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.