[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]
V. writes: My question is: can Stoic virtues be used as excuses to conduct evil deeds? I’m asking this question for several reasons. First, in the current political climate, the term “loyalty” frequently comes up and is often labelled a “virtue.” Loyalty isn’t a Stoic virtue, and in fact I wonder if it’s a virtue at all or it is just tool to keep people under control. Historically, people have often done evil things under the cover of “loyalty,” particularly “loyalty to my country.”
However, this does make me question the philosophical concept of virtue, and whether it can be used to be a cover for evil deeds. Let’s look at the Stoic virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Say that somehow I managed to get into Adolf Hitler’s head and had a conversation with his rather deranged soul. Please understand that I think Hitler did very evil things, yet he would plausibly think of himself as a virtuous man, because he thought that the German people were truly superior, and that if the world were controlled by a superior race, this would benefit humanity as a whole.
Back to modern days, I could list many evil things done under the flag of “loyalty is a virtue.” I’m wondering if Stoic virtues are any different? Can they also be used as a cover to conduct evil deeds? Would it be better to not have “virtues” at all?
This is a great question, even though I am weary of an increasingly popular informal logical fallacy, sometimes referred to as “reductio ad Hitlerium” (I’m not making this up!), the idea that an example based on Hitler somehow trumps everything else. But let’s go with it, because if the Stoic concept of virtue can withstand a reductio ad Hitlerium, then we are in good shape!
You may recall from previous posts (e.g., here and here) that the Socratic-Stoic idea is that nobody commits evil on purpose, only out of “ignorance.” Ignorance, however, does not mean lack of information, or even of formal education. The Greek word is amathia, which translates best to un-wisdom. And yes, even Hitler did what he did because of amathia. Even he probably (I’m guessing here) did not go up to his mirror in the morning, looked at his reflection and broke into an evil laugh, wondering with eagerness what sorts of mayhem he could get away with today. As you say, he had a (highly twisted, deranged) conception of the superiority of the German “race,” which — coupled with a sort of Social Darwinism — led him to truly believe that the world would be better off under the German boot. Horrifying tragedy for millions of people followed from such spectacular lack of wisdom, as we all know.
This, it turns out, is a really hard to accept example of a Stoic paradox (literally meaning, from the ancient Greek root, uncommon opinion), as I experience every time I tweet something about amathia: people love to think that “evil” is a metaphysical essence that affects specific individuals, I suspect so that they can demonize said individuals and not bother with a more nuanced analysis of what happened and what made it possible (after all, Hitler didn’t do the Holocaust by himself).
On my part, the concept that bad things are done out of lack of wisdom has been liberating, as it has allowed me to confront and resist injustice, while at the same time not forget that even people who do really bad things are still human beings, made of the same flesh and bones as everyone else, and at least potentially capable of the same sparks of intelligence and empathy as I am.
But let’s go back to the broader question of whether virtue can be used as an excuse to do bad things. Empirically, as you point out, the answer is clearly yes. And indeed, nationalism is a very common occurrence of this phenomenon. In my How to Be a Stoic I mention the famous phrase, often brought up in the United States, “my country, right or wrong” (ch. 13, p. 154). The original attribution of the quote is to Stephen Decatur, a US naval officer who allegedly said in an after-dinner toast in 1816: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our Country!”
Now compare this to a similar remark made by US Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in front of the Senate, on 29 February 1872: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
The contrast between these two uses of the expression is precisely the one you are getting at: Decatur undoubtedly thought what he was saying to be obviously virtuous, but the real virtue lies in Schurz’s version. How can we tell the difference? That’s the tricky part. There is no hard and fast rule. Anyone can claim the mantle of virtue, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is justified in doing so. One has to reflect on the specific issue, make an argument for why what one is saying or doing is indeed virtuous. And listen to others who think otherwise, weighing their arguments properly.
There is, in other words, no shortcut to virtue, no certainty in virtue ethics, no simple algorithm that will guarantee you a virtuous outcome. This is why the Stoics insisted that only the sage is truly virtuous, while the rest of us are — at best — proficientes: those who make progress. And how do we know that we are making progress? Because we confront ourselves with others, as we are all doing on this blog, or on the Facebook Stoicism page. That is also why the concept of role models is so crucial to Stoic practice. As Seneca aptly puts it:
“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters XI.10)