The ancient Stoics were famous for a number of slogans that sounded, to outsiders, rather paradoxical (so much so that Cicero wrote an entire book on paradoxa Stoicorum). One of the most famous ones is the idea that we should live “according to nature.” In his update of Stoicism for the 21st century, Larry Becker rephrases this as “following the facts,” which gives the title to the fifth chapter of his A New Stoicism. But chapter 5 is about much more than just a recasting of an ancient motto, as we shall see in this post, part of my ongoing commentary on Larry’s book. Indeed, the discussion of this chapter will require two separate essays, but it will be worth the investment of time and effort.
Right off the bat, Becker gives his readers the punch line, which is worth keeping in mind throughout the following discussion:
“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. It means facing those facts — accepting them for exactly what they are, no more and no less — before we draw normative conclusions from them. It means doing ethics from the facts — constructing normative propositions a posteriori. It means adjusting those normative propositions to fit changes in the facts.” (p. 46)
This means three things: (i) the framing of Stoic ethics as naturalistic, as it was in ancient times, and therefore grounded in our best scientific understanding of the world; (ii) the rejection of the original Stoic teleological view of nature, because it is no longer compatible with the scientific worldview; and (iii) a naturalistic bridging of the is/ought gap. These three points by themselves go a long way toward achieving the goal of articulating a 21st century version of Stoic philosophy that can still be reasonably called “Stoic.”
Larry uses this framework to go back to his axiom of futility, which I presented last time: “Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.”
This, he maintains against the obvious objection, does not mean that Stoics aren’t supposed to take risks, or to attempt endeavors that are unlikely to succeed. It is simply the rather commonsensical view that if you have good, solid reasons to think that something is impossible, either in general or for you personally, it is then foolish to attempt it. Anyone who argues against this has not spent sufficient time in the real world, I think.
The next move is to flesh out the idea of normativity, which is always a stumbling block for any moral philosophy. If norms are independent of facts about the world — as much modern philosophical tradition maintains (think Kant) — then one is faced with the question of where on earth norms come from (and the answer can’t be transcendental either, as in “God says what’s right or wrong,” as demonstrated 24 centuries ago by Plato in the Euthyphro). If, conversely, norms can be read straight off facts (as in much contemporary, misguided literature of the “neuroscience will solve all your problems” kind), then one faces the issue of which facts, exactly, are normative, and why? What Larry is attempting here is the only reasonable middle way: a naturalistic ethics that is grounded in facts about human nature, but that filters them through a logical system aimed at producing an ethics of flourishing, not just survival.
That is why Larry argues that there can be no source of norms other than the endeavors of individual agents, and that all such endeavors are, at bottom, facts about the character and conduct of those agents. The question then, is to see which characters and conducts we want to foster, and which ones to discourage. As he says, my commitment to fidelity within a relationship may imply a requirement about you being faithful as well, but — crucially — both norms are the result of my own endeavor of having a successful relationship.
Becker clearly states something that is obviously true not just of Stoicism, but of virtue ethics in general:
“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.” (p. 50)
That is why Stoics reject universal moral approaches, like deontological or utilitarian ones, and why the answer to any sensible moral question is always going to be: it depends (on the particulars of the case). The fact that someone may be dissatisfied with such “messiness” is a reflection of their own state of mind, not of the world as it actually is.
This messiness is in part the result of the fact that our commitments are varied and have a tendency to come into conflict with each other, like the classical one of family vs work. Larry discusses various types of integration across commitments, where some commitments take partial or absolute priority over others, while sometimes one simply has to make arbitrary decisions, or split resources (time, energy) equally between competing commitments. The key is practical reasoning “all things considered”:
“Given all relevant projects and possibilities throughout my whole life, I ought, now, to do (or be) X.” (p. 54)
This is why self-reflection and continuous re-evaluation of one’s projects and commitments — what Socrates would call “the examined life” — is necessary. It is how we dynamically reassess our priorities and partition our resources in order to maximize eudaimonia, or flourishing.
Please note that of course my projects can and will also at some point come into conflict with yours, and such conflicts will be resolved in a similar fashion, by reasoning and agreeing on ranking of the relevant inter-personal norms. Becker provides a specific example to give his readers an idea of how this works out in practice:
“Suppose I mow my lawn on Sunday mornings, while next door you are trying to achieve serenity, pray, and keep the day holy. If we happen to agree that your project is more important than mine, and thus dictates to mine, our problem is settled. We have interpersonal horizontal integration in that case. If we find that our conflicting Sunday morning endeavors are each embedded in a more encompassing project (tolerance in my case, neighborly love in yours), then we have the basis for another familiar sort of conflict resolution.” (p. 55)
Stoic pragmatism comes into sharp view when we realize that conflicts are endemic to human social life, and that there is nothing in Stoic ethics that mandates a commitment to resolve all and every inter-personal conflict. Life, again, is messy, and it often remains that way despite our best efforts.
A few concluding observations about the first part of chapter 5 of A New Stoicism. Larry correctly observes that human practical reasoning is ad hoc, involves conditional inferences, generalizations, and error correction. This sort of procedure is built into what it means to be a human agent. Because of language, we are capable of representing to ourselves, and others, our goals and norms, and we are also in a position to assess and — when necessary — reform, those goals and norms. This recursivity made possible by language has the following, crucial, consequence:
“If one pursues practical reasoning in a thoroughgoing way, one aims at constructing a general theory of the normative elements of one’s life all things considered — that is, a moral theory of one’s life. The next step is to represent one’s own life as an instance of a type, and to construct a moral theory for that type of life. Types of lives may then be considered as various ways in which moral agency itself may be expressed. And when one has reached the issue of normative propositions for the life of an agent as such, one has reached a form of universal moral theory.” (p. 60)
That’s all for now. Next: a developmental account of moral motivation.