Continuing my in-depth commentary of Larry Becker’s landmark book, A New Stoicism, we have come to the second part of chapter 5, broadly devoted to a modern reconstruction of the famous Stoic motto, “live according to nature.” As we have seen, Larry re-interprets this as “follow the facts,” a concept he further elaborates in this manner:
“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)
The second part of this chapter, in my commentary, begins with a developmental account of moral motivation, which takes on, and updates, yet another fundamental Ancient Stoic concept, that of oikeiosis, or “appropriation” (of broader concerns than just one’s own preferences and needs), in turn the base for the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism, related to the discipline of action and the virtue of justice. As you can see, there is much packed into these pages.
As Becker points out, the best outline we have of the Stoic theory of moral development is found in Cicero’s De Finibus, book III, and that outline, already in its original form, was broadly compatible with what modern psychology tells us about the matter. The theory can be presented in five steps:
1. We begin life as egocentric beings, focused on the satisfaction of our desires and the accomplishment of our own goals, which are not all pleasurable (like learning how to walk).
2. Our egoistic affections and motivations eventually become dispositional, meaning that they generate certain dispositions to pursue projects and achieve goals, which we begin to apply beyond the original, narrow set of affections and motivations.
3. One of the things we develop a disposition to acquire is knowledge, which initially is useful to satisfy our immediate needs, but later on becomes something we are interested for its own sake, and that we apply to a much broader range of objects and concerns:
“We are repelled by error, ignorance, and falsehood. Modern studies of cognitive development, especially language acquisition, provide ample evidence of this.” (p. 62)
4. We learn to translate all of the above in appropriate acts, by formulating general rules and principles, which we test in actual situations. We become conditioned to act appropriately (not in the sense of politely, but as in most likely to be effective for the task at hand), and doing so — like seeking knowledge above — becomes something we value in its own right.
5. By way of normal psychological processes (which include, for instance, a concern for others, a sense of empathy, and so forth) as well as by the sort of conscious deliberation we call practical reasoning, we develop an interest in moral good and, in the Stoic context, virtue.
How do we decide what to do in life, both right now and by way of long term projects? Many of our endeavors are “heteronomous,” i.e., derived from other people’s or societal expectations, a number of which may be subliminal, assimilated without conscious reflection. For instance, we may orient ourselves toward a particular career path and not others because our parents expect us to do so, or because society deems other projects to be inappropriate, or risky, and so forth.
This, of course, is not ideal from a Stoic perspective, since as Stoics we put a premium on autonomous agency and our capacity of judgment. We then need to convert heteronomous projects into autonomous ones, appropriating those that fit our goals and desires upon reflection, and possibly discarding others that don’t.
Larry maintains that for Stoics agency defines autonomy, but also that agency has a peculiar characteristic that does not apply to other aspects of human psychology or physiology: it is recursive, meaning that it applies to itself, attempting to improve by constant feedback between our reasoning ability and the empirical input provided by our experiences. To put it simply, it is natural for human beings to become better and better at exerting their own volition in every and all of our endeavors.
Becker reiterates that Stoics are determinists — by which I take it he means that we believe in universal cause and effect, something rather uncontroversial, which allows us to skirt the metaphysical and epistemological quagmire that the word “determinism” usually gets philosophers and laypeople alike bogged into.
But, Larry immediately admits, if one is a determinist, then what might be the difference between the workings of agency and those of something as prosaic as, say digestion? The difference is recursivity: digestion is as natural a process as agency, for humans, but it very clearly does not apply recursively to itself, which means that it does not improve by way of such recursion. Agency does. That is why it made sense for the ancient Stoics to insist that we can improve our faculty of judgment, prohairesis, by continuous exercise, while we can’t improve our ability to digest in the same fashion.
Moreover, and just as importantly, most psychological and physiological processes have a limited scope of application: digestion applies to food, and nothing else. Agency, by contrast, applies to everything. Agency is the most comprehensive process we can engage in. This will become particularly important in the next chapter, when Becker will present is famously controversial idea that Stoic virtue can be redefined, in modern terms, as “ideal” agency. He rephrases the point in this revised edition by arguing that ideal agency is necessary and sufficient for Stoic virtue, which is in turn necessary and sufficient for Stoic eudaimonia. (Spoiler alert: he is aware that psychopaths have agency too, but he has an argument for why theirs is not ideal, and therefore for why there is no such thing as a virtuous psychopath.)
Larry takes seriously the limitations of being human. He is perfectly aware that there is a lot of variation in the population in terms of the strength of the agency of different individuals, as well as of the fact that agency can be weakened by all sorts of external factors (imbibing alcohol, taking drugs) as well as internal ones (neurological damage, because of genetic causes, disease or accident). People so affected, temporarily or permanently, will be weakened agents, and they will therefore have more trouble than others practicing virtue and conducting a Stoic life. In extreme cases (such as severe mental impairment), it will be impossible for them to do so.
Nonetheless, for normally functioning human beings agency is characterized by the following attributes: (i) it is resistant to extinction by other psychological processes; (ii) whenever it is exercised, even weakly, it tends to reinforce itself (because of recursivity); (iii) through its own exercise it can become the most comprehensive and controlling of our constitute powers; (iv) when extinguished, it is highly likely to reboot itself; and (v) when it develops errors, these can be reduced and corrected by its further exercise.
At this point the chapter returns, more fully, to the issue of determinism. Becker asserts that as modern Stoics, just like the Ancient ones, we hold that human freedom consists in the exercise of agency. If you couple this position with the acceptance of cause-effect determinism this makes the Stoic theory of moral responsibility a type of compatibilism. Neither Larry nor, frankly, I have much interest in rehashing confused and ultimately fruitless discussions about “free will.” We are happy with a pragmatic take on the issue (you do make decisions, right? Good, then you own them), with an account in terms of combinations of external and internal causes (like the famous story of Chrysippus’ cylinder), and with the conclusion that our agency, or faculty of judgment, or volition, can be improved by ways of reflection and exercise. Everything else is, to be blunt, mental masturbation (my phrase, not Larry’s).
(Incidentally, Becker, in this section of chapter 5, also discusses fatalism and indeterminism, but the broad picture is the one I have outlined here. I leave it to the reader to delve into the details and side paths as an exercise in philosophical reading.)
The upshot, then, is this:
“Consider, now, two alternatives: on the one hand a life in which agency plays no causal role, and on the other a life in which agency plays a persistent and pervasive part in the causal story of its every waking moment. We Stoics simply report that we prefer our lives to be of the second sort and find the idea of that kind of life more than sufficient to assuage our longing for autonomy and metaphysical liberty.” (p. 71)
What about responsibility? Here Larry’s answer is clear and carefully articulated:
“Agents are fully responsible for their acts if and only if they (a) are aware of what they are doing; (b) are aware of the causes of their actions; (c) assent to acting in those ways from those causes — that is, are acting in accord with norms they recognize as their own; (d) are aware of the causes of their assent — that is, the causes of their own norms; (e) thereby introduce new causal factors into the determination of their actions through their awareness of the causal conditions that shape it; (f) are aware of this iterative, self-transformative causal process; and (g) assent to that, in the sense that they recognize that this process is normative for them.” (p. 72)
If one wishes to have a more robust sense of agentic responsibility one is out of luck, because of cause-effect determinism. If one wishes to have a significantly less robust sense of agentic responsibility — along the lines of “my brain made me do it,” or “this was bound to happen since the Big Bang,” then one is out of luck because he will not be able to actually act as if he really believed in such weakened or non-existence sense of responsibility. Once again, some sort of compatibilism is the only philosophically viable, and pragmatically useful, way around these issues.
A nice corollary of Larry’s analysis of agentic responsibility is a good way to make sense of the famous dichotomy of control: in what sense, within a deterministic universe, are some things “up to us,” as Epictetus puts it, while other things are “not up to us”? In the sense that agency has causal powers within the universal web of cause-effect, again, like Chrysippus argued, so that things are under our control if and only if we can exercise our agency on them, while human agency itself does not, of course, magically stand outside of the universal causal web. Stoics believe in agency, but not in magic.