Lawrence Becker on Following Nature

Composed ca. 1999; modified slightly in 2003 and October 2005

Stoics place great emphasis on nature, and the phrase "follow nature" has cropped up in the [International] Stoic Forum, so I imagine Forum members would be interested in how Lawrence Becker, in the recent book A New Stoicism (Princeton, 1998) reinterprets the slogan "follow nature" (pp. 33-34). Bracketed remarks are my attempts at clarification.

"Following nature means following the facts. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit, and the facts about our situation in it--our own powers, relationships, limitations, possibilities, motives, intentions, and endeavors--before we deliberate about normative matters [what we ought to do]. It means facing those facts--accepting them for exactly what they are, no more and no less--before we draw normative conclusions [conclusions about what we ought to do] from them. It means doing ethics *from* the facts--constructing normative propositions a posteriori. ["A posteriori" means "on the basis of experience." Becker's last statement places his Stoic ethics directly at odds with modern theorists like Immanuel Kant who insist that duty or "the moral law" cannot be determined by a posteriori facts.] It means adjusting those normative propositions to fit changes in the facts, and accepting those adjustments for exactly what they are, no more and no less. And it means living within the facts--within the realm of actual rather than hypothetical norms.

"Following nature thus has nothing to do with conjuring up a quasi-theological vision of the universe as a teleological system* and whose ends we are designed to serve--unless, of course, it is a fact that the universe is such a system and we are designed to serve it."

[A teleological system is a system whose parts somehow have purposes in relation to the whole--in classical Stoic and Christian thought, nature is teleological because its parts are designed by an omniscient creator for ends of which He is aware.]

[To continue the main passage] "And even if that were so, stoics would not now (if they ever did) finally infer that we ought, all-things-considered, to serve as designed. The fact that we had a function in a goal-directed universe would merely generate some first-order normative propositions that might or might not survive conflicts with normative propositions from other sources.

[Becker, p. 36: "norms are facts about the intentional behavior of particular . . . agents' goals, projects or endeavors--specifically about what they believe they must do or be, ought to do or be; normative propositions are ... attempts to represent facts about norms in...propositions." "First-order" normative propositions appear to be propositions about norms that exist prior to any attempt to harmonize conflicting or incompatible norms, e.g., "nothing-else-considered, I ought to eat this piece of pie if it will satisfy my craving for sweets"; clearly, what we normally call moral norms are not first-order norms unless it really is my goal to live according to moral norms.]

[To continue the main passage]: "Stoic ethical theory is not enslaved by nature, gods, emperors, or the status quo. Stoics have been slaves (and emperors), but have opposed the institution of slavery. Stoics have lived in parochial settings, but have argued for cosmopolitan politics and universal moral norms."

[These universal moral norms would not be the norms recognized in first-order normative propositions but instead norms that emerge when persons reach a high degree of integration from efforts to harmonize conflicting norms within themselves, a process that cannot occur apart from learning to place oneself in the shoes of other people and therefore a process that leads to ethical generalization.]

[To continue the main passage again]: "Stoics have accepted the facts of oppression and danger for what they are, but have fought to the death. Stoics have adjusted to a changing world, but have also committed suicide as a mattere of principle. Following nature--following the facts--is not quietism, conformity or passivity."