Determinism and Moral Responsibility: Chrysippus' Compatibilism

Susanne Bobzien

in Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy

Published in print November 2001 | ISBN: 9780199247677
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191597091 | DOI:
 Determinism and Moral Responsibility: Chrysippus' Compatibilism

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Central passages: Gellius Attic Nights 7.2; Cicero On Fate 8 11, 39–45; Plutarch On Stoic Self‐Contradictions 1055f –1056d.

There are only three sources that attest undoubtedly that Chrysippus, in some way, dealt with the problem of causal determinism and moral responsibility. They report the so‐called cylinder analogy and a Chrysippan distinction of causes, and present the core of Chrysippus’ compatibilism. The discussion of these passages in this chapter shows that they fit in smoothly with Chrysippus’ other arguments, adding to the ‘preserved’ concepts of contingency and intentional action finally that of moral responsibility—all fully in accord with his theory of fate and causal determinism. The chapter describes the specific problem of moral responsibility and determinism that Chrysippus and his opponents encountered, and shows how it differs from problems that are today subsumed under labels such as ‘the free‐will problem’. In particular, it emerges that the conception of moral responsibility of Chrysippus and his contemporaries is grounded not on any concept of freedom to do otherwise, but on a kind of ‘agent autonomy’. This conception of moral responsibility leads to different problems for its justification within a deterministic system than a theory of freedom to do otherwise. Based on their theories of causation, of mind, of decision making, and of character determination, the Stoics provide a sophisticated solution to these difficulties, showing among other things how it is possible that the rational and moral aspects of human agents can manifest themselves in human actions. Chrysippus’ claim that human actions are, though fated, not necessary, becomes comprehensible if one takes on his distinction between the modal concept of something's being necessary, on the one hand, and the physical power ‘Necessity’, on the other.

In Chrysippus’ arguments for the compatibility of fate and moral responsibility, we encounter no word for freedom. The freedom that is identified as relevant to the arguments is freedom from external hindrances and from force. This freedom was referred to generally by negative phrases such as ‘not externally hindered’ or ‘not necessitated’, but not by a single term or noun phrase; and it was regarded as a necessary condition for something's depending on us and happening because of us. By ‘that which depends on us’ and ‘that which happens because of us’ Chrysippus seems to have understood simply the things (mainly actions) of which we, qua rational beings, are the possible or actual cause. Such causal origination is brought about by the faculty of assent. The freedom from force and external hindrances is guaranteed by the utilization of this very mechanism through which we become the cause of our actions. For it is part of the nature of this human mental capacity of assent that it is neither forced nor fully externally determined.

Keywords: autonomy; character; Chrysippus; compatibilism; cylinder analogy; free will; freedom; moral responsibility; necessity

Chapter.  47435 words. 

Subjects: Ancient Philosophy

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