Baptists and bootleggers. It’s a Prohibition era phrase more commonly referred to as strange bedfellows. Sometimes political opponents support the same thing, but for different reasons.
Arizona’s state senate passed a bill saying that after divorce, the person (presumably the woman) with the best chance of having a baby will have the rights to the former couple’s frozen embryos. The other person will be exempt from parental rights and responsibilities unless he chooses otherwise.
Republicans control Arizona government, and their motive seems to be stealth recognition of the embryo’s right to life—albeit cloaked as a women’s rights issue.
This should dispel the myth that conservatives oppose government interference in people’s lives.
Not that progressives are any better. I’ve previously criticized the idea of “alimony for your eggs,” stating instead that having a baby should involve the consent of both potential parents.
Though the law exempts a man from legal and financial responsibility if he does not consent to parenthood, it’s questionable whether this aspect of the potential law would hold up in court. In light of the best interests of the child, it’s likely the courts will order the unwilling father to pay child support anyway (and face jail if he fails to deliver).
Ancient philosopher Epictetus’s injunction to know what does and does not belong to you is perhaps the most succinct definition of healthy boundaries. A couple’s frozen embryos belong to them, not to the state. And the decision to become a parent belongs to each individual, meaning that each person should have veto power—including the right to change their mind after having previously given consent.
Advocacy groups, however, promote the talking point that it’s not fair for women to lose their embryos because their ex-husbands don’t want to pay child support.
But no woman is entitled to have a baby. Consent a reciprocal responsibility.
Many of us were taught as children that no one owes us anything. It’s meant to curb any sense of entitlement we may be developing.
From this it follows that we don’t anyone anything. But this assertion is sometimes seen as impudent. And that can lead to a situation where we feel obligated to others while lacking the right to set boundaries.
Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. He counsels us to know what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Other people and other things are not ours. But our deliberate choices do belong to us.
Further, there are two aspects to not touching things that aren’t ours. One is not taking something that belongs to someone else. The other is refusing to accept things that we don’t want.
For example, let’s say you don’t like a choice I’ve made. And let’s say you criticize that choice using judgmental language. My choice doesn’t belong to you, and your judgement doesn’t belong to me. I can neutralize your judgement, not by striking back at you, but simply by pointing out what belongs to whom and making clear that I reject your judgement.
That is, I can refuse to touch something that doesn’t belong to me. And I can drive the point home by noting that your opinion on the matter is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant because your judgement only impacts my choice if I allow it to. If I choose to disregard your judgement then your judgment become moot.
Easier said than done, of course.
And nowhere are these boundaries more problematic than with gender roles. The sexual assault scandal has brought many men’s attitude of entitlement toward women’s bodies into painful focus.
Yes, women can say no. But a culture that supports this is necessary to make it feel like a more viable choice for women. A popular meme along these lines is:
Women don’t owe men anything.
That’s an important message to teach girls and boys from the youngest age. But it’s incomplete unless taught in conjunction with what logically follows:
Men don’t owe women anything.
The basic notion is that not owing or being owed applies regardless of our demographic profile.
There is no equality if something is not given freely.
But don’t we owe each other respect?
Good manners and politeness are one thing. They smooth social interactions and are generally in our self-interest. And if we choose to be impolite then we have no right to complain if our rudeness is reciprocated.
But respect is a about holding someone in high esteem, and no one is entitled to our esteem. Nor can we say that lack of respect is disrespect. Respect and disrespect are two separate issues. That is, not respecting someone is about what’s being withheld (esteem) while disrespecting someone is about what’s being given (contempt).
And just as we don’t owe anyone respect, we don’t owe anyone disrespect. Even if someone is disrespectful toward me I don’t owe them disrespect in return. In other words, I am not entitled to revenge.
Finally, it’s often said that respect must be earned. I disagree.
Why would I want your respect?
If I don’t hold you in esteem then why should your respect be important to me?
Even if I do hold you in esteem why should I think you owe me the same in return?
Why should I jump through hoops to please you and thereby gain your respect? If you want that from me then you’re being manipulative, but your manipulation does not belong to me.
In fact, your respect will never belong to me because you can revoke it at any time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
The word victim gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s a description. Other times it’s a criticism.
People are victims, in a technical sense, when they’re the target of a crime; and in a more colloquial sense whenever they’re treated unjustly. This is situational. But certain groups encounter injustice far more often than others, and some say they’re oppressed in a pervasive way due to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, social class, and so on.
Others collect grievances, including seemingly minor offenses, or microaggressions, such an Asian-American being asked where they’re from. This can lead to the accusation that some people think of themselves as victims in a generalized sense, though the accused usually deny this.
Whether someone is playing the victim is not for me to say. But there is a red flag I often see: the desire we’ve all experienced to blame others for our dissatisfaction in life.
Tribalism is a feature of every human culture. Even toddlers form cliques. It may be biologically hardwired. But that doesn’t mean it’s our destiny. We’re intelligent creatures, and we’re capable of taking steps to mitigate tribalism.
Still, us vs. them is a compelling narrative. It’s all too easy to find an enemy—real or imagined—whom we blame for our difficulties in life. Some ideologies even find a scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the world.
Some Christians blame atheists. Some Muslims blame infidels. Atheists often blame religion. Conservatives and progressives blame each other. Libertarians and anarchists blame the government. Feminists blame the patriarchy. Men’s rights activists blame feminists. And so on ad nauseum.
There’s a failure to realize that while someone may have done something to us, and while we did not choose this situation, how we react to it is up to us.
Epictetus observed that “an ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”
He isn’t saying that the situations we find ourselves in are our fault. Circumstances, according to Epictetus, lie outside our sphere of control. But whether circumstances lead us to become dissatisfied with life and resentful of others is up to us.
In other words, instead of thinking that they’re out to get me I can decide what action I’m going to take. It’s the difference between learned helplessness and being proactive.
But blaming others has its incentives. Being persecuted puts us at the center of attention. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority. And blaming others absolves us of any responsibility for acting to resolve things.
This phenomenon is magnified when we belong to an ideological group with a defined enemy. But we should be skeptical of all ideologies. None have it all figured out, and all have their weak points. But we should be especially distrustful of ideologies that blame a particular group or person for what’s wrong with the world.
Challenging our group’s orthodoxy is much harder than criticizing an outside group. It takes no courage for a political party to criticize its opponents, but it takes great courage for a party member to stand up and say, “You know, we’re not really morally superior to our opponents.”
I like the fact that Stoicism has no external enemy—not even Epicureanism. Though the two philosophies disagree, neither thinks the other is out to get them. Stoicism teaches that if I’m unhappy then it’s up to me to change that. The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday puts it.
To be more direct, if I have an enemy then the enemy is me. So it’s my responsibility to change my own behavior.
Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?
In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:
When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.
I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.
Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.
This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.
Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.
So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?
Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.
I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.
Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.
Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.
Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.
And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.
But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.
And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.
Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.
Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.
They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.
Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act on) not out of maliciousness but out of ignorance. Still, ignorance can have very destructive consequences.
Assent can only be given freely—coercion can merely appear to do so. Brainwashing can be resisted, though it may be a formidable challenge. And even if brainwashing succeeds we cannot say the asset was given freely.
Which brings me to feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame over being judged for a choice or opinion that belongs to me and not to the person rendering the judgement.
Judgment is a type of insult. It threatens social exclusion. And judgement springs from insecurities over someone else having a different viewpoint, and uncertainties over those opinions.
If I express my opinion on something—say a political issue—then someone who disagrees might judge me or even tell me what my opinion should be.
Of course, if my opinion was a judgement on something that’s none of my business, or if the facts demonstrably refute me, then they’d be right to object—but not in a way that attacks me personally.
Otherwise, they’re not entitled to judge me because my opinions don’t belong to them. I could point this out to them—but that would be defensive, and it’s likely to result in a pointless argument.
Instead, one simple statement would suffice:
“I do not assent to your judgements.”
What could they say to counter that? They could tell me I should assent. Or reiterate their judgements hoping that the repetition will overcome me. But if I remain firm there is nothing more they can do.
I can remain firm by reminding myself that they have no power over my choice to give or withhold assent. And by reminding myself that their misperceptions are probably due to ignorance rather than maliciousness.
Another scenario: Someone else expresses an opinion that I think is offensive—such as claiming that certain people are inferior.
My objections can be expressed without moralistic judgment, such as stating why I think opinions like that cause harm. I don’t need to attack the character of this person, which again are probably due to ignorance. Their opinions don’t belong to me, so I’m not entitled to judge them. But my opinions are mine, so I can express why I disagree.
Are they likely to respond to my objections with judgements and insults? There’s a good chance. I have no control over their judgements, so what would getting upset or retaliating accomplish except to show that they’ve bested me?
Besides, their judgements reveal their insecurities. That observation doesn’t need to pointed out to them—that would be petty. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is to not be like your enemy. That means responding to your enemy with kindness rather than anger. Maintaining my composure but not backing down on my viewpoint is the best approach.
It’s controversial to say self-interest is our primary motivation for whatever we do.
This claim seems to advocate selfishness. And what would a society built on selfishness be like?
Besides, there are examples of people taking great risks or even sacrificing themselves for people they don’t even know. How is that self-interest?
Perhaps someone wants to be a hero, or at least not be a coward. Perhaps someone strives to live by a particular moral code. Perhaps someone is concerned about the negative impact on their loved ones if they don’t act.
The difference between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest is important, however.
Being concerned only with the immediate impact on ourselves is selfishness. Though that’s not always a bad thing. Self-defense is one example.
Broader self-interest looks at the long term implications; the effects on people we care about and people whose assistance we might need later; and the impact on society, which can in turn affect us and those we love.
In his Discourses (1.19.11-17) Epictetus writes that
Every living creature…does everything for its own sake…And in general, he [God] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot obtain any of his particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn’t anti-social to do everything for one’s own sake.
What follows, then? When people come to hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, taking them to be good or bad, it is altogether inevitable that they’ll end up paying court to tyrants…and their flunkeys too!
But isn’t it in our self-interest to give in to a tyrant if he can do us harm?
Epictetus says no. A tyrant cannot force anyone to compromise their ethics. And history is full of people who have stood up to tyranny. They can kill the body but not the soul is how Jesus put it.
Epictetus’s distinction that failure to understand what lies within and outside of our control—and how this failure can lead to failure to understand what is good—is key.
We’re self-interested in things we think are good, but what are these things? He asks, if we value possessions then what’s to stop us from stealing them? After all, if it’s the object we value most then necessarily we value respect for other people’s property less (1.22.16).
But that only leads to all manner of conflicts. What is truly good, then, cannot lie in external things. We don’t control our possessions, circumstances, even our reputations—which can be conferred on us or taken from us by others or by circumstances.
The only things that are truly ours—things no one can take from us—are our deliberate thoughts, deliberate actions, and chosen values.
That’s where Epictetus locates self-interest. And this is self-interest in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.
Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.
After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:
When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”
At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.
Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.
This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.
By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.
Marcus says we should
See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.
Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.
Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.