The Stoics believed in virtue and, in particular, the chief one among them, justice. The Stoics also believed in preferred indifferents, for example, health, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and education. What did they believe about autonomy though?
The Stoics believed in one type of autonomy that was always within our possession. In fact, if we worked hard at it, we would achieve freedom from everything that can trouble us (pathos) and experience apatheia. The only path to this kind of freedom was to focus on what was truly in our power: virtue.
Virtue is a path to one type of freedom, the freedom of the Sage from all pathe. Though virtue can offer the greatest type of freedom that no Sage would give up, it’s virtually impossible to be a Sage. There is another type of freedom that matters that Stoics cared about. We need a life where we are free to pursue our preferred indifferents in order to help us work our way to virtue. Our natural preferences for health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation are where we derive our inalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson wrote so eloquently about in the US Declaration of Independence. We have a right of pursuit of preferred indifferents, so we ought to have a society that allows for our ability to obtain them. Where does this version of autonomy fit? Autonomy is being free to participate in health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation within reason. It’s a matter of Stoic justice that we enable these preferred indifferents to be pursued. We live in a just society when society allows us pursuit of preferred indifferents. And these preferred indifferents give us a chance to work towards the path to the autonomy from pathos: virtue.
In regard to the issue of abortion, there is the autonomy of woman that is at stake. Where does a woman’s right to an abortion fit into this? She has autonomy over her own health. She can determine what is best for herself, even if that means terminating a pregnancy. People will debate this point because they feel “life” might begin at conception. I presume these people are wrong because zygotes hardly represent a person in the way we can conceive of them. It becomes almost pointless to discuss pain and pleasure that the fetus would experience because the Stoics would just say, “they aren’t capable of making use of impressions and so they’re not people.” We can at least agree as a society of Stoics that we can ethically terminate pregnancies up until viability. For all the religious and traditionalist arguments against having late term abortions or abortions, period, many of the ancients, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans believed abortion was permissible up to 9 months because human life began at first breath. The ancient Stoics, in general, believed that the fetus was plant-like and became an animal at birth as it took its first breath (pneuma) and so they generally regarded abortion as morally permissible (Sellares, 2003). There were exceptions to this rule, Musonius Rufus did oppose abortion (Rufus, Lecture XV) but for population reasons which did not necessarily have to do with respect to the fetus and its interests. With this conception in mind, we have some historical precedent to base our determination on what distinguishes infanticide from a mere abortion. There’s never going to be some perfect philosophical argument for why people have the right to an abortion.
As a constant reminder made by those who believe in the right to an abortion, as society, if we really want to do away with abortion, one way is to make all forms of contraception free accessible to everyone. This also means educating people about sex and contraception as early as we can. Education is also a preferred indifferent that helps one on the path to virtue.
Not every follower of Stoicism will agree that abortion is a right or permissible but maybe we can all agree that access to contraception is a great idea for any society even if some can’t agree to be a right.
Sallares, J. Robert (2003), “abortion”, in Hornblower, Simon;
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