Stoicism, Autonomy, and a Right to an Abortion

The Stoics believed in virtue and, in particular, the chief one among them, justice.  The Stoics also believed in preferred indifferents, for example, health, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and education.  What did they believe about autonomy though?

The Stoics believed that autonomy was something within our possession.  In fact, if we worked hard at it, we would achieve freedom from everything.  The only path to freedom was to focus on what was truly in our power:  virtue.

In all honesty, virtue is only freedom if you are truly virtuous.  Since none of us are truly free, like the Sage, we need a form of autonomy that is lesser in nobility but still carries weight.  We need a life of self-determination.  We also need a life where we can pursue our preferred indifferents in order to help us work our way to virtue.  Our natural preferences for health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation are where we derive our rights.  We have a right of pursuit of preferred indifferents, so we ought to have a society that allows for our ability to obtain them.  Where does this lesser form of autonomy fit?  The lesser form is being free to participate in health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation within reason.  We’re free when we can do this.  And these preferred indifferents give us a chance to find the true autonomy:  virtue.

Where does a woman’s right to an abortion fit into this?  She has autonomy over her own health.  She can determine what is best for herself, even if that means terminating a pregnancy.  People will debate this point because they feel “life” might begin at conception.  I presume these people are wrong because zygotes hardly represent a person in the way we can conceive of them.  It becomes almost pointless to discuss pain and pleasure that the fetus would experience because the Stoics would just say, “they don’t have proper use of impressions.”  We can maybe agree as a society of Stoics that we can terminate pregnancies up to 9 months.  It’s kind of arbitrary to make this determination but we have some historical reasons for doing so.  Many of the ancients, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans believed abortion was permissible and that human life began at first breath.  The ancient Stoics in general believed that the fetus was plant-like and became an animal at birth as it took its first breath (pneuma) and so they generally regarded abortion as morally permissible (Sellares, 2003).  There were exceptions to this rule, Musonius Rufus did oppose abortion (Lecture XV) but for population reasons not necessarily having to do with respect to the fetus and its interests.  With this conception in mind, we have some historical precedent to base our determination on what distinguishes infanticide from a mere abortion.  There’s never going to be some perfect philosophical argument for why people have the right to an abortion.

Of course, as a society, if we really want to do away with abortion, one way is to make all forms of contraception free for everyone.  This also means educating people about sex and contraception as early as we can.

Not every follower of Stoicism will agree that abortion is a right but maybe we can all agree that access to contraception is a right.  One thing is for sure, contraception is certainly worth talking about as often as the taboo topic of abortion arises.

References

Sallares, J. Robert (2003), “abortion”, in Hornblower, Simon;
Spawforth, Anthony, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), Oxford:
OxfordUP, p. 1, ISBN978-0-19-860641-3


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A Pragmatist’s Embrace of Stoicism

Do our thoughts mirror reality?  Or are they just a tool for prediction, problem solving or action?  Well philosophical pragmatists think it’s the latter.  In fact, pragmatists aren’t necessarily interested in whether they think ideas correspond to reality but are specifically interested in whether ideas serve practical purposes in our daily life.  Pragmatism originated from Charles Sanders Peirce and his pragmatic maxim:

“Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

(Peirce, 1878, p. 132)

Peirce is saying that the meaning of any idea that you have is meaningful if it has some practical effects observed in the world.  William James took the pragmatic maxim and expanded it to concern the truth of our thoughts.   Does Stoicism, as a system of thought, mirror reality?  How about all of Stoicism’s various ideas, like “virtue is the only good”‘ for instance.  Or is Stoicism and it’s individual ethical prescriptions simply part of a narrative that helps us as we struggle in our daily lives against the come-what-may?  Stoicism could mirror reality but there’s no denying that it’s a useful system as a whole. What’s  more is Stoicism is part of a coherent worldview mutually supports and exists with Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  CBT is a good scientific therapy that produces effective results.

Stoicism as a whole is a useful system of thought.  It helps its practitioners view all externals without morally judging them.  This allows them to free their minds from common conception of externals as being either good or bad.  The practitioners of Stoicism instead believe virtue is the only good and vice the only bad.  So then Stoics are focused on things that are more manageable.  Their cognitive resources are freed up significantly by not having to worry about externals.

Stoicism is also very adaptable because it is willing to change its metaphysics wherever a scientific naturalist framework will take it.  As Marcus Aurelius once aptly stated, “whether providence or atoms” one could adjust to these circumstances by continuing to live by the maxim that virtue is the only good.  In fact, somewhat radically Marcus Aurelius has suggested that if something comes across his mind that is better than virtue, he’ll follow it (Meditations 3:6), which makes the core doctrine of Stoicism, falsifiable.

The Stoic ethic, “virtue is the only good,” not only helps individual practitioners but it could be socially helpful.  The pragmatist John Dewey thought that morals boil down to maxims that help humans achieve social ends that produce a satisfying life for individuals in society (Field, n.d.).  If John Dewey were alive today, perhaps Stoic philosophers today could convince him that Stoicism might fit that social role.  After all, if society stressed virtue as the sole good and individuals en masse followed virtue as the sole end, then there should be social effects that would be good for individuals throughout society.

As discussed above, from the pragmatist perspective, it doesn’t matter whether Stoicism and its precepts truly correspond to reality-with-a-capital-R.  All that matters is that it works or not.  Also it is especially helpful if it coheres with existing worldviews that have shared premises that produce scientific results, like CBT.  That’s all that matters.  I believe Stoicism as a system works well and is adaptable and is falsifiable.  To pragmatists, it should pass the test.

References

Peirce, C.S. (January 1878). “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. 12, 286-302.

Field, R. “John Dewey.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (ISSN 2161-0002). Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/

Stoicism, Moral Responsibility, and Freedom

Most people if you ask them if they believe that everything has a cause, they’ll likely say yes.  Most people if you ask them if they believe that everyone is basically morally responsible, they’ll likely say yes.

The ancient Stoics believed everyone was morally responsible more or less and that everything including our own behaviors were causally determined.  The question of course is how can humans be morally responsible and determined at the same time?

The Stoic Chrysippus distinguished between extrinsic causes that are all external to ourselves and intrinsic causes which are internal to our character.  Chrysippus used a clever analogy of a cylinder being pushed to roll.  Basically, the cylinder’s shape represents our intrinsic character and the force pushing the cylinder represents an external stimulus/impression.    In the analogy the cylinder will only roll if two conditions are met: 1. it is pushed and 2. it is round.   1&2 are required for the same effect:  rolling.   So our character assenting to an impression and the external impression itself is what determines us to have an impulse or not.  If we are stimulated but we do not respond, we do not act.  Only when both conditions are satisfied is an action or impulse caused.  Even if the act is to not do anything at all.  Essentially, the idea is that everything is fated but we help co-fate our future.  The shape of our characters is where we possess some control and that’s where we find moral responsibility.

Something counter-intuitive that the Stoics would say is, yes, we have limited freedom to coordinate our future given whether fate allows but on top of that, none of us are truly free except for the Sage.  Ancient Stoics believed that if we couldn’t truly be a master of all of our passions and desires, we were a slave to our passions/desires and ultimately are not truly free.  So even though Stoicism does make room for soft determinism (the position that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible), it also seems to paradoxically hold a hard determinist position that there is no true freedom for anyone except for the Sage.

So we end with that paradox.  We all possess a limited amount of freedom that is compatible with a determinist universe.  But ultimately we’re not truly free like the Sage.  We’re capable of being free in a sense but not truly so.  So we still have to live with the idea that each of us each bear responsibility even if truly the Sage only bears true responsibility.  We’re living in an illusion of freedom because we’re all still slaves to our desires/passions unless we become truly free from our desires/passions and become Sages.

5 Reasons Stoicism Is Better Than Everything (Audiobook)

I just wanted to make sure that people knew that 5 Reasons Stoicism Is Better Than Everything is on Audible, ACX, and iTunes. I think hearing my book read by Carrie Burgess sounds much better than when I sub-vocalize it in book form. It’s a little more than an hour audio.

You can also get 5 Reasons Stoicism Is Better Than Everything in Kindle or paperback.

5 Reasons Stoicism Is Better Than Everything: And Some Cheap Ancient Philosophy Jokes by [Whitson, Jess]

Are we in control of our emotions or are they in control of us? Short answer: you can lessen their control over you.

We’re always told to be mindful of the people around us.  Don’t hurt other’s feelings, or offend, we’re told.  Well, there’s truth to this.  As members of society, we’ve been taught that people are responsible for how they act based on their feelings or how they manage those feelings.  But we’re also taught to not stir up people’s feelings.  We kind of have it both ways.  People can choose to act or not act based on their feelings but at the same time, we shouldn’t push people’s buttons because people are only human.

That’s really not too far away from Stoicism.  Stoics were radical in the belief that we could individually learn to manage our emotions far better but they were also mindful of the fact that we’re only human.  It’s just not nice to try to injure someone even if they’re the best Stoic you ever crossed paths with.

So are we, for better or worse, at the mercy of our emotions?  We are somewhat at their mercy but, with practice, we can lessen their hold on us and their efficacy.  The Stoics realized long ago that by judging externals to be morally neutral, we can deescalate our passions such as hate, jealousy, and lust.  By deliberately and mindfully discarding the moral importance of all things external, we can free up a lot of our mind from emotions reacting to external events.  Also, we can refocus our mind by turning it inward, toward our virtuous character.  By working on our character and perfecting it, we can be more relaxed, chill, and logical.

Society almost has it right in the way we should hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior despite having strong passions.  And society definitely has it right that we really shouldn’t try to push people’s buttons, at least, if it’s not for the betterment or for some more important effort than mere pushing people’s buttons for buttons’ sake.  One thing that all societies throughout time have gotten wrong though is the obsession over externals.  Externals are valuable but they’re not the most important thing ever.  Also, society is right to say that we should take responsibility for our emotions and not act out on them every time we become angry.  But the Stoics offered a better solution to this problem, and that was to pretty much kill off any kind of negative passion.  That way you’d be insured to not easily cave to whatever passion you might have.  Neutering a passion really goes a long way, it gives someone a freedom they didn’t once have.  They don’t have to feel like the dam holding back all that water.  The Stoics said to just reduce the level of the water in the first place so that no possible instances of leaking or rupture is even possible.

 

Stoicism and how politics should be to ethics like biology is to physics

I admit I’m little frustrated.  Not with politics.  But mostly with how people treat it.  People can’t just talk about it with each other without attacking the person either indirectly or directly.  More frustrating is that Stoics can’t seem to be above the personal attacks.  The Stoic Facebook Groups are just filled with people hiding their political prejudices that they then project on others who are questioning them.  They have agendas but when someone talks about anything political, no, it’s not them who have the agenda, it’s the other person talking about the political situation that has the agenda.  I’m just going to go ahead and call out the elephant in the room: if you think you’re not actually political you’re just rationalizing your comfort with the political status quo.

Let me make it really easy for people who don’t understand how politics relates to Stoicism.  Think of physics.  Physics is the bedrock of science.  You can then build chemistry on top of physics.  Further still you can build biology on top of chemistry.  And you can build up higher and higher until you get to sociology.  So this analogy works the same way with ethics.  Ethics is kind of the foundation of all ought claims.  All prescriptive claims.  You can go a little lower into the basement and give a meta-ethical description if you want.  But ethics is basically the bedrock.   What can you put on top of ethics?  Public ethics.  Otherwise known as politics.

So did the Stoics end at just furnishing an ethical theory?  No, in fact, we have evidence of Zeno’s Republic.  Most importantly though, we have an excerpt from Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics were proponents of a Republic with a combination of a Democracy, Aristocracy, and Kingship.  It’s a very small fragment but it’s very telling.  Basically in the contemporary world, we have hundreds of governments throughout it that the Stoics would’ve approved of.  The United States, the UK, Canada, the rest of Western Europe, there are Republics all with a balance of Democracy, Kingship, and Aristocracy.  Exactly what the Stoics would’ve wanted.

So that’s what we want as Stoics, ancient and modern.  We want a society that is Democratic vs Aristocratic vs Monarchical.  We want there to be that kind of balance.  Whether it’s Parliamentary with a Prime Minister or American with a President.  Is there anything else that can be added to this?  Well, we probably want leaders that are cosmopolitan.  We don’t want to elect leaders that are against liberal and tolerant values.  If you don’t agree with any of this then you might just find yourself siding against Stoicism.

I don’t know how else to make this any clearer.  If you’re interested in living a life of Stoic virtue, then you’re going to have to be political.  Don’t act so naive or mean spirited about it.  Just embrace the political nature that we all have.  Aristotle was not a Stoic but he was definitely right when he said, “man is a political animal.”

All I ask is stop with the whole, “ugh, politics” mentality when anyone in the group mentions their political beliefs and is attempting to justify it using Stoicism.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Where people might be going wrong is when they try to change Stoic principles to meet their politics.  And even then, just correct them where they’re going wrong and explain to them where they’re bending the principles.  Don’t say, “don’t bend Stoicism for your politics!”  Think past that and just explain to them where they’re wrong.  Use reason.  Stop with the cynicism.  Stop it and learn.

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Photo by Wikimedia Commons on Pexels.com

 

Can you be a Stoic and support Donald Trump at this point? No.

When Donald Trump launched his campaign, he made it clear that he was the Republican who would build the wall that would keep the Mexicans out of the US for good.  The rhetoric he used should’ve been a sign that he wasn’t a serious candidate worth considering.  He essentially called the Mexicans coming to the US “rapists” and added to that by saying, “some I’m sure are good people.”

Donald Trump’s rhetoric since he announced his run and to this day is pure pathos that appeals to his base’s prejudices about anyone who is different than them.  I’ve stressed many times in the past the importance of Stoicism’s notion of cosmopolitanism, and it appears that Donald Trump is the anti-cosmopolitan President.  The President of fear and hatred of the other, the xenophobic President, the anti-Stoic President.

For Republicans who only care about tax cuts and the 2nd Amendment.  Well, you’ve gotten what you wanted.  You got a Supreme Court Justice that will defend the 2nd Amendment, and you’ve got one of the largest tax cuts you’ve ever wanted from President Trump.  I guess, I just have to ask, is there any reason to continue to support this man?  Maybe there was a good reason to support him up to the tax cut and up to the Supreme Court pick but what are you left with now?

Not only has Trump appealed to racists and xenophobes, which is as anti-cosmopolitan as you can get, he’s made enemies with Europe and Canada by creating trade wars with them.  Europe and Canada have liberal democracies built on the notion of tolerance of others.   Liberal democracies that believe in the notions of justice and wisdom.   While alienating our allies, he’s been making friends with enemies of justice and wisdom like Russia.

The United States was founded on the liberal concepts of justice, tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and freedom of thought.  Trump is not trying to free people’s thinking.  He’s just trying to shut down people’s thinking and appeal to our hate and fear.

Consider that as a Stoic.  Would Zeno of Citium or even Diogenes of Sinope have ever said anything about other cultures as something to fear, hate, or condemn?  Would Zeno of Citium have even believed in building a wall to keep certain people out?  Logically, it makes no sense.  Consider for example that Mexicans are very similar people to people in the United States.  Mexicans are Christians, care about family values, believe in democracy, and love working just like most people in the United States.  The only difference between a Mexican and the average American is that Mexicans are darker complected and speak Spanish.  That’s about it.  And Trump wants to drive a wedge over a small difference like language and melanin in people’s skin.  It’s pretty ridiculous, and Zeno of Citium could see how much that bullshit stinks.

Stoics who consider themselves Republicans, you’re just as Stoic as anyone else.  You believe in free markets and a right to bear arms and maybe you’re pro-life.  But please stop supporting this man.  He’s rhetoric is divisive, vicious, and most of all, anti-Stoic.

silhouette of statue near trump building at daytime
Photo by Carlos Herrero on Pexels.com

Thinking about living in agreement with nature like one thinks about Newtonian physics

I was thinking about what the Stoics were going on about when they said to live in agreement with nature or follow nature.  Many people sum it up as, “live rationally and virtuously.”  I mean that’s pretty good.  But there’s something else going on.  The foundation of Stoic morality isn’t just reason but it’s a particular kind of sentiment called love.

Basically, Stoics were moral sentimentalists in some respects and moral rationalists in other respects.  Let me explain, when you go back to the Stoic Hierocles, he made the observation that in the course of our development, if everything goes right, we start from self-love, learn to love family, then learn to love our tribes, then our community of tribes, then ultimately all of humanity.  Humans start with moral sentiment when they’re young and then develop philanthropy, a form of rational love and respect for all rational beings.  So we kind of have a rationally guided system of moral development.

But why follow nature if this is just how nature goes?  Shouldn’t we just go with the flow?  We’re going to become philanthropists in the end right?  Unfortunately, nature isn’t that simple.  To follow nature in the Stoic sense, you have to combat some external forces that halt this natural development.

This is where Newtonian physics enters the picture.  Newton was able to describe falling bodies and the dynamics of forces by removing complicated features of nature like air resistance.  In a vacuum, everything will fall to Earth, despite varying masses at exactly 9.8 meters per second per second.  When a cannon ball is shot from a cannon, you can pretty much ignore air resistance and predict where it will fall based on angle of trajectory.  Only if you drop a feather is it difficult to ignore air resistance.

I think this is what the Stoics meant by following nature.  They meant to imagine how humans would develop if you assume things just go well.  So conceptually removing things like abuse from parents or society, removing things like terminal cancer, removing things like being born mentally handicapped, removing certain resistances, you create a situation where humans can easily grow from self love to love of family to love of community to ultimately love of humanity.  The problem is though that you can’t remove a lot of these resistances, so the Stoics had to create all kinds of mental strategies to get humans back on track.  Let’s face it, someone will try to abuse us, we might get cancer, and some of us might not have a good brain.

The Story of the Stoic Father (Fiction)

Hello, I’m Jeff Whitman. I’m a university professor, who teaches Global Studies in Denver, Colorado.  My wife Victoria is professor who teaches Gender Studies for an online university.  We both have been lifelong liberal progressives and have been involved in several social movements together in our early college days.  We actually met at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccoti Park.  When Victoria and I decided to have kids we promised each other we’d raise them with a liberal attitude towards life and would give them plenty of resources to learn and remain open minded to new ideas.

Years after Victoria and I had kids, I became interested in Stoicism and became a Stoic.  I decided to apply Stoicism to my life and try to live as hard as I could to put virtue first in all of my goals.  My wife thinks I’m funny for being so dogmatic.  She’s one of those people who like to have a smorgasbord of ethics.  She likes utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics but won’t settle for any particular ethical system and just uses what she likes given the situation.  That kind of attitude can drive me crazy sometimes but it is what it is and I accept it.

Our youngest child is Vicky.  She is in 8th grade and is doing well in school.  She is really bright and is actually quite familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.  She’s decided she’s a nihilist.  In her mind, there are no real values and no morality.  She still acts on her moral sentimental instincts and is definitely a good kid but she thinks there’s no way to rationally justify her views.  She laughs at anyone who believes in principles and values.

Frank is just starting high school and he’s doing all right.  He’s a B student, kind of like me in high school.  He spends a lot of time at the library alone and considers himself an Epicurean.  I often discuss a lot of different issues with him because he’s always wondering what a Stoic would do and it gives him some ideas on how he can approach the problem from an Epicurean point of view.

Our eldest child is Britney and she’s a senior in high school and she’s already scored high enough in ACTs and SATs to go free-ride to any major American university of her choosing.  She’s thinking about Princeton, which is pretty damn cool.  She’s into computer programming and tells me all the time about programming languages.  I’m often zoning out because programming is so dreadfully boring to me.  She considers herself a Skeptic.  No, not a scientific skeptic, although she is one of those.  But she considers herself an ancient Greek Skeptic.  She often laughs at me and considers my ethical viewpoints to be no more real than optical illusions.

With the different viewpoints my children express and even my wife, it makes for interesting discussion around the dinner table.  We don’t always have to agree on every single thing but we do agree on the important issues like when it’s time to go to bed and turn off the TV.  I’m pretty happy with our family because we are good people despite our different outlooks on life.  I never would’ve thought I’d have a nihilist daughter and I would’ve never thought about a nihilist being such a good person.

I think the main reason why we do so well as a family is because my wife is sort of a control freak.  Sometimes when she’s laying down the law of the house, I can’t help but to jokingly think of her as a fascist.  But I never say it out-loud because she’s only doing what she thinks is good for the well-being of everyone.  She’s pretty much the glue that holds the family together.  If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if anything would get done.

Why don’t I assert myself as the family man and drill Stoicism into everyone’s heads?  For one, it’s never that easy.  Tyrants always create opposition.  For two, I can only do what’s in my own control, I can’t do what’s not in my control, like attempting to control my family’s belief systems and values.  The Stoics taught us long ago that we should try to use reason and Socratic dialogue to persuade others to our beliefs.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I hope you can too.  I’m just one person among many trying to do what I think is best for everyone.  I hope my experiences can teach you how to be a truly good person even if your philosophies are disagreeable to mine.

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Plato’s Tripartite Theory of Soul vs the Stoic Monistic Soul with Varying Tension

Plato had the conception that the soul was composed of three parts:  reason, emotion, and desire/appetite.  This is somewhat useful because it explains some of our ideas about how our conception of the self works.  The rational area of the soul, which was the pinnacle, loves truth and wisdom.  The emotional area of the soul loves honor and victory.  Finally, the appetite area of the soul loves pleasure and money.  When reason was operating correctly it had the virtue wisdom, emotions operating correctly had the virtue courage, and the appetites working correctly had the virtue temperance.  As a result of three parts of the soul working correctly by achieving wisdom, courage, and temperance, the virtue justice would arise.  Justice was a result of a healthy soul with each of its three parts working properly.

The Stoic conception of the soul is much more unified.  The Stoics believed the soul or pneuma (breath) is an active material that was present throughout your passive material body, present in other organisms, in inanimate objects, and throughout the whole universe itself.  The Stoics classified the pneuma as having four different types of tensile strengths.  The most rarefied of pneuma was reason itself present only in humans.  The least rarefied pneuma was present throughout the whole universe including humans.

The Stoics weren’t exactly panpsychists but they were “panpneumists.”  They believe that an active airy/fiery breath was present throughout the cosmos and the most rarefied in the body of humans, specifically in the area of the brain (although they were once mistaken and thought reason was in the heart).

Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, as intuitive as it sounds, isn’t psychologically helpful.  Plato had the idea that reason is a charioteer that steers two horses, a white horse which is emotion and a black horse which is desire.  Unfortunately reason doesn’t exactly operate that way in my humble opinion.  Reason doesn’t command emotions and desires, reason persuades emotions and desires by using therapy.  The Stoics invented several techniques we can rationally use to persuade our emotions/desires and not have to compel them like a tyrant.  If we try to compel our emotions/desires like a tyrant, they’ll push back.

In fact, the source of our negative emotions has a lot do with our reason itself making false judgments about externals.  If we fix this issue by forming the correct judgments about externals our negative desires/sentiments will dissipate.  Reason cannot remove negative passions until reason has fixed itself.  Once you remove incorrect judgments from your rational faculty, your emotions will calm down and you’ll even feel some joy from this experience.

Paolo Monti - Servizio fotografico (Napoli, 1969) - BEIC 6353768.jpg