Stoic q&a: Stoicism and developmental defects

[image: Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Choice of a Boy between Virtue and Vice; this is essay #281 in the Figs in Winter series]

G. writes: How should Stoics view those born with several developmental defects? My instinctive response is that the moral answer is with humanity and compassion, but I have trouble reaching that conclusion using a Stoic framework. From my readings, so many of Stoicism’s ideas of humanity are wrapped up in notions of intellect and the capacity for reason (e.g., even those suffering from “madness” are still members of the humanity family, only incapable of using reason effectively). But if a person, through accident of birth, fundamentally lacks that capacity, what basis do we have to treat them as a human with all the dignity that entails? To be clear, I am not advocating maltreatment of the mentally disabled — quite the opposite. I just have some reservations about continuing to practice a philosophy that would have no place for the most vulnerable.

It’s a very good question, and I’m going to answer it from two perspectives: ancient Stoicism and modern Stoicism. I have been arguing for a while now that modern Stoicism is, and indeed ought to be, somewhat different from its ancient precursor. Just in the way in which no one is a Buddhist or a Christian in the 21st century in the same way in which people were Buddhists or Christians two millennia ago, the same should be for Stoicism. The only reason some are resistant to this otherwise obvious notion is that — unlike Buddhism and Christianity — Stoicism’s intellectual history got “interrupted,” as Larry Becker wrote, and so we need to do a bit more work in order to outline the contours of a modern Stoicism.

You are correct that Stoicism — both ancient and modern — squarely puts the emphasis on the ability to reason, which is the ability that allows us to consciously choose between virtue and vice. This is because Stoicism is a naturalistic philosophy that seeks its axioms in the study of nature, and particularly human nature. As Diogenes Laertius puts it:

Living according to (human) nature means to take seriously what the Stoics thought are the two most distinctive characteristics of Homo sapiens: our ability to reason and our high degree of sociality. A good human life, then, is one in which we apply reason — our chief evolutionary weapon — to the improvement of social living.

A corollary of this approach is that other animals, which the Stoics thought incapable of reason, are there to be used by us. Here is Diogenes Laertius again:

How, then, does a Stoic regard human beings affected by severe developmental abnormalities or, for that matter, struck by disease or accident, who are not in possession of the faculty of reason (either because they never had it in the first place, or because they lost it)? I think you provide the answer yourself when you say that “even those suffering from ‘madness’ are still members of the humanity family, only incapable of using reason effectively.” Exactly, they are still our brothers and sisters because — if they were normal — they would have the ability to practice reason, and therefore virtue. Unfortunately, they suffer from a pathology. But we don’t mistreat those who are blind or deaf, we simply make sure they cannot hurt themselves or others.

Of course, some modern sensibilities will be offended by my very use of terms like “normal” and “pathology” when it comes to disabilities. That’s unfortunate, but I stick to my guns as a biologist: “normal” here doesn’t have any judgment value attached to it, it is simply biologically descriptive. Someone is not normal if their physical or mental abilities are functionally deficient when compared to the bell curve distribution of those abilities in the general population. As a friend of mine who has been confined to a wheelchair for many years puts it, “I am not ‘differently’ abled, I am disabled. And I need to accept that.” Yes, but society also needs to make his life as close to normal as possible. That’s what it means to live in a society: we take care of each other. (For more on Stoicism and disability, see this poignant video by Larry Becker.)

What about the modern Stoic take? I think it builds on the ancient tradition, but improves it. For one thing, we now have more than an inkling that the ability tor reason may not be limited to the human animal. Sure, human beings do it with an incredibly higher level of sophistication than any other species on the planet, but the line of demarcation is no longer as bright as it was two millennia ago.

More importantly, Stoics can borrow good ideas from other philosophical approaches, as Seneca explicitly tells Lucilius in Letter 33.11. In this specific case, I suggest we learn from Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, who said, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

Bentham was talking about other animals, but of course the sentiment is valid just as well for developmentally hampered human beings. Indeed, we don’t need to abandon reason in order to cultivate compassion toward less fortunate humans or toward other animals. On the contrary, it is precisely our ability to reason that shows us clearly that to show compassion is the only virtuous thing to do.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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