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.

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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 Moral Responsibility

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 you be morally responsible and determined to do what you do?

Well, one clever Stoic by the name of Chrysippus believed he possessed the answer.  Chrysippus believed human action could be modeled by a cylinder rolling down an incline.  Basically, the cylinder’s shape represents your character and the incline’s angle represents fate (gravity being a given).  Your character, represented by the shape of the cylinder, had an effect on how the cylinder would roll down the incline.  Chryippus thought that your character is where you possessed some control over how your fate was determined.  Essentially, the idea was that everything was fated but we co-fate our future to a limited extent.  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 you couldn’t truly be a master of all of your passions and desires, you were a slave to your passions/desires and ultimately were 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 limited amount of freedoms that are compatible with a determinist universe.  But ultimately we’re not truly free like the Sage.  We’re only capable of being free 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 truly bears responsibility.  We’re living 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.

What do you all think?  Are we free or not?

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Stoicism and Evil as a Function of Ignorance

One of the hardest parts of Stoicism for people to wrap their heads around is that evil people are vicious exactly because they’re ignorant.  This doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of society’s expectations, the law, or even a definition of what good behavior is.  They’re ignorant in the sense that they lack the wisdom necessary to understand that virtue leads truly to the good life (eudaimonia).

So when I hear people say, “well, murderers know exactly what they did was wrong but they did it anyway.”  But if they really understood the good life, virtue, and excellence, surely they wouldn’t have committed their crime because they’d be cheating themselves of something much greater.  Instead, murderers mistakenly believe they’re getting something good by murdering someone (perhaps a temporary satisfaction to their jealousy) but they’re absolutely mistaken.  Their need for their negative passion to be exemplified in action is transient and soon will be replaced with a new need to maybe seek vengeance on someone else or do harm in another way.

If you could take a criminal mind and show them truly what wisdom and knowledge of the good entails, they wouldn’t trade that knowledge of the good for their previous petty notions of “goods” for a second.  They would understand what the good life entailed and would act to be as virtuous as possible.  Socrates knew this, Plato knew this, and so did Zeno of Citium.

Am I mistaken that bad people do bad things out of ignorance?  Maybe so.  I’m always keeping and open mind about this position.  But let’s just entertain that people do bad things not because of lack of wisdom but because of lack of willpower.  I’m open to such a possibility but oddly enough it seems pretty compatible with Stoicism to hold this view as well.  People who lack willpower are just as hard to be angry at as people who lack knowledge of good and evil.  After all, if they lack willpower, they can’t help themselves.  But what about the third possibility that people completely 100% voluntarily do bad because they know it’s wrong but do it anyway?

Well, let’s just go down that road.  For these people who supposedly do bad voluntarily, it’s still difficult to be righteously indignant at those sorts of people because by not following virtue, they’re hurting themselves by feeding their negative passions.  They give into anger and hate and have an ill soul.  So even with that position, the Stoic will have difficulty being righteously mad at such a person because these bad people have irrationally chosen to go against the good even though they knew better (supposedly).

I still think that bad people do bad things out of ignorance/amathia.  But even with the slim possibility of incontinence/akrasia/weakness of will, people still seem to harm themselves and their actions seem almost beyond their control at times.

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Ayn Rand, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Richard Dawkins crossed with Stoicism

What do you get if you combine Stoicism and Ayn Rand?

You get 💲toicism but with none of that evil collectivism. And lots of 💲💲💲

What do you get if you combine Stoicism with Sam Harris?

You get Stoicism but with none of that free will nonsense. You get the monochotomy of “no control.”

What do you get if you combine Stoicism with Jordan Peterson?

You get Stoicism but with no social virtue and no egalitarianism. Also lots of lobster Sages high on serotonin.

What do you get if you combine Stoicism with Richard Dawkins?

You get a pantheistic God who is indifferent, blind, and pitiless. Also the Logos is a selfish gene in all of us.