Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.

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MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

Is classical liberalism the same as libertarianism?

Classical liberalism is a big tent with many entrances. Libertarianism is but one.

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© Dave DuBay

YouTube talk show host Dave Rubin likes to ask what, if any, is the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism. The most common answer is that there is none.

Classical liberalism used to be called just plain old liberalism. But while modern American liberals favor individual freedom in the social sphere, they are often anti-capitalist. Besides, the left today seems to increasingly favor the term “progressive,” which is more straightforward. Meanwhile, conservatives are stronger on economic freedom but weak on civil liberties. But libertarians favor both laissez-faire capitalism and a high degree of personal freedom.

Classical liberalism, like democracy, human rights, and capitalism, resulted from the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality, science, and reason. At its core, classical liberalism is the belief that individual rights are the basis of universal human rights.

After all, if I don’t support human rights for others then I have no reason to expect others to support my human rights. From this it follows that everyone—regardless of identity group or demographic profile—must be equal under the law.

Further, the things I have a right to are things that inherently belong to me. My life, my identity, my speech, my religion and beliefs, my innocence, and so on. Rights, then, restrict government from telling us that we can’t say certain things, that we can’t worship a certain god (or that we must worship a god), that we’re guilty without due process or a fair trial, and so on. But of course, government can restrict us from doing things that deprive others of their rights.

In other words, rights are about what government can’t do, not what government must provide. But this doesn’t prohibit government from providing certain things.

Checks and balances—mechanisms for each branch of government to override the others—also limit governmental power. And decentralization is important. Something should be up to the individual if it’s best handled by the individual. If a municipality can best handle something then the state or province should step back. And the national government shouldn’t intervene if the state or province can handle it.

This freedom extends to free enterprise. But how limited should government involvement in the economy be? Short of anarcho-capitalism most would agree that some government involvement is necessary. Libertarians limit this to property protection. But I think some government regulation of externalities—such as environmental protection; and the provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—is ideal.

This is not a libertarian position. But it’s still within the framework of classical liberalism.

Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer writes for Quillette that “the prevailing emphasis on the group over the individual” departs from classical liberalism. The left categorizes people as oppressed or oppressors based on the intersection of identity groups they belong to. And the right “sort[s] people into collectivities according to religion and national origin.” This “self-factionalizing into groups” encourages “increasingly militant political and ideological movements rooted in personal identity.” Because they are so entrenched in identity politics, neither Democrats nor Republicans are liberals in the classical sense.

Shermer lists the essentials of classical liberalism as:

  • Democracy with voting rights for all adult citizens
  • Rule of law
  • Protection of civil rights and civil liberties
  • Police and military protection
  • Property rights and a secure monetary system
  • Free internal movement for all
  • Freedom of the press, speech, and association
  • Education available to all

To this he adds “adequate public spending to help the needy,” noting that he didn’t support this in his younger, libertarian days. But with a middle-age perspective he sees this as essential to a society that enables the individual to flourish.

Another example of a non-libertarian classical liberal is New York Times columnist David Brooks. A former Republican, he lends his support to the centrist Modern Whig Party. Brooks writes, “If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.”

The original Whig Party collapsed in the early 1800s over the abolition of slavery. Whether Modern Whigs will become a political force remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

Whether the classical liberalism of Democrats like Bill Maher will prevail over progressive identity politics remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

But perhaps the biggest question of all is the future of the Republican Party. Young people avoid the GOP. But the large majority of millennials who remain don’t support President Donald Trump—the exact opposite of their elders. Millennial Republicans are also more supportive of marriage equality and legalizing marijuana. Will millennials root out right-wing identity politics? Maybe.

 

Let women make the first move: what Mel Magazine gets wrong

The passive voice is inconsistent with initiating.

© Dave DuBay

Will women asking men out on dates further the goals of #MeToo? Mel Magazine thinks so. And while Tracy Moore may be on to something, the way she frames it is problematic.

Moore begins with a conditional statement: “If men took a sabbatical from making the first move…” But why men must take a sabbatical in order for women to initiate dating is unclear. A social norm where a person—regardless of gender—initiates a date if they’re attracted to someone makes more sense.

But Moore’s suggestion that men, by taking a sabbatical, initiate women’s initiation of asking for dates means women aren’t really taking the initiative.

If women want to take the initiative then the onus is on women to do so. To initiate is to take responsibility, but the very title of her piece is ambivalent toward women doing this. “Let women make the first move” presupposes that men are actors and women are acted upon.

This is a common feminist theme. In 2011 the Fatal Feminist wrote, “Get me off this damn pedestal.” One blogger pointed out the author’s passive voice: she appears to be a damsel in distress waiting for a white knight to rescue her. To say women need to take responsibility if they want to be the ones to initiate dates is to not put women on a pedestal. It treats women as equals. But to say men need to let women initiate is benevolent sexism.

Moore goes on to explain the benefits of women initiating dates. I’m in agreement here. When I was single I got asked out on average once a year. It’s flattering. But that some women have always chosen to ask men out shows that men are not preventing women from doing this. Women who don’t ask men out are preventing themselves from doing it.

Moore also points out that the experience of being asked out will enlighten men to women’s experiences and likely increase men’s empathy for women. This would be a good thing.

But while she notes that women also will experience rejection is a new way, her piece remains mostly female-centric with little awareness of the male gender role.

Women often think men have more power in the dating world. Feminism in general is reticent to acknowledge women’s power over men because it muddies the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. In reality, both men and women have power and powerlessness when dating, but usually in different ways.

Twenty some odd years ago I was a recent college graduate who got a job working with people with AIDS. Gay bars often did fundraisers for us.

Being a twenty-three year old man in a gay bar is an enlightening experience. I’d walk into a gay bar and men would turn to look. It’s very ego boosting.

I didn’t think of myself as attractive before that mainly because as a shy guy I was mostly invisible to women. Both sexes experience invisibility, but I don’t think feminists have any clue that invisibility is far more common for men compared to women in the dating scene.

In a gay bar men would initiate conversations. Being shy, initiating conversations has always been a challenge, but I realized that if I were gay I’d have no problem finding a date. Yes, there were a few creeps. But most gay men were fine with me not playing for their team.

With asking for dates, however, women often have greater privilege than men. Asking women out on dates is not a choice for men—it’s an obligation. A man who doesn’t ask doesn’t date. Asking men out on dates is a choice for women, though. She’ll still date even if she doesn’t ask, though she might date more if she does ask. Going against social norms means she’ll face disparagement time to time. But having more options is better than having fewer options.

Incel anger stems from social isolation

More sex won’t solve the problem.

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White House Trail, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

A second mass murder by an incel—an involuntary celibate—has many of us wondering what the hell is going on. Not being able to get laid can be stressful. But to the point of mass murder?

We don’t know who incels are. Plenty of low income men and unattractive men have sex, so there’s got to be more to it. I’d venture these men lack social and emotional skills, resulting in social isolation.

Of course, only the smallest fraction of incels commit violence. Still, I question the assumption that these guys wouldn’t be violent if only they could get laid. Plenty of sexually active men are violent—even murderously so.

But we continue to debate the question of how to help these guys get laid. Opining for the New York Times, Ross Douthat acknowledges that a return to traditional values is unlikely. Like it or not, he thinks society instead will legalize prostitution and sexbots.

Douthat references George Mason University economist Robin Hanson’s “provocation: If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?”

The problem, of course, is obvious. Redistributing people isn’t the same as redistributing money.

Besides, lack of sex isn’t limited to heterosexual cisgender men. YouTuber Riley J. Dennis claims it’s discriminatory not to date transgender individuals. But would Dennis take incels’ claims of discrimination seriously?

The problem is the same: refusing to date someone isn’t discrimination in the same way that refusing someone a seat at a lunch counter is. Human beings are not public accommodations.

The primary issue—regardless of identity group—is that the rights of the individual are the foundation of universal human rights. Other people’s most intimate choices belong to no one except that individual. Every individual has right to say no—which can come in the form of not asking someone out, declining when asked out, or breaking up with someone. No amount of personal distress diminishes the responsibility to respect the rights of others, and to deal with rejection in a healthy way.

For a more rational perspective, Douthat quotes Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who asks, “Does Anyone Have the Right To Sex?” Srinivasan agrees that there’s no entitlement to sex, though she does think sexual desirability “is a political question.”

The feminist slogan that “the personal is political” is simplistic, however. Some things are just personal. If you want to have sex with someone you can’t sue them in court if they say no, nor will you be able to pass a non-discrimination dating law.

But this misses the point that unlike incels, transgender individuals are not out there committing mass murder. And as Molly Roberts at the Washington Post points out, “Treating incels in the same way as disabled people, transgender people and other marginalized demographics…is dangerous.” Incels, Roberts says, “are furious that the country has started to recognize women don’t owe sex to anyone who wants it.”

More than lack of sex, the incel problem in my view is social isolation. And men seem more vulnerable to social isolation than women do (though transgender individuals are more vulnerable still). Legalizing  prostitution—which should first and foremost focus on the rights and interests of sex workers—won’t decrease social isolation. And neither will sex robots.

At the same time, scolding men for “toxic masculinity” or “fragile masculinity” is backfiring. This doesn’t mean that a sense of entitlement isn’t a problem, but it’s not being approached in an emotionally intelligent way.

Instead we should be asking how we can best support men and boys. But feminism is of limited help men because framing men’s issues in terms of how women will benefit is problematic similar to the way it’s problematic to care about anyone because it may be beneficial to someone else.

Case in point: many more people die from suicide than from mass murder. And male suicides outnumber female suicides three to one. Yet, there’s little awareness of this problem. Would that be the case if the gender roles were reversed? This lack of concern is a deeper societal issue that’s related to the social isolation of men who crack.

Is there a link between teen suicide, school shootings, & social media?

Mass shootings—especially at schools—have gotten a lot of attention, but there’s another type of violence that kills far more teens. Suicide.

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© Dave DuBay

I was talking with a middle school principal the other day. He said teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control agree. The CDC says teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter only to steadily increase after 2007.

In 2015 the teen suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 for boys and 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. The media focuses particularly on girls because the teen girl suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015 compared to a one-third increase for teen boys.

But what if there’s a link between boys who are at risk for suicide and boys who are more likely to commit a mass shooting? Dr. Kelly Posner of Columbia University’s suicide prevention program claims that over 90 percent of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, and almost a third say suicide is a motive for committing a mass shooting.

Taking the needs of boys and men seriously seems to be a big missing puzzle piece. Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray recently published a book about The Boy Crisis. They claim fatherlessness is the leading cause of boys’ problems. In an interview with Bettina Arndt, however, Farrell was clear to point out that suicide and murder occur only in a very small minority of boys—most boys raised by single mothers turn out just fine.

Still, almost two-thirds of teens who commit suicide come from fatherless homes. And Farrell and Gray state the perpetrator grew up without a father or with little father involvement in 26 of 27 American mass shooting where at least 8 people died. Some dispute this figure, however, citing difficulties with identifying and measuring father involvement.

What is clear, though, is that troubled boys are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill other people. But we only seem concerned when a boy or a man harms another person, at which point we blame “toxic masculinity” and prescribe redefining masculinity along feminist lines as the solution. Instead we should be asking how best to reach out to troubled boys.

And we should be asking how best to reach out to girls. A doubling in teen girls’ suicide rate is alarming. As we were talking, the principal’s wife added that the “mean girls” phenomenon needs to be addressed more directly. Males are more violent, but females engage in “relational aggression” more frequently than boys. And this increases risk for suicidal ideation.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta M. Oliker describes “female aggressive behavior” as:

Excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.

The power of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people with rumor spreading, shaming, and explicit calls for social exclusion is unprecedented. Social exclusion and public shaming is difficult for anyone, but even more so for adolescents. Dr. Jean Twenge claims that social media makes children more depressed and anxious, dubbing people born after 1995 “iGen”—a cohort with a profoundly different adolescent social experience compared to people born before 1995.

The link between social media and increased teen suicide—not to mention school shootings—has yet to be proved. But it seems undeniable. The principal said the ubiquity of social media is a huge factor in rising teen suicide rates. He said that in years past kids might make fun of a peer in front of a half dozen other kids. But today something posted on social media is seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.

Who’s the most Stoic Star Trek character?

Mr. Spock is often seen as the ultimate stoic. Yet, Stoic philosopher Epictetus says not to be like a stone statue.

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Can you be emotional and stoic at the same time? No—that’s a contradiction in terms. But can you be emotional and Stoic at the same time? Yes—Stoicism has a nuanced perspective on emotion.

Whether the “s” is capitalized or not matters.

Kolinahr—the final purging of all emotion—is the ultimate Vulcan goal.  Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek TV series, said he didn’t play Spock as emotionless but rather as someone who was suppressing his emotions. This fits the dictionary definition of stoic: “not showing or not feeling any emotion, esp. in a situation in which the expression of emotion is expected.”

Characters without emotions are not compelling, though. Ultimately, Spock ends up rejecting Kolinahr.

Captain Picard from the next generation of Star Trek is similar to Spock in some ways. Picard values reason, and he’s particularly concerned with ethical resolutions to conflict.

But Picard is also a very emotional man. He’s compassionate, and he gets angry often. It’s rare, though, for Picard to let his anger overwhelm him to the point where doing the right thing is no longer important.

Roman Emperor Nero’s tutor was a Stoic who wrote a book On Anger. Living a good life is Stoicism’s ultimate goal, but intense emotions can cause us to act unethically. Seneca notes that passion can override reason, and that’s a problem. And anger is one of the most destructive emotions.

But what about anger in the face of evil? Gandhi could have been angry but wasn’t. Hitler shouldn’t have been angry, but was. Seneca asks us to imagine a ship in a storm. One sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is going to save lives?

Seneca says that emotions start as an impression, and often this happens without us even noticing it. The first sign is often physical: tense muscles, churning stomach. Then our thoughts kick in, and this is where we need to cut things off at the pass. Once our imagination gets away from us we start to believe that other people really are malicious and deserve punishment. We need to pause, take a step back, think it through, and keep our focus on an ethical solution.

That’s more nuanced than simply suppression our emotions. Absent super-human self-control, it would be much hard to be consistently ethical using Mr. Spock’s approach to emotions compared to Captain Picard.