Becker’s A New Stoicism, V: following the facts, part 1

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.

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Categories: Larry Becker, Modern Stoicism

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9 replies

  1. Maybe I’m just getting ahead of the exposition. If X thinks that wrongdoers deserve to be punished, over and above issues of deterrence and rehabilitation, while Y does not, they will each seek to influence the justice system, which will end up being a compromise. So far, so clear. But I want to argue that X is wrong and Y is right, and not merely because Norway has a lower recidivism rate than the US. Is there some way for me to do this?

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  2. It will depend on the political system and its openness to your arguments. If retributive justice is enshrined in constitutional law, that can be a significant problem even in constitutional democracies. But stoic agents will pursue whatever openings are available to press for the acceptance of their settled convictions on these matters, while being open to the possibility that their settled convictions might be wrong on some points.

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  3. Thank you, Massimo, for this excellent presentation of your and Larry Becker’s essentials of applying Stoicism to the ‘messiness’ of social living, and the problem of deriving subjective values and norms from objective facts.

    I have followed you from the beginning on your personal path to apply Stoicism to your life. I have benefited greatly from and am grateful for you making your efforts public in your blog posts and in your superb book, How to Be a Stoic.

    I agree with your objection to some incorrect neuroscientistic claims that you can draw values or oughts (Kant) directly from facts. However, historian of science Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil and The Moral Arc, and The Moral Landscspe by neuroscientist Sam Harris do, in fact, use a bridge to connect scientific facts to values for the purpose of developing a framework for a global moral system. Their bridge is made up of minimal standards of what (they claim) most people agree would amount to human harm and, its opposite, human wellbeing and flourishing.

    Shermer’s and Harris’s efforts should not be included (if in fact you do) in a rejection of neuroscientistic claims to derive ‘oughts’ (values) directly from what ‘is’ (scientific facts) without a bridge. That is, without refuting the bridge they use and the reasoning and methods they employ in using it.

    In reading this, your latest take on Becker’s book, I sensed there might actually be some common ground between the Stoic bridge you and Becker describe and the one proposed by Shermer and Harris. You, among the great contemporary thinkers I learn from, have the professional philosophy expertise and deep understanding of Stoicism I lack to address Shermer’ and Harris’s respective efforts. I hope you will one day specifically critique their efforts at bridging the is/ought gap.

    Thank you again, your take on Stoicism has helped make me a more clear thinking, virtuous and happy person.

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  4. My question is a bit different. I think (and so, clearly, does Larry) that retributive justice is misguided, possibly explainable in evolutionary terms. X thinks that, other things being equal, punishment is a goal worth pursuing in itself. I can obviously say that I do not share this goal, and act accordingly, but can I also assert that I am right and X is wrong, and, if so, what kind of argument might I use? Or might X use to try and convince me, for that matter?

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  5. We should probably not be too hasty to subordinate Stoicism to Science, given the number of important questions that Science is unable to answer and may never be able to answer, including whether the Universe has a purpose. There’s no doubt that facts are extremely important. But the scientific understanding is bound to be limited, by definition. And that could be the most important fact of all.

    Here’s Bertrand Russell on this topic:

    “There are a number of purely theoretical questions, of perennial and passionate interest, which science is unable to answer, at any rate at present. Do we survive death in any sense, and if so, do we survive for a time or for ever? Can mind dominate matter, or does matter completely dominate mind, or has each, perhaps, a certain limited independence? Has the universe a purpose? Or is it driven by blind necessity? Or is it a mere chaos and jumble, in which the natural laws that we think we find are only a phantasy generated by our own love of order? If there is a cosmic scheme, has life more importance in it than astronomy would lead us to suppose, or is our emphasis upon life mere parochialism and self-importance? I do not know the answer to these questions, and I do not believe that anybody else does, but I think human life would be impoverished if they were forgotten, or if definite answers were accepted without adequate evidence. To keep alive the interest in such questions, and to scrutinize suggested answers, is one of the functions of philosophy.” (Philosophy for Laymen – 1946)

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  6. James,

    Thanks for the kind words. I actually think both Harris’ and Shermer’s approaches are far too simplistic, indeed, scientistic in nature.

    I criticized Harris in different places, for instance here: http://tinyurl.com/y7gf5sau

    And Shermer as well, for instance here: http://tinyurl.com/y8macavz

    Paul,

    “can I also assert that I am right and X is wrong, and, if so, what kind of argument might I use? Or might X use to try and convince me, for that matter?”

    You can, and Stoic philosophy provides such resources. But that needs to await later sections of the book. For now, retributive justice is wrong, from a Stoic perspective, because it is based on the idea of punishment and on a thick sense of moral responsibility on the part of the agent, a sense that is incompatible with Stoic philosophy, as explained here: http://tinyurl.com/zjy29qg

    David,

    Stoicism has always been dependent on the best understanding of science. That’s what the topos of “physics” is all about. Of course it is the best understanding at any given moment, not the Truth with a capital-T.

    That scientific understanding is limited is certainly a fact. But what sort of understanding has done better? It isn’t a question of absolute understanding, but relative one.

    As for Russell, with all due respect for one of my own personal philosophers, I think we have a far better idea about those questions than a generic agnosticism would acknowledge.

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  7. Great article Massimo. I look forward to the next in the series!

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  8. Dear Massimo, First let me thank you very much for this great series of comments on Larry Becker‘s book. I was wondering what you and Larry think about the following two point:

    1. The term „all things considered“ implies that one ought to consider all points. But how do you manage to do this with a limited mental capacity and limited time? Antonio Damasio claims in this respect that the above endeavor can not be followed up to the end without the intervention of the limbic system, i.e. some emotionally driven cut. Having stated this objection I wonder, if the stoic approach offers a solution to this problem?

    2. „Following the facts“ is a very demanding requirement. I am very much in line with it, but it appears to me, that stating the facts is not such a trivial thing to do. I think that given the central position of that claim in Larry‘s new approach to stoicism I would wish for a more thorough discussion of the „fact“ problem. Don‘t you think it s necessary that one at least supplies with a fact statement also a statement about the conditions that need to be fulfilled to continue to claim, that the outlined facts are „real“ facts in the sense, that it is still rational to believe in them.

    I look forward to your thoughts on these issues.

    Best wishes

    Alexander

    P:S.: If this is not the right channel to participate in the comments section, could you please instruct me how to do it differently as I could not find a comments button on the blog side.

    Von meinem iPad gesendet

    >

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  9. Ibex,

    Comments on this thread have closed, but let me briefly respond to your points.

    “All things considered” shouldn’t be taken literally. For Larry it just means “while keeping in mind your long-term projects, not just what you need to do here and now.” The idea is to live one’s life while having an idea of one’s priorities and how to handle them.

    The same goes for “following the facts,” also not to be taken as all-encompassing. One does not need to know everything in order to live well. But the idea is that one ought to have a good sense of how things work in order to live well. Say, for instance, that someone believes in a metaphysics along the lines of “The Secret,” the (insane) idea that if you focus on what you want and want it badly enough, the universe will somehow bend to your will. The fact of the matter is that the universe does not work that way, and it is dangerous to ignore that fact.

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