Objective Values, Final Causes: Stoics, Epicureans, and Platonists

Stephen R. L. Clark

University of Liverpool

Against an Idol of the Age

[1] It is still fashionable to suppose that evaluative judgements cannot be ordinarily, `factually', true, even if they are ones that any sensible or decent judge would make. `Facts', it is supposed, are one thing, and `values' quite another. It follows that there can be no `objective values': to be valuable is only to be valued by sensible or half-way decent people. Some philosophers (John Mackie, for example) conclude that `moralising' judgements rest upon an error; others (Simon Blackburn) that `moralising' never amounted to anything more than sensible evaluation, that no-one ever `really' intended to suggest that there were `objective values' (on all of which see Honderich, and my own review of the volume).

[2] These fashionable opinions can be made to seem banal. If `facts' are only those truths that would or could be admitted by anyone, whatever her moral character or purposes, then they obviously carry no evaluative implications. A fact that no-one could acknowledge without admitting, logically, that there was something they should do, would not be counted as a fact. Facts, so defined, imply no Values (if A is compatible with both B and not-B, A does not imply B). Again: `objectivity' is merely being ready to put aside all evaluative attitudes, and `objective values' are self-contradiction: the kind of values that can be recognized as such without supposing they are valuable at all. Again: values, if they existed, would be utterly unlike whatever existent things weren't values (they would, as the saying goes, be queer). And even if such surds existed after all, how could they affect us? We'd believe and feel exactly the same things even if there were no `objective values'. So our believing or feeling that there are can never be accounted knowledge: we only really know that p if the fact that p plays a serious part in making us believe in it.

[3] All this is fallacy. The thesis that there are no real objective values is both more substantial and less certain. The reason that so many moderns think it trivially true is that they have forgotten what objective values are, and why they have been forgotten. They have also ignored the real implications of their supposed non-existence. The truth is that, if there were no values, there would be no facts. If values don't exist, then nothing does, and no-one. Such nihilism has at least two forms: the radical, and the conventional. To reject them both is to adopt an older realism (once called Platonism). Of course there are truths that specify what we should do. Of course there are real standards to which things should aspire. Of course some things at least exist because they should. To understand why we have forgotten all this, we need to see why, for a while, we needed to forget.

The Anthropocentric Synthesis

[4] According to the Stoics the world (or everything that is the case) is a cosmos (that is, an ordered whole). Nothing exists or happens without a reason, and that reason is the maintenance of rational order, as it can be known by members of the rational community of gods and humans. To understand the shape and behaviour of things-in-the-world we need to see what good they do. On the one hand, every single thing exists as an example of its type, and its deficiencies or disabilities or disastrous accidents are mapped against its `nature'. To find out what you should do you must first identify the various things you are (human, citizen of the world, child, parent, town councillor): `each of these titles, rationally considered, always suggests the actions appropriate to it' (Epictetus Discourses 2.10 (Long and Sedley 1987: vol. 1, 364)), and those inappropriate. On the other hand, even those apparent errors are just as much a part of `nature overall'. Worm-eaten acorns are in one way damaged. In another they are just what the cosmos needs. Deranged or greedy people are in one way `against nature' (namely, human nature). In another they too must serve a larger purpose (like boils, scabs and fevers).

[5] The cosmos, they said, exists to reveal the ordered system flowing from the Divine Mind, and to sustain that ordered system in the Human Mind. It follows that everything is ours, and non-rational beings achieve their goal in serving us. Pigs are no more than locomotive meals, with souls instead of salt to keep them fresh. Wetlands exist to be drained, and forests to be cut down. Were it not that exercise is good for us, the cosmos would have provided drainage ditches and cut planks to order. Not using the material for worthy ends is simply laziness, and what one tribe of people lazily ignore another may virtuously seize (as Engels said of California).

[6] Stoic moralists, of course, would not have thought that people should cut down forests, torment pigs or pollute the streams to satisfy a cruel or luxurious taste. Those tastes would be `unnatural', and those who indulged them would be unvirtuous, foolish, mad: no true companions for the gods. Really, only the wise owned everything -- and their wisdom, paradoxically, would be shown in regretting and condemning nothing, not even the apparently `unnatural', which is really just as much a part of divine order as the apparently virtuous. But the main message of Stoic moralism is still that every mortal thing exists to make people possible, and people exist to serve the whole by knowing it. Nothing we can positively do in the world can make that world a better place, but it is, perhaps, completed by our knowledge of it. People (or wise people) are the world become self-conscious.

[7] It should be clear how slippery these arguments can be. By some Stoic or Stoicising accounts a wilderness is nothing valuable. Only when it has been drained, farmed, built upon will it be worth preserving. Other (perhaps more realistic) accounts suggest that wilderness may be a necessary side-effect of processes that are themselves essential for the rational good. Others again may wonder if such wilderness may be `redeemed' simply in being known as part of the one cosmos. But that last story may begin to tip the balance away from strictly anthropocentric theories. If the wilderness is redeemed by being known it can only be because it is worth knowing (and would be worth existing even if we didn't know it). More often it is assumed that nothing that is non-rational can rightly be valued `as an end'. Everything but rational community itself is valuable only as a means, and the reason such things exist is because the cosmos is in love with us.

[8] The Stoic cosmos is an ordered whole. In that it is like many an archaic cosmos, as it also is in its hierarchical implications. Everything should keep its place. In one way, everything is equal, equally required by the one order that defines the only (and therefore the best possible) world. In another there are natural rulers, natural subjects, natural predators and natural prey. The notion of `the food chain' as it is understood in popular fiction identifies the topmost predator with the most noble: consider that fascist fiction The Lion King. Order, fertility and peace can only be restored when the rightful predator is acknowledged lord. True wilderness emerges when `the balance' is disrupted, when `natural law' is ignored, when the noblest predator eats too low down the chain, when outsiders take up residence. The idea that `Nature always knows best' (and may even allow a brief disastrous step to make the point for us) defines an order in which our duties are mostly obvious: if we are prey, to be eaten.

DeMoralising Nature

[9] The cosmos exists to do us good, and every thing in it is `healthy' (or as good as it can be) if it visibly serves the needs of people, or of superior people. The ideal was not invented by the Stoics. Everything that people can find useful people have always reckoned must be meant for them. Everything that can be judged diseased, disabled or just `out of place' bears witness to our recognition of real norms in nature, and those norms must `fit together' in a larger purpose (surely, ours). To live rightly must be to live in accordance with nature's plan, as that is manifested in the world around us. Predation, dominance, and territorial control are facts of life. We ought to make a proper, careful use of things because they wouldn't be there at all if we weren't meant to use them. Those who, in their turn, use us should be honoured for it. Those who rebel should be reckoned mad, and hunted down.

[10] The ambiguity in Stoic doctrine that I have already mentioned can issue in very different creeds. On the one hand, we should hunt down rebels, and all other creatures that can be judged `unnatural'. Maybe they are creatures of the Evil One, an enemy whose purposes do not include our good. On the other, even such rebel creatures (and maybe the Evil One) can only serve God's purposes even in their own despite. `Bed-bugs are useful for waking us, and mice encourage us not to be untidy' (so Chrysippus said, according to Plutarch On Stoic Self-contradictions 1044d (Long and Sedley 1987: vol. 1, 328)). In practice it hardly matters. It is axiomatic that things would not be as they are if they did not do some good, and that good typically is ours. Ordinarily sensual humanity may think it good to eat and drink and be merry; those with longer views may think the real good is to live in rational community, to follow duty, to understand the purpose. All of us interpret our good (what we want) as what the cosmos wants, what makes the cosmos good.

[11] But all of this, we must conclude, is fallacy. `In seeking to show that Nature does nothing in vain - that is, nothing that is not to man's advantage - they seem to have shown only this, that Nature and the gods are as crazy as mankind' (Spinoza 1982: 58). The fact that we can make use of things does not prove that they were made for us. And this is especially true if there are many things we cannot really use at all, or that run counter to any ordinary purposes of ours.

Who gave the wild donkey his freedom, and untied the rope from his proud neck? I have given him the desert as a home, the salt plains his own habitat.... Is the wild ox willing to serve you or spend a night beside your manger?' (Job 39.5-6. See (Clark 1991: 181f).)
[12] Even if we stopped trying to interpret everything as `made for us', and thought instead of all the things that seem to be good for others, we might reasonably suspect that the others were also making use of what, by chance, existed. Maybe nothing at all existed `to do good', though many things that exist can, more or less, be used. Maybe if we really found things lying around that perfectly provided for our purposes we might reasonably suspect a larger purpose: if, for example, we had only to close our eyes and wish, to find, at once, the tool or machine or house we needed. Maybe such magic would be bad for us (as failing to preserve our moral tone), and what we find is really better (the material for tools, machines or houses). But even the things best suited to our use have other properties that are disabling: pigs can't only be locomotive meals. And some things, seemingly, are of no use at all, to us or anyone.

[13] The scientific revolution began with the denial of final causes. Instead of supposing that things existed `to do good', or that we understand them best when we see what good they do, we chose instead to see simply how things happened: how, not why. Because we were no longer concerned (in scientific mode) with the good things did or might do, we could no longer judge them more or less successful, more or less obedient. Instead of supposing that `Nature does nothing in vain', let us instead suggest that everything that `Nature does' is pointless. `For nothing has been engendered in our body in order that we might be able to use it. It is the fact of its being engendered that creates its use' (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 4.830ff (Long and Sedley 1987: vol. 1, 58)).

[14] On this account there are no inbuilt norms. Without us, without our projected purposes, there could be no optical illusions, no zodiacal signs, no war-horses, no weeds. Less obviously, there are not even entities of the kind we usually think `natural' (oaks, cattle, people). To be an oak tree, after all, is to be something that grows according to a preset plan, against which deviation, accident or disease can be plotted. On the Stoic account even diseased oaks are as the cosmos truly requires them to be, but it is possible to identify them, locally, as trees that have not quite grown as they should, or as trees usually do. How do we identify a tree if there is no way, even locally, that they should grow? How do trees differ from convenient rock-formations? We can describe the latter, of course: that is, we can say that the rocky substance `over there' reminds us of a pillar, or a bee-hive, or a human figure. But no one seriously thinks that those identifications are anything but subjective. That the rock looks like a bee-hive played no part in its growing where it did: it might as easily have looked like Aunt Agatha (perhaps it does). An acorn that is not even locally `designed' to grow into an oak, and is much more likely to end up as supper, is not, objectively, an acorn, any more than it is, objectively, a present, a missile, a symbol or a philosophical example. Calling a piece of stuff, or an aggregate of elementary bits, by one name or another says nothing about what `it' is. All we can truly say is that some elementary bits stay stuck together longer than some others.

[15] Whereas Stoic moralists supposed that every creature aimed, or was aimed, at preserving its own being, Epicurean moralists identified pleasure (and the absence of pain) as what appetitive creatures (such as us) desired. Stoics reckoned that we felt pleasure (`normally') in activities we needed to perform to live. A fetishistic preference for pleasure even when it harmed us was, locally, irrational, even if the cosmos as a whole (apparently) required that some of us should make this `error'. Epicureans, on the other hand, thought life could be worth living only if it brought us pleasure (principally, to avoid misunderstanding, pleasures of friendship, beauty, peace, that have no consequential pains attached). Whereas Stoic moralists reckoned that what things (really) were determined what use was to be made of them, an Epicurean moralist might think that any use was equally `appropriate' (and therefore none was appropriate in the Stoic sense). Mice do not exist to keep us from being untidy, nor to encourage us (as they did Diogenes the Cynic) to travel light, nor even to produce more mice. They have no real purpose at all, and there is therefore no particular way to use them: they might as well be dinner, or art-objects, or grain-thieves. How many uses can you think of for a pebble, or for half-a-mouse?

[16] Unregulated hedonism easily concludes, for example, that any pleasurable contact of two skins is `as good' as any other. Whereas the older (post-Stoic) moralism reckoned that the proper use of sexual organs was made clear by `nature', more recent, radical `amoralism' judges that anything can be the object and occasion of a `sexual' desire. Sexuality, indeed, is nothing special. Masturbation, bestiality, sodomy, cunnilingus, fellatio, pederasty, necrophiliac practices, sado-masochism and fertile coition are all and only ways that some of us (does `we' identify a real class?) get pleasure. None are more `natural' than another, even if some are `dangerous' in the eyes of those who still believe that there are real entities involved. Any judgement between them can only be conventional, not natural. The same, presumably, applies in questions about diet: apples, grubs, mice, dogs and human babies are only conventionally distinguished. All are edible, and the different labels that `we' make for them are only like the different labels that food-faddists give to different cuts of cow. `No-one who is anyone would serve rump-steak in place of tournedos, or long-pig in place of turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner.'

[17] It would be wrong to assume that all `Stoics' would defend the common-sense morality of Western Europe, or that all `Epicureans' would despise it. On the contrary, it is a matter of record that those who believe in objective values, natural norms discoverable by reason, may decide that common sense morality is wrong: incest, cannibalism and regicide may not be `really' wrong precisely because some things really are. One reason, oddly, why some moralists have denied that values could be objective is that they cannot let themselves believe they might be wrong (as Perry shows)! To avoid the possibility of any real challenge to their own moral convictions they prefer to found those convictions simply on their own determination to abide by them. The price of never being wrong, of course, is never being right. Conversely, those who disbelieve in objective values upon some other pretext may, for that very reason, adopt an unremarkable conventionalism: having no other standards to appeal to, and without any obligation to respect truth or consistency, they fall back upon contemporary custom. No-one who is anyone takes stands. Some modern Epicureans even reinvent a kind of `realism': if there are no real obligations, then the old distinction between facts that we were all bound to admit and fictions that could only bind a few (that is, between `hard facts' and `values') is inane. All truths (that is, all claims we should admit) are only conventionally binding, and therefore equally real. Stoics and others could distinguish `truths by nature' and `truths by convention', what a man was `really' worth and what he was worth `in society'. All Epicureans can distinguish is what they value and what others do: why make a fuss?

[18] But `quasi-realists' are not my concern. The more interesting sort of radical objectivist has lost all faith in her own being. Being a person, or the same person as before, is being someone who can take responsibility for what one does, or who is held responsible. In the absence of real values, real responsibilities, there are no real persons, nor real identities. Whereas our realist predecessors could object to punishing a traitor's family for crimes that they did not commit, post-moderns have no warrant for the distinction. Such `punishments' would surely be effective, and we might as well insist upon the moral identity of a family or gene-line as of `a single being'.

[19] No-one founds societies to protect atoms against atom-smashers (or not, at any rate, for that reason): why trouble to defend `matter in that state known as living'? Even pleasure and pain, which have retained a slight importance, must diminish once identities are gone, once we no longer trouble ourselves about what damage we may suffer. Everything is mutable material, and as such immortal. `We are the rocks dancing' - and will be even when we have reduced the rocks and every other living thing to sludge.

Plato and the Book of Genesis

[20] Stoics believed that everything was for a purpose, and that purpose was to provide for rational community. Epicureans denied that anything had a purpose, but claimed that a certain kind of human friendship could make life, our life, `worth living' in the midst of chaos. In historical fact, both schools insisted that `we' had no obligations toward non-human animals. Whether they were `meant' for us or not, we were `entitled' to treat them as if they were. Older injunctions to respect the good in horses, trees or streams could only, at best, be allegorical. It does not seem to have occurred to any philosopher of the time that we could ever damage Earth Herself, or that desertification, erosion or pollution could ever have been `our fault'. No doubt the Stoics would have explained such `natural catastrophes' as good for us, and Epicureans would have reckoned to make local use of them. The one major school of philosophers that defended animals, and might have noticed natural catastrophes as, occasionally, symptoms of moral decay, were Platonists.

[21] By Platonic standards, what there actually is need not be what there ought to be. But what there actually is retains such being as it has by being like what ought to be, by Platonic standards. It was just because, unlike Stoics and Epicureans alike, the Platonists insisted there were other things than the material, that they could judge the world, and human action, to be less than perfect, while still insisting that perfection had an influence. Philo of Alexandria, expounding the Hebrew scriptures with the aid of Plato, laid the foundations for later Jewish, Christian and Islamic developments (see my God's World). So far from being anthropocentric the post-Platonic synthesis was theocentric -- and that God was a circle whose centre was everywhere, and whose circumference nowhere. God could not be contained in human life, even if human beings were summoned to share the divine life. Nor could God's purposes be exactly known, let alone the means He chose to realise them. As even Descartes was to observe: "Just as the same craftsman could make two clocks which tell the time equally well and look completely alike from the outside but have completely different assemblies of wheels inside, so the supreme craftsman of the real world could have produced all that we see in several different ways" (Descartes 1985: 289).

[22] The God celebrated in the Hebrew and post-Hebraic scriptures did not need secondary causes, even if He chose to create them. It follows that, if He did create them, He wished them to exist for their own sake, because He thought them `good'. That, despite appearances, He also wished to do them good, was a further article of faith. The God celebrated in post-Platonic philosophy poured out the world, in all its multifarious kinds, because no smaller universe would do to represent His Beauty. The world perpetually sustained by God, Hebrew and Platonic, always contained the possibility of failure. The creatures made to embody Beauty, in its different kinds, might come to regard themselves as `independent' beings, whose welfare must depend on grabbing what they could from others. Because they came to forget that they were all rays from a single Brightness, fragments of a grand mosaic, they grew to hate and fear each other. The moment of return is when we look at others, real others, and know that they are not ourselves, not ours, not even very like us, and thereby reacquaint ourselves with the life, the beauty, that fills everything in so many, very different ways.

[23] Analytical philosophy, perhaps, is not very likely to awaken us to beauty. The title, after all, has often been associated with the fallacies from which I took my start. But Platonists can `analyse' as well as any. Even if their efforts do not wake us up, they may still help to persuade us that we are awake when we experience Otherness, and when we see things in the light of Day. In the madman's universe everything is targetted at him or her. `What has history to do with me? Mine is the first and only world! I want to report how I found the world!' (Wittgenstein 1961: 82e). To this there can, in a way, be no reply except to hope that `the hammer of a higher God could smash [this] small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave [him] in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down' (Chesterton 1961: 21). But demoralising nature may be a necessary askesis. When Wittgenstein urges us to `remember that the spirit of the snake, of the lion, is [our] spirit' (26 October 1916), he can only seriously be speaking of the spirits of moralised snakes or lions, heraldic beasts. In order to avoid interpreting snake or lion behaviour in that inappropriate way, and to recall the projected spirits, we may reasonably insist, for a while, that we will only speak of their `objective movements', motions that have no moral weight (beyond the mere, remaining implication that we should face the facts).

[24] Objectivists of the modern kind pretend that there are `facts' accessible to everyone that have no moral weight at all. Because those are the only facts they will admit, they have to exclude pretended facts about King Oberon, the lives of plants, the inner space of beasts. Quasi-realists, acknowledging that the objectivising project cannot be completed, pretend to restore the world we found at first. Neither route is satisfactory. On the one hand, facts to be facts at all have moral weight (and those concerning the inner lives of our fellow beings especially). On the other, they have that weight precisely because they're real. It cannot be true that `pigs feel pain' means only that `pigs should be included in our moral universe' (as Rorty 1979: 190), since the reason why they should be is that they do. The discovery that they do, and should be, is a revelation of an Otherness beyond the lies we spin.

[25] Platonists insist that `he that will find Truth must seek it with a free judgment, and a sanctified minde' (John Smith, 1644 (Patrides 1969: 137)). Part of the requirement is that we do not grab things for ourselves, nor project our fancies on the waiting world: `as those Philosophers that Tully complains of in his times... which made their knowledge only matter of ostentation, to venditate and set off themselves, but never caring to square and govern their lives by it. Such as these doe but Spider-like take a great deal of pains to spin a worthless web out of their own bowels, which will not keep them warm' (John Smith (Patrides 1969: 133)).

[26] If, for a while, we have allowed ourselves to think `objectively' it was only to purge nature (nature, that is, as we experience it) of our own conceits. Just so, Chesterton suggested, Christians of the early middle ages had to turn aside from nature for a while. Gardens, woods and the stars themselves were polluted (that is, the world of nature as it features in our imaginative experience was polluted) by the perversions of late paganism (Chesterton 1923: 29ff). Only when four centuries of ascetic practice had purified the imagination could St. Francis rededicate the natural world. `Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature-worship, and can return to nature' (Chesterton 1923: 39). When we can face the world as Other than ourselves, we can at last interpret it. Neither objectivists nor quasi-realists do either. Stoics and Epicureans did make the attempt, but lost their way. It is precisely because things-in-themselves are worth knowing, because they embody real values, that we ought to rise above immediate prejudice, personal affections and dislikes, projected spirits. If there were no real values independent of our will there could be no real reason to transcend our prejudice.

The Choice before `Environmentalists'

[27] The very term, `environmentalist', is a misnomer. The world and our fellow creatures have a larger brief than simply to `environ' us. Many an anthropocentric Stoic, or sub-Stoic, could entertain the shallower forms of ecological concern. Only very stupid creatures foul their nests, poison their land and kill the golden goose. Stoics and Epicureans alike could also find some fault with our priorities: maybe we `need' to use the world we find, but `need' is not the verb that applies to hamburgers, cosmetics or large cars. Every moral and religious tradition in the world till now has objected to pleonexia, the greed for more, and also to usury, despoliation, sacrilege. No-one till recently imagined we could ever `own' the land. Our problem is that, having begun to disenchant, demoralise, the world (for good and sufficient reasons) we forgot to pause. Some (most of us) cheated all along. We only disenchanted part of the world, the parts `we' wished to use, but went on giving worship to our human friends (which is not, of course, all humankind). A few of us have begun to empty even humankind, and even `ourselves', of worship: there is only stuff, to be made the occasion of whatever pleasures still remain unwithered. The only real answer is to remember why we began the objectivising programme. `God never intended that a creature should rest satisfied with its own candle-light, but that it should run to the fountain of light, and sunne it self in the presence of its God' (Nathanael Culverwell, 1652 (Patrides 1969: 11)). Sometimes, to hear what others say, we simply must shut up. It does not follow that we should never speak thereafter, nor ever actually listen to what they say in answer.

[28] The visions which I have labelled `Stoic' and `Epicurean' have much the same effect. On Stoic terms the creatures with which we surround ourselves exist to serve our purposes. Cereals, cattle, horses, dogs and human slaves are judged good or bad according to their usefulness. All of them, in historical fact, have been bred and tamed so as to have some chance of being useful. Epicureans (reasonably) doubt the claim that any of these creatures came into existence for our sake. But for that very reason, that they exist for no-one's sake, they can be used remorselessly for any purposes we have. Disenchanting nature is only a device for making it available for purposes that were not countenanced within the earlier, `Stoic' synthesis. What I have called `Platonism' is a better route. The creatures who share the world with us exist (as the Stoics saw, in part) to embody and preserve real values. To be at all is to be something, and the thing in question is identified as worth existing by the very effort with which whatever is persists in being. As Spinoza saw, following the Stoics, `the effort with which each thing endeavours to persist in its own being is nothing but the essence of the thing itself' (Spinoza 1982: 109). To understand it is to see why it exists, and to see that it can never be merely a means to some other creature's good (Spinoza 1982: 168). Spinoza himself fell back, like the Stoics, into the anthropocentric error of supposing that the good of other, non-human creatures might justly be neglected (Spinoza 1982: 175, 193) because their goods are of less importance, to us, than ours.

[29] The message of the deeper sort of `environmentalist' is that there is a world out there, embodying more beauties than our own imaginations can create. Platonists, unlike some other ancients, can accommodate the truth that things change and vanish from the world. Nothing in the world will last forever. Maybe even the world itself will not. While it lasts, in all its changeful and variegated beauty, it merits our respect and love. Certainly those who neither respect nor love it because, they say, they are superior, deserve no credit.

Received December 29, 1994.


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©1995 Stephen R. L. Clark
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