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Jan 14, 2022

The Harmony of Hierarchy

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Kai Whiting

Kai Whiting

Kai Whiting is a coauthor of “Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In.” He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium.

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The Harmony of Hierarchy

A Stoic Approach to Rescuing the Planet

587Px Van Gogh  Landschaft Mit Drei Bäumen Und Häuschen

In August 2021, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading climate research group, published its Sixth Assessment Report, an extensive literature review of more than 14,000 scientific publications. The report concludes that Earth has entered the Anthropocene—a geological epoch that reflects the fact that human activity, not natural processes, has become the primary driver of the planet’s changing, and increasingly destabilized, climate.1 It paints a detailed picture of the current physical state of the world, including atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and the sensitivity of various physicochemical feedback loops. The IPCC’s extensive data collection highlights how these loops have resulted in increases in average global temperature and sea level and a reduction in vegetation cover. Such data has also allowed quantitative models to project what is likely to happen if these patterns continue or exacerbate. For example, many scientists and activists believe the intensification of floods and droughts and the reduction of food and freshwater security are just a few examples of what we can expect if we continue to add to greenhouse gas concentrations via the burning of fossil fuels and the proliferation of meat-heavy diets. 

In light of the IPCC’s unequivocal statement that we have entered the Anthropocene, a reasonable person might conclude that any moral obligation to mitigate the detrimental effects of climate change (should we value life as we know it) has been extended to the moral obligation to reevaluate the choices, no matter how seemingly trivial, we make as individuals. One also might argue that knowledge of the Anthropocene leads us to reconsider, perhaps even challenge, the personal and collective values that govern our society and its systems, including the economy. However, concluding that we should reconsider our values (on both a personal level and a societal one) does not tell us which framework is the most suitable for doing this. More crucially, “listening to the science,” although of fundamental importance should we wish to know the state of the world, merely provides us with the facts and not the tools we need to make ethical decisions.

The philosopher David Hume highlighted the fact-value distinction: the idea that we cannot derive a value from a fact or an “ought” from an “is.” Instead, we must derive a value from a value. Take, for example, car ownership. It is true that burning fuel as we drive around town contributes to carbon emissions and thus the destabilization of the planet’s climate. However, it may be equally true that, because of a lack of public transport, a refusal to burn this fuel would result in our child not getting to school on time tomorrow morning. The question then becomes, Which fact should we pay more attention to? What should we prioritize: our planet or our child’s education? And what should our criteria be when it comes to deciding? Environmental philosophers have traditionally considered a biocentric pantheist framework when reflecting on how society ought to answer these kinds of questions. While there are various approaches that come under this umbrella, including Arne Naess’s Deep Ecology and Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, all of them are axiomatically rooted in a nonhierarchical reality, where God and nature are one and humans and nonhumans are considered equally worthy of care and consideration. In other words, no one species (or individual within a species) is inherently more valuable than any other.2 However, for a view that retains a traditional understanding of hierarchy, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, with its unique virtue ethics framework and complex amalgam of logocentric pantheism and theism (a reason-centered physics and ethics in which natural law is God as opposed to being created by God), can be applied to the aforementioned questions. In particular, Stoicism’s logocentrism helps us to better understand our role on this planet and, consequently, the actions we can take to maintain Earth’s conditions in such a way that we strengthen our moral character and progress toward eudaimonia, a state of complete human flourishing.

Stoic Virtue Ethics 

Both Aristotle and the Stoics operated out of a virtue ethics framework and taught that it was virtue, not pleasure (or the absence of pain), that constituted the good. A person adhering to a virtue ethics framework engages in an act (or refuses to) because of its effect on their moral character, rather than out of a sense of duty or adherence to a moral rule (deontology) or in light of the potential or realized consequences (consequentialism). A utilitarian, for example, will point out that a given action is appropriate if it maximizes well-being (or minimizes harm) for the greatest number of beings. A virtue ethicist also factors consequences but believes they do not provide sufficient motivation to undertake (or refuse) a given action. This is because the final result of a decision does not prove its moral correctness or incorrectness. A poor judgment does not suddenly become morally good because it happens to improve the lives of many people or bad because it makes many people’s lives worse. Furthermore, intentions are everything: if a person does the right thing with bad intentions, it cannot be said that they did it out of their good character, for they were not thinking or acting virtuously—that is to say, courageously, justly, temperately, and wisely. 

Axiomatically, Stoics hold that virtue is the only good because it is the only thing humans are capable of possessing that guarantees their happiness. For Stoics, a perfectly happy person has achieved eudaimonia, a state of complete human flourishing as revealed by their good character, or a character in harmonious alignment with the perfectly rational Divine—humankind’s objective yardstick and the source of our ethical norms. For the Stoics, whether people possess good characters or bad ones is completely up to them—the nature of their characters is a product of their decisions, including their attitude. Nobody, no situation, nor any object can cause somebody else to develop a bad character any more than a person, situation, or object can yield a good one. 

Take the ownership of an SUV or a parental relationship with a child, for example. Refusing to drive an SUV or simply being a parent does not make us morally good; conversely, driving an SUV or not being able to provide for our child does not make us morally bad. Unlike character, which is strengthened or weakened by our decisions alone, parenthood or the ownership of an object can be given or taken by other people or our circumstances. We may be driving an SUV because we inherited it, and we might not be able to provide for our child because we are ill. Neither our health nor our inheritance is completely in our control. For this reason Stoics believe that while things external to our character can make our life more comfortable (or more difficult), they cannot lead us to eudaimonia.

To help people conceptualize virtue, the Stoics broke it down into four components: courage, justice, self-control, and wisdom. We must consciously develop these capacities if we are to positively shape our character. If we fail to develop them, we will inevitably make suboptimal ethical decisions, resulting in a weakened character that will bend, if not break, when faced with a difficult challenge. Courage, for example, is the ability to distinguish what we should fear from what we should not, so we can face tough circumstances with a sound mind. Wisdom is the ability to distinguish between what is good, what is bad, and what is neither good nor bad; and then, to know what our appropriate next step is, and to take it. That said, the Stoic virtues aren’t to be aimed at like commandments such as “Be just” or “Be courageous”; instead, Stoics aim to develop the kind of character that doesn’t miss the mark (what religious people might call sin). There is a unity of virtues too; we cannot hope to be wise if we are fearful (lacking courage), because that fear will override our ability to separate what is morally good from bad and thus hinder our ability to choose an appropriate course of action over an inappropriate one.

In Stoicism, what is appropriate (or inappropriate) will always depend on the person, including their social role3 and the situation at hand. It is certainly not derived from a set of rules or a sense of duty in the Kantian sense. Instead, the right thing to do is revealed through reason that is independent of predetermined imperatives or the consequences of our actions. For example, a father may come to the reasonable conclusion that his daughter’s education is of utmost priority and that it is his responsibility to ensure that she arrives at school on time. After the father consults public transportation routes and possible car-share alternatives, he may realize that his daughter can only get to school if he drives her. Even if he owns an electric vehicle, his car will contribute to carbon emissions, should the electricity the car consumes be generated via fossil fuels. This doesn’t mean that he should ignore this reality, but likely there is very little he can do about it until the next political election. It may be that the family budget does not stretch to cover a new electric car and that, under such circumstances, the most appropriate decision the father can make is to buy a small second-hand car with a high miles-to-the-gallon ratio rather than an older diesel-guzzling SUV. However, what if we imagine that he has to take three young children to school, each with a bulky car seat: Does the diesel SUV purchase still seem inappropriate? We could argue that the best course of action would have been for the father to have parented only one child, and that might be true in hindsight, but this kind of hypothetical statement is hardly relevant now. In any case, the father might have adopted all three of his children. When deciding on a course of action, Stoics use the past to guide them but ultimately focus on the present, as this is the only thing that they have any agency over. In other words, both the past and the future are outside our control; we can learn from the past but not change it, and we can influence some aspects of the future but not all of it. If the father identifies as a Stoic, he must use reason to select what is appropriate given the particular situation he faces right now.

Environmental Ethics from Stoicism’s Logocentric Perspective 

Unlike Naess’s Deep Ecology, which advocates for equal rights for all living beings, Stoicism is not a rights-based philosophy. No human, animal, or plant has a right to life, and language such as “the planet is worth saving because animals have a right to exist” or “we must protect the pandas because they have intrinsic worth” does not map onto Stoic virtue ethics. There is simply no peg on which to hang such a cloak. In Stoicism the only thing of intrinsic value is the Divine, which is also referred to as God, Zeus, Intellect, Providence, Natural Law,4 and Fate and not typically anthropomorphized or ascribed a gender (the Stoic philosopher Epictetus is the primary exception; see his Discourses, 1.14.3, for example). Regardless of the exact term used, the Stoics conceived God as a perfectly rational and benevolent material presence that constitutes everything that does and can exist. In other words, nothing can exist outside of God, and God cannot exist outside the universe, hence the pantheistic nature of Stoic physics and metaphysics. Furthermore, the Stoic conception of God’s body is that it is finite, insofar as the universe is finite, and constituted by the very matter that composes the universe. Likewise, God’s mind is the providential mind of the universe (which incidentally is also corporeal). There is one universe, made up of all things, and one Divinity, present in them all (see Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7.3). The Logos is also identified as the essence of the universe, the divine spark behind humankind’s rational nature and the objective yardstick for human excellence. God’s mind and body, together, are the highest expression of rationality as expressed by the universe’s order, structure, and wholeness (see Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 2.83). Everything is interwoven, and the web is harmoniously composed and holy; none of its parts are unconnected. An excellent person is fully aligned with the will of God (natural law) and has achieved eudaimonia, the perfect state of human flourishing. 

If Stoics are to save anything, including themselves, it will be because this is the virtuous (just, courageous, temperate, and wise) thing for them to do, subject to the particular set of circumstances they are facing at this very instant. One thing is for certain: to look after the interests of the entire world community is to look after our own interests; to believe otherwise is, for the Stoics, a grave mistake in logic. By extension, Stoic logic holds that rational human beings should not ignore the plight of other people, the planet, or pandas. In fact, because of our capacity for reason, Stoics recognize that adult humans have a unique set of obligations, or duties, that involve extending care and consideration beyond the self, until we recognize all of humanity in ourselves and ourselves in all of humanity. The Stoics hold that we have a duty of care to the world precisely because of our God-given rationality, which allows us to understand that we are dependent on, and inseparable from, the divine web that constitutes the whole cosmos. As the Divine is the giver and sustainer of life (see Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods), God is worthy of our consideration, concern, reverence, and respect. Consequently, our relationship with the Divine is reflected in the development of our character. As the Stoic-influenced Cicero states in On Ends (De Finibus III, 73), “Nor can anyone judge truly of things good and evil, save by a knowledge of the whole plan of nature and even of the life of the gods.”

Cicero states that Cleanthes and the Stoics after him were “pantheists in so far as they acknowledge that God and the world are identical” (quoted in Zeno, Fragments, 45). This aligns with the widely accepted modern definition of pantheism as the belief that “god is everything and everything is god or that the world is either identical with god or, in some way, a self-expression of his nature.”6 However, a key point of departure that Stoicism has with many pantheistic approaches, such as Naess’s Deep Ecology or Leopold’s Land Ethic, is its logocentric, as opposed to biocentric, ideals. While biocentric philosophies model a nonhierarchal reality in which humans and nonhumans are considered equal in status, the Stoics believe that the capacity for rational thought and action possessed by humankind bestows on them a special place in the natural order, so long as they remain rooted in the Logos. It is not a stretch to conclude that to destroy the planet on which we live is to turn our back on reason and live misanthropically. This understanding derives from the ancient Stoic belief that we humans experience an impulse very early in our infancy that drives us to seek that which is beneficial to our continuous physical survival and avoid that which threatens it. As we mature, this natural impulse transforms into a more reasoned sense of protecting ourselves and, by extension, the harmony of the entire human community (and I would argue that of the planet). On this basis, it is hard to see how the wanton destruction of that which God has provided can be justified. On the contrary, such actions indicate a morally insufficient character and, thus, a poor awareness of divine reason (Logos)—the very essence that enables humans to consciously choose what is truly good and reject that which isn’t.

Another key contradiction between the logocentric and biocentric positions is the lens through which a person looks. Biocentric ethical values are predicated on the ability to “see through the planet’s eyes.” This involves deriving norms and values from Earth’s, or at least an animal’s or plant’s, perspective. Nothing in Stoic thought suggests that we should, or even could, view the universe in such a manner. At the very most, we could be more sympathetic to the divine essence in animals, plants, and even rocks and consequently choose to behave in a way that enables us all to coexist. The logocentric Stoics frequently make the case that our ability to understand how we influence the natural world becomes more apparent upon careful consideration of God’s characteristics and the providential actions that God takes. This is one reason why the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius reminded himself of the benefit derived from observing the world from “the cosmic perspective” or the “view from above” (see Meditations, 9.32, 12.24). Human beings, as rational animals, are capable of this viewpoint because we share reason with the Divine (see Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 2.37).

So how do logocentric Stoics approach their environmental considerations? Facts undoubtedly inform them, providing clues as to how nature works and how their actions are likely to impact it. For while consequences lie outside a Stoic’s control and therefore have no bearing on a person’s character, the purposeful ignoring of inconvenient information or arbitrarily favoring a certain perspective without careful reflection, consideration, and discernment lies contrary to the Stoic’s call to use reason to determine what is an appropriate thought, action, or attitude given the situation at hand. 

To establish the criteria for selecting which fact is more important than another, a Stoic will need to consider his or her social roles. In the example of the father who must decide how best to take his daughter to school, he must ask himself various questions. First, what makes a good father? Second, what constitutes an appropriate course of action for a good father? Third, which obligations has God assigned him that he wouldn’t have if he were the uncle, a family friend, or a complete stranger? At the same time, the father has a role as an inhabitant of Earth. Taking the logocentric “view from above” would remind him that he forms part of the causal web and that his actions (or inactions) have a ripple effect that extends beyond his relationship with his daughter to all living beings (and, given the nature of climate breakdown, future generations). The view from above allows the father to explore the extent to which his character aligns with the Divine and to take steps to rectify his character where it falls short. When the father considers his two roles, he understands first that it would be irresponsible to refuse to drive his daughter to school tomorrow morning and second that it would be equally irresponsible to neglect attempting to reduce the negative climate impact that he might have now and into the future. 

Stoics hold that everyone capable of reason intrinsically understands that to willingly disrupt the God-given harmony that exists between humans and the natural world is self-destructive wanton vandalism. This is because reason dictates that we act appropriately when we recognize, as Marcus Aurelius did (in Meditations, 6.5.4), that what is good for the beehive is good for the bee. Regardless of our exact role, and the situation at hand, all our decisions must be taken with that reality in mind. 

Kai Whiting would like to thank James Daltrey and Professor Aldo Dinucci for their comments and advice on this article.