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.

Stoicism and the US War on Drugs

The War on Drugs is the name given to the campaign by the US Federal Government of prohibiting drugs and giving military aid and intervening to disrupt the illegal drug trade.  Stoicism isn’t a philosophy that sells an effort that is ultimately futile. The War on Drugs is usually criticized because it doesn’t appear to be helping people stay off drugs. Instead it might be exacerbating the situation and is costing the US taxpayers $500 million dollars per year.

In the 1980s, while arrests for all crimes rose 28% , the number of arrests for drug offenses rose astronomically at 126%. The War on Drugs has significantly led to an effect of mass incarceration of people who simply enjoy drugs and like profiting from selling them. A Stoic approach wouldn’t be for mass incarceration of drug offenders; in fact, Stoicism would be for a therapy/rehabilitation that would free the soul of drug offenders from the externals (the drugs) they wrongly mis-perceive as good.

Stoicism says we all equally lack perfect virtue. In Stoicism, no one is truly
perfectly good except for the Sage. In the US War on Drugs, people who do or sell drugs are painted as evil compared to those who don’t. Stoicism judges people with greater equanimity than the War on Drugs does.

The US War on Drugs has disproportionately locked up the poor compared to wealthy and has disproportionately locked up hispanics and blacks compared to whites. The War on Drugs has a history shrouded in institutional racism. Stoicism is cosmopolitan in nature, believing that everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or creed is deserving of dignity.

Let’s do the Stoic thing and end the War on Drugs.

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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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