When Is Violence Appropriate?


Welcome back to Practical Stoicism, I’m your host, Tanner Campbell and, happy birthday. That’s right, yesterday was our birthday. 1-year ago today I started Practical Stoicism as a once weekly show with no listeners and today, 1-year and 2M downloads later, there are weekly episodes, special weekend segments like Practical Cynicism and soon Practical Buddhism, as well as a 365 day Stoic Journaling problem. To celebrate, you might notice the artwork for the podcast is different. I like the idea of changing up the artwork every year to work with cool artists in the Practical Stoicism community, this cover was created by Original Randy who you can find at originalrandy.com and working with the guy was an absolute pleasure. He was patient, obviously talented, and really good at helping to make sense of my vague instructions about what I thought would be cool. Anyway, I hope you like the artwork and, if you don’t, wait another year and you may like the next one!

Today we don’t have a meditation, instead we have a question from a listener. It’s a good one, I think, to follow yesterday’s conversation with Leonidas Konstantakos. It’s from listener Aslak, and here it is:

I have a question on self defense. I wonder what is the Stoics’ opinion on self defense, in general? When is it okay to harm somebody else in protection of either yourself, your belongings, or another person? What does [Stoicism] say about that?

Aslak Thulin Aspøy, Listener

To condone violence is a hard thing to do in modern society, no one seems to think it is ever the appropriate response to anything ever, but if the world has bad actors who are looking to do harm regardless of your willingness to fight back, it is extremely likely that your willingness to fight back is the only thing that can stop such people from exerting too much influence. If a tyrant rises to power in your country, and begin killing those who disagree, imprisoning dissidents, or removing the right of certain people and reducing them to second-class citizens, the response to this very likely cannot be an intellectual one. But, rather than wax philosophical on something large scale like that, perhaps we should focus on when it is appropriate for you, a regular person with not significant authority or power, to respond violently to the actions of others.

First, let’s get the law out of the way. To Stoics would not have told us that the yardstick by which to measure moral (or immoral) action is the law of man. And for the Stoics this would have been particularly true due to the fact that few men, if any, are infallible enough to get laws even close to virtuous. For Zeno, who was a Utopian Anarchist (which does not mean then what it means today, and please please please don’t make the mistake of thinking it does), would have told us that everything must be reasoned at the point of deciding. So the law isn’t guiding us in making this decision because the question isn’t “how do you legally respond with violence?” it’s “how do you virtuously respond with violence?” If someone breaks into your house in the state of Florida, here in the US, there’s something called the Castle Law, and armed or unarmed you can shoot them dead. That’s legal. But, again, that’s a different statement than “that’s virtuous behavior.”

So we are necessarily working outside of the laws of man as we enter into the exploration of this question. 

What do the Stoics tell us very early on about control? That there are things we do control and things we don’t control, and that it is a mistake in logic, and therefore not virtuous, to believe you can control something you cannot. So the first step in assessing wether or not you should respond violently to a situation, at least in my opinion as a Stoic Prokopton, is to ask yourself whether or not you are trying to control something outside of your control. 

Are you about to hit someone for being a jerk? If so, can you stop a person from being a jerk? Is another person’s attitude or thoughts in your control? No. So hitting them isn’t about stopping them because hitting them won’t stop them, hitting them will just make you feel something you probably mistakenly believe is justice or bravery, but it’s not. It’s poor logic. You’ve physically assaulted someone in an attempt to control something that you can’t. 

But what if they’re insulting your mother, or your partner, or your child? Do insults hurt? Not according to the Stoics. According to the Stoics when someone calls you a big weenie, and your feelings are hurt as a result, you’re assenting to the impression that hearing a certain arrangement of words directed at you is actually hurting you, but it’s not. You’re choosing to let those words affect you and drive you into a full-blown passion where you are not thinking clearly. 

Okay but what if someone is about to hit you. Or is about to hit your partner or child? Here still we may have more to consider than you think. Are they hitting you for no reason? Are they violent animals just looking to do harm because they are a vicious person? Well, okay then, in this case, you’re very likely obligated as a moral actor to intervene in the dispreferred outcome that is about to be made manifest. Protecting others from harm seems like an appropriate action. 

But maybe it is not always.

What if your child calls another child a fat cow, and that child punches your child in the face with their little 8-year-old sized fists? Should you intervene in that? Well, you can’t hit a child to protect your child, because it’s not appropriate for adults to hit children in most cases. “In most cases?” You ask. And I repeat “in most cases” if you’re in a war and a child soldier is pointing a gun at you, and is perhaps going to shoot you, you might be given more cause to pause and think about what is an isn’t appropriate in that situation. But, for the sake of arguement, in most cases it’s not appropriate for an adult to hit a kid. 

Okay but certainly you can pull the children apart, this is appropriate, right? 

Well, I don’t know. Do you think it’s appropriate for your child to experience a punch in the face for being unkind to another child? Is that a lesson one child can teach another? I mean, how much physical damage can two 8-year olds really do to each other? Certainly the emotional impact of such a thing is greater than the physical in this fictitious example. Is there a lesson to be learned here? I don’t know, only you could answer that. You could also say, if you don’t intervene, the retaliating child might be encouraged to believe that hitting in response to insult is appropriate. There’s more to think about than first appears to be the case, that’s all I’m saying. Parenting is probably very hard, especially Stoic parenting! 

But I think, as difficult as it is to be prescriptive in Stoicism, that violence is only the right answer when it prevents the abuse of someone whom cannot protect themselves and only when you are actually capable of protecting them, and when you’re in the appropriate role to protect them. It’s appropriate for a parent to protect their child, for a man or woman to protect their partner, et cetera. There maybe be instances where it is inappropriate for you to protect someone, for example, perhaps two of your very good friends are having a fight, perhaps it is not appropriate for you to get in the middle of that.

But, as is the case so frequently in all things Stoic, it depends on the situation, and you must always assess things things for yourself. 

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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