Are Rules Futile or Helpful?
The Stoics believed that virtue is a product of rationality. It is natural for humans to reason and act accordingly. The life which is in agreement with nature is virtuous. To, them, division in moral issues comes from bad information and upbringing. Discussions on moral issues can be solved by discussions among moral people, since their reasoning will eventually lead them to unity. The Stoics’ starting point of moral values is summarized as “what is natural is to be taken for its own sake and what is unnatural is to be rejected. . . All appropriate actions proceed from the natural principles” (Cicero On Goals 3. 20, 23 quoted in Hellenistic Philosophy p. 149).
Ariston: “Rules are useless”
Ariston was an intuitionist. He held that our moral values were not reducible to rules. His objection to moral rules was based on four reasons, as they are quoted by Seneca in Letters 94:
1. Rules are trivial and external. Following the rules create habituation. But our nature, (reason) requires reflection, not habituation. Rules don’t tell you why to do or not to do something. Without knowing why to do this or not to that is not virtue. It is not the rules but the principles of philosophy that makes a person know why. Virtue must be pursued for its own sake and this can be possible only by having a holistic view of morality which generates well understood personal rules.
2. Rules are not limited and not exact. For instance, the rule “don’t tell lie” is not practical since it does not provide the exceptional cases. Detailing all the exceptional cases without any exception is not possible. Therefore, in order to act virtuously in all situations, understanding is necessary. A moral person knows the principles of morality and creates his own rules on particular occasions with understanding, and rules become limitless and exact.
3. If you are not virtuous rules are useless, since they don’t give you the insight for “why” to do. If you are virtuous, again rules are futile, since the virtuous person is equipped with the formulation of final good, or the principles of philosophy which enables him how to act in particular situations.
4. Rules can be the carriers of “bad information.” They contain “old wives’ rules.” Accepting and following them without reflection keeps the wrong (irrational) ideas and actions alive throughout generations.
Later Stoicism: “Rules are helpful. . . “
First, they reject Ariston’s assertion that rules “are not limited.” According to later Stoics, rules “do not lack limits concerning the greatest and most crucial matters” (Seneca, Letters 94.35). They claim that infinite number of sub-rules required by different occasions, interactions and situation can be expressed in a few universal rules.
Second, they do not see a categorical difference between the principles of philosophy and rules. They consider principles also as rules. The only difference is that the former directs a person in general, the latter in particular ways.
Third, principles are the sacred roots of rules. Rules are the fruit of principles. Principles can be known only by philosophers, while rules can be known by lay people.
Fourth, though following rules does not make a person’s intention correct, however, rules may help a person in becoming virtuous.
Later Stoicism is more defensible
We can consider the discussion on moral rules as a moral issue, since it involves their value. Therefore, according to all Stoics, as we mentioned in the first paragraph of this paper, moral people can solve this issue by reasoning. Though Ariston is not alive, we can be fair to him by using our reasoning in the best way.
Let’s reiterate the position of Later Stoicism on rules: following the rules does not make a bad person virtuous, however, a virtuous person may benefit by following the rules and may still be considered virtuous.
If living according to nature is virtue, then, how does a virtuous person know what is the nature? Can a moral person deduce from the general principles of philosophy that lying is bad while selling a merchandise, but okay while telling a joke? If he can, then he must have observed the moral rules set by the society.
Rediscovering rules, or benefitting from previous discoveries?
There are many rules which have become integral parts of human societies. Even if we don’t learn them from someone or from books, we will learn and follow them through our natural personal experience. Since many rules are the result of historical experiences of many individuals, it is reasonable to learn them and follow them in the beginning. A virtuous person will eventually reject the ones that are not compatible with reason or nature–through rational reflection, presumably. It seems more reasonable to benefit from previous experiences by following them initially and reject them later.
The reverse process, that is, rejecting them initially and discovering them later is not reasonable for the following reasons: Human societies promote and stick with actions which helps their members to interact in the best possible manner in their societies. This is the nature of societies. Its existence and survival depends on their common agreement on “appropriate” rules. Those rules must be compatible with the natural elements of society, such as environment, economy, technology, physical and psychological needs of individuals, the size of population etc.
In other words, rules must be in hormony with those elements. Rules are modified and retained throughout life span of societies. Rules undergo a process of “natural selection” continuously.
Rediscovering rules is not reasonable
The principles of philosophy are universal. In fact, some rules have become universal throughout thousands-year long human experience, such as respecting parents, taking care of children, not stealing etc. However, some rules can slightly vary according to the elements of societies. Therefore, a virtuous person who “prefers” to live in a certain society cannot find the appropriate rules without violating them or without learning them. It is very painful and time consuming to learn the rules by violating them one by one. Also it is not virtuous to expect the society to tolerate and bear with the wiseacre virtuous rediscoverers.
Violation of some rules may have some fatal consequences on society and on individuals as well. For instance, having unlimited sexual intercourse with multiple partners without protection can create many unwanted children and spread sexual diseases. A young pupil who wants to be virtuous should not be advised to find the appropriate rules based on his immature philosophy. Until he learns the nature he may destroy himself and others. Obviously, our reasoning command us to find the appropriate rules through the best method. A method that eventually leads a person to eliminate some of the unreasonable and unnatural rules knowingly, should be preferred to the one that jeopardizes the well being of society and individuals. The former method is less risky and less regretful. Indeed, the collective reasoning of generations can be perfected in optimum way by natural selection, not by a default wholesale rejection of their moral rules.
Habituation can be avoided while following rules
I agree with the Stoics that mere following the rules without the full understanding of them does not necessarily make a person virtuous. A person with “bad” intention can abuse and exploit those rules, since rules are not limited and exact in many cases. (Here, I agree with Ariston). However, a person who has chosen to become virtuous according to the philosophy of Stoicism, can be considered virtuous while following the rules, because he has a continuing good intention in doing so. His good intention (which is to become virtuous according to basic principles shared by Stoics) will not let him repeat unnatural or irrational rules twice. In the course of this growing up period he will understand and internalize most of the rules.
Furthermore, he later will participate in discussions with other virtuous individuals to amend or discard those unnatural rules. This process, eventually, will create a natural and intellectual selection of rules. Each generation will leave a better set of rules to next generation.
There is not a clear line between maturity and immaturity
A person is not born as a virtuous person. I think that Ariston agrees with this statement. Learning the principle of moral philosophy, discovering the appropriate rules and internalizing them is a long process which require biological growth, analytical brain and time. Hence, how can Ariston expect from a four year old Yahya (my son) to learn by his mere reasoning not to bite his sister? Rules and sanctions are necessary to protect the virtuous people and their daughters from the harms of irrational actions of immature creatures, like Yahya.
Besides, Ariston cannot give us a certain age that following rules will be considered unnecessary. The speed and quality of learning varies dramatically from one to another person. Ariston may became able to generate his own rules, say, after his age of 27; but how can he claim that everyone should be expected to comprehend the fundamental formula of morality by that age? Furthermore, how can Ariston claim that he should be free of following the rules that he is not able to understand?
In summary, rules can help a virtuous person in many ways:
He can find the “proper actions” with less error, since many of the surviving rules have been already examined by previous rational generations.
He can be trusted to a certain degree by strangers who do not know him, and he can also trust strangers. Trust is a very important ingredient in developing of virtuous disposition. Lack of trust can create cynical and paranoid viruses in the mind of a person who wants to be virtuous.
He can receive the help of rules indirectly, as well. Encouraging or forcing bad people to appear to act virtuously in most of major cases creates a better community which makes it easier for new generations to become virtuous.
He can participate in the virtuous activity of improving and bettering the rules. Benefitting from collective discoveries of previous generations is a natural method.
PS: This was written in 1993 Phil 470: Greek Philosophy taught by Prof. Julia Annas at the University of Arizona