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Nature, Naturalism, and Doing the Right Thing

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In his Meditations, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Consider your every word and deed, how each accords with nature and is right for you. Don’t be diverted by the complaints or blame of others. If saying or doing a thing is good, don’t consider it unworthy of yourself. Blamers have their own first principles and follow those ways. Forget about them. Keep going. Follow your own nature and the common nature — the way of both is one. (5.3)

Good, sound advice. Something to live by.

But, as usual, the devil resides in details. What is this “nature”? Is it truly “common”? How so?

Doesn’t the shear multiplicity of religions and philosophies demonstrate that we human beings are capable of drawing many different conclusions from nature concerning first principles — those baseline, foundational things that really matter?

After all, “nature” is by definition everything that is. At least according to those of us who consider ourselves naturalists.

“Carry on being yourself.” Sound advice. As Davy Crockett put it, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

But was Davy Crockett “right” in the actions he decided were right?

Who said? Was it nature telling him? Is something “right” in one time period and “wrong” in another? If so, what about “nature” changed?

(These questions as well pertain to the assumption that there is a god or gods forming the foundations of ethics.)

I don’t doubt that Marcus Aurelius has it right when he claims that individual human nature and nature are coterminous. Which is why I am a religious naturalist. Still, sussing out what I personally should do from observing the facts of nature has its challenges.

Elsewhere in the Meditations, Marcus writes:

There are so many shows to watch — plays, yes, but also a flock of sheep; herds of animals; dogs chasing bones; fish rushing at bread in the water; ants working; mice scurrying. All pulled by the same strings. Your job is to enjoy the shows humbly. We are the things that we see and do. (7.3)

Let’s look at that list: plays written by humans presumably have a moral or point. Presumably. Sure.

But what about watching that flock? Watching herds? Dogs and bones; fish and bread; ants, mice . . . . Yes, actually. I can learn from all those, can’t I?

Yet, did Davey Crockett draw different conclusions from watching those same morality plays? If so, how is that possible?

It’s complicated.

But allow me to leave you with a little wisdom of the ages from Marcus Aurelius that I think makes sense:

Some people, when they have done something for another, see it as a favor. Others don’t go so far as this, but still see the person they have helped as a debtor who should remember the debt.

The third sort of people don’t even know they have done something good. Rather, they are like vines that have produced grapes and look for nothing more than having done the proper thing.

Like a horse after a run; like a dog after a hunt; like a bee that has made honey, so are these people who have done a good thing. They don’t call attention to themselves, but rather go on to do another good thing, just as the vine in season goes back to producing grapes.

Seriously, must we be like that vine, doing good without praise?

Yes! This is exactly what is required because this is what social animals do. A social animal must work in a social manner. (Meditations 5.6)

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