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.”