Stoic Q&A: what if people are objectively bad?

[If you wish to submit a question for this series, please send it to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org]

L. writes: In the October 17th episode of Stoic Meditations Marcus Aurelius writes to be charitable toward others when they do you "wrong" because they are fellow human beings, remembering that we ourselves are not infallible, and that they act out of lack of wisdom or unintentionally, they can't actually harm you, and it's all small potatoes anyway when viewed from above. I understand and adopt this behavior toward most people and situations I encounter.

But what of people who are "objectively bad?" Take a person who you know has deliberately deceived you, or a politician who knowingly seeks to prevent a minority group from voting. I can't accept being charitable toward these people. I agree with other Stoic tenets, like to 1) do what one can to right wrongs or try to reason, but of course 2) accept if we don't succeed and recognize we are not truly "harmed" (our judgment is intact), and at any rate things may fall outside our control. But in many cases, our lives are materially affected either now or certainly in the future (climate change deniers, for example), and these people are neither acting out of lack of wisdom nor unintentionally. How should one consider these people, and what actions should one take? If all ethical people were to legally disrupt these few when encountered in a restaurant, perhaps that would be more effective than any reasoned discourse with them?

This in an excellent, recurring, and difficult question, though you yourself have lined up pretty much all the elements from which to construct an answer. Let me try to put them in order so to make a compelling case.

First off, the Stoics adopt the Socratic notion of amathia, the idea that most people lack wisdom, and therefore they do bad things - objectively bad things - because they think they are right in doing them. Consider your own examples. The person who knowingly deceived you, I bet, is convinced that she had good reasons to do so. Perhaps she thinks you are a schmuck who deserves to be deceived. Or maybe she feels the end justifies the means, and deceiving you was a way to get something she really wanted, and thought she deserved. 

The same goes for the politician. Sure, he probably recognizes that he is wilfully suppressing the voting rights of a particular group. But he likely thinks that those minorities are objectively incapable of making right decisions, or that his side must win because it supports some sort of god-ordained policy (like making abortion illegal) which is more important than the voting rights of a small group of people. As Martin Luther famously said, a lie is not a lie if it is in the service of god.

In fact, you have probably done the same. If you have kids, you have likely lied (“massaged the truth”) to them in order to protect them from some danger, or to get them to do something you think was important and good for them. I’m sure you were perfectly aware that you were deceiving them, and that they would not have liked it, had they found out.

Hell, to invoke the mother of all bad people, probably even Hitler himself thought he was right in doing what he did, because Germany had been badly mistreated after WWI (true), and because the Aryan race is superior to all others (false). I truly think (though, of course, this is an empirical question in psychology) that nobody gets up in the morning, goes to the mirror, and laughs a villain’s laugh, congratulating themselves on how truly bad they are.

Even in fiction sophisticated villains are not, well, cartoonish! The Joker purposely creates mayhem in Gotham City because he thinks people need to wake up to the reality that life is chaos, not the sort of (in his mind) artificial order that Batman wishes to preserve. And Lex Luthor fights against Superman because he thinks earthlings are in danger of becoming weak and subject to external rule if they rely on what is effectively a demi-god for their safety.

That is the sense in which people are thought by the Stoics to do bad things as a result of lack of wisdom. That said, this does not entail inaction. As you know, the ancient Stoics started revolutions and mounted a strong and vocal opposition to tyranny, so there is no implication of quietism here. If you see what you judge as bad behavior unfolding you are, in fact, duty bound to intervene, practicing the virtues of courage and justice. Personally I’m not positive that disrupting people’s meals at a restaurant is an effective way to counteract their actions, but if it is, then by all means let’s do it.

So the Stoic approach to people who engage in evil doing is: 

(i) attempt to reason with them (as Marcus says, teach them); 

(ii) put up with them if what they are doing is not grave (e.g., cutting you across the highway); 

(iii) attempt to stop them if what they are doing is indeed grave; 

(iv) accept with equanimity that sometimes you will succeed and sometimes you will not; 

and (v) even when you fail, pity rather than hate them.

Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VIII.59)

The latter bit is, as you point out, the most difficult to swallow. But of course Stoics are not the only ones to adopt this attitude. Buddhists do the same, and Christians famously say that one should hate the sin but not the sinner. 

To purposefully take this stance helps in a variety of ways. It makes us more humble, because it reminds us that we are dealing with human beings who are fallible, like we are. It also makes it less likely that we go on a quest for vengeance, which is corrosive to our spirit and entirely unnecessary in practice (indeed, often counterproductive, since it tends to generate vicious cycles of counter-revenge).

We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead? (Epictetus, Discourses I, 18.3)

You also touched on two more related points. First the Stoic notion that we are not really harmed by other people’s bad actions. This sounds downright preposterous, of course. I am most definitely harmed when someone steals from me, or injures me physically. And the whole of humanity is harmed by climate change. But the Stoics, naturally, recognized all this. They did agree that things like wealth, bodily integrity and so forth have axia, that is, value. However, it follows from Stoic principles that the chief goods we possess are our own moral integrity and ability to arrive at correct judgments. These cannot be controlled by anyone else, no matter what they do. It is in that sense, and in that sense only, that we are not harmed. Indeed, we are the only ones who can harm ourselves, by compromising our integrity and making bad judgments.

The mark and attitude of the ordinary man: never look for help or harm from yourself, only from outsiders. The mark and attitude of the philosopher: look for help and harm exclusively from yourself. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 48)

Second, you rightly mention the view from above. This is a way to remind ourselves that, in the great scheme of things, our struggles are small, and last a very short period of time. They will not even make a ripple in the history of the cosmos. But, again, this is no call for inaction. Marcus was the Stoic that made the most use of this reminder in order to deal with his daily issues, but he nevertheless always acted decidedly to do what he thought was best for himself, his family, and the Roman people. Again, there is no contradiction in the notion of calming ourselves down by putting things into perspective, and nevertheless being ready to act in order to reduce the level of injustice in the world.

Think of the universal substance, of which you have a very small portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to you; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it you are. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.24)
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