

There is nothing wrong with avoiding the feeling of pain. But one major source of pain is social and political involvement, according to Epicurus. And he is right! But I do not think I could live a life without a social and political dimension. I think Aristotle was right there, when he said that human beings are essentially political animals.

At about that time this thing happened on my Twitter feed. I saw “Help us celebrate Stoic Week!”

Jacobsen: Stoic Week” [Laughing].

Pigliucci: [Laughing] I thought, what the hell is Stoic Week? And why would anyone want to celebrate the Stoics? I was curious. I remembered reading Marcus Aurelius when I was in college, and translating Seneca from Latin in high school.

I also remembered that Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics. And it clicked immediately. Stoic Week happens every year around October or early November. You sign up, download a booklet, and start reading about Stoicism.

You read some of the texts and practice some of the exercises. Every day, you focus on a different area of Stoic philosophy. It can be meditation (for instance, by way of journalism) or physical exercises (for instance, mild self-deprivation, like fasting).

The very first day was about Epictetus. I started reading the Discourses, and it was “Wow!,” who is this guy? Why did I never hear about this before?

Epictetus was, in fact, a highly influential philosopher throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and early modern period. But then he went into an eclipse at the beginning of the 20th century, which is why it is not taught in college or graduate school. I did a Ph.D. in philosophy and never heard of the guy. It is kind of strange [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pigliucci: He speaks plainly, no nonsense, but also with an interesting sense of humor. Sometimes, he gets in your face and frankly tells you things as he sees them. He does not mince words. It was kind of a shock. “Wow! I better pay attention to this.”

After Stoic Week, I committed myself, as if I were going on a diet, to stay on Stoicism for another month or two, which led to an end of the year. Then I committed to stay on for another year. And here we are, more than 5 years later, I still practice [Laughing].

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York.

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 15, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: Image Credit: Simon Wardenier/Massimo Pigliucci.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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