Stoicism and social justice

Justice is one of the fundamental Stoic virtues, together with practical wisdom (or prudence), courage, and temperance. And yet there is rarely talk, in Stoic circles of social justice, in the contemporary sense of the term. This, I will endeavor to argue, should be neither surprising nor problematic, but at the same time I do think that we need to clarify what is a reasonable Stoic take on social justice, which I will also attempt to do here.

The trigger for this essay was a blog post by Bill Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, published by the excellent Oxford University Press Blog just before the recent STOICON event in New York. Bill then gave a talk at the conference, on what he calls “insult pacifism,” that in part brought up some of the points he had made in the OUP essay. I had lunch with Bill shortly after his talk, and he was surprised at some push back he got from audience members about his treatment of “micro-aggressions.” A few days after STOICON, I received an email from a friend who was raising the same issues against Bill’s talk, asking me about my general take on Stoicism and social justice. Here it is.

To begin with, let’s get a bit more clear about social justice. Recently, the term has been applied — sometimes with pride, on other occasions with scorn — to the activities of people who engage (largely online, on social media) in vigorous defense of minorities that they see as being attacked in more or less subtle ways in modern society. These social justice warriors (SJW), as they are known, are concerned about issues such as “trigger warnings” in university courses (my take on that particular issue here), “cultural appropriation,” and the above mentioned micro-aggressions. But social justice activism of this type is not necessarily informed by the deeper philosophical issues that go under the broad umbrella term of social justice (link above), and that are reflected in the work of scholars like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and many others. This means that one can be a SJW simply by tweeting about a particular incident of mistreatment of a minority, a move that can be justified and useful, if done appropriately; but social justice as a field of analysis requires a broad understanding of issues like fairness in a diverse society, notions such as that of human rights, and difficult questions like the proper balance between individual and societal goals.

I have studied both Rawls and Nozick (who are on very different sides of social justice theory, the first one being very liberal, the second one very libertarian), and I have great respect for that sort of scholarship, quite regardless of my own political opinions (which do lean liberal). SJWs, by contrast, engender mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, I recognize both the need and the power of public campaigns to highlight broad social issues as well as specific instances of abuse. On the other hand, sometimes internet social activism smells of a bit of self-righteous complacency, as if simply twitting one’s opinion (however roughly thought out or formulated) is the beginning and end of the whole matter.

Regardless, the social justice warrior movement has catalyzed a significant amount of push back by academics, journalists, and others, concerned with the flip side of the coin: free speech. I’m not talking only of somewhat conservative, or at the least middle-road, academics like psychologist Jonathan Haidt, but also of very liberal professors who fear that SJW-type thinking may critically undermine the educational mission of universities.

Let me distinguish here: there is one type of dismissive criticism of SJWs that takes the form of “people should toughen up a bit and stiff their upper lip, enough of these self-victimizing that turns adults into weaklings.” But there is a second type of more thoughtful critique along the lines of “yes, the concerns are real, but let’s be careful not to go overboard and endanger other values that we also hold dear. It’s a complex world, there are no easy solutions.” (I will leave the reader to guess which way I lean between these two — see link to my essay on trigger warnings above.)

And now to Irvine’s essay and talk at STOICON. We shall see first why a number of people reasonably interpreted it along the “develop a stiff upper lip” lines, but I will strive to read Bill’s contribution charitably and constructively, as I think a good Stoic (and indeed, a good philosopher) should do. I will end by laying out what I think is a good Stoic take on social justice.

Bill’s concern about micro-aggressions is to be understood within the broader scope of his 2013 book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults  Hurt — And Why They Shouldn’t. Even the very title of the book acknowledges what SJWs are worried about: in general, insults do hurt. There is a well established psychological literature in that respect, showing that being mistreated, at both the macro- and micro- scales, triggers physiological reactions, such as the release of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which not only affect our mood and behavior, but also — if prolonged over time — have serious negative effects on our health. This is precisely the opposite of what the ancient Stoics were trying to achieve: a state of ataraxia (tranquillity of mind), that is made possible by the development of apatheia (freedom from negative, destructive emotions). You can therefore see why Bill is concerned about this.

HOwever, I also take Bill seriously when he says, in his A Guide to the Good Life, that Stoicism is not to be used as a stick to beat other people on the head, but, rather, for self-improvement. He even says that the best way to practice Stoicism — unless you are a teacher — is in what he calls a stealth mode: don’t wear your Stoicism on your sleeve, so to speak, simply act properly and virtuously, and eventually other people will ask you what’s going on. Only then you should introduce them to Stoic ideas. This “do, don’t just preach” approach goes back to Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus, of course.

Moreover, Bill also repeats in his writings what many modern Stoic authors — including myself and Don Robertson — have been pointing out over and over, that Stoic precepts such as the dichotomy of control are not counsels for passivity. The fact that you don’t allow an insult to get to you does in no way imply that it is acceptable for others to go around making fun of women, minorities, or what else. Cato the Younger was famously impervious to insults, literally behaving as if the offender did not exist; but he went to war to attempt to right what he thought were the wrongs being perpetrated by Julius Caesar. There is, then, a crucial distinction between our personal reaction to insults and the societal reaction we may endorse in response to injustice.

Given all the above, what I think Bill was doing was not telling people who are victims of micro-aggressions to not be whiny babies and just get on with their lives. Nor was he saying that gender or ethnic slanders are acceptable in society. He was simply saying that it is more effective for each one of us, when we are victims of insults, to shield our “inner citadel” from the aggressor, to work so that the insult does not actually make its way into our psyche, because we can stop it before it gets there. It is a form of immediate self-defense, a way to both maintain inner calm and blunt the attack of our opponent. After all, people get satisfaction in offending others only if they see that we get upset. As Epictetus famously put it:

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses I, 25.28-29)

All of the above notwithstanding, perhaps Bill should have then gone further and talk about his positive views about Stoicism and social justice, which may have pre-emptied much of the ensuing criticism. Then again, to be fair, his talk was not about social justice per se, but about insults.

Which brings me back to the broader point about Stoicism and social justice that I think needs to be made. No, Stoicism does not have a general theory of social justice. Indeed, it doesn’t have a universal ethical theory at all. Even Hierocle’s famous circle of “contracting concern” and his cosmopolitanism are focused on what the individual should do, they are nothing like a Rawls-style treatment of the issue. (Indeed, Hierocles was a rather conservative Stoic, socially speaking.) If you turn to Stoicism for guidance on general behaviors and society-wide policies you are mistaken. Stoicism, like all virtue ethical approaches, is a type of personal philosophy. It is focused on you, the individual, and what you should do in order to be a better person, regardless of what others happen to do or not.

This approach, I maintain, does have consequences on society at large, but in a bottom-up, rather than top-down, manner. Zeno’s ideal Republic is a good place to be for human beings not as a result of modern-typs universal, impersonal, approaches to ethics, but rather because the individuals making up the Republic strive to behave virtuously, which means, among other things, that they don’t go around engaging in gender or ethnic micro-aggressions.

In the end, Stoicism is absolutely compatible with concepts such as social justice, and it is compatible with social activism as well. The Stoics were teachers out to change things for the better, and justice is one of the four cardinal virtues. But they also taught us to be resilient, to behave like rocks when others insult us, because we are trying to be wise. Foolishness we can leave to them.

24 thoughts on “Stoicism and social justice

  1. Fabulous response Massimo. We’ve got to get past the temptations of expressing immediate disdain as emblematic of social justice to a more nuanced (mature) recognition that what is needed is extended engagement to recognise not merely extremes but respect for ambivalence – which you’ve done here. Thank you.

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  2. “sometimes internet social activism smells of a bit of self-righteous complacency”; inded it does, and groups I belong to (political reformists; atheists, and paradoxically even anti-xenophobes) can also be found there constructing shibboleths which, you may recall, are used to distinguish allies from the tribe of the unvirtuous. And a proper level of outrage at purported microagrression is one such shibboleth.

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  3. Social justice revolves around the values of equity, fairness, as well as the rights and duties in the institutions of society. In Plato’s Republic, he asks what is justice and after meandering around various ideas comes to the conclusion that justice is achieved through rule by an autocrat. I don’t think Plato even mentions any need for the autocrat to be benevolent.

    I am confident that the “banksters” who destroyed our economy in 2008 perhaps rank very high on a Stoic scale of virtue. I’m sure they don’t beat their children or treat their employees discourteously, even if they pay a significantly lower rate of taxation than their employees. Nor are our policy makers non-virtuous who ignore justice for the Palestinians as they pursue making the State of Israel the most militarily and economically powerful entity in the Middle East, along with Israel’s representatives in the United States and in our Congress.

    I think the absence of a concept of social justice is not something to be dismissed as unimportant. We need much more than virtuous behavior as individuals, we need equity, fairness, justice irrespective of wealth, social class advantage, education, and political network and power. The absence of this in Stoicism is a great deficiency.

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  4. Hugh,

    Thanks for your comment, but I beg to disagree. The “banksters” and politicians you mention very much wouldn’t make the Stoic cut, as is clear by reading Marcus or Seneca. And, of course, Plato was definitely not a Stoic, so his take in the Republic is irrelevant.

    My point about a bottom-up approach is that I think all morality is best approached that way, rather than through highly problematic and debatable universal thought experiments like those for which Rawls is so famous.

    Even more broadly, I see virtue ethics’ lack of specific guidelines as a strength, not a deficiency. Real ethical situations are just too varied and complex for a one-size-fits-all approach.

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  5. This is going to sound pedantic, I apologize in advance.
    We find communities where virtue ethics have been applied from Italy to Spain to northern Europe – where the key is a ground-up application of virtue ethics – teaching everyone virtue ethics, from an early age, as part of culture and mutual expectations. That creates building blocks or bricks for the community that make for secure social fabric.
    I don’t know if it’s deliberate, but creating community this way takes advantage of several things. For one: it takes advantage of Theory of Constraints. We have finite resources and can’t solve the world’s problems, but we can work on communities from the ground up, and then spread those lessons from communities out to others.
    For another it employs the principle of subsidiarity – driving decision making down to the lowest possible level, again taking advantage of Theory of Constraints – where there is limited power at the top, even when there is “absolute power” – and power at the top works best, when it is used least. The principle of subsidiarity asks that at the lowest level people outwardly practice virtue – spreading goodness, while also inwardly practicing virtue: dealing virtuously with those who mistreat them.
    Again: a ground-up social-fabric creation takes place.
    Social justice is necessary in certain respects, but is arguably taken too far when it relies too much on top-down change, whether driven through an executive or through a Tyranny of the Majority. Furthermore it doesn’t ask that on a case-by-case level individuals face down and defeat individual cases of mistreatment with superior virtue, instead preferring the top-down approach of condemnation of the offender, i.e.: through “micro-aggressions”.
    The latter is a cathartic approach that may be emotionally satisfying, but it comes at the cost of social fabric and in the long run will never create a vibrant, cohesive, let alone just society.

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  6. Thanks Daniel, this makes sense to me.

    I should add that of course the Stoics were not against legislating at a societal level, and following those laws (Cato, most obviously). But the instances we are talking about (micro-aggressions, triggering, etc.) are best approached from the bottom up, for the very reasons that Daniel points out.


  7. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto) (Kindle Locations 758-759). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    Hi Massimo Do you know this guy? He seems to have some philosophical background, but worked mostly in statistics on Wall St. There seems to be a chapter on Stoicism coming up. It’s the next book for the Martin Perl Book Club. So far I like it pretty well and I’m interested to see what he has to say about Stoics. He’s very fond on Salon.


  8. Synred,

    I haven’t read the book. I know Taleb mentions Stoicism often. My only encounter with him (on Twitter) wasn’t exactly the best example of even temper that I can remember (on his part). But that doesn’t mean he has nothing interesting to say…

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  9. Massimo,
    belng logged in with Facebook oddly does not permit me to “like” a remark unless I log in with WordPress too. Anyway, thanks – and agreed: there is a place for legislation – just a good time to discuss a multi-dimensional approach to social change and social cohesion.

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  10. Hi Massimo! Re: Stoicism and broader social justice. As I understand it, Stoicism doesn’t stop anyone from taking steps to counter an injustice perpetrated against oneself. Such steps would, of course, be taken in the spirit of “maybe this will help, but if it doesn’t I’m not going to get bent out of shape about it.” But can’t there be a sense in which one sees oneself as part of a collective, and so, take steps as an activist to counter broader societal injustices made against the group to which one belongs? And, following Hierocles’ circles to the maximum, what stops a Stoic from identifying with oppressed groups broadly, in a humanistic manner, and actively supporting, say, the Dakota Sioux at Standing Rock?


  11. Ron,

    Right, there is nothing to prevent a Stoic intervening when he sees social injustice. Indeed, I’d say he is ethically bound to intervene. It is much less clear that a Stoic would want to react to personal insults in the way in which it often happens today, remember Epictetus’ rock.

    Here is another way to put it: an insult isn’t really an “injustice,” for the Stoic, it is merely a foolish act done by a foolish person, and therefore best simply ignored.


  12. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking of personal insults, narrowly, but of your third-to-last paragraph. (That’s why I added “broader” to social justice in my comment.) I’m thinking that Hierocles’ circles provides at least the rudiments of a broad approach to social justice by affirming a guiding principle of enlightened self-interest, particularly when you combine it with the idea of being permitted or bound to intervene.


  13. Ron,

    Right, we are not only permitted, but bound to intervene in cases of social injustice. The complication here is that one needs to use wisdom to determine whether specific cases warrant intervention, and of what kind. That’s because, again, one-size-fits-all isn’t going to do it for the Stoic.


  14. This essay is deeply flawed in that you fail to identify how ‘social justice’ theory is largely concerned with group-level analysis and often inimical to appeals to individual agency, such as you make. The loose use of the term “liberal” in the essay underscores the problem. ‘Social justice’ is derived from critiques of liberalism, yet it is distinctly post-Marxist in that it often conspicuously avoids attention to socioeconomic class in favor of race, sex, sexuality, and culture. Indeed, socialist critics have further noted a complicity of ‘social justice’ with certain assumptions of neoliberal economic doctrine.

    Much of the traditional liberal criticism of ‘social justice’ theory goes well past “free speech” into issues of rational analysis, universalism, and truthfulness/consistency. ‘Social justice’ is in my view rooted in conscious opposition to reason, specifically the deliberate advocacy of narrative over comprehensive truth for the sake of political power.

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  15. Massimo,
    to cite Seneca as proof that “the “banksters” . . very much wouldn’t make the Stoic cut” seems a little disingenuous. Seneca may not have been the cause of the Iceni Rebellion of 61 AD but his business methods certainly meet the criteria for “bankster” and yet he seems quite sure that his means of livelihood “make the Stoic cut.” As to those “who ignore justice for the Palestinians” how can they be excluded from Stoic virtue by your simply saying so? Your observation that Stoicism as virtue ethics lacks specific guidelines in this regard seems to concede the point,


  16. Katherine,

    I’m sure my essay is deeply flawed, but let me make a couple of points to clarify. Yes, social justice is, by definition, a group-level analysis, though it is not necessarily inimical to appeals to individual agency. See, for instance, John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness.

    When you say that’s social justice is post-Marxist, etc., you must be referring to the loosely defined SJW movement, not to social justice as understood in moral philosophy. I made that distinction in the OP precisely to avoid this sort of confusion.

    Similarly, while some SJWs may indeed reject rational analysis and universalism, Rawls and like-minded philosophers — the authors of the dominant social justices theories in modern philosophy — most certainly do not do that.


  17. Virtue,

    Seneca, as you say, may or may not have caused the Iceni rebellion (probably not), and his behavior would certainly not make the cut by modern standards. But he didn’t live in modern times, and we should avoid the perennial temptation posed by presentism.

    Ignoring justice for any group doesn’t make the cut, in my opinion, but I did not mean to make a blanket pro-Palestinian or against-Israel comment. That situation is far too messy for that sort of judgment. Nonetheless, there are very clearly, in my mind, actors on both sides that I would definitely not consider virtuous.

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  18. Katherine,
    It’s not hard for me to imagine that a lot of people in general, and a goodly number of people considering themselves Stoic, in particular, will find political aspects of “social justice” objectionable, including many of the points you make.
    I think the narrow thread to sew is that whatever the objectionable political uses are that “social justice” has been set to, it is only effective because it draws with is so much popular support – so if one wishes to critique it there’s two traps to avoid.
    One trap to avoid is polemics: where if one simply came out against all Social Justice, per se, then one risks “dog whistling” to people who don’t just oppose the political mis-use of Social Justice to illegitimate ends, but who actually oppose some of the universal principles of justice that are couched in it. There are people who are uncomfortable with the Social Justice trends of the left, yes – but there are also people who are – not to put too fine a point on it: racist and fascist. So I can appreciate the dilemma of anyone who wishes to critique social justice, while also hewing the line of being sure not to support its more objectionable opponents.
    The other trap is intention. Social Justice is popular because despite the fact that some mis-use it politically, there are legitimate intents contained, i.e.: basic concerns about equality and progress.
    If I were writing about Social Justice myself I would prefer to avoid coming out against it per se, but instead take a line of offering a better means to the end – and if that means to an end, through popular adoption, neutered some the demagogues who mis-use it – all the better.

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  19. Massimo, precisely, My point is the slipperiness of the concept of virtue, whether in 1st Century Rome or any other time or place. There is a saying about judging people “by their lights”, I believe it comes from Astrology, but essentially it implies that an individual’s concept of virtue will be formed by his experiences and influences. I meant to state that neither Seneca nor Zionist apologist could be said to be not virtuous [by their lights] and to talk about “not making the Stoic cut” is meaningless. BTW the virtue in my user name refers to the Hierarchy of Angels not to the mark of character.


  20. Virtue,

    I take your point, but I’m going to disagree, on two grounds:

    First, the Stoics thought that there is an objective fact of the matter about what does and does not count as virtuous action. It’s embedded in their “follow nature” mantra, which means apply reason to social living.

    Second, in their epistemology they insisted that the individual has insufficient wisdom (unless he’s a Sage) to figure things on his own. He has ro rely on peer advice from the best people he knows (hence the importance of role models in Stoicism).

    Of course, none of the above guarantees perfection or infallibility (again, unless one is a Sage), but it is enough, in my mind, to reject the charge of meaninglessness.

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