Stoicism and Moral Responsibility

Updated: Apr 21

Most people, if you ask them if they believe that everything has a cause, they’ll likely say yes.  Most people, if you ask them if they believe that everyone is more or less morally responsible, they’ll likely say yes. The ancient Stoics believed everyone was morally responsible more or less and the Stoics believed that everything, including our own behaviors, was causally determined.  The question is how can you be morally responsible and, at the same time, be determined to behave as you do?

Well, one clever Stoic by the name of Chrysippus believed he possessed the answer.  Chrysippus believed human action could be modeled by a cylinder rolling down an incline.  In the analogy, the cylinder’s shape represents your character and the incline’s angle represents fate (gravity being a given).  Your character, represented by the shape of the cylinder, had an effect on how the cylinder would roll down the incline.  Chryippus thought that your character is where you possessed some control over how your fate was determined.  Essentially, the idea was that everything is fated but we co-fate our future to a limited extent.  The shape of our characters is where we possess some control and that’s where we find moral responsibility.


The cylinder analogy is a really great answer to the problem of moral responsibility. But the Stoics made perplexing claims that only the wise person is truly free. The Stoics would say we have limited freedom to coordinate our future given whether fate allows but on top of that, none of us are truly free except for the Sage.  Ancient Stoics believed that if you couldn’t truly be a master of all of your impulses, you were a slave to your impulses and ultimately were not truly free.  So even though Stoicism does make room for soft determinism (the position that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible), it also seems to, paradoxically, hold a hard determinism position that there is no true freedom for anyone except for the Sage. In regard to the cylinder analogy, imagine that with time the cylinder's shape changed and so its motion down the cylinder altered. You could apply the cylinder shape change to your character change. With lots of Stoic practice you can influence the shape of your character and continue gaining some form of control over your inclinations. As your character gets better shaped, you will feel more at peace with the direction of your motion. Being at peace is a freedom that maybe only the Sage can have.

We all possess limited amount of freedoms that are compatible with a deterministic universe.  But ultimately we’re not fully free like the Sage.  So we still have to live with the idea that each of us bear responsibility even if it's actually the case that the Sage only truly bears responsibility.  This limited freedom idea might seem depressing to some but it's actually, paradoxically, liberating. If we're never truly free like the Sage, then we can never judge ourselves and others too harshly. We realize that we make mistakes because we lack the amount of wisdom and self-control necessary to be a Sage, who is truly happy and free.

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