From virtue to social justice?

Is there a connection between Stoicism and social justice, understood in the modern sense of the term? I’m not talking about the (often pejorative) term “social justice warrior,” with its very particular political meaning, but rather of the general philosophical concept, which has a long and complex history: “Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.” (Wiki article) Typical names that come up in this context are those of philosophers like John Rawls and Thomas Pogge. More generally, though, is Stoicism leaning toward particular political positions? If the Stoics advised us to “follow nature,” and if reality — as the comedian Stephen Colbert once joked — has a liberal bias, does that mean that a modern Stoic is committed to be a progressive liberal in political terms?

Well, it’s complicated. My general take about the relationship between Stoicism and both religion and politics is that the philosophy is compatible with a number of positions in both areas of concern, though obviously not all. (It is hard to imagine a fundamentalist Christian Stoic, for instance, since the notion that evolution did not take place, or that the Earth is only millennia old, flies in the face of the best science, and Stoics ought to be scientifically as informed as possible — see the field of study of “physics.” Similarly, it is hard to imagine a Stoic Nazi, as that political ideology is incompatible with any reasonable understanding of the virtue of justice, not to mention with the concept of cosmopolitanism.) But can we say anything more about this crucial topic? I believe we can, but not everyone is going to like my take…

A major resource about social justice within Stoic philosophy comes from the so-called cradle argument, the Stoic take on moral developmental psychology. A modern version is found in Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (see this commentary), but the classic rendition is located in Cicero’s De Finibus, as explained by his friend, Cato the Younger:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution. … Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction. … Man’s first attraction [thus] is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ … and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [i.e., moral virtue].” (III.5-21)

The logical progression implied in these passages can be summarized as follows:

(human infant) selfishness > (young child) instinctive concern for care takers and close others > (age of reason, 7+) concern for others begins to expand due to reason > (adult) further expansion of concern for others, abstract thoughts > (prokopton / prokoptousa) conscious practice of virtue, cosmopolitanism > (Sage) perfected virtue

What this does is to establish that — according to Stoic philosophy — human beings come to be concerned about others by a combination of two processes: our natural instincts as social beings, and our capacity to reason about our problems. Hence Marcus’ injunction to:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Great, but what does this mean, in practice? Here, of course, we run into the classical limitation (in some people’s views) or advantage (in other people’s view) of virtue ethics in general, not just Stoicism: it does not provide us with specific answers to particular questions, but only with the general framework and the tools to arrive at those answers on our own.

For instance, Epictetus puts forth a theory of social roles (as discussed by Brian Johnson in his book, commentary here):

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II, 10.10)

This is often interpreted as supporting a rather socially conservative take on life, whereby we are stuck into pre-determined roles, which are to be played according to the general directions issued by society. But that is far too simplistic an understanding of Epictetus in particular, and of Stoicism more generally. For one thing, Epictetus tells us that the most fundamental role, the one that overrides all others, is that of a human being:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (II.10.3-4)

Setting aside the obligatory reminder that “divine” here just means natural, this is a pretty clear call for unselfish behavior, for deploying reason to figure out how to best help the human polis.

Still, we are short on specifics, and what I’ve said so far is arguably compatible with a number of progressive liberal policies, but also with some libertarian or conservative ones, to use the parlance of contemporary American politics. As it should be. One of the things that makes Stoicism a timeless philosophy — just like the case of, say, Buddhism, or Christianity — is precisely the fact that it sets out general principles from which reasonable people may derive specific actions to carry out. The trouble is that reasonable people may reasonably disagree on what such actions ought to be, because the principles (not just Stoic ones, but pretty much any sufficiently broad and interesting principle) underdetermine, as philosophers are want to say, the ways to implement them. Contra much current political “discourse” (to use the term charitably) there often isn’t a single solution to complex problems, and the possible solutions are probably not going to be simple anyway.

So how do we then bridge the gap between Stoic precepts (or, generally, virtue ethical ones) and specific policies concerning social justice? By moving into the empirical domain, and specifically by applying inductive reasoning to observations about human affairs. Crucially though, this isn’t a simple matter of handing over ethical decisions to disciplines such as economics, or psychology. It is, rather, an approach that requires us to take on board research in those disciplines while being informed by an ethical perspective (in our case, specifically a Stoic one).

Consider economics, for instance, and in particular the issue of social responsibility on the part of corporations, as reflected in the debate between supporters of stockholders and stakeholders theories. Stockholders theory is also known as the Friedman doctrine, named after economist Milton Friedman: “This approach views stockholders as the economic engine of the organization and the only group to which the firm must be socially responsible. As such, the goal of the firm is to maximize profits and return a portion of those profits to stockholders as a reward for the risk they took in investing in the firm. Friedman advocates that the stockholders can then decide for themselves what social initiatives to take part in rather than having their appointed executive, whom they appointed for business reasons, decide for them.” (Wiki article)

Contrast the above with the tenets of shareholders theory, often associated with the work of R. Edward Freeman: “In the traditional view of a company, the stockholder view, only the owners or stockholders of the company are important, and the company has a binding fiduciary duty to put their needs first, to increase value for them. Stakeholder theory instead argues that there are other parties involved, including employees, customers, suppliers, financiers, communities, governmental bodies, political groups, trade associations, and trade unions.” (Wiki article)

It should be clear at first glance that stockholders theory is typically favored by conservatives and libertarians, while stakeholders theory is the go to framework for liberal progressives. Who is right? The answer depends on the interrelation of values and empirical evidence. While it may superficially appear that the values underlying the two approaches are mutually incompatible, a closer look reveals that they share at least one fundamental value in common: consent. What stockholders theorists object to is the idea that decisions about the company’s management be imposed on owners by people outside the company itself, who have not invested money (and hence taken on risks) in the company. Similarly, stakeholders theorists are also concerned with consent, this time of people outside company management (workers, citizens of the local community) who are going to suffer potentially grave consequences from actions imposed by stockholders without broader consultation. Violation of consent results in potential loss of money for stockholders, and in potential loss of jobs, or a lowered quality of life, for stakeholders.

One approach informed by Stoic philosophy here is that the virtue of justice requires that we treat others with fairness, while the notion of cosmopolitanism means that we should consider all people involved as equally deserving of regard. This, however, does not necessarily favor stakeholders theory, as it may at first appear. It only means that we can reasonably remind stockholders in a particular company that they will also at the same time be stakeholders from the point of view of other companies in which they are not invested. It would then be unreasonable (i.e., a violation of the logos) for any corporate manager to actually think that a company ought to be able to do whatever necessary to maximize profit, even at the cost of the world going to hell in a handbasket, as they say. (The point here is not that some managers won’t actually believe that, or behave accordingly, but rather that they ought — on the basis of reason — not to believe or behave that way.)

In practical terms, the two sides are not as far from each other as it may seem. Let’s take a specific example: Apple has recently gotten into trouble in terms of public perception because of the famous Paradise Papers, showing that the company has looked for places where to store huge amounts of money it saved over two decades during which it benefited from artificially low taxes in Ireland. If Apple brought that money back to the US it would face a huge tax bill.

Clearly, that would go against the interest of the company’s stockholders. Equally clearly, it would benefit a large number of stakeholders, for instance the taxpayers of the United States of America (or even all of its citizens, who would presumably benefit from services that could be paid for with that tax money).

Apple, however, has raised a standard corporate defense of its practices, arguing that “it pays every dollar it owes in every country around the world.” This is probably true, meaning that there is no evidence that Apple has engaged in illegal practices. The fact remains, though, that Apple’s behavior has arguably been unethical, knowingly taking advantage of a loophole that allowed them to pay taxes at the ridiculously low rate of 0.005% (for comparison, the recent rate in the US has been 35%, and is about to be lowered by a new Republican bill to 20%, which is still 4,000 times higher than what Apple got away with. And before anyone thinks that Apple is an anomaly, it isn’t. The very same discussion is currently going on within the European Community concerning Google).

At this point, there are two possible courses of action we as a society can take against Apple. On the one hand, we can use stockholders theory against them, in a sort of socio-financial judo move, and start a boycott until the company decides to do the right thing. The idea here is that company management is bound, legally and morally, to maximize stockholders’ profit, and if that profit is going to be hampered by an international boycott, then management will act accordingly. On the other hand, invoking stakeholders theory, we could push for legislation — in either or both the US and the European Community — that closes the loophole and makes such actions illegal and punishable by fines against the company and/or jail for its managers.

My point is that Stoic philosophy should lead one — regardless of political inclinations — to conclude that Apple has indeed misbehaved. If Apple were a person (I mean a physical person, not the legal Fiction according to which a corporation is a “person”), we would conclude that its character is deeply flawed and that its actions need to be opposed.

But which of the two approaches outlined above is the right way to go? Stoicism cannot answer that question because its precepts underdetermine the two possible courses of action. The answer must come from available empirical evidence and the application of inductive reasoning to it. In the past, have boycotts worked? Under what circumstances, and to what extent? Crucially, do they tend to work better or worse than the introduction of new legislation? What are the limitations of the latter, considering that large corporations increasingly influence the political process and convince legislators to write laws that favor them?

I don’t have the answer, because the problem is complex and the relevant information hard to come by and subject to disputation. Nonetheless, there is going to be an empirical answer, if only couched in probabilistic terms. As a Stoic, then, I will favor whatever actual course of action is more likely to result in correcting the problem that my virtue ethical grounding has identified, regardless of which side of the political spectrum favors which solution.

This approach, I believe, is generalizable to any societal problem, in the following three-step fashion that relates the procedure to the three fields of study constituting the Stoic curriculum:

(I) Use the philosophical framework to decide in broad terms what is the virtuous thing to do (Stoic ethics);

(II) Acquire as much relevant empirical evidence as possible (Stoic physics);

(III) Use your reason to determine the best empirical way to improve the ethical situation (Stoic logic).

Or as Marcus put it:

“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (Meditations IV.13)

8 thoughts on “From virtue to social justice?

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    Corporations are “legal fictions” so saying that the personhood of corporations is a legal fiction doesn’t really add much. Since corporations have basic rights (freedom of speech) why shouldn’t they have responsibilities? Damaging, ignoring or leaving a society would not be acceptable for an individual, so why does a corporation only have to be avaricious? Why shouldn’t a corporation be virtuous?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul Braterman

    “It should be clear at first glance that stockholders theory is typically favored by conservatives and libertarians, while stakeholders theory is the go to framework for liberal progressives. Who is right?”

    The brute fact is that most public companies have no choice. They are in bitter competition for capital, and a company that is judged by the market to be doing less than it could to maximise shareholder return will be vulnerable to a takeover bid. So, except for privately held companies, and perhaps for mammoths like Apple, socially responsible behaviour can only be imposed from the outside, whether by boycott or by legislation. None of which contradicts what you say, but it does constrain it. Thus there is little point in grumbling that companies are greedy, and every point in attempting to rein in corporate influence on legislation.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jeremy Johnston

    One of the inhibitions I have had about embracing Stoicism as a guiding philosophy has been its relative silence on social justice issues. This post has, however, helped me see its potential in this area and, in particular, in relation to two of the major ills of current public policy making: namely the reliance on simplistic, ideological solutions and the tribal nature of debate. It would be interesting to see a stoic leader in action today: one whose modus operandi was to determine public policy issues by 1) seeking bespoke solutions, 2) that were informed by virtue ethical considerations, and 3) which took account of their potential impact on everyone. The process would no doubt be timeconsuming and produce unpredictable – possibly idiosyncratic – results, but they would be ones, I think, that stood more chance of bringing people together and serving social justice than ones underpinned by ideology and tribalism. How such a leader would get elected is another matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo Post author


    I guess I’m going to make a distinction between a legal construct, which is a legitimate and useful way to think of s corporation, and a legal fiction, which is the silly idea that corporations are persons.

    It makes no sense to me to say that a corporation can be malicious or virtuous. Only the people running it can possibly have those attributes. And those are the people that should pay (fines, jail) if they do something illegal.


    I actually know people who proudly consider themselves social justice warriors, so regardless of how the term originated, apparently the connotation is not always negative.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    On the one hand, it does seem silly to ascribe human rights to corporations. On the other, the Supreme Court has been applying the 14th amendment to corporations since 1886. ( Corporate Personhood in Wikipedia)


  6. Massimo Post author


    I know, I did link to the Wiki article in the OP. But just because the decision is more than a century old it doesn’t make it any less silly. Or problematic.


  7. John Caruso

    Yes, there are many proud social justice warriors out there, so the term is not always pejorative; in fact my impression is that it is generally not so (unless uttered by Sean Hannity ;-).

    I find stoicism to be a fantastic framework for viewing social justice causes. Forcing me to reflect on and subsequently “justify” my own behavior led me to consider animal right as a social justice issue which is consistent with the most current scientific findings on animal emotions and sentience (see, for example: How great that science and research have finally caught up with compassion! It’s a win-win for stoics.

    As you wrote in your book Massimo, the core of cosmopolitanism is “the idea that we ought to extend the sympathy we have for kin to our friends, acquaintances, fellow countrymen, and beyond to humanity at large (and even, some Stoics hinted, to the suffering of sentient animals).” Right on! Only Seneca said it better:

    But for the sake of some little mouthful of meat,
    we deprive a soul of the sun and light,
    and of that proportion of life and time it had been
    born into the world to enjoy.

    Given that eating meat (and wearing leather, etc.) is not necessary for a healthy, long life, my pursuit of virtue through justice led me to veganism. And, let me conclude by noting that the behavior of corporate managers is decidedly outside our control (a preferred indifferent would be for them to behave in a different way, and we can vote or protest but still not control them), whereas we are in complete control of how we treat animals and how we pay others to treat them. What an easy realm of social justice to put to rest for once and for all.


Comments are closed.