The Stoic motto is to live in agreement with nature. It’s common to sum up the motto as, “live rationally and virtuously.” That’s basically what it means. But there’s more to it. The foundation of Stoic morality isn’t mere reason but reason and love, a form of rational love. In fact that is what virtue is, a love taken to its logical conclusion, philanthropy (love of man).
One could argue the Stoics were both moral sentimentalists and moral rationalists. Think back to the Stoic Hierocles. Hierocles made the observation that in the course of our development, if everything goes right, we begin with self-love, then we love our family, then we love our community, and finally we love all of humanity. Humans begin with moral sentiment when they’re in infancy and then develop philanthropy later in life. Philanthropy is what virtue basically is. Living in agreement with nature is to love everyone. We have a rationally guided system of moral development.
If this is nature and it progresses in this fashion, shouldn’t we just go with the flow? Doesn’t sound like one needs to put much effort into life if one will become virtuous eventually. Nature just ain’t that simple. To follow nature in the Stoic sense, one must combat some external forces that halt this natural development.
This is where Newtonian physics enters the picture. Sir Isaac Newton was able to describe falling bodies under influence of a net force by removing combative features in nature such as 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, one can pretty much ignore air resistance and predict where it will fall based on angle of trajectory. Only if one drops a feather is it difficult to ignore air resistance.
I think the whole principle of ignoring external factors is what the ancient Stoics meant by following nature. The Stoics meant to imagine how humans would develop if one were to assume things go well. Similar to how in Newtonian mechanics, one would remove resistance, in Stoicism one conceptually removes abuse from parents, removes influence from a materialistic society, and removes all the resistances of the world that can and will halt development. By conceptually removing these “resistances,” one can focus on the physics (nature) of how humans can grow from self-love to love of humanity. The problem is one has to deal with these resistances, just as physicists have to deal with air resistance, so the ancient Stoics created mental strategies to get humans back on track. NASA deals with many of the complications with space but NASA does have the luck that space is a vacuum. In a vacuum, Newton’s laws work perfectly. In air, not so much. The Stoics knew that to follow nature, meant to create a vacuum in one’s passions. A vacuum in one’s passions meant to be free from the influence of externals. If one could minimize the influence of external events on one’s well-being, then one could truly follow nature. One can truly follow nature just as NASA can easily predict where probes will go in a vacuum.
I’ve posted enough vegan/vegetarian topics in the Stoicism Group (Stoic Philosophy) hosted by Donald Robertson on Facebook to know the answer to the vegan/vegetarian question. I think I should be at least a vegetarian because of the bad conditions in factory farms. Factory farms are bad for the workers, bad for the environment, and bad for animals we consume. Is it anyone’s guess why they wouldn’t allow you to freely film what goes on in factory farms? Usually people have to go undercover to film anything and what they discover is not for the faint of heart.
I described the question of whether Hierocles’s Circles applied to animals in order to establish whether Stoics should consume animals or not or whether it was acceptable to harm the environment. But the problem is even if we don’t care about animals or the environment the way we care about other humans, we still have to prefer a good environment because if we harm the environment, then it will harm the human species, which we care about and should care about. The Guardian wrote a story on this not too long ago here.
But what if we had Lab-Grown Meat? Accroding to this article in the Atlantic, it will be so much better for the environment, less of a carbon footprint even, will be less costly in the long run, and have less incidents of food-poisoning. So if world agriculture will have to feed 9 billion people by 2050, it will be extremely preferable to use lab-grown meat. So if it means the survival of the human species, then lab-grown meat might be a necessary way of consuming meat soon. As my high school civics teachers used to say, “we won’t kill the planet but the planet will probably kill us.” So we have to care about the planet as a means to caring about ourselves.
What would the ancient Stoics think? They’d probably be fine with lab-grown meat. Especially since harvesting the meat wouldn’t require slaughter of animals that were sentient to begin with. Since it could be mass produced in the future and be more efficiently produced and less expensive to produce than raising animals on a factory farm, it will be even cheaper. The Stoics were cheap; they were willing to eat anything less costly and less extravagant than what the market produced in order to keep their desires in check.
So from a Stoic perspective, lab-grown meat is a win-win-win. It’s a win for the animals, win for the environment, and, finally, a win for the humans.
That’s a good question I’m not sure I know the answer to. Factory farms are not exactly the best things we can do to our animals meant for consumption. Europe has managed to make a lot of laws forbidding mistreatment of animals meant for consumption. The United States actually doesn’t use laws as much but corporate pressure from places like McDonalds is changing the way we treat animals here in the US. A lot of corporations that sell meat for consumption in the US are going free range with a lot of their meat so the point of making laws might be moot soon.
Some of the ancient Stoics were vegetarians or dabbled in it. In the ancient Greco-Roman days meat was considered a luxury item so to live a simple life meant give up meat. Ancient Stoics weren’t ethical vegans or vegetarians except for the sense that they were trying to live more moderately. They weren’t concerned with maximizing pleasure or reducing suffering of animals per se. Of course, ancient Stoics didn’t have factory farms to contend with. Back then everything was free range. Well, definitely more free range than now.
So should you, a Stoic, be an ethical vegetarian/vegan these days? I guess it depends on where you think how far out Hierocles’s Concentric Circles go. If you think they expand out to only to humanity, then the answer is no, you don’t need to be an ethical vegetarian/vegan. If you think they do expand out to animals and the environment, then maybe you should be looking to become a vegetarian/vegan.
Personally, I’m just kind of a fence-sitter on the issue who hasn’t really made up his mind. Maybe it’s why I’m not a Sage. 🙂
Friedrich Nietzsche warned that with the death of God (the intellectual collapse of Christianity) that it would lead to a state of nihilism. Basically, for years Christianity had been the answer to everyone’s question, “how should I live my life?” Without the intellectual fortitude of Christianity anymore, where would people turn to for their values? Nietzsche took it upon himself to try to help us try to construct a value system that would help answer our question of how we should live our life. Unfortunately, Nietzsche never got to complete his system. He fell into madness and left only breadcrumbs of how we might live our life. It’s also not clear he was even up to the implausible task of answering how we might live our life.
Secular forms of morality seem difficult to logically support especially after David Hume demonstrated it’s probably not possible to get an ought from an is. Utilitarian theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill tried to make a scientific form of morality but when Mill tried to derive an ought from an is, it turned out he was just equivocating between wanting pleasure and morally having to seek pleasure. Utilitarianism, despite its empirical/scientific nature, just wasn’t able to support itself. Ultimately you just had to bite the bullet whether you wanted to seek pleasure for the multitude or not.
Immanuel Kant thought that if he could just support ethics in pure practical reason itself, it would would be enough to keep a secular version of moral Christianity intact. Unfortunately, Nietzsche later knew that this wasn’t going to help things because it was dependent on the concept of transcendental faculties divorced from our common everyday experiences. Immanuel Kant cut humans into two realms divorced from each other, the trascendental self and the phenomenal self. It came at a cost because Kant was asking us to postulate an afterlife and a God to judge us. What started out as a secular attempt to ground morality just turned into the same thing that doomed the Christian faith in its assumptions of an afterlife and God. Also, Kant promised that his ethics was going to be intuitive and commonsense but instead his categorical imperative led to all kinds bizarre consequences. You couldn’t lie selflessly to save other people’s lives. So much for common sense.
Existentialists of the 20th century weren’t really up to the task to answer how to live our lives. They were essentially just replacing divine command theory of ethics with ego command theory. Basically, everyone’s values emanated from their choices they made in life. Essentially, they were inviting millions and millions of varying moral systems created by the authentic choices of each and every single human being. This seemed disastrous. Jean-Paul Sartre tried to ground his existentialism ethics in a form of Marxist solidarity but this certainly didn’t convince Albert Camus, another existentialist, who was quite critical of Sartre as a philosopher and as a person.
So what should we do? How should we proceed? Existentialism seems truly scary and bizarre. Millions of ethical systems based on everyone’s unique “authentic” choices just sounds like chaos. It sounds like an ethical nightmare. Well….what if we turned back to the ancient Greeks and Romans?
It turns out that the philosophers of the past might have actually had all the answers after all. In fact, if we look to the Stoics and even the Epicureans we might find a way to truly live our lives. The Stoics believed that only virtue was good and only vice was bad and everything else was indifferent. In fact, if one lived a life of virtue one would be promised a life of eudaimonic happiness. Basically, not only did the Stoics propose a value system but they proposed a value system that implied a form of therapy. If you follow virtue as your sole good, you would be promised a life of excellence and contentedness. This doesn’t mean you’d live happily ever after like in a Disney movie once you married your prince or princess. It meant that you’d achieve a noble state. You’d be worthy of praise, be generally untroubled, and free of negative passion.
The Stoics might’ve been onto something empirically true with their ethical system because years later in 20th century Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy by Albert Ellis was built on Stoic ethical premises and it seemed scientifically promising as a psychotherapy. Later, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was derived and is doing great empirically as a therapy.
What’s more is it turned out that the Stoics had an argument for how their ethics might actually be founded in something empirical. The Stoic Hierocles essentially argued that ethical forms of love spread out from the need of self-preservation to the need of the preservation of the offspring, which spread out further to the preservation of the tribe, and further to the preservation of the society, and further to humanity itself. I still haven’t carefully read all of Larwence Becker’s A New Stoicism but in his book he argues very logically convincingly for how Stoic ethics is founded in the initial need for self-preservation that spreads outward towards preservation of the human cosmopolis.
So is Stoic ethics what we need as an answer to today’s nihilism? I think so. Am I absolutely convinced its the answer. I’m not sure. But I’m not sure of anything. As Socrates once declared, “All I know is that I know nothing.” But I certainly do think that I have rationally warranted beliefs in Stoicism as a coherent ethical system.