63 - Like a Rolling Stone: Stoic Ethics

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Peter considers two of the Stoics’ most challenging ideas, a determinism that leaves room for moral responsibility, and the ideal of an ethically perfect sage.



Further Reading

• S. Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: 1998).

• T. Brennan, The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate (Oxford: 2005).

• K. Ierodiakonou (ed.), Topics in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford: 1999) [on Stoic ethics see the pieces by Inwood, Sedley, and Mitsis].

• B. Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford: 1985).

• B. Inwood and P. Donini, “Stoic Ethics,” in The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy , ed. K. Algra et al (Cambridge: 1999), 675-738.

• R. Salles, The Stoics on Determinism and Compatibilism (Burlington VT: 2005).

• G. Striker, “Following Nature: a Study in Stoic Ethics,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 9 (1991), 1-73.


Aaron J. Snoswell on 12 April 2022

Stoic Argument to justify Determinism and Compatibilism

Hi Prof. Adamson! I am a huge fan of the podcast :-) I recently listened to this episode, and I have to admit, I struggled to follow the Stoic argument on how determinism and compatibilism can be unified. The 'pushing a cylinder and a cone' analogy makes it seem like Stoics are 'pulling a fast one' by just re-defining the phrase 'free will' to mean that you as an individual just act in accordance with the causes that formed you up to the present moment.

Are you able to elaborate at all on how they believed these two principles could both be true? I realise this seems like a deep topic (evidenced by all the comments and discussion above) and I'm probably just scratching the surface or might have mis-understood something.


In reply to by Aaron J. Snoswell

Peter Adamson on 12 April 2022


Thanks, glad you like the podcast!

Sure, I can try to explain further. Firstly some terminological clarification: compatibilism is the view that causal determinism is "compatible" with free action. So a given action could be "free" despite being caused. If you are an in-compatibilist by contrast, you think that free actions must be uncaused (or at least not caused in the sense of being necessitated to occur by previous events).

So a determinist can be either a compatibilist, or incompatiblist: if the former they think free will could still exist, even though the world is deterministic; if the latter they think there is no free will.

So now, why be a compatibilist? Well first, a negative argument: if free will involves events (choices) that are not caused to occur, then the world has uncaused events. Which is (a) strange, and (b) doesn't distinguish choices from random, inexplicable events.

Now, a positive argument: when we say that someone did something freely, we don't mean "metaphysically speaking, there were other ways the world could have gone from that point onward." (Only a philosopher would care about that and as we just saw, it's a bad idea anyway because it makes choices into random events.) We just mean that the person did what they wanted to, as opposed to doing it by compulsion or randomly, like a muscle spasm.

If this is what freedom means, it is fine that the person is caused to act, usually at least in part by their own desires and beliefs. Like, I order ice cream because I am hungry, and have a sweet tooth, and I know the store down the street has ice cream: the hunger and weakness for sweets, and my belief that ice cream is available, are all given by the state of the world, I didn't make them happen in that moment. They explain my doing something, but I am doing it freely, i.e. doing it because I want to. And a complete description of the world would show that the action is even necessitated by all the starting conditions, because if it weren't then we would still need to explain why the result was my acting as I did; and if there is no further cause we are back to a random event.

This is more or less how the Stoics are thinking: they are determinists, because they believe that the world is causally orchestrated by a perfectly wise god, and they are compatibilists, because they think we act freely and are responsible for what we do because our actions are expressions of our desires and beliefs and not compelled from outside.

I'm not saying this is all correct (indeed the part about "either the event is necessitated or it is random" may be an unfair move), just trying to explain it.

Does that help?


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Aaron J. Snoswell on 12 April 2022

RE: Compatibilism

Thank you for the generous response :) I think it makes sense, and yes it helps. To further clarify my understanding:

So Stoics believe "we act freely and are responsible for what we do because our actions are expressions of our desires and beliefs and not compelled from outside."

But if they also believe in determinism, wouldn't a Stoic concede that my desires and beliefs are exactly and deterministically caused by prior events and in this sense are in fact compelled or determined (before I was even born)?

As an aside, I think I realise where misunderstanding might stem from - when I think of doing something freely, the definition that comes to mind is exactly "metaphysically speaking, there were other ways the world could have gone from that point onward." :D

In reply to by Aaron J. Snoswell

Peter Adamson on 13 April 2022


Yes, that's right: everything about the world is determined, including your beliefs and desires. But that shouldn't bother you, since it means your beliefs and desires are themselves part of a providential world order!

Bashir on 24 April 2022

Thinking Through Compatibilism

After all this time, I’m still mulling over the compatibilist position and returned to this thread to go over the philosophical discussion once again. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your responses, so I hope you don’t mind if I take a bit of your time with yet another question. 

You wrote: 

“When we say that someone did something freely, we don't mean "metaphysically speaking, there were other ways the world could have gone from that point onward." (Only a philosopher would care about that and as we just saw, it's a bad idea anyway because it makes choices into random events.) We just mean that the person did what they wanted to, as opposed to doing it by compulsion or randomly, like a muscle spasm.”

From the above statement, I take it that a person wanting to make the choice they make, rather than it being coerced or random, constitutes the crux of the compatibilist position. No alternative possibilities required. 

Now, to want something is to be capable of conceiving a goal. But why do we conceive of goals in the first place if in any given situation there are no alternative possibilities and only one outcome is foreordained? The act of conceiving, of thinking also involves choices. If there are no alternative possibilities for even our thoughts how is one able to think of alternative possibilities? 

The compatibilist may perhaps respond that in this scenario one nonetheless thinks what one wants to think. But what if the thing I want to think of is the number of alternative possibilities I’m able think of? And this isn’t merely a recondite philosophical question. After all, I may have a goal I want to achieve but be unsure of the means by which to achieve that goal and hence I think through the alternative possibilities in the attempt to weigh and compare and plot a path of action. 

In reply to by Bashir

Peter Adamson on 24 April 2022


Right, that is a point that incompatibilists often make or at least find intuitive. How can I even deliberate between options if one of the options is already selected in advance? Aristotle makes this argument in On Interpretation ch.9 for instance.

But with all due respect to Aristotle I think this is a mistake. First, the fact that one outcome is preordained doesn't mean we know which one it is; in fact, we usually don't. So our experience of uncertainty about the outcome is accurate: we, as mere humans (unlike the Stoic God) don't yet know what will happen. Second, and this is a point that was made by Chrysippus, my deliberation may well be part of the causal chain that results in a certain outcome. That point can be generalized: if I decide not to go to the doctor and then get sick, my failing to go to the doctor is part of the cause of the illness. So by acting in certain ways and deliberating, you are indeed affecting the world in such a way that it winds up being as you would prefer. None of this requires that, from a god's eye point of view, things could have gone differently - like, your decision to deliberate is itself preordained and flows from things like your desires and indeed your uncertainty, all of which are (to God) knowable aspects of the world.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Bashir on 24 April 2022

Re: Compatibilism

To deterministically account for uncertainty I see you thrice made an appeal to the Stoic God. If compatibilism requires us to assume a God’s eye perspective I would consider that a weakness of the position. 

Secondly, I agree with Chrysippus that the result of a deliberation can be part of what creates an actual outcome. But it’s the process of deliberation itself that’s in question. I think the generalized words “cause” and “effect” when applied to the process of deliberation may obscure the issue by creating a questionable assumption of what that process entails. This goes back to my comment from over a year ago about compatibilism assuming that all phenomena, including thought, occur in a manner similar to the interaction of billiard balls (or the fall of dominoes): one thought is inevitably followed by the next which is inevitably followed by the next and so on and so forth. On what grounds (other than the Stoic God) do we declare inevitability between two thoughts in this process? It’s not as though we could conduct a repeatable experiment to demonstrate a “constant conjunction” of thoughts (to again anachronistically refer to Hume). Whereas such repeatable experiments are possible in the case of billiard balls and dominoes.

In reply to by Bashir

Peter Adamson on 27 April 2022

More on compatibilism

On the first point, I mentioned the Stoic god only because of the context of our discussion. Actually I think a majority of philosophers nowadays are compatibilists and probably not a single one of them believes in the Stoic god! The usual reason for believing in determinism now would just be that the physical world is deterministic (or insofar as it is not deterministic, is indeterministic in a way we cannot deliberately control, e.g. quantum physics stuff).

On your second point in a way I think that your argument actually supports compatibilism, rather than going against it. If we cannot even tell whether our thoughts are arising deterministically or not, then it is clearly false that they must be non-deterministic if we are to preserve the phenomenology of decision-making. So in other words, here I am deliberating: maybe my deliberative process is necessitated by the state of the universe, maybe not, I can't be sure. But my deliberation will go on the same either way.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Bashir on 29 April 2022

Phenomenological Decisions

The phenomenology of my decision-making is that within my process of deliberation I have agency to direct my thoughts more than one way. I assume you would agree that your phenomenology is the same. If not, then we’re having fundamentally different experiences of the world which are likely incapable of seeing eye to eye. 

But that assumption granted, here’s how I see the debate: either the phenomenology is an illusion, in which case I merely think I can direct my thoughts more than one way but in actuality I can’t, there is only one way, the way which after the fact I recognize as the way my thoughts actually went; either that or the phenomenology is real.

If illusion, then we have determinism, no agency required, and we are left with the task of explaining how the phenomenology arises and how we are able to see beyond its illusion to the putative reality of determinism. If real, then we have indeterminism.

Tangentially, I think “free will” is something of a misnomer. There is no thought or action entirely “free”, i.e., independent of constraints. After all, walking requires friction but that doesn’t preclude me variously directing my steps. I think “agency” is a more adequate term.

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