Let 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.