Stoic Ethics and Family-Based Moralities

Draft by Jan Garrett

September 6, 2004; slight revision 1/10/05

Beginning in his Moral Politics (Univ of Chicago Press, 1996; rpt. 2002), George Lakoff distinguishes two basic models of pre-philosophical morality, the Strict Father Model and the Nurturant Parent Model. Lakoff's hypothesis, a contribution to what he calls second-generation cognitive science, is that many of our pre-philosophical moral ideas are metaphorical projections of primary moral experience acquired in the original context of the family. We can refine and rearrange these ideas but their ingredients and to a great extent their internal logic goes back to the two basic models. Lakoff's theory goes a long way toward explaining moral and political differences between liberals and conservatives that play themselves out in contemporary politics and religion.

In Philosophy in the Flesh (Chicago, 1999), Lakoff and his coauthor Mark Johnson review the achievements of second-generation cognitive science over the past two decades. They also incorporate and expand upon Lakoff's Family Moral Models and relate them briefly to major ethical theories in the history of philosophy and at some length to Kantian moral philosophy. Already in Moral Politics Lakoff had described Libertarian morality (of the sort exemplified by the Libertarian Party in the U.S. and worked out philosophically by, say, Robert Nozick) as a modification of the basic SFM. Lakoff and Johnson discuss Kant's moral system at length and show how it too may be understood as a philosophical version of Strict Father Morality. Rawls' ethics (in spite of Kantian overtones) may be seen as a version of Nurturant Parent Morality, as may Hume's moral philosophy, Utilitarianism, and even Aristotelian virtue ethics. Lakoff and Johnson do not discuss Stoic philosophy.

Briefly, the SF family model has the following characteristics. The SF is morally strong, calling for obedience to his rules. The SF provides for and protects his family. It is not permitted to question the authority of the SF. The child is to be obedient to the rules in order to develop moral strength himself. Generally speaking, the world is a hostile place, and competition is a major feature of it. Moral weakness is something to be avoided. Punishments must be imposed for breaking the rules of the SF. Rewards should be provided when the rules are followed. The hostile world is a source of tests of moral progress. Complaining about environmental conditions is normally not acceptable. Responsibility is primarily a personal matter.

The Nurturant Parent Model of the family has the following characteristics. The NP nurtures all the children, providing love and seeing to it that their needs are met. She tries to understand their needs and perspectives. She follows guidelines of fairness and encourages children to do the right thing out of attachment to her rather than from fear of punishment. (Punishments tend to be mild but firm.) The family is a space of warmth and cooperation and children are taught that cooperation and nurturing of others are important in the outside world as well. Children are encourages to ask why and parents expect to provide explanations, time permitting. The nurturant parent is concerned not only for the needs of individuals but for maintaining social ties (Lakoff 2002, 120: To act morally one must attend constantly to social ties.)

Stoic ethics clearly has elements of SFM. For instance:

  • Strict Father -> Zeus, understood as the (moral) Law of Nature

  • Authority -> Zeus and, when he exists, the Sage; insofar as it exists in the person, Right Reason.

  • Child -> the ruling mind (rational hegemonikon) or volition (prohairesis) of the human individual

  • Strength -> Moral virtue, including wisdom

  • Boundaries -> The sharp distinction between the good and the merely preferred

  • Freedom -> Moral freedom understood as self-reliance (accompanies virtue)

  • Slavery -> Moral subordination to preferred indifferents (accompanies vice)

  • Success -> Proper use of impressions

  • Siblings -> Other human beings

  • Weakness -> Disposition to assent to impressions that preferred things are good (and a disposition to act on such judgments); such dispositions are morally inferior, vice.

  • Rewards -> Making progress, attaining a smoother flow of life

  • Punishments -> Inner violence, emotional turmoil

  • Commands of Strict Father -> Precepts reflecting the Moral Law of Nature

  • Hostile environment -> impressions of which we should be suspicious, and to many of which we should not assent.
    (These impressions make claims about external or bodily events or objects people regard as hardships or as tempting.)

  • Signs of success -> equanimity

  • Signs of failure -> experiences of violent emotions and mood swings
  • Now it might be argued that Stoicism is not a clear illustration of Strict Father Family Morality because it also has features of Nurturant Parent Morality:
  • Nurturant Parent -> Nature as Providence
    (Natura and Providentia both happen to be feminine nouns)

  • Acts of nurturant parent -> providing the faculty of reason, including the "inchoate sparks of intelligence" in children.
    (Apparently these "sparks" make possible the process of oikeiosis, or attraction to what is proper to us as humans and rational beings-among them our inclination to preserve ourselves and be of assistance to our fellow human beings, which is the basis for appropriate action and moral development.)
  • Children -> the individual rational principle or volition

  • Other children -> other humans insofar as they need moral development and material support while undergoing moral development

  • Moral acts of children -> appropriate actions, eventually including right actions, imitating Nature as Provident parent.

  • Moral acts of children -> maintenance of relationships (brother, father, son, citizen, etc.)
  • Thus, it seems difficult to decide whether Stoicism is a version of SFM or NPM, and this difficulty apparently calls into question the project of interpreting the history of ethics in terms of these two family-based models.

    But before we abandon the effort, let's look further. Lakoff informs us that it is characteristic of the "pure" form of SFM that the metaphors of the Moral Strength Group (e.g., Moral Strength, Moral Authority, Moral Essence, Moral Order, Moral Boundaries, etc.) take precedence over Moral Self-Interest, and that Moral Strength and MSI take precedence over the Nurturance metaphors (Nurturance, Empathy, and Self-nurturance). In the Strict Father Family Model, the Nurturance Group of metaphors do some work, but they are subordinated to the over-all priority of the Moral Strength Group.

    Explanation is in order regarding Moral Self-Interest (and later Moral Order). In the "pure" form of non-philosophical SFM recognized by Lakoff, Moral Self-Interest seems to refer to the free pursuit of self-interest which the morally strong (self-disciplined, self-reliant) "good person" enjoys for himself. (He is permitted this as a reward for putting the Moral Strength values first.) On Lakoff's view, Libertarians place free pursuit of Moral Self-Interest ahead of the Strength Group of metaphors; a modification which explains why Libertarians are both close to "pure" SFM and yet distinct from it. Libertarians are rarely religious Fundamentalists, while most Fundamentalists hold a fairly standard view of SFM.

    What characterizes Stoicism, I think, is the vigorous attempt to collapse the distinction between moral self-interest and moral strength a.k.a. virtue. Thus, Stoics teach paradoxically, i.e., contrary to popular opinion, that virtue (and things that express it such as virtuous acts or accompany it such as the tranquility enjoyed by the sage) is the good, period. Possession of the good makes one happy even without any of the things most people call good but are not so. This helps explain why Stoicism differs somewhat from other versions of SFM.

    But what about the fact that Stoicism presents itself as a philosophy and as an heir to Socrates. If the Nurturant Parent Family model, and not the Strict Father Family model, encourages questioning and explanation, how is it that Stoicism is grounded in the SFM? Surely Stoicism, at least in the texts of Cicero, Arius Didymus, Seneca, and Diogenes Laertius, is constantly explaining itself.

    The answer here seems to be that all ethical and political theories frame themselves as philosophical theories and thus put themselves in a context in which questioning is by definition permitted and even to some extent encouraged. Moreover, philosophies must gain adherents from among those who would otherwise not be philosophers at all. Finally, a specific philosophy must compete with other philosophical traditions to preserve its adherents. It would be impossible, therefore, for Stoicism-at least in its classical heyday, when it coexisted with Aristotelians, Epicureans, Cynics, and Skeptics-to abandon the enterprise of dialectical self-defense and therefore a willingness to give reasons for its views.

    But it might be noted that at least the Skeptics regarded Stoicism as a "dogmatic" school. True, the term did not primarily mean in ancient times what it means today: it referred to the fact that the Stoics actually taught doctrines, especially about controversial matters like the human good, the composition of nature, and the nature of the gods. But the Stoics not only taught controversial doctrines, they erected them into an impressive intellectual system whose parts were mutually reinforcing. This at least raises the suspicion that the Stoics were protecting themselves against refutation by a form of subtle circular reasoning. The fact that becoming a Stoic meant adopting a unique philosophical vocabulary, e.g., "preferred" for things most people call "good," partially gives credence to the suspicion that Stoic philosophy is a subtle form of indoctrination by stipulative definition.

    A second challenge to the hypothesis that Stoicism is basically a version of SFM is that it seems to abandon, at least in its doctrines, the view that women are inherently inferior to men. This view is a version of the "Moral Order is the Natural Order" metaphor characteristic of Strict Father Morality and included Lakoff's Moral Strength Group. It is widely found in the popular culture and philosophers such as Aristotle.

    This challenge is less difficult to meet, I think. It is true that Aristotle was working with the "Moral Order is the Natural Order" metaphor when in his Politics he maintained that the practical reason of (naturally free) women was inferior to that of (naturally free) men and that there were natural slaves whose reason was capable only of obedience, never leadership. Now, this does not prevent Lakoff and Johnson from maintaining that Aristotle's ethics is a Nurturant Parent ethics. They say this because Aristotle not only sees a positive role for compassion and moderate feeling in the good life but also carries his ethical inquiry into the public domain in his Politics, since he sees it as the statesman's task to nurture moral virtue and promote happiness in as many citizens as possible. But it is also worth noting that the Stoic abandonment of the moral subordination of women, at least in theory, did not entail their abandonment of the Folk Theory of the Natural Order or the metaphor "the moral order is the natural order"; for they recognize the gods as naturally and morally superior to (ordinary) humans, and the sage, the morally strong human being, as morally equivalent to the gods, which places the sage, at least by temporary adoption, at the pinnacle of the natural order.

    By contrast, the rest of us are "slaves," although we are made slaves by our own assenting to false impressions. Of course, the Stoics maintained that through moral training (discipline?) we could ascend to wisdom, virtue, and happiness. In that way, they were less devoted to parts of the Moral Order metaphor than, say, Augustine who, ultimately, held that nobody could be happy who had not received divine grace albeit unmerited. But the Stoics had to affirm the possibility of individual happiness through human effort if they were to remain in the moral philosophical enterprise as it was conceived in pagan antiquity.

    In the final analysis, whether Stoic ethics is a refined version of Strict Father morality comes down, I think, to the question of whether for Stoicism the Nurturance Group of metaphors reflected in the account of Nature as Providence is subordinate to the Strength Group of metaphors related to Virtue. Given the abstractness of the theory, it is entirely possible for some Stoic authors to give more prominence to the Nurturance Group than others; it is also possible for some authors to adopt a Nurturing style of communication rather than a Strict Father style. Seneca strikes me as being more nurturing in relation to his (fictional?) correspondent Lucilius than Epictetus to his anonymous listeners. As Martha Nussbaum has noted, Seneca also finds room in his Stoicism for a degree of mercy toward malefactors that seems to be missing in texts reflecting the views of the earlier Stoics. Yet it is Seneca who describes Jupiter in terms characteristic of the strict father who applies "tough love."

    To borrow a metaphor from William James' pragmatism, the "cash value" of Stoicism is its ethics, as it would seem to be according to the testimony of Pierre Hadot, whose What is ancient philosophy? makes the case that virtually all ancient philosophers were ultimately concerned with the art of living. And the key thesis of Stoic ethics (at least in sound-bite form), as we all know, is that the good is virtue. It is not that we have received the bounty of Nature, though that is part of the over-all story the Stoics tell. From the perspective of Stoic ethics, reason, the most precious of the gifts of Zeus with which we start out, cannot be a good, because it is not yet right reason. Right reason arises in us only as we discover the Law of Nature and obey. The person who has attained right reason is master of himself and free, completely prepared to test all the impressions that come at him like so many challengers and disable the false and potentially dangerous ones with a fitting "I assent not."