Are you a moral realist or a constructivist about morality? Okay, fancy philosophical jargon for: do you think moral truths are universal and mind-independent, that they “exist out there,” so to speak; or do you think morality is an arbitrary construct of human beings, tightly connected to specific cultural places and times? As I’ve argued before, there actually is a third way, which — not surprisingly — is the one taken not just by the Stoics but essentially by all the Hellenistic philosophies (Epicureans, Skeptics, Cynics, etc.): morality is a constrained human invention. It is not mind-independent (what would that mean anyway?), but it isn’t arbitrary either (sorry, moral relativists!). It is guided by both biological and cultural evolution.
Recently, empirical research has been published that yields some support for this view, though what we should make of the results of such research is open for discussion, meaning that the data by themselves do not settle everything (hence, philosophy!). Rich Haridy, in an article that appeared in New Atlas (full disclosure: I am quoted in it), has summarized the findings of a group of Oxford anthropologists who claim to have identified seven human moral universals.
The researchers analyzed ethnographic accounts of 60 different societies, which led them to conclude that there are some moral precepts that are found in all societies. Wisely, they do not claim that this is evidence of genetic inheritance, as it could be the result of convergent cultural evolution (or a combination of both genetic and cultural factors). The hypothesis the anthropologists in question were attempting to test is that human morality exists to promote cooperative social behavior, which in turns means that the moral valence of every action hinges on its social consequences. The Stoics, of course, would not be surprised:
Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)
Here are the seven moral “rules” that are seen in every culture studied so far:
- family values
- group loyalty
- property rights
Of these seven, there are only two that generate a bit of friction with the Stoic approach (and, I would argue, should generate friction with any sensible approach to moral philosophy): group loyalty and property rights. Let me first address the other five, then we’ll discuss the two problematic ones.
Family values: Even though Stoicism is a cosmopolitan philosophy, the Stoics recognized that it is natural for us to begin our moral existence by being concerned for ourselves and for our caretakers. It is reason that, eventually, allows us to expand our circles of concern all the way to the rest of humanity, but that doesn’t mean that, in the here and now, we shouldn’t care about our own family and friends. Indeed, Seneca says that the family is the locus where we begin to develop our moral selves, and friendship is crucial in Stoicism:
Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. (Letters III.2)
Reciprocity: Seneca wrote a whole book “On Benefits,” where he explains that the exchange of gifts and favors is the foundations of cooperation in society. The only departure from the general concept lies in the fact that he argues that we should act in such a way that our side of the ledger will always be higher than that of other people, i.e., we should give more than we receive.
Bravery: while the term is often associated with facing physical danger, particularly in battle, the more general notion of courage — especially in the context of performing actions that are good for the cosmopolis — is embedded in the Stoic virtue by that name, which goes hand in hand with the twin virtue of justice (see below).
Respect: one of the crucial Stoic concepts is that we owe respect to other human beings qua human beings, for the simple fact that they share in the Logos, meaning — in modern parlance — that they are capable of reason:
If a man is mistaken, instruct him kindly and show him his error. But if you are not able, blame yourself, or not even yourself. (Meditations, X.4)
Fairness: the above mentioned virtue of justice is usually understood as being about both respect (previous entry) and fairness toward others.
And now for the two entries in the list that are problematic from a Stoic perspective and which, again, I think should be problematic for any ethical framework.
Group loyalty: this, obviously, appears to be in direct contradiction with the notion of cosmopolitanism. But one can argue that the contradiction is only apparent, or at least that it depends on what, exactly, counts as a group:
Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’ (Epictetus, Discourses I, 9.1)
And yet, Socrates did fight for the defense of Athens. Indeed, he famously accepted the death penalty, even though he could have easily escaped into exile, precisely to make the point that one cannot consistently take advantage of the laws of a city, as he had done throughout his life, and then exempt himself when such laws return an unfavorable outcome for him.
But the most helpful way to think about the apparent conflict between group loyalty and cosmopolitanism is using Epictetus’ role ethics. Epictetus saw no problem in the commonsensical notion that we play a number of sometimes contrasting roles in our lives: we have family duties (see above), but also duties toward friends, and toward our city or nation. This is fine so long as we keep in mind that the most fundamental duty of them all is the one that concerns the human cosmopolis. Another way to put the point is that we belong to a number of groups, the largest and most important being that which comprises the whole of humanity.
What does this mean, in practice? Well, for instance, that I will vote for politicians who take climate change seriously, despite the fact that some of the policies necessary to address the problem may result in direct economic harm to my nation or family.
Property rights: the Stoics do not have a problem with private property per se, which is classed among the “preferred indifferents,” meaning things that have practical value (axia) but that do not make us better or worse persons, and that are therefore not to be pursued for their own sake, or in any paramount way.
That said, Zeno’s ideal Republic would be a place populated by human sages. And the sages would realize that there is no need for conflict (because they can figure out reasonable ways to resolve disagreements) or private property (because things can be exchanged on the basis of need). Even Epictetus suggests that we should thread lightly in life, thinking of things (and people!) as not really “ours,” but rather on temporary loan from the universe.
Regardless of my own agreement or disagreement with the seven universal rules discovered by way of anthropological research, the most fundamental point remains: the empirical evidence shows that human morality is not arbitrary, since different cultures have hit upon the same, or very similar, general principles. It also shows that the Stoics (and other Hellenistic schools) were right when they argued that the point of morality — and in an important sense the point of human existence — is to be cooperative toward our fellow human beings, to use our abilities in order to arrive at a better human cosmopolis. Why? Because we are highly social animals capable of reason:
Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it? (Meditations IV.13)