One of the hallmarks of a successful movement is that media coverage begins to shift from treating it as a curiosity to presenting it as a possible threat, or at the least as overblown, simplistic, and possibly a vehicle to swindle people. If that’s the case, the past couple of weeks have given us incontrovertible signs that modern Stoicism has grown enough to trigger a journalistic hack job and to attract the hires of at the least one professional philosopher. Let’s take a look. (Incidentally, want proof that Stoicism is trendy? We made it into the New Yorker!)
The NYT article: Stoicism in the fashion pages!
On December 6, Alexandra Alter published a curious article in the New York Times (where, a mere couple of years ago, I wrote my first ever essay on the topic, simply entitled How to Be a Stoic. Does the phrase sound familiar?). Alter had been invited to Stoicon by yours truly, and she was particularly keen on covering our keynote speaker, the controversial (even within the Stoic community) Ryan Holiday. Alter begins with a doubly inaccurate phrase: “In an underground gymnasium in New York City in October, the author Ryan Holiday spoke to nearly 350 people about the transformative power of pessimism and self-doubt.” Except, of course, that Stoicism is about realism, not pessimism; and it is about self-examination, not self-doubt.
She goes on to present Ryan has a swindler catering to Silicon Valley billionaires and NFL sports teams, proceeding to recount his professional history, from PR man for American Apparel (hired to do damage control on behalf of the then CEO of the company) to his writing of a self-exposé entitled “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” In the process, we learn about the size of Ryan’s advance from his publisher, and — absolutely crucial — that he was called a “scumbag” by an anonymous Amazon reviewer.
Alter has a hard time understanding how “the same person who wrote ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying,’ a bombastic treatise on the art of self-promotion through media manipulation, went on to write a meditation on the perils of self-absorption and pride,” apparently automatically rejecting Ryan’s own explanation about his disgust with his former profession and his exploration of Stoicism as a better way to frame his life priorities.
My colleague Gabriele Galluzzo and I are very briefly quoted in the article, explaining why some people at Stoicon had misgivings about inviting Ryan in the first place, but of course the bits where we expanded on the topic were cut out, I presume because the author needed more space to finish her hack job.
So, do I defend Ryan’s approach? Do I agree with it? These questions have been posed to me so many times since Stoicon that I’d better go on record here, as clearly as possible. I’ll do that in the format of a short q&a with myself:
Q. Does Mr. Holiday actually know anything about Stoicism?
A. Yes, I think he has put a lot of thought into this, he knows what he’s talking about.
Q. Would you use his approach to write about Stoicism?
A. No, the way he presents it is not my style. And yes, before you even ask, I do think there is a danger of hype that the community needs to keep an eye on. But I haven’t seen anything worrisome so far.
Q. But isn’t he in it for the money?
A. To begin with, I don’t have privileged access to people’s minds and their inner motivations. But no, I don’t begrudge him (or anyone else) his success or money, so long as they are achieved honestly.
Q. Doesn’t Mr. Ryan’s approach in a way cheapen Stoicism?
Q. No, I don’t think there is anything wrong in making an idea accessible by simplifying it. If I thought so, my entire career as a science and then philosophy popularizer would be an embarrassment to me; instead I’m proud of it.
A. Are Mr. Holiday’s book worth reading at all?
Q. Yes, I do think The Obstacle is the Way, for instance, is well worth reading and may speak to a different crowd from that addressed by other books on contemporary Stoicism. There are plenty of other modern authors one can go to for more in-depth treatment, or simply for exposition of Stoic ideas that adopt a different style of communication, beginning with Larry Becker and continuing with Bill Irvine and Don Robertson, among many others. Now, can we perhaps move on?
The QZ article: philosophy or life hacking?
A few days after the NYT article, Olivia Goldhill published another one in QZ. This one was far more nuanced and balanced than Alter’s, though still a lot of attention was on Ryan and “life hacking,” rather than on the Stoic movement as a philosophy of life. Goldhill’s answer to the question of “why Stoicism?” is right on target: “Though several Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism have a clear practical element, Stoicism is one of the most accessible and explicitly practical schools of western philosophy. The philosophy advocates self-control and not being overly indulgent in sensual pleasures.”
She goes on to ask: “One Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, was born a slave and wrote extensively on how to accept one’s fate. Can such a philosophy be of equal use to those coming to terms with the daily grind of life in Silicon Valley?” As Ryan pointed out on Twitter a few days after the article came out, people tend to forget that while Epictetus was a slave-turned-teacher, Seneca was one of the wealthiest men in Rome, and Marcus was an emperor. (To which it would be good to add that Zeno was a merchant, and Cleanthes a pugilist who worked in a garden at night to pay for his philosophical studies.) Stoicism has always been, from the beginning, a philosophy for every walk of life (though not necessarily for everyone, that depends to some extent on one’s character and behavioral predispositions.).
The next bit explains the basics of Stoicism, quoting yours truly extensively and accurately. And then we get to the comments of philosopher Sandy Grant, who is very critical of Stoicism (more on her in the next two sections as well). To give you some background, Grant works at the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge, and her focus is on writings aimed at the general public.
Grant is quoted by Goldhill as saying that “Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. … [it is] hopelessly outmoded. It cannot grasp the modern predicament or suggest to people how they may best live now. Stoicism gets the question wrong. It is no longer a matter of ‘What can I control?’ but rather of ‘Given that I, as all others, am implicated, what should I do?’ The control fantasy is ridiculous in an interdependent, globalized world.”
This led to a tasty exchange between Grant and Holiday on Twitter. Holiday wrote: “This is silly. Two thousand years ago would you write ‘the emperor is using a philosophy designed for slaves?'” To which Grant replied: “Stoic man tells women philosophers they are ‘silly’!!! Stoic life hack: that which you cannot control, dismiss. Oops!”
Certainly the use of the word “silly” wasn’t the best possible choice by Holiday, but it’s not like Grant hadn’t been dishing out her own share of epithets. Notice also that Holiday didn’t tell “women philosophers” (I assume there Grant was counting Skye Cleary of the American Philosophical Association, also interviewed by QZ, on her side) that they were silly, but rather that a specific position (expressed by Grant, not Cleary) was so. There is a difference, and not a minor one either.
The QZ article goes on to quote my friend Skye, an existentialist philosopher who teaches at various places in New York (including my own City College), and the author of the excellent Existentialism and Romantic Love (she is rumored to be working on a book on cocktails and philosophy, one of my favorite topics!).
Even Skye, however, is critical of our philosophy: “[she sees a] lot of problems with Stoicism, particularly in a contemporary context. I think there’s a really blurred line between what we can and can’t control. This is something Simone de Beauvoir talked about in terms of women’s oppression. She said it might seem like there’s very little individuals can do but, collectively, we can and should do things to combat oppression and inequality and discrimination.”
And then Goldhill gets to the issue of life hacking, in the context, of course, of her discussion of Ryan. She quotes me as saying “There’s a danger that if you just use the tools and are detached from the general philosophy, you could end up misusing the tools. Stoicism, like everything else, doesn’t come with guarantees. It also comes with the idea that you’re ultimately responsible for what you do. So if you stop at one level instead of going to the next, you ought to realize you’re not getting the full picture. By not getting the full picture, you might end up worse off than you were before.”
Which I thought was fairly reasonably balanced. Not so Grant’s response to the same question [referring to Ryan’s books]: “it is bad pop psychology of a comically macho bent for sale to entitled and arrogant successniks.” Someone is not mincing words, apparently.
Sandy Grant really doesn’t like Stoicism
A few days before the QZ piece came out, Skye had interviewed Grant for the blog of the American Philosophical Association, which publishes occasional profiles of its members (here is mine, in case you are curious).
The piece was not about Stoicism per se, but the topic did come up. I’m going to quote extensively here:
“I’ve seen news reports that philosophy is trending and even ‘cool’… so, these issues are ones for us all to address. Taking Stoicism as an example, perhaps it is readily repackaged as a life hack for a popular audience seeking consolation and coping strategies. That may explain its appeal to some people, because it can be sold as a convenience food. But perhaps there’s more to it. Stoicism was a philosophy for a time of slaves and when women were chattel, of fixed hierarchies. Perhaps it helped its practitioners to live as well as they could, given that status quo. But today the idea of not getting discombobulated [sic] about things you deem beyond your control risks quietism, or at least distraction. Maybe this appeals to those who think they need not take up a stance. You mentioned that Stoicon attendees were predominantly men. Well, it has that stuff going on about mastery of the emotions, and it trades on the elevation of the old bearded man as sage. That sort of thing might appeal to some men, those content to uphold the status quo. But we are in times of striking reaction against equality, and against the insistence that women’s lives, queer lives and black lives matter. Perhaps in these regards Stoicism is not just irrelevant, but perhaps it is the last thing we need… and maybe no modernizing gesture can rescue it.”
To begin with, god forbid philosophy should become trendy and cool. Let’s instead help people like Neil deGrasse Tyson condemn it to irrelevance. “Sold as a convenience food”? C’mon, that sort of contemptuous dismissal is not an argument, and of course could apply to any sort of popularizing, including the one that Grant herself does. I will provide my full response to the matters of slavery, women’s condition and “quietism” in the last section of this essay, but making it an issue of (white, bearded?) men against the rest of the world is bizarre, not the least because Grant has the empirical evidence wrong: there are lots of women in the modern Stoic movement (and many were present at Stoicon), and a number of professional women philosophers have written positively about it (specifics below). Also notice that Grant doesn’t just dismiss Stoicism as irrelevant, she goes all the way toward painting it as pernicious.
But there is more: “I should like to debate Stoics on these matters [war and oppression] and see what they can come up with. Beauvoir is raising Stoicism’s lack of potency in engaging big questions of our time. Given what we were discussing before, this is an important issue. If everyone is implicated and we all take up a stance, even by ostensible inactivity, these big questions matter. I don’t think an oversimplification or misunderstanding reply from Stoics would succeed because it accuses Beauvoir of a ‘strawman’ fallacy. But in cashing out that strawman claim against her I don’t see that reference to the lives of the philosophers counts. We don’t have records of Epictetus marching against slavery… but even if he had that wouldn’t get Stoicism off the hook. The objection from Beauvoir is that Stoicism’s argument about resignation to that we cannot control does not capture oppression cases. Stoics must answer to this. What I would add to what she says is this: oppression is a collective action problem. We can do something about it, but only if we act together. I tried to elucidate this point in my paper ‘Freedom and Oppression.’ But Stoicism comes across as a mere operation on yourself, and one of a particular kind, one whereby you may honorably fulfill your roles. Remember too that Stoicism counsels a search for mental serenity by curbing various passions presumed to be noxious. Existentialism however seeks to deploy the passions in the service of progressive change. We need philosophies now that can inspire collectives. It seems to me that a revival of existentialism, but as a renewed philosophy for the now rather than as a history of ideas or biographical enterprise, is on the cards. Can there be a new existentialist movement?”
First off, I’m up for debating Grant, any time. Perhaps the Bloggingheads.tv platform would be a good one. Second, what Grant is talking about is that Stoics — when accused of being powerless to change society — point out that most of our philosophical forerunners that we know of were actually people of action, who very much tried to change society for what they thought was the best (think of Cato’s revolution against Julius Caesar). When Grant says that this is besides the point because philosophers’ lives are irrelevant to their philosophy she betrays a profound misunderstanding of Stoicism: it is very much a lived philosophy, as Epictetus reminds us: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) That’s also why the Stoics insisted so much on the importance of role models: we learn virtue by patterning ourselves after people who do great things and who live according to their stated philosophy.
The quip about Epictetus not marching against slavery is so over the top that it is hard to take it seriously. To begin with, it smacks of presentism, the unfortunate tendency of some people, philosophers included, to straightforwardly apply our own values, and even, in this case, methods, to different times and cultures (though I’m betting that Grant would vehemently oppose any such move if attempted by others and applied to cultures she cares about). She also seems to forget (or being unaware of) the fact that one of the fundamental Stoic virtues is that of justice, or that the Stoics adopted a cosmopolitan outlook that was revolutionary for the time.
As for the passions, we can certainly have a debate about whether anger, say, is or is not a good thing to cultivate, but notice that even Grant acknowledges that it needs to be directed by philosophical insight, lest we see the sort of “anger” that brought us both Brexit and Trump, and that has caused all sorts of serious evils in even the recent past. I don’t know whether there can be a new existentialist movement, but Grant forgets that the “collective passion” that moved Sartre, Beauvoir’s soul mate, led him to endorse Stalinist Russia.
Finally, Stoicism can very much be a conduit to societal change, but from the bottom up, so to speak, rather than form the top down, as is the usual approach. It is a type of virtue ethics, after all, so its focus is the development of the character of the individual. And even the type of collective movement that Grant hopes will materialize in the near future isn’t going to go anywhere (and, again, in the past has often gone terribly wrong) if its members are not virtuous in the virtue ethical sense of the word. Let us not forget that a very good number of revolutions the world has seen so far started with great intentions and devolved in massacre and tyranny.
What does it mean to “keep calm and carry on”?
The final installment, for now, of the “let’s criticize Stoicism because it’s getting too cool” is afforded by an extended interview I had with Skye, again for the APA blog, where she let me have as much space as I wanted to further respond to Grant and to clarify a number of recurring issues. Below are some excerpts from that interview, organized by topic for ease of reference.
On Stoicism vs life hacking: Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and as such it comes with actionable advice for its practitioners. If one is interested only in developing a toolkit, one can of course push the philosophy in the background and just focus on the tools it provides. This is nothing unusual, we do it in other areas as well. Some people, for instance, engage in meditation, or practice yoga, without necessarily embracing the philosophical or mystical traditions behind those techniques.
On keeping calm and carrying on: You won’t find that phrase in any of the ancient Stoic texts, but it has become associated with the current popularization of Stoicism. I think that’s fine, so long as we understand what the phrase means within a Stoic context. Most importantly, it does not mean that we should go through life with a stiff upper lip because that’s the best we can do in a world that is fundamentally not going to change. Instead, it means that one should keep a level-headed attitude because that’s the best way to tackle complex problems.
On women and Stoicism: There was actually a significant number of women at Stoicon. And we had three women speakers during the single-day session: Julia Annas, Debbie Joffe Ellis, and Cinzia Arruzza. Moreover, other women philosophers have written positively about Stoicism, for instance Martha Nussbaum. Also, the Stoicism Facebook community, counting over 17,000 people, has a lot of women members, several of whom regularly contribute to the ongoing discussions. Sometimes people say that Stoicism is more popular among men because it is about suppressing emotions, but that gets it twice wrong: first, because that’s actually a profound mischaracterization of the philosophy; second, because it uncritically accepts the stereotype that women are more “emotional” (and therefore more fragile?) than men. I hope we are finally moving beyond that sort of false biological dichotomy.
On Stoicism as a “slave philosophy” incapable of furthering social change: First off, why pick on Stoicism in particular? During the same period a number of philosophies and religions were developing or thriving, including Epicureanism, Peripateticism, Platonism, Cynicism, Christianity and Buddhism. Should we then dismiss all of those as well because they happen to come about during an historical time that was characterized by slavery and women’s oppression? Also, which period of human history, exactly, isn’t so characterized? Do we not have actual slavery in a number of countries in the world right now, not to mention virtual slavery due to abysmal economic conditions in many places on the planet? Don’t we have a large number of countries today where women are oppressed, and a number of others — including the U.S. — where they are still at a significant disadvantage compared to men? Further, Stoicism has, historically, never encouraged quietism, from Greco-Roman times until today. Many Stoics were persecuted and either exiled or put to death by Roman emperors because they dared speak truth to power. And a number of modern individuals who were not quietist have been positively influenced by Stoicism, for instance Nelson Mandela, who read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations during his prison time, a reading that helped him overcome his anger, develop an understanding of his guard as a human being, and eventually recognize that reconciliation is better than anger when it comes to achieve both justice and social progress.
On teaching resilience somehow being a bad thing: since when resilience has become a bad thing? I mean, I hear a lot this criticism of Stoicism that it’s a bad thing to encourage people to be resilient and accept the fact that life comes with problems, some of which we can only endure, not resolve. It seems to me that resilience is actually a necessary component of a positive reaction to problems: if one is emotionally crashed one can hardly fight back. Moreover, it is wishful thinking to tell people that they can overcome everything, or that they can be “anything they want to be.” Realism isn’t defeatism, while unbridled optimism can actually pave the way for self-blame or, worse, blaming the victim, when things don’t turn out the way we were induced to believe they would.
On the line between what we do and we do not control: That line is clearly drawn by Epictetus: under our control are our values, our judgments, and our actions. Everything else is not under our control. This does not mean that we cannot influence (some) events, of course. But it does mean that we don’t have complete control over what’s going on in the world. The Stoic attitude, consequently, is not one of renunciation and inward focus, but rather a shift from external to internal goals: my goal isn’t to make my partner love me, because that’s not under my control; it is to be the most lovable person I can be with her, because that’s under my control. My goal is not to achieve peace in Syria, because that’s outside of my control; but it is to do whatever I can to improve the situation — donate money to relief organizations, write to my representatives, protest in the streets, help refugees — because that’s under my control. Anything else, the Stoic says, would be wishful thinking, and the world doesn’t change just because we wish it to.
What is Stoicism’s response to oppression? Oikeiosis. That’s the word that the ancient Stoics used to indicate the active development of concern for other people. Hierocles, a II century Stoic who wrote a book entitled Elements of Ethics, thought that we should think of others in concentric circles: nearby me, affectively speaking, there is my family; then my friends; then my fellow citizens and countrymen; and so on all the way to the whole of humanity. Now, Hierocles said, begin to mentally contract those circles, bringing people closer and closer to you, actively practicing concern for all. He even provided practical advice on how to do this: when you meet someone in the street, refer to her or him as “brother” or “sister.” This explicit behavior will gradually affect the way you feel about others. This kind of cognitive re-direction of one’s feelings, incidentally, is at the core of CBT.
A second aspect of the Stoic response to oppression is the concept of cosmopolitanism, a word that was actually invented by the Cynics and then deployed systematically by the Stoics. We are all equal, says Seneca, and we ought to treat everyone the same because of our shared humanity. Musonius Rufus, a I century Stoic teacher, thought that men and women have the same intellectual capacities, and that they ought to be taught in the same way, no room for discrimination.
Finally, the Stoics were mindful of practicing four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate complex situations to one’s best), temperance (self-control), courage (not just physical, but especially moral), and justice (i.e., fairness toward other people). Especially the last two are perfectly good tools for the Stoic practitioner to fight against oppression and discrimination, since they are core aspects of Stoic doctrine.
On Stoics as unemotional sociopaths: The Stoics, unlike Aristotle, believed that there is no such thing as a good amount of anger. That’s because anger has a way of swallowing you, it easily gets out of control, and even when it is justified, it often lead to actions that one is likely to regret. But that’s not the same as saying that one shouldn’t respond appropriately to atrocities and injustice, even emotionally so. Indeed, the Stoics, contra popular misconception, did not counsel the suppression of emotions. They weren’t proto-Spock from Star Trek. Rather, they thought that negative, disruptive emotions — such as hatred, anger, and fear — should be controlled by reason, while positive emotions — like love, a righteous sense of justice, and even a sense of awe at the beauty of the world — should be actively cultivated.
The Stoic take on existential anxiety: Existential anxiety, for the Stoics, comes primarily from our fear of death. But that fear is misguided for a number of reasons. First, because death is a natural process that leads into the same state in which we were, so to speak, for the long time before we were born. We didn’t suffer then, and we are not going to suffer after we die. Second, and more crucially, Seneca says that we actually die every day, meaning both that every day brings us closer to the end, and also that we don’t really know when that last moment will come. That is what gives the Stoic an urgency to live life at its fullest, and not to waste time in trivial matters or the pursuit of empty pleasures. However the Stoics, again contra popular misconceptions, did enjoy pleasures, so long as they owned the pleasure and not the other way around: as Diogenes Laertius put it, Stoics drink wine, but they don’t get drunk.
On the moral duty to be socially engaged: A major way one practices the virtues of courage and justice is precisely by conducting the sort of public life that many Stoics became famous for, as politicians, statesmen, or teachers. As Marcus puts it in the Meditations (IV.26): “Your life is short. You must turn to profit the present by the aid of reason and justice.”
Although Marvin Harris, the foremost proponent of CM believed that Marx had good insights into the socio-economic conditions that influenced human behavior, he felt Marxism was ruined by the Hegelian dialectic which Harris considers mystical bullshit.
To quote from Harris’s “Cutural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture”
I would add that empirically unsupported claims of historical “moral progress” can be thrown in with religious and political mysticism.
You keep repeating that claims of moral progress are empirically unsupported. Setting aside your too easy dismissal of Pinker’s book (which, as I said, it’s complicated, and I am one who is on record as a harsh critic of evopsych), as labnut and Eric pointed out, it is both blindingly obvious (e.g., women are treated better, on average today then last century, 500 years ago and 2000 years ago), and self-contradictory for your to claim otherwise.
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It is not “blindingly obvious” that because women are treated better on average in some parts of the world now than in prior times that therefore “moral progress” is empirically supported.
Stepping outside the European-North American bubble, where the majority of human beings alive right now exist should give anybody pause as to 21st century moral progress as it relates to the status of women:
Millions of people in India blamed the young woman herself who was disemboweled and murdered on a bus for going outside at night. This happened in 2012. India is a democracy with a Hindu majority (not controlled by Muslim fundamentalists – Islam gets the blame for misogynist customer and attitudes from even some liberals.)
There are some reports that the blame-the-victim attitude is shared by the majority of Indians:
But even if it isn’t the majority, India is a nation of 1.2 billion. There are probably more people in India alive right now who believe that woman themselves are to be blamed for rape, than the number of people who ever practiced honor killing in the entire history of Rome.
How is that progress?
And even if there was indisputable, universal progress throughout the world, that still doesn’t prove that the ultimate cause is this undefinable, inscrutable “moral progress” algorithm – or whatever you are claiming is the cause for the existence of moral progress.
Once more, nobody has been talking about mystical moral algorithms, and nobody has been arguing for the inevitability, or irreversibility, of moral progress. Please address actual arguments, not strawmen.
Second, women have made progress far outside of the “Northamerican bubble.” In all of Europe, for instance (743 million people), in many Asian countries (like Japan, another 173 millions), and in a number of South American ones (like Brazil, 200 millions).
Lastly, partial progress is, by definition, progress, and thus, by your own account, blindingly obvious.
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you can add China to the places where significant moral progress has been made in the treatment of women (1.36 billion people). You really are backing a losing argument.
It doesn’t matter if you throw in Japan and South America, etc. My point stands – there are very likely more individual human beings alive right now at the present moment who believe rape is the fault of the raped, than human beings with the similar belief who lived in Rome for the entire endurance of the Roman Empire.
That is a metric – counting people who hold that belief about rape. Metrics are used to quantify phenomena – that’s what empiricism is about.
And partial progress is not the same as proving that “moral progress” is “blindingly obvious.”
Or are you saying that “moral progress” isn’t the result of conscious moral effort?
For example – suppose that little girls are traditionally fed less than little boys in India (true fact) – but once families are better able to afford food (because for example the Green Revolution has increased crop yield) they begin feeding girls just as much as boys.
Are you saying that feeding girls better because it is more affordable is an example of “moral” progress?
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“My point stands – there are very likely more individual human beings alive right now at the present moment who believe rape is the fault of the raped, than human beings with the similar belief who lived in Rome for the entire endurance of the Roman Empire.”
That’s only because there are more people in general. The ratio of people who treat women better is much higher than it was 2000 years ago. If you think that only absolute numbers count then you need to familiarize yourself with the concept of statistically confounding variables (in this case, absolute population size).
“And partial progress is not the same as proving that “moral progress” is “blindingly obvious.” Or are you saying that “moral progress” isn’t the result of conscious moral effort?”
Yes, partial progress makes it blindingly obvious that there has, in fact, been progress, under any dictionary definition of progress. And of course moral progress is a result of conscious effort.
“Are you saying that feeding girls better because it is more affordable is an example of “moral” progress?”
No, that is not an example of moral progress. Recognizing that women have the same rights as men — as it has been done in an increasing number of countries throughout the world — is moral progress. Even when it is only partially applied in practice (for instance with the lingering issue of the wage gap in the US).
In general, I’m not clear at all on why you so want to deny the idea of moral progress. Wouldn’t that lead to nihilism and inaction?
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“Wouldn’t that lead to nihilism and inaction?”
I’m curious about that too.
Nancy, could I interest you in sharing with us what an activist or moral reformer ought to do, if moral progress is indeed impossible? Indeed, is “progressive” activism possible at all without progress?
Should we focus exclusively on socio-economic factors, and not bother criticizing people’s morality?
Since this conversation started specifically because you do criticize the ancient Stoics, I suspect that your answer is to the negative! But I’m at a loss for what that answer might look like in terms of action…
So feeding girls because it is more affordable is not an example of moral progress. But that’s what happened – girls were fed better than before in India not because there was a conscious decision to treat little girls better but because of improved access to food.
And that is one example of why girls and women are treated better now than before: technological progress like the Green Revolution and jobs that don’t prioritize physical strength, and mass-produced, inexpensive and effective birth control. Those things allowed women and girls more opportunities in life.
Virtually everything that you are attributing to “moral progress” is in fact the byproduct of other efforts, not the goal in itself. And in fact, MRAs are on record as being opposed to women having jobs exactly because women having more choices in life doesn’t suit men who like the idea of advantages over women. And often when women do get a chance in places like India to try to improve their lives, the people who see this as against their personal interests will attempt to stop them.
Acknowledging that human culture is a response to the material facts of earthly existence, as well as a full of conflict of interests – between countries, regions, groups and even within families – doesn’t say that morality – or human happiness are not worthwhile. It gets at the causes of the conflicts, and the injustice.
While attributing increased fairness to this ineffable “moral progress” does nothing to increase human understanding of the ways to improve fairness – it only obscures what is really going on.
What is your evidence for the claim that the ratio of people who treat women better is much higher now than it was 2000 years ago?
And if a greater number of people are treated unfairly, even if the proportion is lower, how is that evidence of increased “moral progress”? The end result is that a greater number of unique human beings are being treated unfairly. Do your really think that the net result being more sufferers is proof of “moral progress”?
what happened in the rest of the world and proportions of people is completely beside the point. The conversation is about Seneca, formerly resident in what we call West Europe. Massimo invoked moral progress to explain differing perceptions of morality in Seneca’s time and ours, where ‘ours’ means our present West European culture. Thus the question is whether there was moral progress in West Europe. Talk of conditions in other parts of the world is thus just a smokescreen designed to obfuscate the issue.
When we thus limit the scope of the conversation to the real issue(West Europe) it becomes very simple.
One thousand years ago the following conditions prevailed for the majority of people in West Europe. These freedoms were limited to the noble, gentleman and merchant classes, a small minority:
freedom of assembly was subject to arbitrary restriction
freedom of movement was subject to arbitrary restriction
freedom of expression was subject to arbitrary restriction
freedom to choose employment. Most people were tenant farmers tied to a small piece of land,
freedom to own landed property. Tightly restricted to the gentility.
functioning criminal law hardly existed, thus people were subject to arbitrary imprisonment and punishment,
functional commercial law hardly existed. Trade was subject to fiat and monopoly,
recourse against the arbitrary and cruel actions of the gentry was greatly limited.
Today these freedoms, rights and protections are widespread and available to all classes in West Europe.
This is stunning moral progress. That this has been denied is a bizarre occurrence which simply makes no sense.
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However, it seems to me that to really address the thesis Nancy is presenting, we need to tease out the component of the advances you list that really is attributably solely to progress in moral ideas from the component that is attributable to simple change in power structures (or economics).
For instance, it can be argued that democracy and despotism both operate by the same amoral, Machiavellian principles—they are just alternative strategies that rulers use to act in their own self-interest. CGP Grey did a lovely video recently that presents this world view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs
So, the question is, how much of advances like democracy are really attributable to better moral thinking, and how much of it is just good old-fashioned realpolitik manifesting itself in a different way than it did in the middle ages?
While I admire your patience and charity, the question of how much improving conditions are the result of better moral norms society-wide, rather than simply better material conditions is interesting, difficult (multi-level causation), and irrelevant to Nancy’s argument. She is arguing that there is no evidence at all of moral progress. Which as you yourself have pointed out is entirely self-contradictory with respect to other statements she has made. It also takes into no account the passage of laws (e.g., the US constitutional amendment granting voting rights to women) and international stipulations (e.g., the UN charter of human rights) that is hard to interpret as the result of improved material conditions. They are important statements of principle (the second) and of practical import (both first and second example), to which many others could be added. It is simply empirically and conceptually unsustainable to argue that humanity has not made any moral progress. And no, as you have pointed out, this implies neither i) that such progress is inevitable nor ii) that it is irreversible.
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that is an interesting question that represents a cynical viewpoint. Do moral ideas have no effect on behaviour? That is a denial of our capacity for moral behaviour, something which is unsustainable in the face of the evidence. That viewpoint suggests that moral progress is the result of competing forces. If that was the case why should competing forces have a moral outcome? History is replete with examples of one autocracy being overthrown and replaced by another autocracy, the normal outcome of competing forces. Indeed that has been the norm for most of recorded history. But in Western Europe change has been directed towards increasing moral order. Why? There is no doubt that competing forces play a role. And yet there is equally no doubt that principled people exist who order their behaviour according to moral ideas. Moral ideas are communicable and as they are communicated a moral consensus forms that motivates change towards improved moral order.
What is moral progress:
1) changes in moral ideas?
2) changes in moral behaviour?
Moral ideas manifest themselves in moral behaviour. Ordinarily we measure progress by looking at changes in moral behaviour. Nancy is arguing that the same moral ideas held today and 2000 years ago. That is very questionable and I will develop that argument later*. For now my main argument is that moral progress is change in moral behaviour, whatever you attribute it to. And there is no doubt that there has been huge progress in moral behaviour, therefore there has been huge moral progress.
*Carlin Barton has written extensively about Roman values and she describes them exquisitely in her book – Roman Honour, the fire in the bones. Her description of Roman values(at the time of Seneca)) hardly resembles modern values, rooted in Christianity. To argue then that there has been no progress in moral ideas has no connection with reality. Even a cursory reading of Carlin Barton’s book will reveal this.
So my argument is that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that
1) moral ideas have progressed,
2) moral behaviour has progressed
and therefore there has been large moral progress.
To this I will add a third component, that moral thinking is imprisoned in its milieu. It is exceptionally rare that someone’s moral thinking can free itself from its milieu. What is even more rare is when both their moral thinking and moral behaviour free themselves from their milieu. It is so rare that when it happens we call them Jesus Christ, Buddha or Confucius(to name some examples). So, OK, Seneca was not one of these people. No one is surprised. If you really insist on moral purity in your reading then you will have to confine your reading to Jesus Christ, Buddha and Confucius. Some people do this but I recommend a wider range of authors, but guess what, they are all morally tainted! Most of us, however, are sensible enough to evaluate their writings on their intrinsic merit. And this is what we should be doing with Seneca.
To get an idea of Carlin Barton’s writing about Roman values see this excerpt:
From what I have gathered, “moral progress” can mean almost whatever the speaker or writer says it means.
And my asking for clarification is deemed to be patience-taxing, and, it is implied, the quality of my arguments are so poor and/or the impertinence of my desire for clarification so objectionable that addressing my comments here is an act of selfless altruism.
In any case, based on this conversation so far, there appears to be two certain indicators of moral progress:
a. a change has occurred, in a culture, which is preferred by the speaker
(example: girls are fed equally with boys)
a.1. the preferred change must be a conscious ethical decision, not the result of improved material conditions
(example: girls are fed equally to boys for the sake of fairness itself, not as a by-product of technological improvements in food production. Eric’s example is a good analogy: choosing democracy because it is moral, rather than for the sake of political self-interest.)
I have more questions about the phenomenon, but first I’d like to go back to the question of whether a higher percentage of people being treated badly is better or worse than a higher total number of people being treated badly.
To express it as a variation on the trolley problem:
CHOICE #1: Switch the trolley to track A with 20 people, of which 50% will die. (lower percentage/higher total)
CHOICE #2: Switch the trolley to track B with 10 people of which 80% would die. (higher percentage/lower total)
Do you think that CHOICE #1 (10 people die) is preferable to CHOICE #2 (8 people die)?
And if so, would you describe CHOICE #1 as “moral progress” over CHOICE #2?
“From what I have gathered, “moral progress” can mean almost whatever the speaker or writer says it means.”
It is a good idea to quote our actual words when you make allegations.
“And my asking for clarification is deemed to be patience-taxing”
My previous comments have supplied clarification.
“In any case, based on this conversation so far, there appears to be two certain indicators of moral progress:”
Yes, there are. Moral progress ==
a) improved moral behaviour
I supported this contention with a long list of examples which are simply undeniable.
b) improved moral ideas
I quoted Carlin Bartin who extensively studied Roman moral thought. Her examination of Roman values reveals that our present moral thinking has greatly progressed from those times.
Therefore there has been large moral progress, that being the sum in progress of moral ideas and moral behaviour.
“It’s not obvious. Except in your imagination. But then mysticism doesn’t rely on evidence, but imagination and unquestioning belief.”
I am glad you think I am imaginative. I greatly value imagination as well as my religious beliefs.
But all of this is a complete non sequitur since I rely neither on imagination nor mysticism to make my arguments. You really should quote my actual words instead of making insupportable allegations. Instead I rely only on evidence.
1) I listed incontrovertible evidence of improved moral behaviour
2) I gave good evidence of improved moral ideas.
Of course moral progress does not mean moral perfection. That is unattainable. Nor was the moral progress uninterrupted. Many times in history there was moral regression but in total, the moral progress was greater than the moral regression, giving us net moral progress.
“that is an interesting question that represents a cynical viewpoint. Do moral ideas have no effect on behaviour?”
Oh, the video I linked to (and the book its based on) are extremely cynical, lol. By temperament alone, I could never be that cynical. It has made a big impact on the way I think about democracies, however—a party is a coalition of voting blocks that care about different issues, and a politician is someone who courts voting blocks, not out of the goodness of their heart so much as as a matter of necessity!
Some apparent ‘moral progress,’ then, is attributable to the simple fact that ruling coalitions must tend to the concerns of minorities and women to maintain power.
Massimo is right, though, that acknowledging that causality works in complex ways (moral ideas/behavior —> political change, but also political change —> moral ideas/behavior, etc) is a far cry from showing that NO independent progress in moral ideas EVER happens.
“a. a change has occurred, in a culture, which is preferred by the speaker”
Since everybody in this conversation seems to reject moral relativism, you can use stronger language here: “A change has occurred, in a culture, which the speaker deems to be a moral improvement.”
As for your trolley problem, I’m not expert in moral dilemmas, but I think there is a better way to model the question at hand, since you’ve erroneously assumed that you can save 100% of the people on one of the tracks. So here’s a variation:
Every hour, a trolley barrels across a crossing containing an arbitrary number n of people. At 1pm, it plows through, killing 80% of the n = 10 people on the crossing.
Between 1pm and 2pm, you can’t change what’s already happened. But you have the opportunity to add a railing to the crossing that makes it a little bit safer—reducing the expected death rate to 50%. If you make this adjustment, only 10 out of the n = 20 people that appear at the crossing will die. If you do not make the adjustment, then 16 of the 20 people will die.
Is it better to make the adjustment? The answer seems to be a clear “yes.”
Now, whether that “adjustment” is “moral progress” depends on your motivations (do you really care about saving people? Or do you only care about maintaining your political power as master of the trolleyway?). But it is certainly some kind of progress.
My using the phrase “preferred by the speaker” was a nod to Stoic terminology (preferred indifferent). Since a change in a culture’s practice is outside of the realm of an individual Stoic’s virtue practice.
I thought I pretty clearly posited a scenario in which half would be killed on A and 3/4 would be killed on B. I’m not sure where your 100% comes in. And I don’t see how your variations aid the analogy, which is meant to simply illustrate total vs. percentage.
I do find it interesting that contemporary Stoics seem to revere the ancient Romans so much – quoting them for any and all occasions and defending them against historical evidence of naughty behavior – and yet some still hold there is “moral progress.” If we in our time are morally superior to the ancient Romans as the beneficiaries of moral progress then what use is it to quote people who came from times before, other than for historical interest?
Modern astrophysicists, while they might enjoy reading about Aristotle are certainly not using his theories on unchanging spheres in their work. What that indicates to me is that the ancient Roman understanding of the skies has been far superseded by intellectual progress in a way that ancient Roman wisdom has not been superseded by moral progress.
And when modern astrophysicists talk about their work, they are expected to demonstrate their claims with reproducible results. Not just declare that something exists and disparage anybody who requires evidence.
I do think there’s evidence that technological progress generally improves life for women relative to men – almost always as a byproduct not as a goal. And so perhaps that’s where the confusion comes in – whenever technological progress creates better conditions for women, the sociological results are claimed as evidence of moral progress by those who believe in the phenomenon. And since the past millennium has been one long string of technological achievements, it’s easy to believe that moral progress just naturally occurs.
“Not just declare that something exists and disparage anybody who requires evidence.”
We have given strong evidence and clear reasoning, but you still resort to denial.
Though an exercise in futility, one must quite admire the resolute, indomitable spirit of Monty Python’s Black Knight in his fight against reality.
Your analogy with astrophysics is off the mark, since science makes progress in a very different way than philosophy (see the book I linked to very early on in the discussion). We don’t “revere” the ancient Stoics, we appreciate the universal insights they had into the human condition. But Stoicism is not a religion, so nobody worships Seneca, Epictetus and the others. We simply take them to be uncommonly wise people for their age. We then proceed to keep the wisdom and throw out what didn’t or couldn’t work.
As for the discussion on absolute vs relative numbers in terms of moral progress, as I mentioned early on you are simply confusing (in the statistical sense) two different variables: an improvement in relative conditions (real, undeniable) and an increase in population size (also real, undeniable, but irrelevant to the question at hand). Asking whether it is “better” to have a relative vs an absolute improvement is asking a question based on the (statistical) confusion of those two variables. The answer, therefore, can only be: separate the variables and we’ll talk about moral progress vs population growth.
That’s exactly my point – they are NOT analogous. You said earlier in this discussion:
Although I used astrophysics instead of mathematics in my example, it’s the same principle – I am rejecting the analogy Eric proposed and you approved when you claimed rejecting moral progress is analogous to rejecting intellectual progress.
On the contrary – my exact point is that “improvement in relative conditions” is not at all impressive if the end result is a greater number of individual sufferers.
And that’s not even considering the possibility the prohibition of women’s economic/reproductive independence in the past has contributed to a greater overall population.
I am still attempting to discover the nature of the phenomenon you are all calling “moral progress” by proposing these questions. So at this point I gather that “moral progress” is not related to the greater number of humans who benefit by the phenomenon, but rather to “improvement in relative conditions.” But as we have previously discussed, the improvement in relative conditions is NOT moral progress if the conditions have improved without a conscious moral choice being made (Indian girls being fed more due to technological progress.) In which case, the vast majority of improvements in women’s lives relative to men are not the result of “moral choice.”
Possibly the only one is the legalization of abortion – except that abortion was not illegal prior to modern nation-states. So abortion was once permitted (moral good) then it was outlawed (moral bad) and then it was legalized (moral good.) And thanks to the election of Donald Trump and his Supreme Court appointments, it could become illegal again (moral bad.) So there doesn’t appear to be any moral progress there, just a back-and-forth.
And of course not everybody agrees that abortion is moral.
And in any case I still haven’t seen any evidence presented that the ratio of people who treat women better is much higher now than it was 2000 years ago.
Astrophysics and mathematics are not analogous. Not even close. I did send you the link to the book, read the chapters on progress in science (astrophysics) vs progress in math and you’ll see the difference.
Yes, moral progress is improvement in relative conditions, or in conditions in general once the confounding variable of population size is accounted for. Again, you may benefit from reading an intro text in statistics of the social sciences.
Conditions have improved in part because of acceptance of better moral norms. You have been given examples (the UN charter of human rights, laws that allow women to vote) of conscious moral choices, but you simply ignored them.
Abortion was not legal before modern nation-states. Certainly not under Christianity, which dominated Europe for a millennium and a half.
As for the evidence for the ratio, what exactly are you asking for? Historians have amply documented the almost complete subjugation of women before modern times. Now that subjugation is reduced in a number of cases, in some cases dramatically so. If that isn’t evidence that the ratio has changed I have no idea what counts as evidence as far as you are concerned.
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Even infanticide was legal prior to modern nation-states. So you really believe abortion was illegal?
“Abortion was accepted in both ancient Rome and Greece.”
And abortion was legal in the US in the 1800s.
blockquote>Conditions have improved in part because of acceptance of better moral norms. You have been given examples (the UN charter of human rights, laws that allow women to vote) of conscious moral choices, but you simply ignored them.
The UN charter of human rights is a wish list. The ancients were capable of coming up with wish lists – that’s arguably what the Ten Commandments were about. And the charter doesn’t seem to have ended FGM or honor killing to mention just two examples. Since the ancients were able to come up with goals for how to treat people but failed as we have in achieving those goals, I’m not sure how that represents “progress.”
And as far as voting – is like abortion – prior to nation states (assuming they didn’t vote as in a democracy) were women denied a say in the decisions of their tribes? Is granting women the vote giving women a new liberty that women as a group never had before, or is it restoring a voice in community decisions that was taken away thanks to the rise of nation-states? Is restoring a former liberty an example of progress?
Which leads to this:
There are certainly examples of subjugation of women before modern times – very similar to what is going on now in some places in the world, and with a greater total number of those being subjugated, as we have established.
There is evidence that outside of Rome the lives of women was actually better than in Rome. According to Diodorus Siculus:
But there is no doubt that the lives of women, at least in the West are better than ever before in the history of the world. But the cause of this improvement is not “moral progress” but rather technology that allows women to control their fertility easily, and to hold independent money-making jobs which do not value physical strength.
Source for the Diodorus Siclulus quotes:
Weighing in as a female astrophysicist and student of modern Stoicism: Maybe what makes moral progress under-perform our technological capability to declare things like racism, patriarchy, and human trafficking (slavery) completely obsolete throughout the world is the huge effort of education it requires to get people to question their common sense when it’s inadequate for dealing with our challenges. We scientists have to undergo many more years of formal education as everyone else to be able to learn the trade of research tools, collaborations, research-related bureaucracy, and above all, learning scientific principles that go totally against what our common sense says about how the world works. This is especially true in physics, when we learn, say, that space and time are not absolute but subject to movement and gravity, that you really do need external forces to change the movement of an object (they don’t just stop by themselves), that there’s no such thing as “before the Big Bang” because time itself was created in the Big Bang, and that when measuring quantum systems we have to formally take into account the ways our measurement apparatus will affect the dynamics of the particles we’re “observing.”
I roll my eyes over the ancients’ sexism (and homophobia), but I attribute it to their having a narrower idea of what the “nature” they sought to follow was due to their lack of scientific and technological progress, not knowing how tiny the genetic and physical differences between men and women really are in the greater scheme of things, and that other animals don’t always use their genitals exclusively for reproduction. Those who thought back then that sex isn’t so big a deal were few back then for much the same reason that those who thought back then that the Earth revolved around the Sun were few.
There are still people today who reject major aspects of modern science, such as biological evolution, the germ theory of disease, the roundness of the earth (really!), the Big Bang, relativity, the age of the Universe, etc. Does this mean that we have made no net progress in scientific knowledge? No, it means we’ve done a lousy job in teaching the ethic of rejecting common sense in order to have a more harmonious relationship with Nature to the whole of society. It’s hard to teach, and goes against the short-term interests of some institutions or individuals. Our failure to eliminate the practice of oppression and the desire of some to continue or increase it may be due to moral education being as poor as scientific education at the general-public level. Unlike science, which can be practiced by only a few trained scientists who don’t have qualms about giving up common sense, morality has to be practiced by as many people as possible to run a stable society. So the lack of quality moral education keeping up with scientific and technological advancement may be more problematic to moral progress than poor scientific education of the general public is for scientific progress.
In order to get moral practice to catch up with our technological capability, and thus get even the harshest critics of today’s society to agree that we’ve made moral progress or at least not gone backwards, we will need to be able to question our common sense on a massive scale, in order to accept that, for example, high levels of social inequality can have negative effects on the lives of even the high-status individuals, that maybe technological progress is probably not enough to solve every problem within our life expectancies including our mortality itself, and it’s also unlikely that we can solve the environment issue by just moving to another planet, and make decisions from there. That’s what we students of modern stoicism are attempting to do: question common sense in terms of how our lives and our society are run, so that we can do the best we can with the best model we have of the big picture. Although we may not agree with everything some typical politician from 2000 years ago did, or some allegedly reformed paid corporate internet troll from our own era did, that doesn’t mean that these kinds of people don’t still have potentially useful ideas for how to move beyond common sense to keep them from doing even worse or continuing to do lots of sketchy things. Perhaps we think that the aspect of common sense that says that anything a hypocrite says is automatically bunk needs to be questioned.
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The problem with hypocrites is not that they are incapable of good ideas. The problem with hypocrites is that they condemn others for – or at best advise others to avoid – the behavior that they themselves engage in. And this practice appears to be the result of their assumption that they are above the value judgments of mortals, much like the way Zeus could get away with immoral behavior but a mortal could not.