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.


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


Is any judgment that inflames our anger acceptable in Stoicism?

Most people understand that you don’t want to be angry most of the time.  Aristotle agrees but he thinks we should sometimes show show anger as long as it’s the right amount of anger at the right time at the right person in the right situation for the right reason.  The Stoics disagree.  But why?

The reason is largely that anger usually relies on the judgment that externals are bad, which is a misjudgment since externals are neither good nor bad.  But here’s a tough question:  what about people?  Aren’t people either good or bad according to Stoicism?  Well, we need to have the proper judgments about people as well.  But wouldn’t judging someone as a bad person make us mad?  No, because we know that someone who is bad is just ignorant and misguided.  If the bad person knew that the virtuous life led to eudaimonia and had that wisdom to guide them, they would no longer be bad because being bad never pays.  If being bad never pays, then obviously people only do bad things out of ignorance.

What about people who suffer from injustices?  Well, that’s a situation that is bad but even then it doesn’t call for anger but for action.  Yes, it’s understandable that people get angry at injustice but the Stoic knows that even anger as a proto-passion needn’t turn into an anger passion.  The Stoic knows that anger is a temporary form of madness and that it interferes with objective thought processes.  So the Stoic may feel anger at first but will let it pass.  Continuing to be angry after the initial anger at injustice is no longer necessary as it’s time to develop an action plan to help put an end to injustice.

So in conclusion I’d like to say most situations that piss people off aren’t even bad.  They’re just dispreferred indifferents.  And the situations (like an injustice) that do piss people off because they’re bad aren’t even reasons enough to stay mad but to act and plan and to act and plan.  So just remember if you start letting yourself get angry after an initial injury, just quickly let the anger blow over and carry on.  Don’t feed the anger, just let it pass.


Stoicism and the Art of Apathy? Not So Fast!

Stoicism has become fairly popular as a philosophy.  When you compare it to other philosophy schools on Facebook, Stoicism Facebook groups’s membership greatly outnumber other philosophical schools’s membership like Kantianism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Schopenhauereanism, for example.   Unfortunately with large numbers in any group comes with members who have large misconceptions.

One major misconception of Stoicism is that it is about being apathetic and apolitical.  If you’ve read Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, you’d know that Stoicism isn’t about being apathetic.  Some individuals are attracted to the Stoic groups because they see themselves as placated with careless apathy and think Stoicism is all about careless apathy.  But they couldn’t be anymore wrong! Stoicism isn’t about not giving a care, it’s about decreasing negative passions such as anger and sorrow, as a few examples.  When Stoicism talks about apatheia, it’s meaning that you’re free of negative passions.  But in place of the negative passion, it substitutes positive passions such as compassion and joy.

People misread the view that judgments should consider externals as indifferent as “judgments should consider externals as completely valueless.”  To Stoics indifferents are very important, they just don’t matter to our eudaimonia (the good life).  Some also misread indifferents as meaning we shouldn’t care about people either because they’re external to us.  But they forget that one of the virtues of Stoicism is justice.  Justice usually includes piety, fair dealings, being equitable, and compassion.

One thing that annoys the people who misunderstand Stoicism the most is when someone in the group posts something political related to Stoicism.  The people who misunderstand Stoicism complain that political posts are not “Stoic.”  Little to do they know that Stoicism is very political.  It’s difficult to decipher exactly what you should believe politically on any particular issue via Stoicism but Stoicism does stress the importance of being involved politically.  So all Stoics ought to be prepared to justify their political positions as Stoically or rationally as possible.

In conclusion, Stoicism may want you to achieve apatheia (freedom from negative passions) but it doesn’t want you to achieve apathy.  If you want apathy, you’re not really going to find a very developed school of philosophy for that.