A New Stoicism – part III

Chrysippus, major contributor to Stoic logic

Chrysippus, major contributor to Stoic logic

I’m going to continue our discussion of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, after having looked at chapters 1 & 2, and then 3. As we have seen, this is a rather comprehensive, if a bit idiosyncratic, attempt at updating the whole Stoic system for modern times. It is written in a somewhat technical language, but I believe it is accessible even to readers without much background in philosophy, and well worth the effort.

Chapter 4 of the book is on “normative logic,” a topic which is much more interesting than the rather dry and off putting title might imply. Basically, Becker sets out to articulate how Stoics — who are ethical naturalists — propose to move from “is” to “ought,” i.e., from matters of fact to matters of value.

I know, I know, if you have taken Philosophy 101 you are aware of David Hume’s famous objection to just such a move, which much later on G.E. Moore labelled the “naturalistic fallacy.” This is also the sort of objection I have often raised to simplistic treatments of the relationship between ethics and science, a la Sam Harris or Michael Shermer.

But of course Hume never said that it is impossible, in principle, to bridge the is-ought gap. He only said that one shouldn’t do it without explanation. And I have never said that facts (including scientific facts) are not relevant to ethics. Indeed, any naturalistic approach to moral philosophy has to somehow bridge that divide, unless one buys into a strong form of moral realism, akin, say, to mathematical Platonism. (And I don’t, either in ethics or in mathematics.)

Becker begins by defining what he means by “norms” (as in normative ethics): “norms are facts about the intentional behavior of particular agents; they are facts about agents’ goals, projects, or endeavors.” This strikes me as eminently reasonable, and allows Becker to then re-define a number of crucial terms that allow him to provide a Stoic treatment of ethics.

One such term, of course, is “ought,” about which he writes: “We use ‘ought’ in the following way: To say that an agent ought to do or be X is to say that her doing (or being) X is advisable (but not necessarily required) in terms of some endeavor that she has. That is, to say that she ought to do X is to say that her doing X will advance one of her endeavors along a defined trajectory toward its goals.”

Yes, as Becker adds a few pages later, this means that Stoics engage in means/end practical reasoning. Again, it couldn’t be otherwise, if one wishes to develop a naturalistic form of ethics.

The chapter concludes with a list of what Becker takes to be axioms of Stoic normative logic. (For interested readers, he has an appendix to the book where he actually develops such system formally, showing that it is consistent, though it is an open question whether it is also complete.)

Here are the axioms:

Axiom of Encompassment. The exercise of our agency through practical intelligence, including practical reasoning all-things-considered, is the most comprehensive and controlling of our endeavors.

Axiom of Finality. There is no reasoned assessment endeavor external to the exercise of practical reasoning all-things-considered.

Axiom of Moral Priority. Norms generated by the exercise of practical reasoning all-things-considered are superordinate to all others.

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.

The following chapter (and my next essay) then delve into an elaboration and defense of such axioms and what can be derived from them.

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Categories: Larry Becker, Modern Stoicism

9 replies

  1. Hi Massimo,

    “Yes, as Becker adds a few pages later, this means that Stoics engage in means/end practical reasoning. Again, it couldn’t be otherwise, if one wishes to develop a naturalistic form of ethics.”

    I really don’t see how a means/end reasoning is a consequence of naturalistic ethics, and would like to see you elaborate on that (maybe I’m misunderstanding you as well). This seems to be a statement which goes beyond Stoicism.

    The reason is that I’ve been arguing extensively the opposite case on my blog, that eudaimonia is primarily found from sincerely engaging in whatever we do, and the only way for this to occur is by treating what we do as ends in themselves. If all we do is means towards some end, nothing will be done for the sake of doing just that, and then all actions become pointless. As an example from another recent thread on these pages, entertainment becomes meaningful in itself if it is more than just a means to a greater goal, which then separates worthwhile entertainment from that which isn’t (to use your example: you can watch Kardashians to learn about popular culture, but only as a means to this end, and not as an end in itself. Doctor Who on the other hand…).

    I also believe my view on ethics to be completely naturalistic.

    Here is where I argue for doing things for the sake of doing things: http://www.thinkingofthings.com/blog/meaningnessoflife/

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  2. ToT,

    “I really don’t see how a means/end reasoning is a consequence of naturalistic ethics”

    For Becker norms are not “out there,” so to speak, they are the result of agent deliberations of the sort: if I want to achieve X I ought to do Y. In that sense, his ethics is both naturalistic and instrumental.

    “This seems to be a statement which goes beyond Stoicism”

    Not if you interpret Stoicism’s famous injunction “follow nature,” as Becker does, as meaning “follow the facts.” Facts are all we get, and ethics has to be derived from factual knowledge about the world and human nature.

    “that eudaimonia is primarily found from sincerely engaging in whatever we do, and the only way for this to occur is by treating what we do as ends in themselves”

    The problem with that approach is that you are then forced to admit that there can be such a thing as a eudaimonic serial killer.

    “entertainment becomes meaningful in itself if it is more than just a means to a greater goal”

    But the Stoic would say that entertainment is meaningful not in itself (because then it’s just about pleasure), but only if it furthers one’s pursuit of virtue. The “preferred” indifferents, in Stoicism, are preferred precisely because they facilitate one’s pursuit of the eudaimonic condition.

    I think the above makes more sense once one agrees that the Stoics did recognize and end in itself, and that’s the eudaimonic life, because — as even Aristotle agreed — one cannot ask of it: well, what are you doing that for? It’s the ultimate good, and the way to achieve it, for the Stoics, is through the practice of virtues.

    “Doctor Who on the other hand…”

    I know, right?…

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  3. Massimo,

    Thanks for your answer!

    “The problem with that approach is that you are then forced to admit that there can be such a thing as a eudaimonic serial killer.”

    I don’t see it. Eudaimonic living is a project, and as such it is a commitment, and one that prevents you from being a serial killer. In fact, I would turn it the other way around. It is when actions become means to an end the extreme case of serial killing becomes possible. Doesn’t means/end thinking lead to a utilitarianism-style maximising of eudaimonia, for the self or the world, and killing can then become motivated if the victim was hindering eudaimonia? While someone who engages sincerely with herself, others and the world, (with a naturalistic perspective or not), could not be a serial killer.

    “But the Stoic would say that entertainment is meaningful not in itself (because then it’s just about pleasure)”

    But shouldn’t a stoic find the eudaimonia in everything she does? Then good entertainment is not a goal in itself because of the pleasure we derive from it, but rather for how it helps us engage with ourselves and each other while, e.g. watching a good doctor who episode, his it helps us see the world, how it works unifying in society, giving common references enabling a starting point for meaningful meetings with other people, etc. etc.

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  4. ToT,

    “Eudaimonic living is a project, and as such it is a commitment, and one that prevents you from being a serial killer.”

    Well, no, you previously defined eudaimonia as “eudaimonia is primarily found from sincerely engaging in whatever we do,” which presumably includes serial killing. To get out of this you have to define eudaimonia explicitly in terms of virtue/moral value, which is what the Stoics did.

    “It is when actions become means to an end the extreme case of serial killing becomes possible. Doesn’t means/end thinking lead to a utilitarianism-style maximising of eudaimonia”

    A utilitarian wouldn’t known what eudaimonia is if he saw it right in front of him… 😉 Seriously, Becker’s means/ends instrumental reasoning is instrumental to eudaimonia, which is defined in terms of virtue, and this is in accordance with Stoic teachings. If you will, another way to look at it is what Socrates says in the Euthydemus: all skills and practices are instrumental, except wisdom, which is good in and of itself. But it is good in and of itself because it is the thing that allows one to pursue a eudaimonic life. That does eliminate serial killers from consideration, since to speak of a wise serial killer is oxymoronic.

    “shouldn’t a stoic find the eudaimonia in everything she does?”

    I wouldn’t put it that way, but rather that everyone one does is in the spirit/goal of pursuing a eudaimonic life.

    “watching a good doctor who episode, his it helps us see the world, how it works unifying in society, giving common references enabling a starting point for meaningful meetings with other people”

    Yes, that’s correct. But a Stoic would watch the Doctor because of what you just listed, not because he derives pleasure from the episode. The latter is simply a preferred indifferent, a side effect.

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  5. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    As Becker mentions later in the book, these axioms do not imply that attachments to things are prohibited, or to be abandoned entirely, as if the Stoic mindset excluded putting any value on externals (i..e watching a good TV show, enjoying the time spent with your kids), but rather that these attachments should always be framed within the value primacy of our agency guided by all-things-considered practical reasoning (virtue representing for him “optimized agency”). Ceteris paribus, I would prefer to do pleasant things rather than do unpleasant things, but doing things against the voice of practical reason ( which should be viewed as a principle of personal life-coherence rather than a mathematical utilitarian tool) is not the stoic way, even if it brings other perks.That is because bad actions (…in that sense) lead to bad character dispositions, i.e. vice.
    Virtue is the only absolute unconditional value and that, for a Stoic is always in your background to guide your practical approach.

    However I think what Mr. Becker proposes (which is really just the modern equivalent of the mainstream ancient stoic view) would allow for doing things because we enjoy them in themselves, without treating these activities as end-in-themselves, but still by granting them intrinsic natural, i.e. non-moral value. This value will always be a conditional value, depending on the moral intent that they come with.

    These naturally preferred activites are “indifferents”, i.e. have no moral i.e. absolute unconditional value, but they have tons of other specific intrinsic non-moral values, that will inform the use we make of them, i.e. the moral framework (of course!). They are preferred because they have a natural value in themselves AND as potentially instruments for virtue. But it is their value as instrumentals for virtue that trumps their natural value, at least that is the way I undestand these distinctions.Eating chocolate cake is fun in itself, but a Stoic will know when to stop ( or say no,thanks), despite the ongoing fun….

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  6. Will someone please make the case for chocolate cake as a moral good?

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  7. jdesk,

    “these axioms do not imply that attachments to things are prohibited, or to be abandoned entirely, as if the Stoic mindset excluded putting any value on externals (i..e watching a good TV show, enjoying the time spent with your kids), but rather that these attachments should always be framed within the value primacy of our agency guided by all-things-considered practical reasoning (virtue representing for him “optimized agency”)”

    Yes, that is my understanding of what Becker is saying.

    “They are preferred because they have a natural value in themselves AND as potentially instruments for virtue. But it is their value as instrumentals for virtue that trumps their natural value, at least that is the way I undestand these distinctions”

    I think that’s a very reasonable interpretation, but it is debatable. More “Cynically” oriented skeptics, both modern and ancient, would say that nothing has intrinsic value except for virtue, and that preferred indifferents are preferred *only* insofar as they aid in the cultivation of virtue.

    But I tend to agree with your take, which I think is Becker’s, and certainly is Seneca’s. Stoics will, I think, always contend with a spectrum of attitudes, from the stricter “Cynic” wing to the more moderate, Seneca-type wing.

    vienna,

    “Will someone please make the case for chocolate cake as a moral good?”

    Can’t do, but given what idesk and I just agreed to, you can keep eating your cake, with moderation of course!

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  8. Massimo,

    The language of the Axiom of Finality has me a bit confused. Could it be rewritten as the following definition without changing its meaning?

    “There is no other method of using reasoning to assess the virtue of something outside of practical reasoning all-things-considered.”

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  9. Conner,

    The axiom of finality basically means that once one takes into account all factors, it turns out that there is nothing more important than practical reasoning, i.e., virtue.

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