Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Excerpts from David Sedley's entry on Stoicism in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)


Stoicism is the Greek philosophical system founded by Zeno of Citium c.300 BC and developed by him and his successors into the most influential philosophy of the Hellenistic age. It views the world as permeated by rationality and divinely planned as the best possible organization of matter. Moral goodness and happiness are achieved, if at all, by replicating that perfect rationality in oneself, and by finding out and enacting one's own assigned role in the cosmic scheme of thingsâThe leading figures in classical, or early, Stoicism are the school's first three heads: Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes and Chrysippus...

No formal philosophical writings of the early Stoics survives intact. .. Nevertheless, the system has been reconstructed in great detail, and, despite gaps and uncertainties, it does live up to its own self-description as a unified whole. It is divided into three main parts: physics, logic and ethics.


The world is an ideally good organism, whose own rational soul governs it for the best. Any impression of imperfection arises from misleadingly viewing its parts (including ourselves) in isolation, as if one were to consider the interests of the foot in isolation from the needs of the whole body. The entire sequence of cosmic events is pre-ordained in every detail. Being the best possible sequence, it is repeated identically from one world phase to the next, with each phase ending in a conflagration followed by cosmic renewal. The causal nexus of 'fate' does not, however, pre-empt our individual responsibility for our actions. These remain 'in our power', because we, rather than external circumstances, are their principal causes, and in some appropriate sense it is 'possible' for us to do otherwise, even though it is predetermined that we will not.

At the lowest level of physical analysis, the world and its contents consist of two coextensive principles: passive 'matter' and active 'god'. At the lowest observable level, however, these are already constituted into the four elements earth, water, air and fire. Air and fire form an active and pervasive life force called pneuma or 'breath', which constitutes the qualities of all bodies and, in an especially rarefied form, serves as the souls of living things.

The world is a physical continuum, infinitely divisible and unpunctuated by any void, although surrounded by an infinite void. Its perfect rationality, and hence the existence of an immanent god, are defended by various versions of the Argument from Design, with apparent imperfections explained away, for example, as blessings in disguise or unavoidable concomitants of the best possible structure...

Stoic ethics starts from oikeisis, our natural 'appropriation' first of ourselves and later of those around us, which makes other-concern integral to human nature. Certain conventionally prized items, like honour and health, are commended by nature and should be sought, but not for their own sake. They are instrumentally preferable, because learning to choose rationally between them is a step towards the eventual goal of 'living in agreement with nature'. It is the coherence of one's choices, not the attainment of their objects, that matters. The patterns of action which promote such a life were systematically codified as kathekonta, 'proper functions'.

Virtue and vice are intellectual states. Vice is founded on 'passions': these are at root false value judgments, in which we lose rational control by overvaluing things which are in fact indifferent. Virtue, a set of sciences governing moral choice, is the one thing of intrinsic worth and therefore genuinely 'good'. The wise are not only the sole possessors of virtue and happiness, but also, paradoxically, of the things people conventionally value - beauty, freedom, power, and so on. However geographically scattered, the wise form a true community or 'city', governed by natural law.


Ethics, the authentically Socratic core of Stoic philosophy, was the discipline which described how happiness could be achieved. It presupposed physics, which supplied an understanding of the world's rational structure and goodness and of the individual's place in it.

There was less agreement about how the three parts related to each other. One favoured model compared philosophy to an orchard in which logic was the protective outer wall, physics the soil and trees, and ethics the fruit. Posidonius favoured the analogy to a living animal, in which logic was the bones and sinews, physics the flesh and ethics the soul. These and other analogies probably agreed in making ethics the ultimate aim and crowning achievement of philosophy. The value of physics and logic was in a way instrumental - to acquire the understanding which would make a happy life possible. But that understanding, a perfected rationality, was itself so integral to the Stoic conception of happiness that to call it instrumental may be to underestimate the true unity of Stoic philosophy.

Cosmology and theology

The Stoic world is a living creature with a fixed life cycle, ending in a total 'conflagration'. Being the best possible world, it will then be succeeded by another identical world, since any variation on the formula would have to be for the worse. Thus the Stoics arrive at the astonishing conception of an endless series of identical worlds - the doctrine of cyclical recurrence, according to which history repeats itself in every minute detail....

By 'god' the Stoics meant, primarily, the immanent principle governing the world, variously also identified with 'creative fire', with 'nature' or with 'fate'. Second, the world itself was also called 'god'. But - characteristically of Greek religious thought - this apparent monotheism did not exclude polytheism. Individual cosmic masses were identified with individual gods: for example the sea and the air were linked with Poseidon and Hera respectively, and the remaining traditional gods were likewise assigned specific cosmic functions. By means of allegorical rationalization, Stoic theology incorporated and interpreted traditional religion, rather than replacing it. Etymology (sometimes highly fanciful) was one tool used in this process....

The world, then, is itself divine, and is from first to last providentially planned and governed by an immanent intelligence. This thoroughgoing teleology owed much to Plato's Timaeus, but also to his Phaedo, where Socrates had been portrayed as advocating a teleological physics, while admitting his own incapacity to develop one. We can here glimpse one of the many ways in which Stoicism sees itself as working out in full technical detail what was already implicit in the thought and life of Socrates.

Since the world is god, in his most manifest form, there is no distinction in Stoicism between proving the existence of god and proving the perfect rationality of the world. These proofs, most of which are variants on the Argument from Design, generated massive controversy between the Stoics and their critics (see especially Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods II-III). â any imperfections are either merely apparent (for example, wild beasts, which encourage the virtue of courage in us), or inevitable concomitants of the best possible structure (for instance, an example borrowed from Plato, the fragility of the human head). Sometimes localized sufferings are justified by the greater good they serve, even if it is not always evident what that good is...


Epicurus proposed a method for identifying the genuinely natural human value: consult a new-born baby. Inarticulate infants, and for that matter irrational animals, cannot possibly have been infected yet with the norms of society, and their actions tell us, louder than any words, that their sole motivation is the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Stoic ethics responds by adopting the same starting point but questioning the Epicurean analysis of infant behaviour.

The highly influential concept which the Stoics introduced to facilitate their own analysis is oikeisis, variously translated as 'appropriation', 'familiarization', 'affiliation' or 'affinity'. Literally, this is the process of 'making something one's own'. An animal's oikeisis is its natural impulse or inclination towards something which it regards as belonging to it.

A creature's first oikeisis, Stoics argue, is towards itself and its own constitution, a priority which it displays by making self-preservation its dominant goal. Far from pursuing pleasure, it courts pain in order to preserve and develop its natural constitution, as when we see a toddler repeatedly fall in striving to walk, and an overturned tortoise struggling to regain its upright position. As the human child develops, its oikeisis is extended beyond itself: it treats its parents and siblings as belonging to it, and cares for them accordingly, in much the same way in which it already cares for itself. In due course this same other-concern is extended to cover a wider range of people, albeit in increasingly diluted measure. At an extreme it takes in the entire human race.

Oikeisis is a continuum, stretching from the instinctive self-preservation of the new-born infant to the other-regarding conduct which is equally natural in rational adults. Where most ancient ethical systems struggled to explain altruism as an extended form of self-interest, there is no such tension in Stoicism, where others already fall within the ambit of our natural affection in much the same way as we ourselves do. This rationally extended sense of what belongs to us does not yet amount to moral goodness, but it is its indispensable basis. Goodness lies in our understanding and collaborating with the ideally rational world plan. It is no wonder that our natural oikeisis towards the rest of the human race should be what grounds the project of completely integrating ourselves into that plan.

Oikeisis is an affinity founded on the shared rationality of the entire human race. The doctrine thus helped to foster Stoic cosmopolitanism and other widely admired humanitarian stances. Seneca, for example, reminded his readers of their moral obligations even to their slaves. Conversely, however, the oikeisis doctrine also encouraged a hardening of attitudes to non-rational animals, with which humans were judged to stand in no moral relation at all.

The indifferents

Perhaps the most characteristic doctrine of Stoic ethics is that virtue alone is good, vice alone bad. Everything else traditionally assigned a positive or negative value - health or illness, wealth or poverty, sight or blindness, even life or death - is 'indifferent'. By making this move, the Stoics authorized the use of the word 'good' in a distinctly moral sense - a usage which is still with us, although they themselves bought it at the high price of simply denying that the word, properly understood, has any other sense.

The inspiration of this doctrine is undoubtedly Socratic. In various Platonic dialogues, Socrates argued that most things traditionally called good - typified with largely the same examples as the Stoic 'indifferents' - are in their own nature intermediate between good and bad. If used wisely, they become good, if unwisely, bad. Hence wisdom is the only intrinsically or underivatively good thing....

Although being healthy does not make you happy, Zeno maintains, the natural thing to do in ordinary circumstances is nevertheless to stay healthy and avoid illness. We should not try to suppress this natural instinct, because to be happy - the ultimate goal to which we all aspire - is to be totally in tune with nature. Therefore the proper way to start out is to respect the preferences which nature dictates, opting where possible for affluence, high civic status, family values and other 'natural' desiderata. As you progress, you will learn when to vary the formula. It may be that in special circumstance the right way for you to fit in with nature's plan is to be poor, or sick, or even to die. If you understand why one of these is the rational and natural thing for you, you will embrace it willingly, and thus further rather than hinder your project of perfect conformity with nature. But barring such special circumstances, the natural values to adopt coincide on the whole with the ordinary values of society.

This leads, in typical Stoic fashion, to a terminological jungle of epithets for the 'indifferents'. The 'things which accord with nature' (ta kata physin), such as health, have a positive, albeit non-moral, 'value' (axia), and are therefore labelled 'preferred' (proegmena), which means that in normal circumstances we should opt for them, they are 'to be taken'. The 'things which are contrary to nature' (ta para physin), such as illness, earn a contrary set of technical terms: 'disvalue' (apaxia), 'dispreferred' (apoproegmena), 'not to be taken' (alepta).

The linchpin of Stoic ethics is the way in which it legitimizes a familiar scale of personal and social values, while denying them any intrinsic worth. Their value is purely instrumental, because they are the subject matter of the choices by means of which we progress towards true moral understanding. We might compare the relative 'values' of, say, illness, fame and eyesight, in Stoic eyes to the relative values of cards in a card game. Learning how to choose between these, and even to sacrifice cards of higher value when the circumstances dictate, is an essential part of becoming a skilled player. But these choices matter only instrumentally: It would be absurd to compare the value of an ace to the value of being a good card-player. In Stoic eyes it is an equally grave error - although unfortunately one of which most people are guilty - to rank wealth or power along with moral goodness on one and the same scale.

The things which are naturally 'preferred' can be encapsulated in rules: honour your parents, take care of your health, cultivate friends, and so on. From the start â moral progress. What a precept prescribes is a kathekon (plural kathekonta), a 'proper function' or 'duty', and many Stoic treatises were devoted to working out detailed lists of kathekonta. A kathekon is defined as 'that which, when done, has a reasonable justification': for a rational adult, what is reasonable and what is natural should coincide.

There are two main types of kathekonta: circumstantial and non-circumstantial. Circumstantial kathekonta, that is, those prescribed only in very special circumstances, include such abnormal acts as self-mutilation, giving away your property, and even suicide (something of a Stoic obsession, inspired by Socrates' willing death). Non-circumstantial kathekonta are, despite their name, not prescribed in literally all circumstances, since to each non-circumstantial kathekon (for example, looking after one's health), there is opposed a circumstantial one, (for example, in very unusual circumstances, getting ill). Rather, they are 'non-circumstantial' because they are what, other things being equal, you should do as a matter of course, and not as a response to your present circumstances.


Kathekonta are 'intermediate' patterns of behaviour - that is, available to everybody, wise and non-wise alike. Yet in advertizing them the Stoics regularly referred to the conduct of the 'sage', the idealized wise person whom they always held up as a model, despite admitting that the criteria for this status were so tough that few people, if any, ever attained them. What was possible for everybody, they insisted, was progress towards this state of wisdom, and that is why they stressed the continuity between the proper conduct of the non-wise and the ideally good conduct of the wise. When you actually become wise and virtuous, what are outwardly the very same kind of kathekonta which you were already habitually performing are suddenly transformed by your new state of understanding, earning themselves the name 'right actions'.

Alongside this continuity in moral progress, there is also the sharpest possible discontinuity. One of the most notorious Stoic paradoxes was that all sins are equal. If you are not virtuous and wise, you are totally bad and foolish. The wise are totally happy, the foolish totally unhappy. Whatever strides you may have made towards virtue, you are no happier till you get there. They compared what it is like to be drowning: whether you are yards from the surface or only inches from it, you are still just as effectively drowning.

The motivation of this depressing thesis is not entirely clear. Stoic concern with the paradox of the Sorites may have contributed to it, but the main driving force seems to be the conviction that actual goodness, if achieved, differs not in degree, but in kind, from the scale of natural values. At a certain point of moral development, you notice an emerging agreement or harmony between your individual choices and acts. It is, thereafter, not the choices and acts or their objects that matter any longer, but harmony for its own sake. Only from that point on do you have a conception of what goodness is: it is located in a perfect 'agreement' both within the individual and between that individual and cosmic nature.

What does this agreement consist in? Despite the Stoics' extensive cataloguing and classification of the kathekonta which the sage will perform, ultimately the wise are characterized, not by the actual success of their actions - which may not always be in their control - but by the morally perfect frame of mind with which they act - in other words, by virtue. Socrates had propounded that paradox that virtue is knowledge: all there is to being good is to know the right things. The Stoics develop this Socratic idea to the full. The word for knowledge - episteme - can also more specifically mean 'science', and they regard each virtue as a genuine science, complete with its own constituent theorems. The skill of living in harmony is a skill analogous to, although vastly more difficult than, any branch of mathematics or medicine.

Plato had given four virtues canonical status: justice, wisdom, temperance or self-control (sophrosyne), and courage. The Stoics adopt this list, and treat all other virtues as subordinate species, or perhaps branches, of the four...

The goal

The 'goal' or 'end' (telos) is defined as 'that for the sake of which everything is done, while it is not itself done for the sake of any further thing'. This is identified with happiness (eudaimonia), or 'living well'. Both are commonplace to the Greek philosophical tradition. The partisan content arises when philosophers offer their formulas for what this end actually consists in. Zeno's formula was 'living in agreement' ...

Zeno's vagueness was probably deliberate. The 'agreement' comprises both the perfect internal coherence and rationality of the good life - 'living in accordance with one concordant reason' - and its conformity with nature, the 'nature' in question being itself equated with both one's own individual nature and the nature of the world. Happiness is also identified as a 'smooth flow of life', and Zeno's real point was that only those with complete understanding of cosmic rationality can make their own aims and choices entirely one with those of nature, and thus never come into conflict with either their own or the world's rationality.

Pressure for clarification led either Zeno himself or Cleanthes to make the first addition to the formula, which now became 'living in agreement with nature'. Chrysippus substituted 'living in accordance with experience of what happens by nature'. What became clearer, as these and other formulations competed, was that the ideal life was defined in terms of things which were themselves morally indifferent - the 'things which accord with nature' (see █15). The challenge which the Stoics faced from their opponents in the Academy was how moral good could depend on a set of aims whose attainment was morally indifferent. The answer was as follows. What matters is not necessarily achieving natural advantages like health, which cannot be guaranteed in all circumstances, and which in any case do not bring happiness. What matters is making the right rational choices - doing everything that lies in your power towards achieving what nature recommends. It is the consistency of those efforts, not of their results, that may ultimately become perfect agreement with nature, that is, happiness...

The cosmic city

Everybody without exception strives for a good and happy life, but only the wise achieve it. Most people in fact misapply the very words 'good' and 'happiness', which they mistakenly associate with morally indifferent states like wealth and honour. This simple point came to be extended by the Stoics to all the other things which are conventionally prized. Everybody wants to be rich, free, powerful, beautiful, loveable, and so on, but, paradoxically, only the wise achieve these goals. Everyone else is, whatever they may think, actually poor, enslaved, powerless, ugly and unloveable. This is because real wealth is to have something of genuine worth (that is, virtue), or to lack nothing that you need; real freedom is to be in full control of your life (including the knowledge of when to accept death rather than ever be forced to do what you do not truly want to do); real power is to be able to achieve everything you want; real beauty is a quality of the soul not the body; and only the genuinely beautiful are genuinely loveable. These Stoic 'paradoxes' are of Socratic inspiration.

A primary motif of Stoic political thought is the extension of such paradoxes into the civic realm. Conventional political ambitions belong to the realm of the indifferent just as much as wealth and health do. Thus, while Stoicism actively promotes conventional political activity as a way of following human nature, it at the same time downgrades it in relation to true moral goodness. Everybody wants to have power, and would like if they could to be a king; but only the wise have power (only they can achieve everything they want) and kingship (defined as 'rule which is accountable to no one'). These Socratic redefinitions were extended even to humbler civic aims: only the wise are generals, orators, magistrates, lawyers, and so on.

An upshot of this was a corresponding downgrading of the civic institution within which such offices operated. A city, in the conventional sense of a human cohabitation with geographical boundaries, a legal code and so on, is an artificial construct. A city in the most correct sense is not constrained in these ways: in fact the world itself is the ultimate city, being a habitation common to humans and gods, united by their shared rationality.

The idea was of Cynic inspiration. The Cynics had already coined the expression 'citizen of the world', kosmou polites, which the Stoics took over. In a way every human being is a citizen of the world, and this generous version of Stoic cosmopolitanism was to become enormously influential on the ideology of the Roman Empire, as well as leading some Stoics to challenge entrenched gender and class barriers. But on a narrower criterion - influenced by Zeno's early utopian work the Republic (see Zeno of Citium) - it is not all human beings, but only the wise, who participate in the real cosmic city. The cosmic city has its own law, a natural moral law defined as 'right reason' (orthos logos) which commands what should be done and forbids what should not'. This notion of a cosmic moral law which transcends local legal codes exerted a powerful influence on later theories of natural law....


Everyone who has not achieved virtue is in a state of vice or moral badness. Most commonly - for example, in the work of Plato and Aristotle - vice was viewed as a state in which reason is dominated and deflected by strong irrational emotions, or 'passions'. But Socrates had established an enduring intellectualist alternative, according to which the soul has no irrational parts, and virtue is knowledge, so that its lack, vice, is simply ignorance: 'No one does wrong willingly. The Stoics are fully committed to developing Socrates' position, in particular the thesis that passions are really value judgments.

A passion is commonly thought of as disobedient to reason. Reason says that you should face some danger, but fear disobeys. Reason chooses to abstain from embezzlement, but greed wins out. This suggests that an emotion can hardly itself be a rational state. The Stoics accept the description of emotions as 'disobedient to reason', but redescribe what this amounts to.

An emotion is primarily a judgment - a false one. A fear may be the false judgment that some impending thing, say injury, is bad for you. The falsity lies in the fact that physical injury is actually not bad, just a 'dispreferred indifferent' and therefore strictly irrelevant to happiness. Your belief that it is bad takes the form of an 'excessive impulse' to avoid it, and that impulse, as well as being a judgment, is like any intellectual state also a physical modification (in this case called a 'contraction') of the pneuma that constitutes the commanding-faculty of your soul. The new overtensioned and perturbed state of your mental pneuma is one that you cannot instantly snap out of. Were you to entertain the correct judgment that you should not shrink from the danger, your pneuma would not be able to respond. That is what makes the passionate state of fear 'disobedient to reason' - a status it can have while itself also being a piece of faulty reasoning. Chrysippus compared it to a runner who is going too fast and therefore cannot stop at will.

The four main kinds of emotion are appetite, fear, pleasure and distress. Appetite and fear are faulty evaluations of future things as good and bad respectively. Pleasure and distress are corresponding mis-evaluations of things already present. Each has a variety of sub-species, and one of particular importance in Stoic discussions is anger, identified as a species of desire, namely the desire for revenge. Calling pleasure a passion and a vice may sound harsh, but the kind of pleasure envisaged here is one involving conscious evaluative attitudes, such that its sub-species include gloating and self-gratification. ('Pleasure' understood as that sensation of wellbeing which automatically accompanies certain states and activities is not a vice but an 'indifferent'. It is the view that pleasure - in this latter sense - and pain are indifferent that has given 'stoical' its most familiar modern meaning.)

It should not be inferred that a Stoic sage is feelingless. The wise lack the 'passions', which are overevaluations, but they do instead have the correct affective states, which the Stoics call eupatheiai, or 'good feelings'. Thus the sage has no 'appetites', but does have 'wishes', whose species include kindness, generosity, warmth and affection. Similarly, instead of 'fear' the wise have 'watchfulness', and so on.

The Stoics' conviction that emotional states, far from being mere irrational drives, are primarily specified by their cognitive content is one of their most valuable contributions to moral philosophy. Its most important implication in their eyes is that philosophical understanding is the best and perhaps the only remedy for emotional disquiet. In the short term strong emotions are disobedient to correct reasoning, but in the long term rational therapy can restructure the intellect and dispel all passions.


Socrates had been a firm believer in the powers of divination and in divine providence. Stoicism took over this outlook and developed it into a doctrine of 'fate', which by the time of Chrysippus had become a full-scale thesis of determinism.

That everything that happens is predetermined is a thesis which flows easily from all three branches of Stoic philosophy. Ethics locates human happiness in willing conformity to a pre-ordained plan, and treats the use of divination as a legitimate means towards this goal. Physics provides the theory of the world's divinely planned cyclical recurrence, unvarying in order to maintain its own perfection.

Physics also supplies a fundamental principle, regarded as conceptually self-evident, that nothing happens without a cause. This quickly leads to the conclusion that the world's entire history is an unbroken causal network. 'Fate is a natural everlasting ordering of the whole: one set of things follows on and succeeds another, and the interconnection is inviolable'. 'The passage of time is like the unwinding of a rope, bringing about nothing new and unrolling each stage in its turn.' A modern analogy might be the continual rerunning of a film.

Finally, logic offers the principle of bivalence: every proposition, including those about the future, is either true or false. Therefore, Chrysippus argued, it is true now of any given future event either that it will happen or that it will not happen. What does that present truth consist in? It can only lie in the causes now present, sufficient either to bring the event about or to prevent its happening. Therefore all events are predetermined by antecedent causes sufficient to bring them about and to prevent all alternatives from occurring.


The greatest interest of this determinist position lies in the Stoics' attempts to meet the challenge it poses to moral responsibility. They implicitly accept that a person is responsible for an action only if they could have done otherwise. But how could this latter be true in a Stoic world, where the actual action performed is causally determined and even predictable in advance? Chrysippus was the author of the main Stoic answers to this challenge. His task (see Cicero, On Fate) was to show that even in such a world 'could have done otherwise' makes sense: an action which I did not in the event perform may nevertheless have been possible for me, that is, my failure to perform it was not necessary. The strategy for securing this result included the following lines of argument.

â Suppose that you have failed to pay a bill despite having the cash. Paying the bill was 'possible' for you. (i) It 'admits of being true': there is such a thing as paying a bill, unlike for example, being in two places at once. (ii) Nothing external to you prevented you: you did not lack the funds, you were not forcibly detained, and so forth. This account of possibility does allow that something internal to you may (indeed must) have prevented you from paying: for example, your meanness, forgetfulness or laziness. Still, it was possible for you to pay, in the sense that you had the opportunity to pay. Chrysippus seems to maintain that the 'could have done otherwise' notion of responsibility holds in his world, because alternative actions are 'possible' in just this sense: we regularly have the opportunity to do otherwise, and therefore have only ourselves to blame for what we actually do.

Stoicism resists the alternative that 'could have done otherwise' might entail our being actually capable of acting otherwise: surely the good, in order to claim credit for their conduct, do not have to be capable of wrongdoing, nor need the bad, if they are to be blamed, be capable of acting well.


Importantly, the Greek word for a cause, aition, literally means the 'thing responsible'. However, the Stoics' technical term for moral responsibility is eph' hemin: our actions are 'within our power'. This is not a thesis of free will. What matters to them is not to posit an open future, but to establish the moral accountability of human action even within a rigid causal nexus....

One remaining challenge was the Lazy Argument. Why, its proponents asked, should we bother to make decisions if the outcome is already fixed? Why call the doctor, if whether you will die or recover from your illness is already fated? Chrysippus' answer is that such sequences of events as calling the doctor and recovering are 'co-fated'. In most cases the outcome is fated via the means, not regardless of them.

Some landmark events, however, such as the day of your death, may be fated regardless of the means. Your character will cause you to decline numerous alternative actions to those you will choose, but even if, counterfactually, you were going to choose one of those alternatives, it would still be going to lead to your death on that same day. For example Socrates (in Plato's Crito) knew through a prophetic dream that he would die in three days' time, and his reasoned decision to stay and accept execution was willing cooperation with the rational world plan, where a bad person would have resisted by escaping but still died on that same fated day. Zeno and Chrysippus compared a human being to a dog tied to a cart: it can follow willingly, or be dragged.

In this way, morality is not simply argued to be compatible with determinism, but to require it. Only within a framework of rational predestination can moral choices have their true significance. There remains, however, the question why, in a world where it was pre-ordained that we would be precisely the kind of people we are, our choices should have any moral significance at all. The answer is that goodness belongs primarily to the world as a whole (identifiable with god). It is from this that moral qualities filter down to individuals and their actions, as a measure of their cooperation with or obstruction of the rational world plan.

Later fortunes

Stoicism's success ran high in the first century AD. It was perceived by writers like Seneca and Lucan as embodying the traditional Roman virtues whose decline was so widely lamented. Roman Stoics formed the main resistance to the emperor's rule, and, following the earlier model of the Stoic Cato, made the principled act of suicide into a virtual art form.

In a way Stoicism's crowning achievement was in AD 161, when its adherent Marcus Aurelius became Roman emperor. Here at last was a genuine philosopher-ruler. When Marcus established chairs of philosophy at Athens, these included one of Stoic philosophy. Nevertheless, Stoicism was already on the decline in the late second century, eclipsed by the revived philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. By then, however, it had entered the intellectual bloodstream of the ancient world, where its concepts remained pervasive in such diverse disciplines as grammar, rhetoric and law, as well as strongly influencing the thought of Platonist philosophers like Porphyry, and Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria.

Through the writings of Cicero (whose philosophical works, although not Stoic, embody much Stoicism) and Seneca, Stoic moral and political thought exercised a pivotal influence throughout the Renaissance. Early modern philosophers who incorporated substantial Stoic ethical ideas include Spinoza and Kant...

Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge
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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)