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:

For our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe. (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.87–88)

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:

It is their [the Stoics] doctrine that there can be no question of right as between man and the lower animals, because of their unlikeness. (VII.129)

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:

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? … The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”

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

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