A New Stoicism – part II

Roman ruinsLet us resume our discussion of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism with an overview of the third chapter, where the author surveys what can be salvaged from what he terms “the ruins” of Stoicism after the closing of the school and the rise of Christianity.

The first crucial point made by Becker is about the relationship among science (Stoic “physics”), logic, and ethics: “we cannot plausibly propose to ‘follow’ nature, as the ancient motto had it. Yet for stoics, ethics remains subordinate to science and logic in a way that separates us from most other contemporary ethical theorists.”

This means that for Stoics ethics is a naturalistic discipline, which needs to be informed by facts (“physics”) and based on sound reasoning (“logic”). Here Becker suggests — rightly, in my mind — that the famous distinction between “is” and “ought” (i.e., facts and values) made by David Hume wasn’t a prohibition about deriving the latter from the former, but rather a call to “show your work” if you do intend to connect the two.

For Becker, again correctly as far as I can see, ethics is a much broader domain of human thought than it is considered to be by modern moral philosophers. It is, as he puts it, an “attempt to say what we ought to do or be, all-things-considered. Ethical judgment is thus overriding because it subsumes all other relevant practical considerations (self-interest, altruism, prudence, etiquette …) into one final judgment.”

What about the role of science, then? “When we say ethics is subordinate to science we mean, among other things, that changes in our empirical knowledge are likely to generate changes in ethics. When the best science postulates a cosmic telos, as it sometimes did in antiquity, so does stoic ethics. When the best science rejects the view that the universe operates teleologically, in terms of something like human purposes, and suspends judgment about whether cosmic processes have a de facto end, convergence point, or destination, so does stoic ethics.”

Please note that this isn’t a Sam Harris or Michael Shermer-style attempt at reading off ethics directly from science. It is the much more nuanced position that ethical judgments better be compatible with our best understanding of science. Yet, even this modest statement of naturalism puts Stoic ethics (indeed, pretty much all virtue ethics) at odds with modern treatments based on deontology or utilitarianism, where ethics is often assumed to be pretty much independent (because a priori) of scientific advances.

Becker sees biology and the cognitive sciences as relevant to ethics as well. From their study we arrive at a picture of human beings as “purposive, socially interactive, reciprocally benevolent language users; they have complex emotional-response dispositions, and profound attachments or bonds to other people or things; they deliberate and make choices; they typically have some limits or boundaries that they will try to protect categorically.” There is no essential human nature, but there is nonetheless a human nature that is the composite of a number of characteristics common to all normal (in the descriptive, not prescriptive sense) human beings.

He then talks a bit about agency (he will have much more to say about this later in the book), defining it as a self-transformative power, allowing agents to remake (or at the least change, improve) their own character over time.

As we have seen in previous posts, ethics in this sense is a very different kind of project from what it is assumed to be in contemporary moral philosophy: “stoic ethical theory begins with the particular–with fully situated individuals–and works carefully out to more general matters. The idea is to incorporate into ethics the richest and most accurate descriptions of the way we live.”

There is also an interesting discussion of the various aims of Stoic training, from which I will just excerpt the last bit: “stoic moral training aims to develop in each agent the disposition to seek social roles, conventions, and institutions in which she has more rather than less control of her own life, unless having less can be shown to make a countervailing contribution toward a good life for her.”

Becker than briefly takes up the issue of virtue and its relationship with happiness (again, he will return to it in greater depth later in the book, and so will I, in future commentaries): “Living virtuously is the process of creating a single, spatiotemporal object–a life. A life has a value as an object, as a whole … What seems so clearly valuable (or required or excellent) when we focus on a thin temporal slice of a life (or a single, long strand of a life) may turn out to be awful or optional or vicious when we take a larger view.”

Here is another crucial bit to which we will return soon: “We hold that there is a single unifying aim in the life of every rational agent, and that aim, guided by the notion of a good life (happiness, eudaimonia), is virtue, understood as the perfection of agency.” Becker is redefining virtue here, but in what I think is a sensible way for modern readers (and yes, later in the book there is a whole discussion of the much dreaded issue of free will…).

The chapter concludes with an interesting and often neglected point: just because the Stoics (or any other eudaimonic school, really) thought that there is one conception of the good life, it doesn’t mean that all lives should therefore be even remotely similar. As Becker puts it: “The stoics of antiquity were as diverse as plebeians and aristocrats, rhetoricians and physicians, career soldiers and career poets, apolitical logicians and political advisers, slaves and emperors.” What they all had in common was a shared understanding of eudaimonia and its relationship to virtue.

14 thoughts on “A New Stoicism – part II

  1. James E Lassiter

    Thanks, Massimo, for this synopsis. One small point I hope you’ll clarify. Having read Harris and Shermer’s respective books on morality I recall they both didn’t attempt to read ethics directly from science. Rather, they took the intervening step of assessing the harm/no-harm, well-being/lack of well-being of factual scientific findings. They then attempted to construct a scientifically-based moral prescription for optimal behavior between individuals and between groups, and between groups and the biosphere. Shermer went a step further by citing Don Brown’s work from some time back on human universals as a factual (scientific) guide for helping establishing a science-based morality. Again, by applying the harm/well-being measures to many of the universal preferences and behaviors Brown listed. Maybe I have misread or am not clearly recalling what Harris and Shermer wrote, or you see a deficiency in their analysis I missed. I’d be grateful to hear from you on this.


  2. Massimo Post author


    as they say, it’s complicated. I’m honestly not sure anymore what Harris and Shermer are up to. If they want to derive ethics straight from science, that’s just plain wrong and they both ought to know better. But if what they are saying is that empirical facts (not just “science”) should inform one’s ethical decisions, yeah, true, but also entirely uncontroversial. The Stoics certainly said the same thing (“live according to nature”) and I doubt any sensible contemporary moral philosopher would argue that facts are irrelevant to ethics (see, for instance, the literature on bioethics).

    So what, exactly, are Harris and Shermer after? I asked Shermer that question directly, and couldn’t get a straightforward answer. He kept oscillating between the above mentioned extremes, which reminded me of Alan Sokal’s comment about postmodernism: postmodernist sociologists make claims (like “science is a social construction”) that can be construed either as true but trivial, or extremely bold but false.

    What’s your take on all this?


  3. philosophercj

    Hello Massimo,

    Whenever I hear talk of “normality” I get worried about the potential for discrimination. You wrote, “There is no essential human nature, but there is nonetheless a human nature that is the composite of a number of characteristics common to all normal (in the descriptive, not prescriptive sense) human beings.” I am not saying it is impossible, but trying to derive normative conclusions based on species typicality seems highly dangerous. For example, how do we avoid discriminating against the disabled or the mentally ill here?


  4. Massimo Post author


    “Whenever I hear talk of “normality” I get worried about the potential for discrimination”

    and for good reason, normally. However, I don’t see it in this case. Stoicism isn’t a “normative” philosophy in the contemporary sense of the term. As Becker puts it, “ought” for a Stoic simply means that IF one wants to live a certain type of life THEN one “ought” to do certain things. It’s what Kantians call a hypothetical imperative.

    As for discrimination against any other human being, disabled or not, mentally ill or not, that would go against the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the idea that all of humanity is part of our circle of concern.


  5. Jaycel Adkins

    Would the way to understand the deriving ethics from science vs. informing ethics with science is to look at issues of human nutrition, i.e. meat eating vs. vegetarianism.

    A scientifically derived ethic wouldn’t make a statement that eating animals is ethically suspect, due to the fact that humans were evolved to eat animals.

    A scientifically informed ethic would open the door to vegetarianism. Would the informed part be about how to actually go about it in a healthy way? Or rather at the point of either/or.

    As an agnostic, when asked how I ground my ethics, I use evolutionary biology (currently citing Paul Bloom), rather than upbringing/society, to avoid objections of relativism and luck.

    Am I deriving or informing my ethics with science in that case?


  6. labnut

    We… hold that the final end of all rational activity is virtue, not happiness, … that sages are happy just because they are virtuous“. Page 8.

    While I believe this I find it hard to derive this conclusion. For me this seems to be a premise and not a conclusion. We could argue that this is the result of thoughtful observation by insightful philosophers, that the conclusion is the fruit of experience.

    Or am I missing something? Are there stronger arguments for this conclusion?


  7. Massimo Post author


    the example of diet is a good one. The only caveat is that I wouldn’t go *just* with evolutionary biology. Indeed, neither would the Stoics (had they known about it). They had a “developmental” theory of virtue, whereby we start as toddlers with certain immediate needs and desires, then we enter the age of reason and begin to understand our relationship with others, which leads us to expand our circle of concern, so to speak. So culture plays an additional role beyond biology, as it should be if one doesn’t want to fall straight into the (fallacious) argument that whatever is natural is good.


    “Or am I missing something? Are there stronger arguments for this conclusion?”

    There are. One of the best known is presented by Cicero in De Finibus (he also has an entire essay in “Stoic Paradoxes” on the question of virtue being the only good; see also book V of the Tuscan questions):

    “28. Next I ask, who can be proud of a life that is miserable or not happy? It follows that one can only be proud of one’s lot when it is a happy one. This proves that the happy life is a thing that deserves (so to put it) that one should be proud of it; and this cannot rightly be said of any life but one morally honourable. Therefore the moral life is the happy life. And the man who deserves and wins praise has exceptional cause for pride and self-satisfaction; but these things count for so much that he can justly be pronounced happy; therefore the life of such a man can with full correctness be described as happy also. Thus if Moral Worth is the criterion of happiness, Moral Worth must be deemed the only Good.”

    There are a number of other versions of the argument, for instance in Diogenes Laertius.

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  8. labnut

    My question – are there stronger arguments for this conclusion?
    the final end of all rational activity is virtue

    Your reply:
    One of the best known is presented by Cicero in De Finibus …

    I don’t think Cicero’s argument is sound This can be seen by examining his argument in the preceding section, [27]:

    De Finibus 3.27
    They[Stoics] put their arguments in the following syllogistic form: Whatever is good is praiseworthy: but whatever is praiseworthy is morally honourable: therefore that which is good is morally honourable. Do you think this is a valid deduction? Undoubtedly it is so: you can see that the conclusion rests on an inference logically drawn from the two premises

    P1 Whatever is good is praiseworthy;
    P2 Whatever is praiseworthy is morally honourable;
    C1 That which is good is morally honourable.

    We can extend this argument as follows:
    1. We should strive for the Good (a premise)
    2. Therefore from C1 we should strive for the morally honourable.
    3. Therefore the final end of all rational activity is virtue(the morally honourable).

    We can agree with P1 but P2 does not necessarily hold, therefore C1 does not necessarily hold and so (3) does not necessarily hold.
    The problem with this argument is that he is equating ‘praiseworthy’ with ‘morally honourable’.
    Morally honourable is undoubtedly praiseworthy. But can we have actions that are praiseworthy but not morally honourable? I think that is possible. I think your essays are praiseworthy but that does not necessarily make them morally honourable(or dishonourable). The whole argument is built on a false dichotomy. For example I could write a praiseworthy essay about graphite formation in grey cast iron inoculated with trace amounts of magnesium but no one would call it either a morally honourable action or a morally dishonourable action.

    If we try to rescue this by changing the meaning of ‘morally honourable’ we are begging the question.

    I still agree with the statement ‘the final end of all rational activity is virtue‘ but for me that is a powerful intuition and not a logical conclusion.

    Christian Smith(Moral, Believing Animals, p148) put it this way:

    I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which constitutes, directs, and makes significant human life itself. This book has argued that human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. The relational ties that hold human lives together, the conversations that occupy people’s mental lives, the routines and intentions that shape their actions, the institutions within which they live and work, the emotions they feel every day—I have suggested that all of these and more are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations. There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order, no way to be human except through moral order.


  9. Massimo Post author


    I like the bit by Smith, but I still think one can do better on the rational side, and recover much of what the Stoics were saying.

    First off, I took Cicero’s “morally honourable” to apply not just to the strict category of things that are “moral” in the modern sense of the term, but in the ancient one, which included a broader concept of excellence.

    But even if Cicero doesn’t convince you, an increasingly standard interpretation of “living according to nature” is that it means recognizing the fact that we are both rational and social animals, and therefore that we ought to apply our rationality to social living — i.e., to “morality” broadly construed.

    This squares well with the argument Smith is making, I think. Becker goes further, saying that of course we are talking about agents of a particular type. Should there be agents on, say, Mars, who have drastically different characteristics from ours, their view of the Chief Good may be (rationally) different from ours. This isn’t relativism (in the sense of “anything goes, your opinion is as good as mine”) but rather naturalistic ethics: what “moral” means for a human agent may or may not apply to a radically different kind of agent.

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  10. James E Lassiter

    Massimo, There are things I don’t like about Harris and Shermer, including some of the things they write…. As for their efforts at coming up with a science-based morality I think they make good arguments for taking reasonably objective scientific evidence on harm, well-being, and human universals, and deriving a provisional moral system. I think they are motivated to do so by a desire to transcend yet reasonably accommodate as wide a spectrum of cultural belief systems as possible. And that being for the purpose of taking Humankind into a future of less ideological intransigence where a pluralistic yet unified global morality and civilization might emerge, become sustainable, and lead to an age of less conflict, greater human flourishing, and better biospheric stewardship. I admit I may be reading more into their respective books than is there and that what I understand them to be about is akin a utopian fantasy but, for me, it’s a vision that sure beats the current self-destructive, humanity-degrading, zero-sum battle of nations, economies, and religions we are suffering under. I think it is unfortunate that more thinkers dismiss their efforts as violations of the so-called is/ought dictum and don’t take a view like yours that is/ought is okay if you do your homework. When I pitch their views I’m usually by one of two rebuttals: ideological (cultural/national) intransigence will block such efforts at every turn or forget about it, those who hold power, win wars, lead major religions, and control wealth dictate morality, not neuroscientists, biologists, philosophers, or anthropologists. I say the effort along Harris and Shermer’s lines is worth the effort and may be our only hope to avert human extinction and irretrievable damag to the biosphere. Support the UN, I tell them, in terms of pressure on governments to stop undermining UN efforts at coming up with and enforcing global conventions and protocols that ease international tensions, find common ideological ground, and protect and maintain a healthy biosphere. Regrettably, I don’t persuade many to share this vision but I shall hang onto it because I haven’t found a better one.


  11. Massimo Post author


    “I think they are motivated to do so by a desire to transcend yet reasonably accommodate as wide a spectrum of cultural belief systems as possible”

    I disagree, they are both clearly motivated by a rejection of religion, which is the opposite of attempting to be culturally inclusive.

    “I understand them to be about is akin a utopian fantasy but, for me, it’s a vision that sure beats the current self-destructive, humanity-degrading, zero-sum battle of nations, economies, and religions we are suffering under”

    You won’t get any disagreement from me on the second point. As for the Harris-Shermer view being utopian, I don’t know. Dystopian seems more appropriate, for instance when Harris says that brain scans will make it impossible for people to lie in public spaces. That seems awfully fascistic to me.

    “unfortunate that more thinkers dismiss their efforts as violations of the so-called is/ought dictum and don’t take a view like yours that is/ought is okay if you do your homework”

    Indeed, Stoics do bridge the ought/is with their developmental account of moral feelings. That said, the problem with Harris-Shermer is that they actually don’t do that work either. They simply assume without argument that “science” has the correct answers to moral questions.


  12. James E Lassiter

    I take your point about Harris-Shermer not seeking cultural inclusiveness. Harris’s lie detection notion is fascist and one of his views I also do not like.

    “They simply assume without argument that ‘science’ has the correct answers to moral questions.”

    With great respect and appreciation for you, I don’t agree with you on this point. I’m not sure if you mean they make no argument for their science-based morality or make no argument that theirs is better than others. I defer to you as an expert on arguments and argumentation, and I’m not being the snarky upstart in the back of the classroom trying one-up you 🙂 but both Harris in his The Moral Landscape and Shermer in his The Science of of Good and Evil do, in my view, make respective informal (language-based) inductive arguments for the science-based moralities they posit. They narratively present science-derived factual premises, assess them in terms of fairly general, and I think incontestable definitions of harm, well-being, and human universals, then conclude that a moral system can thereby be constructed. I remain Stoically and teachable, Jim


  13. labnut

    and human universals, and deriving a provisional moral system.
    a pluralistic yet unified global morality

    What does this really mean in simple concrete terms? Science deals with well defined questions about reality where we lack an explanatory account. It makes observations, creates a hypothesis and sets about testing it in order to provide an explanatory account.

    What are the well defined questions about morality where we lack an adequate explanatory account? How can science address these questions? What are the hypotheses and how will science test them?

    The FBI has exquisitely detailed statistics about crime in the USA. We know what are all the possible criminal offences against morality. We also know what all the non-criminal moral offences are(though we disagree about some of them). In that case, how will science add to our knowledge of morality in a way that provides a ‘unified global morality’ or creates a ‘provisional moral system’? Don’t we already have ‘provisional’ moral systems?

    If you want science to address questions you must define the questions in clear specifics. Vague generalities about ‘unified global morality’ just won’t suffice.

    Remember that sociology, and in particular, criminology is already doing this, so what additional value are Shermer/Harris providing, over and beyond their vague generalities?. Here are the sorts of questions dealt with in criminology – what are the causes of the high rates of recidivism once inmates are released? How effective are the different programmes for reducing recidivism? Does the early release of violent offenders endanger society? Does religious instruction reduce violence in prisons? These are already areas of vigorous ongoing research and Shermer/Harris have contributed nothing to this.

    As these examples show, science can contribute a lot to our descriptive knowledge of moral/criminal behaviour. But no one has shown how science can contribute to our prescriptive knowledge of morality.

    For example, is science suddenly going to tell me I may/should practice adultery, that I may, like Dawkins, practice polyamory or that I may, as Dawkins contends, practice infanticide up till the age of one? I cannot see how science will answer these prescriptive questions and I completely and utterly fail to see how science will create a ‘unified global morality’. By the way, my wife has clear, unambiguous answers to the questions above and she never needed to consult a science textbook for this. If I said anything different she would throw the science textbook at my head 🙂

    Of course, if you can start filling in the specifics I will be happy to listen.


  14. Massimo Post author


    “I’m not being the snarky upstart in the back of the classroom trying one-up you”

    No worries at all!

    “both Harris in his The Moral Landscape and Shermer in his The Science of of Good and Evil do, in my view, make respective informal (language-based) inductive arguments for the science-based moralities they posit”

    Well, Harris begins his book by dismissing (in an endnote to the introduction) the entire literature on moral philosophy because, this is true, he finds that it increases the boredom of the universe. I hardly consider that a good beginning for his argument.

    As for Shermer, I’ve asked him directly, more than once, if he thinks that morality can be founded exclusively on science (a bold claim, but false, in my opinion) or whether he simply means that science ought to inform ethical decision making (a true claim, but quite trivial). I never got a clear answer…

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