DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

21. Responsibility

The greatest interest of this determinist position lies in the Stoics’ attempts to meet the challenge it poses to moral responsibility (see Free will). They implicitly accept that a person is responsible for an action only if they could have done otherwise. But how could this latter be true in a Stoic world, where the actual action performed is causally determined and even predictable in advance? Chrysippus was the author of the main Stoic answers to this challenge. His task (see Cicero, On Fate) was to show that even in such a world ‘could have done otherwise’ makes sense: an action which I did not in the event perform may nevertheless have been possible for me, that is, my failure to perform it was not necessary. The strategy for securing this result included the following lines of argument.

(1) A ‘possible’ proposition is defined in Stoic sources as ‘one which (i) admits of being true, and (ii) is not prevented by external circumstances from being true’. Suppose that you have failed to pay a bill despite having the cash. Paying the bill was ‘possible’ for you. (i) It ‘admits of being true’: there is such a thing as paying a bill, unlike for example, being in two places at once. (ii) Nothing external to you prevented you: you did not lack the funds, you were not forcibly detained, and so forth. This account of possibility does allow that something internal to you may (indeed must) have prevented you from paying: for example, your meanness, forgetfulness or laziness. Still, it was possible for you to pay, in the sense that you had the opportunity to pay. Chrysippus seems to maintain that the ‘could have done otherwise’ notion of responsibility holds in his world, because alternative actions are ‘possible’ in just this sense: we regularly have the opportunity to do otherwise, and therefore have only ourselves to blame for what we actually do.

Stoicism resists the alternative that ‘could have done otherwise’ might entail our being actually capable of acting otherwise: surely the good, in order to claim credit for their conduct, do not have to be capable of wrongdoing, nor need the bad, if they are to be blamed, be capable of acting well.

(2) Much this same point was also expressed in terms of a causal distinction (one among many: the Stoics were accused of introducing a ‘swarm of causes’). When a cylinder is pushed and rolls, the ‘principal’ cause of the rolling is its shape, the push being just the triggering or ‘proximate’ cause. From our point of view as agents, Chrysippus argues, fate functions as a series of mere triggering causes – the openings, provocations and so on with which the world presents us. Given our respective states of character, we are bound to respond to these prompts in just the ways we do. But the principal cause lies in our character. And that makes us, not fate, responsible for our actions.

Importantly, the Greek word for a cause, aition, literally means the ‘thing responsible’. However, the Stoics’ technical term for moral responsibility is eph’ hēmin: our actions are ‘within our power’. This is not a thesis of free will. What matters to them is not to posit an open future, but to establish the moral accountability of human action even within a rigid causal nexus.

(3) Divination might be thought to make the future necessary. Take an astrological law: if you were born at the rising of the dog star, you will not die at sea. Suppose you were born at the rising of the dog star. This is an unalterable fact about the past, and therefore, Chrysippus accepts, necessary. There is also a widely accepted law of logic that if the antecedent of a conditional is necessary so is its consequent. Therefore ‘You will not die at sea’ also becomes a necessary truth. One of Chrysippus’ replies was that divinatory laws do not express conceptually indubitable truths, and are therefore not properly expressed as conditionals, but rather as negated conjunctions (see §11), in which this transmission of necessity does not occur.

(4) One remaining challenge was the Lazy Argument. Why, its proponents asked, should we bother to make decisions if the outcome is already fixed? Why call the doctor, if whether you will die or recover from your illness is already fated? Chrysippus’ answer is that such sequences of events as calling the doctor and recovering are ‘co-fated’. In most cases the outcome is fated via the means, not regardless of them.

Some landmark events, however, such as the day of your death, may be fated regardless of the means. Your character will cause you to decline numerous alternative actions to those you will choose, but even if, counterfactually, you were going to choose one of those alternatives, it would still be going to lead to your death on that same day. For example Socrates (in Plato’s Crito) knew through a prophetic dream that he would die in three days’ time, and his reasoned decision to stay and accept execution was willing cooperation with the rational world plan, where a bad person would have resisted by escaping but still died on that same fated day. Zeno and Chrysippus compared a human being to a dog tied to a cart: it can follow willingly, or be dragged.

In this way, morality is not simply argued to be compatible with determinism, but to require it. Only within a framework of rational predestination can moral choices have their true significance. There remains, however, the question why, in a world where it was pre-ordained that we would be precisely the kind of people we are, our choices should have any moral significance at all. The answer is that goodness belongs primarily to the world as a whole (identifiable with god). It is from this that moral qualities filter down to individuals and their actions, as a measure of their cooperation with or obstruction of the rational world plan.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Responsibility. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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