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.