Stoic q&a: shouldn’t Stoics be charitable toward other people’s behaviors?

[image: Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, by François-André Vincent, Wikipedia; this is essay #277 in the Figs in Winter series]

G. writes: I have a question regarding the “MeToo” movement and the reaction of a Stoic at the rage of others.“MeToo” has recently arrived in my country and there are many famous people who have been charged with rape and various forms of sexual harassment. What saddens me is the reaction of my folks: many of them think that those criminals must suffer. They must be raped, ridiculed, beaten up, and subjected to other not so humane punishments, which the many call justice.

To my part, I embrace the Stoic view. I think that these criminals are “sick” in their ability to arrive at correct judgments, and from this point of view the proper response is pity for those who misbehaved, accompanied by measures to protect society from them. Such measures should not be based on an “an eye for an eye, a hand for hand” approach. It makes me sad when I hear people say that these criminals are not humans. I think that this view is not only wrong but also very dangerous, because regarding people as sub-humans opens the way to the justification of atrocities. Marcus Aurelius famously said that the best form of revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. I think that we should treat the criminals with the dignity accorded to every human being, no matter what.

However, when I share my views with others they treat me like a lunatic. They think that I condone the rapists, murderers, etc. of the world. They just won’t listen most of the time. How do you deal with this blind rage in the heart of people?

This is a very good question, which goes to the heart of the Stoic attitude toward human failings. Your letter was prompted by the sudden arrival of #metoo in your country, but the question is much broader than that: how should we behave toward people who do bad things? The Stoic answer is both clear and unambiguous, for instance in Epictetus:

The idea is that people don’t do bad things because they are “evil,” but rather because they are mistaken about what is good and bad. Someone who uses his power over other people to sexually harass them mistakenly thinks that his social status entitles him to pressure others to do what he wants. Someone who rapes mistakenly thinks that his physical strength and status as a man entitles him to simply take sexual pleasure regardless of whether the other person is willing or not. (I’m using male pronouns here because these behaviors are far more common among men, though there certainly are exceptions.)

According to the Stoics, these people are sick. Specifically, they suffer from amathia, a Greek word often translated as “ignorance,” but that more properly means lack of wisdom. The concept goes back to Socrates, who says in Plato’s Euthydemus:

Sherwood Belangia has written a short article about this, entitled “Ignorance vs stupidity.” He analyzes a famous passage in the Alcibiades Major, where Socrates talks to the title character, his young friend and future general and statesman of Athens:

Socrates: “But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?”

Alcibiades: “I am afraid so.”

Socrates: “Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.”

Sure enough, Alcibiades’ “stupidity” will be very costly for Athens, as his repeated bad judgment will turn out to be a major contributor to the fall of his city to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

Belangia gives us an insight into what is going on in the dialogue, based on an etymological analysis of some of the key words used by Socrates: “A-gnoia means literally ‘not-knowing’; a-mathia means literally ‘not-learning.’ In addition to the type of amathia that is an inability to learn, there is another form that is an unwillingness to learn. … Robert Musii in an essay called On Stupidity, distinguished between two forms of stupidity, one he called ‘an honorable kind’ due to a lack of natural ability and another, much more sinister kind, that he called ‘intelligent stupidity.’”

Amathia can perhaps best be defined in this way:

People who engage in sexual harassment or, worse, rape, therefore suffer from disknowledge, and in several cases from what Musii refers to as “intelligent stupidity,” a phrase that sounds oxymoronic, but which denotes the fact that smart and educated (i.e., “intelligent”) people can nevertheless act in an ethically stupid fashion out of their unwillingness to reflect and learn.

The question, then, is what are we supposed to do with such people. Again, I will refer you to the quote above from Epictetus: treat them as if they were blind, because in a very important sense they are. This means three things: first and foremost, make sure they do not hurt others; second, do not harbor feelings of hatred toward them, but rather of pity, similar to the Christian “hate the sin but not the sinner”; and third, see if you can help them recover their metaphorical sight, at least in part.

This, I think, translates into a strong Stoic support for restorative justice and a move away from the still common retributive justice. The idea underlying retributive justice is that people ought to be punished for what they have done. Your mentioned an eye-for-an-eye, which is an extreme example of retributive justice, though thankfully most modern societies have moved away from that. However, the death penalty, for instance — which, among western countries is found only in the US and Israel — is a quintessential example of retributive justice. Its only aim is revenge, certainly not rehabilitation. The goal of restorative justice is for the offenders to take responsibility for what they have done, and for the victims to play an active role in the process and arrive at some level of peace about what happened. The empirical evidence shows very clearly that restorative justice programs work much better than traditional retributive ones: the offender is less likely to offend again, and the victim tends to find satisfaction in the proceedings. When restorative justice is not possible, then the next best option is a program of rehabilitation of the offender, where the goal is to re-integrate people into society, not just lock them away. Norway is the most advanced country in this respect, at the moment.

So, I agree with your understanding that Stoics should not condone talk of retribution, and certainly not dehumanizing talk. That said, remember the dichotomy of control: some things are up to us, other things are not up to us, and we need to focus on the former and work toward accepting the latter with equanimity. Your opinions about justice are up to you, those of others are not. You are right in sharing your take, and if this article and its embedded links help you talk to people you know, all the better. But you need to be prepared for your opinions to fall on deaf ears, and be okay with that.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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