Philosophy doesn’t have to be confined to the academic world. It can be lived through your actions and through how you view the world. Philosophy can be popularised across different mediums and Tyler Paytas is on a mission to bring philosophy out of academics and into the general population.
An author, teacher, lecturer and admirer of the Stoics, Kant and more, Paytas shares his passion for philosophy in this interview.
Good to have you on Stoic Athenaeum Tyler. To kick things off, I’m interested in hearing about your first experiences with philosophy and how it helped to shape your formative years.
Thanks for having me! I was interested in philosophical questions long before I knew much about philosophy as an academic discipline. Growing up, my friends and I would debate topics like the existence of God and various ethical questions. I was fortunate to be surrounded by thoughtful and reflective friends who enjoyed lively discussions.
I fell in love with the formal study of philosophy when I was a university student. The realisation that one could make a career out of thinking about and discussing the most interesting and important questions was mind-blowing.
However, during my postgraduate years, I became overly focused on professional achievement and career advancement. While the work I was doing in moral philosophy had some positive influence on me, I fell into the common trap of seeing philosophy primarily as an intellectual competition and an opportunity to “win” rather than as a vital tool for self-development.
This began to change in 2017 (two years after completing my PhD). I read a book by Massimo Pigliucci called How to Be a Stoic after seeing it on a published list of popular new books. I already had some familiarity with the Stoics from graduate school, but I hadn’t gone in-depth before.
The main benefit I derived from the book was learning about Epictetus. A few months later while I was visiting a friend in Perth, I saw a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics edition – the best translation!) in the philosophy section of a local bookshop. I decided to buy it, and the next morning I read the Enchiridion for the first time.
That was the moment when I realised that philosophy had much more to offer than what I had taken from it during my academic career. I now utilise Stoic philosophy as my basic ethical framework and guide to living. While I am still vulnerable to anxiety, anger, and misguided desires, I am slowly but surely becoming less vulnerable than I used to be.
Through your philosophy work you focus on figures such as Plato, Epictetus, Kant and Sidgwick. What is it about these philosophers that resonate with you personally?
I consider Plato to be the greatest thinker in history. While I enjoy engaging with his metaphysical views, my favourite dialogues are those that emphasise the ethical teachings of Socrates and the example that he set. The Crito and the Apology provide perfect illustrations of integrity, fearlessness, and a proper understanding of what is truly good and bad for human beings.
Regarding the title of greatest thinker in history, a strong case can also be made for Kant. My favourite parts of Kant’s philosophy are his ethics and philosophy of religion. I find Kant’s discussion of virtue and moral motivation deeply moving and inspiring.
My main critique of Kant’s ethics is his view that pleasure is necessary for a good life (I share the Stoic view that pleasure is merely a preferred indifferent). I am a huge fan of Kant’s approach to religion. His argument that religion must be grounded in moral principles rather than the other way around seems absolutely right.
What I love about Sidgwick is his willingness to directly address the most fundamental questions of human existence and the relentless spirit with which he attempts to find the answers. I’m especially fond of his moral epistemology, which is based on the idea that our intuitions about abstract principles are more reliable than our immediate “gut reactions” to particular situations. As with Kant, my main disagreement with Sidgwick concerns his value theory, specifically his belief that pleasure is the sole source of human well-being.
Epictetus is my favourite philosopher. The best characterisation of his teachings that I’ve heard is ‘soul-stirring.’ When I read the Discourses, I get the sense that he is speaking directly to me with clear awareness of all my shortcomings. And yet, his arguments and admonitions still leave me feeling inspired rather than ashamed. One of the passages that hits especially close to home is from Book 2:
“But please stop representing yourself as a philosopher, you affected fool! You still experience envy, pity, jealousy, and fear, and hardly a day passes that you don’t whine to the gods about your life. Some philosopher!” (2.17.26-27)
You’re the co-author of two books called Plato’s Pragmatism: Rethinking the Relationship between Ethics and Epistemology and Kantian and Sidgwickian Ethics: The Cosmos of Duty Above and the Moral Law Within.
Can you explain what each of these books focuses on and what the writing process was like for each?
I wrote Plato’s Pragmatism with my friend and former classmate, Nich Baima. Conventional interpretations of Plato attribute to him the view that the ultimate rational aim is believing what is true and avoiding what is false, consequences be damned.
Nich and I argue that Plato prioritises ethical commitments above epistemic concerns. Sometimes the goal of being a good person requires that we relax our commitment to certain epistemic norms.
For example, in the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates engaging in motivated (i.e. biased) reasoning regarding the fate of his soul after the death of his body. On our interpretation, this is because having certain beliefs about the afterlife will make it easier for Socrates to conduct himself with the utmost virtue during his final moments and thus solidify his teachings and allow him to serve as an exemplar for his friends and future generations.
Writing this book was a lot of work, but co-authoring with a close friend made the process enjoyable. Academic writing can often be lonely and stressful, and having a teammate who is equally invested in the project is a great source of support and motivation.
Kantian and Sidgwickian Ethics is a collection of essays that I co-edited with my friend and mentor, Tim Henning. The collection aims to examine the ethical systems of Kant and Sidgwick side by side in order to gain a deeper understanding of both while also searching for potential points of convergence that might help reconcile long-standing disagreements within philosophical ethics.
The essays are written by leading Kant and Sidgwick scholars, and they cover a range of topics including moral epistemology, metaphysics, and free will. I authored one of the essays, which is on Kant’s and Sidgwick’s respective views on the moral necessity of God.
In short, both philosophers believe that there is something intolerable about a universe where happiness and virtue can come apart, and only God can ensure that the virtuous experience the happiness they deserve (in the afterlife). I suggest that the Stoic view on these issues—that virtue is sufficient for happiness—represents a more inspiring ideal.
In your role as a Senior Lecturer in the Western Civilisation Programme at Australian Catholic University, what lessons do you teach your students?
The first thing that I aim to teach my students is to not be afraid to think for themselves. I also try to teach them to be grateful for the opportunities in front of them and to take advantage of those opportunities.
As for the academic content, I primarily teach units on Western metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. The Western Civ course is centred around the “great books” of the Western tradition and taught in small seminars utilising the Socratic method.
I am extremely lucky to be able to explore so many of my favourite texts with exceptionally bright and highly motivated students.
You’ve stated that you share Sidgwick’s belief that as rational beings we’re bound to aim at good generally. What does this perspective mean specifically?
That phrase comes from one of Sidgwick’s foundational ethical intuitions presented in the Methods of Ethics: “And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally, not merely at a particular part of it.”
There are different ways of interpreting this claim, but I take Sidgwick to mean that one ought to be equally concerned with equal portions of the good regardless of where it happens to be located.
In other words, if someone is struggling, it doesn’t ultimately matter whether it’s me, a family member, or a distant stranger. I don’t have any ultimate reason to care more about myself, my intimates, or my compatriots. This is similar to the Stoic idea that we should view the entire human race as close kin and view ourselves as citizens of the world.
You’ve also spoken about the connection between philosophy and animal welfare. What perspectives and practices do you think need to be brought in to this area?
There’s been a lot of great work done by philosophers to make progress on the issue of animal welfare. Peter Singer comes to mind as someone who has done an incredible job of getting people to think more carefully about the treatment of animals and what sort of ethical consideration they are owed.
At this point, the most pressing concern is the practice of factory farming. I think reasonable people can disagree about the ethics of bringing an animal into existence for the purpose of consumption if that animal has a high quality of life and a minimally painful death.
However, I don’t think there’s much room for debate about the ethics of factory farming. While most people quickly acknowledge the problem when presented with the relevant facts, it is easy to forget about it and resume one’s normal habit of purchasing factory-farmed meat.
The main difficulty is the prevalence of meat consumption in society. It’s difficult to keep the horrors of factory farming in mind when one sees the vast majority of others carrying on as if nothing is wrong. And even for those who remain mindful of the issue and attempt to revise their practices, it can be disheartening and de-motivating to witness so many people (including friends, family, and co-workers) continuing to participate.
I’m not sure what the solution is. One reason for optimism is the development of cultured meat. If people are one day able to purchase affordable meat grown in a lab that is indistinguishable from conventional meat, I suspect that factory farming will become a thing of the past.
What type of teaching methods do you employ to make philosophy more accessible to a younger audience?
I pride myself on being able to explain difficult concepts in plain language. I also try to illustrate complex points using relatable examples.
This was a bit easier earlier in my career when the generational gap between me and my students wasn’t as substantial—my references to 90s pop culture might as well be about the 1890s at this point.
Still, I’ve found that the key to making philosophy enjoyable and accessible to a younger audience (or any audience for that matter) is to teach with energy and enthusiasm.
If you could go back in time and speak to any philosopher, who would it be and why?
It would have to be Epictetus. I can’t imagine anything more exhilarating and beneficial than hearing one of his lectures in person.
What kind of philosophy-based projects are you working on in the future?
My current research focuses on virtue and emotions. I’m especially interested in negative emotions like fear, envy, and anger.
I’m currently working on a paper challenging the present orthodoxy among academic philosophers that anger is rational and justified so long as it is ‘fitting’ in the sense that it involves an accurate appraisal of wrongdoing.
I argue that even if one’s anger is in response to genuine wrongdoing or injustice, that’s not enough to vindicate it because there are alternative responses available that have all the advantages of anger without the drawbacks.
As one of my favourite Stoic authors, Donald Robertson, puts it, “Anything anger can do, reason (and positive emotions) can do better.”