A New Stoicism – part IV

Following nature...
Following nature…

We have just seen Lawrence Becker’s treatment of normative logic, in his A New Stoicism, ending with his list of four axioms of normative Stoic logic. In the following chapter of the book (#5) he elaborates on a number of important — for the modern practicing Stoic — consequences of his reconstruction and modernization of the Stoic system.

The chapter begins with the suggestion that the famous Stoic slogan “follow nature” (or live according to nature) has perhaps been too successful for its own good, generating a number of misconceptions about what it means (no, it doesn’t mean that we should all turn into tree huggers…). Still, as Becker admits, Stoics are now too deeply “branded” with it to change it, so we need to update and explain what that might mean in the 21st century.

Here is Becker’s eminently sensible stab at this: “Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it–our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavors–before we deliberate about normative matters.”

This is powerful stuff. It clearly sketches out how a naturalistic Stoic ethics may bridge the is-ought gap (see previous essay) and it also means that modern Stoics are not wedded to the sort of teleological view of the cosmos that was accepted by our ancient forerunners.

I do believe Becker is onto something important here: while it can certainly be argued, with plenty of textual evidence to support the claim, that the ancient Stoics were teleologically inclined and believed in a cosmic providence of sorts (though not in a personal god), it is I think even more clear that that wasn’t the most basic pillar of Stoic philosophy. That role goes to the broader “follow nature” that Becker is articulating: the ancients accepted a teleological model of the universe because that was their best understanding of the reality of the situation. But modern Stoics ought to follow nature by updating to whatever contemporary science has to tell us about the basic reality of the universe, and teleology has no role to play in contemporary science.

Remember that the Stoics studied three interrelated disciplines: “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, epistemology and psychology), and “ethics” (i.e., ethics). They believed that the first two were instrumental to the third one: one cannot decide how to live (the proper domain of ethics) if one doesn’t know how to reason well (logic) and doesn’t also know whatever we can know about the reality of nature (physics). This implies that whenever our understanding of physics changes we need to update our beliefs accordingly, and then examine (via the use of logic) whether and to what extent that also affects our ethics. This, I hope it will be appreciated, is nothing like the nowadays fashionable idea that one can read morality straight out of scientific facts.

Here are a couple of quotes from Becker that should clarify what he means: “Stoic ethics is messy because the social world is messy. We begin (and end) our deliberations in terms of actual human beings, rather than hypothetical, idealized, or schematic ones … by definition, following the facts prohibits following false beliefs about what the facts are.”

Becker then moves on to a discussion of what happens when there are conflicts between different commitments the agent might have, for example to family and career. From a Stoic perspective such conflicts are part of normal, “messy” life, and the way to deal with them is for the agent to clarify to herself both her priorities (hierarchically ordered, if need be) and the instrumental means by which she can pursue her goals: “Isolated endeavors, when they come into normative conflict with others, pose a practical problem that can only be solved by integrating the conflicting norms–by ranking them hierarchically with respect to one another.”

What does that approach yield? “The norms that practical reason generates are all-things-considered ones: ‘Given all relevant projects and possibilities throughout my whole life, I ought, now, to do (or be) c.'”

Becker, however, clearly says that nothing guarantees that the agent will be able to resolve all conflicts concerning her goals and priorities. But he also sees Stoicism as an eminently pragmatic philosophy: “Stoics follow the best theory they can find, or can construct, in all these matters.”

Later on in chapter 5, he explains the Stoic “developmental” theory of how we come to develop our ethics. We start as thoroughly egocentric infants concerned only with our own needs, then we develop a natural regard for the needs and wants of people close to us (initially, family, then friends). Later on we begin to reason in a more sophisticated way, understanding that people who are further and further from us also have their legitimate needs and wants, and we move from an instinctual to a rational type of ethics. Eventually, “the final step in the outline is thus the thesis that through the operation of the ordinary, conscious psychological processes we call practical reasoning, together with the process of appropriation (oikeiosis), we can come to have an independent interest in moral virtue and good as such.”

Further on Becker tackles the always thorny issue of Stoic determinism and free will. I have written about this in the past, so I’ll just mention his description of Stoic compatibilism: “We hold that human freedom consists in the exercise of agency. We hold that agency is the determinate product of antecedent events and that its exercise has determinate outcomes … we can avoid fatalism […] by taking human freedom to consist in the determinative effect we have, through the exercise of our agency, on what happens in our lives–including including what happens with regard to the exercise of our agency itself.”

6 thoughts on “A New Stoicism – part IV

  1. “Given the same set of facts and circumstances an agent would do the same thing”. Problem with this is that it can never happen. Trying to repeat would involve the agent knowing the outcome from the first time which modifies his mental state and perhaps the outcome. I think the problem is treating the human being as an object without the component of memory and the processing by the intellect.

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  2. Agreed to all. At the cost of potential boredom induced, here is my take:

    Non-Linear Us:
    Nature is not nature, ever since there are humans, and they think. Earth has been terraformed, made into a garden, a human garden, in the last few million years. By ours truly.

    Neanderthals started to used coal (lignite), 80,000 years ago.They also domesticated (that is, modified) European wolves, and invested in real estate, by exterminating Cave Bears.

    Thus, following “nature” is a non-linear activity, as, by following nature, we also follow the new nature we deconstructed and rebuilt, that is, we follow ourselves.

    “Following nature” thus does not just mean hugging trees. It also means dealing with trees the old fashion way: cutting and burning them. It also means using genetic engineering on plants and beasts alike.

    Nature has been artificial from even before the rise of civilization. Prehistoric men in Europe already conducted advanced and successful surgeries, from trepanations, to amputations, complete with anesthetics and antibiotics. “Facts” nowadays are all what influences humans, because they, in turn, change nature. Including hopes, systems of mood (“austerity!”, “Islam!”).

    The fundamental calculus assigned to (say) Stoics, is the fundamental calculus of humanity:

    “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, epistemology and psychology), and “ethics” (i.e., ethics)… the first two are instrumental to the third one: one cannot decide how to live (the proper domain of ethics) if one doesn’t know how to reason well (logic) and doesn’t also know whatever we can know about the reality of nature (physics). This implies that whenever our understanding of physics changes we need to update our beliefs accordingly, and then examine (via the use of logic) whether and to what extent that also affects our ethics.”

    Human evolution discovered, so to speak, this virtuous spiral of understanding and behaving. The species modified itself accordingly, it became that spiral.

    One cannot read morality straight out of scientific facts, because facts are about the world, and the world is about what we constructed. Thus the calculus of human hope, desire and risk evaluation has to be factored in.

    Fundamentally, then, the human species is immensely adaptative (see future Martians): to act, human agents consider human minds, and what their activities wrought (nature). We can call ourselves new names, but our new game is the same as our old game: changing the rules as we see fit, the more we learn, and the more we change nature.

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  3. I think the Stoics meant by nature everything from storms at sea to a noisy neighbor. Everything is ruled by the Logos. So although it is a good point that what exists as nature has our fingerprints on it, I don’t think the ancient Stoics would have been concerned.

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  4. jbonnicerenoreg,

    “”Given the same set of facts and circumstances an agent would do the same thing”. Problem with this is that it can never happen. Trying to repeat would involve the agent knowing the outcome from the first time which modifies his mental state and perhaps the outcome”

    I can’t find that quote in the essay, what I wrote is: ‘Given all relevant projects and possibilities throughout my whole life, I ought, now, to do (or be) c.’

    At any rate, memory doesn’t enter into it, we are talking about the best analysis an agent can make of his projects at any specific moment, on the basis of which the agent sets priorities about what to do.

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  5. Oh, being misquoted is tough! So I can offer a good quote here:
    Massimo said: “Facts are all we get, and ethics has to be derived from factual knowledge about the world and human nature.”
    “Physics” means facts. Real world right now, not future-world or past-world.
    This is how Stoics construct a theory, not by “treating the human being as an object” but by asking the human being to recognize reality based on facts, and to update the theory to new facts as they are acquired over time (that is “logic” based on “physics”). Memory and emotion are not good enough to use as a basis for ethics (even empathy may not be a good thing to base ethical decisions on, as we have recently been reminded).

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