A Short Introduction to Behavioural Philosophy

“Take the situation in which you have a lot to lose and little to gain. If an additional quantity of wealth, say, a thousand Phoenician shekels, would not benefit you, but you would feel great harm from the loss of an equivalent amount, you have an asymmetry. And it is not a good asymmetry: you are fragile.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

“But while he does not hanker after what he has lost, he does prefer not to lose them. And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I speak of his being ‘able’ to do this, what I am saying in fact amounts to this: he bears the loss of a friend with equanimity.”

— Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Stoicism, more accurately, Seneca’s version of Stoicism has a lot of commonality with Taleb’s Antifragility. Both are about making yourself immune to the downsides of fate, while tremendously benefiting from the upsides.

A good way to live an intelligent life is having an emotional positioning to eliminate the sting of harm. Stoicism helps us achieve that. But it is hard to stick to a good discipline of mental write-off when things are going well. Yet that’s when one needs the discipline the most. (And that’s what this blog is all about—practical advice to make ourselves immune to the adverse times when they arrive. And arrive they will. Therefore, in these times of peace, we prepare for the war.)

Stoicism has been practised by kings, presidents, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs. It has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of ourselves. And finally, it reminds us that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses, rather than logic.

Classical Stoicism helps in the attainment of a state of immunity from the external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of fragility to decisions made by fate. Randomness won’t affect us because we are too strong to lose, but not greedy enough to enjoy the upside as well. Meaning that you might not remain poor, but you will not become superrich as well.

However, Seneca’s work is more seductive than others because he speaks in a much more practical way to us. He focuses on a more contemporary aspect of Stoicism-how to handle adversity and poverty, yes, but even more critically, how to handle wealth and success.

When I’m talking about Stoicism I mostly speak of Seneca’s Stoicism. You can think of it as a badass version of Buddhism. It’s less about shunning worldly pleasure and pain. It’s in fact more about avoiding pain, while lavishly enjoying the fruits of pleasure. On a broader term, it’s about exploiting the upside of fate, while avoiding its downside, thereby making us, what Taleb calls antifragile to all kinds of externalities.

This version of philosophy is in tandem with the traits of human nature such as, ambition, greed, and pleasure. It is practical, and it is this version that guides us into living an ambitious life. But I believe that wisdom in isolation doesn’t help us much. Also, top-down wisdom is just like a fable. Enjoyable, good to listen to, then we forget and move on.

Practical Wisdom, on the other hand, is far more intelligent. Practical wisdom not only shows us the path, but also guides us in removing the obstacles from the path. To achieve that, we take help from the works of eminent researchers such as Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Daniel Gilbert, and Richard Thaler. They’ll help us understand our shortcomings and biases, and also provide tools to avoid them, so that we can become less irrational.

Philosophy shows us the way to a better life, while Psychology helps us remove the obstacles. Their combination is called Behavioural Philosophy.

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