Kai Whiting wrote an insightful article entitled Taking Stoicism Beyond the Self: The Power To Change Society. It explores the need to look into Stoicism, in particular its emphasis on the social virtue justice. After reading it these words just flowed from my fingers as I responded to it:
Ayn Rand’s philosophy has really poisoned the intellectual/philosophical well of the United States. And I don’t mean academic philosophy, I mean the philosophy of the common American. Not only, as Isaac Asimov warned, have we attached ourselves to anti-intellectualism in this country, we have managed to individualize our experiences to the point of moral solipsism. We think of ourselves as me vs me vs me. The only time we ever collectivize is when its us vs some other that we poorly understand.
It’s true that Stoicism has no political ideology but it is of course political, as it cares about justice, which means it will care about the downtrodden who are exploited by corporate sociopaths. It will care about women who still endure sexism from their employers through their unequal pay or something sinister like their male colleagues mansplaining to them how to behave or express themselves, constantly silencing their opinion through interruption.
It’s time that we care about social virtue. It’s time that we read Stoicism exactly as it was intended, to create a pluralistic society that unifies everyone in a common cosmopolis of humankind.
We need to break away from intellectual laziness and embrace wisdom in its pure and practical forms. As Socrates said before he drank the hemlock, “the unanalyzed life is not worth living.” Epictetus says that we’re all little spooks carrying around our corpses. Well, sometimes, I see no evidence of a spirit in some of these corpses that lost their soul years ago when they learned to embrace willful ignorance.
It’s time that we enlighten a few of these spiritless corpses and bring back the spirits.
A lot of (but not all) right-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists believe in NAP or non-aggression principle. The non-aggression principle is deontological in that it is a universal commanding principle with no exceptions that states one should never initiate aggression. Of course it’s ok to use aggression in self-defense when someone has initiated aggression against you. Some people believe the non-aggression principle is the only moral dictum you need in your life.
There’s only one problem: the non-aggression principle isn’t an all encompassing ethical theory. Suppose you’re walking home from school and you see someone drowning. Naturally, if you’re an empathetic person, you’d want to do something to help. Well according to the non-aggression principle, by itself, there is no moral obligation to help. The drowning person isn’t harming you, no one is initiating aggression against the drowning person, no one is being aggressive towards you. It wouldn’t be a form of self-defense to help the drowning person. So what do you do? Well, the non-aggression principle essentially doesn’t tell you what to do. If you believe only in the NAP, then you can either just walk on by or proceed to try to help.
But there’s something really wrong with this picture of total supremacy of NAP. It seems like you’re morally obligated to help the drowning person or try to help. You don’t want to drown along with the other person while trying to save the drowning person obviously, so you grab a long stick and you tell the person to grab on. Or maybe it’s just a kid that weighs significantly less than so it would be easy to swim to the kid and save the kid without much risk of you both drowning. Or maybe yell for help or call for help if you can’t swim and there’s hardly any feasible way for you to help the person drowning.
Stoicism explains our gut feeling of why we feel we should save someone drowning. Stoicism says we have social ethical duties to help others when they’re in need if we can help. We are obligated to help people whether or not there is an issue of violence at hand. The NAP is simply too limited of an ethical principle to explain our gut feelings about how we should help others in need. It simply only cares about the need for aggression only in self-defense against a person who wrongly initiated the aggression.
Stoicism can do a lot more for us than what the NAP can accomplish. The NAP means you only care about aggression so you don’t necessarily care about types of behaviors that aren’t aggressive but what others would find wrong like lying. Lying isn’t a clear aggressive act so it seems like it’s permitted by the NAP. But most people do not like lying liars. They understand lying to help others but they don’t understand people who lie for themselves or their reputation. And the NAP could easily be interpreted to allow for self-interested forms of lying. You’re not actually initiating aggression by telling a falsehood purposely to trick someone. It’s just semantics and syntax at play.
If you had to choose between ethical theories, you would fair much better with Stoicism than the NAP by itself.