We really are going to have to start a conversation about ethics, aren’t we? Last week’s post on the fallacy of claiming that there’s one and only one proper diet for all human beings everywhere brought a pretty fair barrage of pushback. Now of course this wasn’t any kind of surprise; it’s an odd fact of contemporary life that very few people seem to be able to handle the idea that there can be more than one right answer to any of life’s questions. Thus I heard from fans of several dietary theories, insisting at the top of their lungs that it just ain’t so and this or that or the other whatsit really is the One True Macguffin for everybody.
That’s par for the course these days, and it’s also par for the course that so much of the yelling ended up borrowing the tone of the sort of diatribe that used to be the business of fire-and-brimstone preachers, calling on all and sundry to repent their evil ways and get right with some simulacrum of Jesus. (Admittedly most of this didn’t survive to reach the comments page; I tend to delete hardcore evangelism of all kinds pretty consistently.) It’s hard to think of a subject these days that isn’t routinely presented to all and sundry as a choice between two and only two alternatives, described with a degree of strident moral dualism that would make a third-century Gnostic blush.
It’s entertaining, at least to someone of my sensibilities, to watch people on opposite sides of any of today’s cultural donnybrooks—dietary, political, religious, you name it—striking identical poses as kindly and innocent defenders of truth, justice, and apple pie for all, unfairly assailed by the sneering minions of evil for evil’s sake. It adds to the fun that they inevitably strike this pose just before bellyflopping into the mud-wrestling pit to mix it up enthusiastically with their opponents. Still, beyond the entertainment value, there’s an important point to be made: something has gone disastrously wrong with the language of ethics in our time.
Or, more precisely, with the language of a particular kind of ethics. The reference to fire-and-brimstone preachers above is entirely appropriate, because the kind of ethics used to frame, and thus to distort, the cultural debates of our time has been wrenched out of its original context in the Abrahamic religious tradition.
In that original context, the ethics of the Abrahamic religions can be described simply enough as a set of rules handed down by God for His creatures to follow. If you happen to believe that the universe is an artifact created by a God who’s preoccupied with the morality of His creatures, and who will fling those creatures into Hell to be tortured forever if they don’t follow His rules, the quirks of Abrahamic ethics follow logically, even self-evidently, from that belief. If you’ve been handed rules for behavior by the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator of the universe, after all, it makes perfect sense to behave the way fire-and-brimstone preachers do.
In particular, in that context, it makes sense to use the word “should.”
Think about that word for a moment. Again, if you’ve been handed a set of rules by God Almighty, this is a perfectly valid word to use, because if somebody asks you “Well, why should I?” you’ve got a straightforward answer: “Because God said so, and He’ll give you the boot in the face forever if you don’t.” It’s all very logical. On the other hand, if you don’t happen to believe that this is true, and you want to use the word “should,” you’re headed into some exceedingly murky philosophical territory. Since the spark that launched this week’s essay began with a discussion of diet, we’ll use food as an example.
Say you believe, as the ancient Pythagoreans did, that it’s morally wrong to eat beans. You head for a street corner, stand on a soapbox, and start exhorting the passersby not to eat beans. Of course they’re going to ask you “Why not?” If you believe that the deities of the underworld curse those who eat beans, that gives you an answer, and the discussion proceeds according to whether your listeners believe in Pluto and Persephone and agree with you about their preferences.
If you don’t have a supernatural sanction for your claim about the immorality of bean-eating, though, you’re going to land plop in the middle of an infinite regress. Why shouldn’t you eat beans? Why, you might say, because they make you fart, and farting is immoral. What’s wrong with farting? Why, because it subjects the people around you to awful smells. And what’s wrong with that? Away you go down the rabbit hole, because you’ve made an elementary logical mistake: you’re trying to derive a value from a fact.
Let’s stop and unpack this for a moment. A fact is something about which everyone with roughly the same sensory and cognitive equipment can readily agree. If I say “this is a jar of peanut butter,” and hand it to you, you can probably figure out pretty quickly whether I’ve stated a fact or not. A value, by contrast, is a judgment by a conscious being, and even people who have the same sensory and cognitive equipment can readily disagree about statements of value. If I say “peanut butter is loathsome,” for example, and you happen to like the stuff, your liking and my loathing can perfectly well coexist with the same set of facts.
One of the central gambits of the Abrahamic faiths is an ingenious end run around the gap between facts and values. Since the God of those faiths is a conscious being capable of judgment, He becomes a source of statements of value, and the fact that your value judgments may disagree with His doesn’t mean much given that He’s supposed to be omniscient and omnibenevolent, and enforces His values on everyone with the threat of eternal torture. So long as you hold some such belief, you don’t have to try to extract values from facts; you can just start from your scripture of choice, say “should,” and go from there.
That only works, though, if you happen to hold such a belief. If you don’t, the ethical claim of the Abrahamic faiths just sketched out looks a great deal like an extreme case of two of the classic logical fallacies—the argumentum ad auctoritatem or argument from authority (“God agrees with me, so you should too”) and the argumentum ad baculum or argument from threats (“If you don’t agree with me, God will beat you up forever”). Those of us who don’t believe that there’s one and only one deity, who handed down the one and only one set of moral laws for everyone to follow, have to come up with some other way of relating facts and values
That can be done, but there’s a drawback: they don’t let you get away with throwing the word “should” and its synonyms around with gay abandon. Is that a problem? It depends on your idea of what ethics are about. If you believe that the point of ethics is that they give you the right to tell other people what to do, the lack of a way to bridge the gap between facts and values is a real problem. A great many people these days do in fact want to use ethics as an excuse for telling other people what to do. The usual gambit is thus simply to claim that one’s own value judgments are objectively true, and everyone else’s are simply wrong: that peanut butter, say, really is objectively loathsome, and anyone who likes the stuff is not merely wrong but evil.
The result—well, dear reader, if you know your way around the incessant and ineffectual debates of the present day, you know this song well enough to sing all the verses in the shower. Believers in this or that insist on the absolute truth of their personal value judgments, and go from there to claim that the rest of us must all do what they say, even though they can’t present any reason for their claim that convinces anyone who doesn’t already share their personal value judgments. The debate promptly devolves into yelling in an overfamiliar way.
Is there anything wrong, let’s say, with killing animals for food? That depends entirely on your personal value judgments concerning death. It’s a fact that all living things die and get eaten by something—a cow that isn’t munched by you and me, for example, will be eaten by something else, with fungi and bacteria waiting in the wings if nobody else gets a steak dinner first. How you react to that fact, though, belongs to the realm of values. Are you horrified by it, and decide that you want nothing to do with it, so you’re only going to eat plants because you don’t think plants are conscious enough to matter? Are you awed and humbled by it, and decide that you’re going to eat animals and plants with equal gratitude, knowing that all things have died so that you might live? Are you left unmoved by it, and decide that you’re going to have the bacon cheeseburger tonight? You alone can make that call—which is why the rhetoric of the vegan movement seems so convincing to vegans but makes everyone else roll their eyes.
Thus the end result of the confusion between values and facts is precisely the mess we see today, where the partisans of competing ideologies try to justify increasingly brutal behavior by brandishing vast airy abstractions with which, in theory, every thinking person, or every moral person, or every person who isn’t a [insert epithet of choice here] must agree; where everyone treats their own entirely personal value judgments as self-evident facts and faces endless frustration because nobody else agrees with them; and where everyone ends up shrieking insults at everyone else because every other form of communication has broken down completely.
Many believers in the Abrahamic faiths tend to treat the infinite regress of moral argument as evidence that their beliefs are true: after all, if you don’t have a divine lawgiver to hand down moral rules, how can you have any kind of morals at all? They’re wrong, because there’s been a vast amount of serious ethical reflection in cultures that don’t share the conviction that morals must be handed down from on high. There’s also a major problem with building an argument for belief in God on the basis of His usefulness as a backstop for human ethical systems—such an argument comes dangerously close to turning the deity in question into an intellectual convenience, if not a mere piece of crowd-control equipment—but we can leave that for now.
It’s far more relevant to the point I want to make that other civilizations have reached the same point we’re at now, the point at which the supernatural sanctions of the civilization’s traditional religion lose their power to convince, and people have to find some other basis for ethics. In point of fact, as Oswald Spengler pointed out a long time ago, every civilization reaches that point sooner or later, and ours is only getting around to it now because we’re the Johnny-come-latelies of the historical sequence, the most recent civilization to trace out the familiar arc of rise and fall. Every other civilization in history has found other grounds on which to base ethical thought and action, and one of those in particular has much to offer the present discussion.
Mention the word “Stoic” to people nowadays and you’ll rarely call to mind much more than a vague sense of gritted teeth and an unwillingness to crumple under pressure. Stoicism, though, was much more than that. It was a coherent, serious attempt to make sense of ethics in an age when most educated people could no longer believe in the literal truth of traditional religion, and the gap between facts and values had become as inescapable a philosophical issue as it is today.
Athens in those days was the center of the philosophical world, and the Stoa Poikile (“Painted Porch”) was one of the places in Athens where intellectuals gathered to contend with the big issues of the time. That’s where Zeno of Citium used to give free lectures, and it was from that location that the school of philosophy he founded got the name of Stoicism.
The key to Zeno’s ethical philosophy was that it took the gap between facts and values with utmost seriousness. Stoic ethics, like the other major ethical systems of the great age of Greek philosophy, basically doesn’t use the word “should” at all. Instead, it looks for values that pretty much everyone has in common, and presents its ethical rules as ways to put those values into practice: not “you should do X,” but “if you want Y, then try Z.” The specific set of values Zeno proposed, in common with most other Greek philosophers of his time, were that people want to be happy, and don’t want to be miserable.
Right here, of course, we’ve reached a significant stumbling block, because the idea of founding a system of ethics on happiness and misery contradicts some very deeply rooted presuppositions in our society. Ethics, to a great many people nowadays, aren’t about being happy; they’re about being good, even—or especially!—when that involves being miserable. There are whole schools of ethics that insist that no action is morally justified if the person who performs that action gets even the slightest enjoyment out of it. Back behind that odd logic is the terror of ordinary human happiness that pervades so much of our civilization’s thinking, the assumption that if people do what they want, “what they want” by definition will start with mass slaughter and go from there.
Ah, but wait a moment, says the Stoic in response. Why do people follow moral rules here and now? In some cases, because they feel good about themselves when they do so, and guilty when they don’t; in some cases, because they don’t want to suffer the social and legal penalties of wrongdoing; in some cases, because they want to be happy in Heaven rather than miserable in Hell. All these are ways of pursuing happiness and avoiding misery. The values on which Stoics ground their ethical systems aren’t arbitrary abstractions; they’re the values that already motivate moral behavior, even when moral theorists say they shouldn’t. That being the case, why not drop the handwaving and talk about the motivations people actually have?
Here we reach a second significant challenge, because many people assume as a matter of course that being happy consists of wallowing in the fulfilment of biological desires, full stop, end of sentence. The fact that people routinely make themselves physically uncomfortable in pursuit of other kinds of happiness shows that this equation doesn’t work. If we pay attention to ourselves, to what really makes us happy and what really makes us miserable, gourmet dinners, orgiastic sex, and the like actually play a fairly modest role. What actually makes us happy—not just momentarily sated with pleasure, but genuinely happy over the long term? There’s an unfamiliar Greek word that Zeno used for the answer, but it has a familiar English equivalent.
What really makes us happy is freedom.
Now of course this word has been subjected to more misuse in recent decades than just about any other entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, so it’s going to be helpful to unpack it a bit. Freedom in the sense I have in mind is the absence of unnecessary involuntary constraint. Freedom is never absolute—in the world we live in, for example, your freedom will never extend to the point of allowing you to make four-sided triangles, violate the laws of thermodynamics, or extract an infinite amount of oil from a finite planet. Nor does freedom keep you from choosing to accept constraints that are inseparable from something you want to do. To get married, to become a member of a community, to pursue education, to learn how to scuba dive—all these things and countless others can be had only if you accept the constraints that come with them. They don’t keep you from being happy, because you choose them.
To the Stoics, though, the crucial limits to freedom are internal, not external. Many people who are free outwardly are enslaved by the contents of their own minds. We become free, Zeno proposed, if we recognize the difference between the things we control and the things we don’t. What do we control? Our actions in our outer lives—our words and deeds—and our actions in our inner lives—our thoughts, beliefs, and values. What don’t we control? Everything else.
To the Stoic, then, the things you control are the things that matter. The process of becoming a Stoic is one of learning how to value the things you control more than the things you don’t control. All those other things, the ones you don’t control? You can enjoy them—there’s no harm in that—but don’t make the mistake of thinking you control them, and above all, don’t make the mistake of building your sense of self on the mistaken notion that you control them.
Notice what this implies. If your idea of freedom consists of doing what you’re told by the media, or peer pressure, or fashion, or the unexamined thoughts of your culture and your age, Zeno’s wry laughter echoes around you. If your idea of freedom centers on the freedom to bully other people into doing what you want them to do, that laughter turns mordant, because the Stoics recognized—perhaps more clearly than anybody else ever has—that there’s no more certain guarantee of misery than making your sense of self depend on getting the rest of the world to cater to your sense of entitlement.
Many of us don’t realize that our inner lives have a voluntary dimension, and most of us have no idea how far that voluntary dimension extends. We treat our thoughts, beliefs, and values as though they’re handed to us from outside, and of course there are plenty of people who want to do exactly that, and feed us on prechewed thoughts, beliefs, and values. Accepting that mental fodder, though, is not necessarily to our advantage—quite the contrary, the people who want to do our thinking, believing, and valuing for us by and large expect to profit at our expense.
Thus the Stoic has a double reason to explore the voluntary dimension of his or her own inner life. On the one hand, it’s a way of reorienting our lives so that the things we care about are the things we can do something about; on the other hand, it keeps us from being led like lambs to the slaughter (or, for the vegans among us, like tomatoes to the harvest) by those who profit from keeping us from thinking our own thoughts. Stoics were famous for this in the ancient world, and that’s why several Roman emperors banished the Stoics en masse from Rome: they were just too dangerous to have around, because you couldn’t bribe them, or cajole them, or pressure them, or even torture them into doing something they didn’t choose to do.
What if you don’t want to take up the Stoic path? To the Stoic, that’s fine. If you like being miserable—and let’s be fair, Zeno was being overly charitable in insisting that nobody wants to be miserable; quite a few people do prefer to be miserable, and work night and day to make themselves miserable—then you should do the opposite of what the Stoics recommend. (In fact, if you watch people who love to be miserable and compare their actions with the principles of Stoicism, you’ll find that by and large they do an exquisitely precise job of practicing Stoicism in reverse.)
Similarly, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of learning how to work with the voluntary dimension of your inner life—and it’s a lot of work, no question—then you’re perfectly within your rights to shrug and walk away from the Stoa Poikile, and leave Zeno talking to the circle of students who care about what he has to say. The Stoic is free, among other things, not to worry about what you think.
Freedom is scary stuff. The existentialists had a solid point when they described humanity as being condemned to freedom, flung all anyhow into a world in which facts are given but values have to be chosen. There’s more to the shape of the world than that, granted, but it’s a crucial starting place. What lies beyond that starting place? We’ll discuss that a little further on.