Stoic Q&A: can virtue justify evil?

which role model?

[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)

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11 thoughts on “Stoic Q&A: can virtue justify evil?

  1. Victoria

    Nice answer Massimo! 👏I’m feeling very liberated reading it. 😊 thanks!

    You are right, virtue ethics have to be assessed for each case. Interestingly, I’ve just been reading Plato’s Gorgias and realising how easy it is for a sophist to use “virtues” to turn black into white. I guess the difference between a sophist and a philosopher is that a sophist seeks to prove him/herself right, whereas a philosopher seeks the truth, therefore less likely to be ignorant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandra Jean

    My 13 yr old and I had this very conversation 2 days ago. His opinion was that Hitler did what he thought best for the German people. My opinion was when he formed an intent to kill he stopped putting his “peoples” goodwill as the focus, therefor the virtue of his intent has been extinguished.

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  3. Thomas Lasch

    Well done in breathing some new life into a tired modern cliche. When I saw the topic on my email I almost skipped it. Agreed: typically even the most evil tyrant is attempting some benefit.
    But what about more personal evil? We’ll use an equally cliched nadir/example :Sex killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy? How does his nature and experience fit the concept of amathia ?

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  4. Victoria

    Hi Sandra,

    A very interesting discussion you had with your son! 👍

    A question I’ve been examing lately is “did Hitler have to do what he did for German people?” The approach I’m taking is by comparing post WW1 Germany and the rise of power of Hitler to Turkey after WW1 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Turkey was in comparable social and economical situation as they were both on “the side that lost”, and both Hitler and Mustafa fought in front line trenches in WW1. However, the republic of turkey in the 20s under Mustafa was a peaceful one, and you’d find many people named after Mustafa today.

    Sorry that this isn’t exactly on the topic, but they could be interesting readings for a young man, just a thought! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Massimo Post author

    Thomas,

    Sex killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy? How does his nature and experience fit the concept of amathia ?

    My take on people like Bundy is that they are sick. Their hegemonikon, their ruling faculty to use Stoic jargon, is simply not working properly. They are defective human beings, who need to be stopped and put in a facility from where they can’t harm others and yet be treated as patients.

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  6. Nanocyborgasm

    The only reason Godwin’s Law (devolving all arguments towards a comparison to Hitler) was ever invoked was because Nazism was seen as a universal evil that anyone would refute in themselves, if accused. But now, Nazism has arisen again in the guise of illiberal nationalist “democracies”, which Russian Intelligence has helped to gain power. So Godwin’s Law no longer applies to arguments, since actual fascists are gaining power.

    Besides this, I also agree with OP in that loyalty is confused as a virtue when it isn’t. If you’re going to be loyal to something, be loyal to a principle, like the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, wisdom and courage. Principles are always ideal and you’ll never have to worry that they’ll betray you or themselves. But loyalty to a person or a group or even a country has the potential to betray you. What if the person to whom you owe your allegiance becomes bad, or betrays you? Then you are left the fool who valued the person instead of the principle that you believed that person stood for. This is why I find it hard to respect anyone in the service of the current American administration, who remain loyal to the person in the office of President, or even the office itself, rather than the principles of the office. Otherwise, they are prone, as they have many times, to defend the worst malice.

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  7. alonorion

    As a Jewish man from a German family background that came to its end in the time period in question, I felt a great need to personally inquire into the motives of Hitler and his Huns. At the root of their cause was, as Plato once used the term, a “great lie”, the lie of the stab in the back, right out of the murder of Siegfried in Wagner’s opera. The fallacy that enemies at home where responsible for defeat in the war when in reality it was the German army that shouted Gevald! For all to hear. A cause based on a “great lie” would see no reason not to embrace other “great lies” such as a racial pyramid, a global Jewish plot and other outlandish ideas united in ignorance, or as you put it unknowledge.

    That being said, I feel haunted by the words of many Germans who lived during the Second World War, that amounted to the position that when the fighting started, it because very difficult to oppose the regime when the fortunes of their country depended on its successful conducted of the war.

    My country does not have a spectacular human rights record, I think it is exaggerated by the western press that seems to have an unhealthy obsession with it, but all the same, the initial point stands, if on questionable foundations. I do not compare this latter point with the above paragraphs, and I do not think it inappropriate to consider those who do ether insane or spectacularly ignorant.

    I do however exist in the unenviable position of being tourtured by patriotism. Love of my country is very easily one of the dearest things to my heart, and in questioning it during its times of trial, I would be placed in a very difficult position. I do not have the luxury of Western Citizens, who are relatively secure in their borders and can perhaps pursue even anti-nationalist agenda’s without too much distaste. If I where to take action against government policy I felt an ethical objection to, I would be paralyzed by the knowledge that any action that weakens the government’s authority could also weaken the nation as a whole and leave it vulnerable to hostile action by enemy states and organisations that are only 3 minutes away from my home, as a rocket flies. It is not only a question of my security, but of collective national security that requires a strong united team spirit against very real external threats.

    I can’t continue to exist in my current state of inaction, which is in some ways worse then doing the wrong thing. But my answers to this problem thus far pile up on layers of ethical compromises as tall as the tower of Babel. Loyalty in my view is very easily the first claim of “right or wrong always my country” because there is no viable replacement. The second “set right” version only lends words to my problem but no “easy” solution.

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  8. wtc48

    Loyalty is a concept that was paramount in the Middle Ages, when allegiances between subjects and lords were what held society together. Even within modern nation-states, it has a vestigial survival in gang activity, and of course is generally important between close family members. But it probably shouldn’t have full virtue status without other factors, because of its vulnerability to harmful or antisocial uses.

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  9. Ketil M

    There are many other examples of loyalty being (ab)used to commit evil. Loyalty to familiy gives you the mafia and nepotism. Loyalty to religion and hushing up abusive behavior.

    It is interesting to me that you contrast this with the virtue of Wisdom, and ascribe evil to the lack of it. To me this sounds like the case when people act in good faith, but fail to understand the consequences of their actions. To use a possibly controversial example, Trump may want to protect industry in the “rust belt”, but starting trade wars may hurt the economy and cause more problems than it solves.

    But why not Justice? Wouldn’t a lack of Justice cause as much evil as a lack of Wisdom? Isn’t the nazis’ racist ideology a failure to treat other people justly?

    Loyalty is the preference for a particular group over others. It is a very human trait, we like to organize in groups, we expect loyalty from others in our groups, and feel betrayed if they fail us. In many ways, I think this is the opposite of cosmopolitanism, and as such, it is an anti-stoic sentiment. Clearly, it is wrong to use loyalty as a lever to make people act unjustly or unwisely, and it takes Courage to resist. Yet, I think loyalty can be defended in some cases. For example, one might think some laws are unjust or unwise, and that the world would be better if they were changed. Still one should (arguably) follow the law, since breaking it undermines the rule of law, and rule of law, even some bad ones, is better than anarchy.

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  10. Massimo Post author

    Ketil,

    But why not Justice? Wouldn’t a lack of Justice cause as much evil as a lack of Wisdom? Isn’t the nazis’ racist ideology a failure to treat other people justly?

    Sure, but remember that both Socrates and the Stoics subscribed to the doctrine of the unity of virtue, so there is no contradiction here. Lack of justice is still a kind of luck of wisdom.

    one might think some laws are unjust or unwise, and that the world would be better if they were changed. Still one should (arguably) follow the law, since breaking it undermines the rule of law, and rule of law, even some bad ones, is better than anarchy.

    That’s why Socrates decided to die instead of flee the Athenian prison.

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