Can People Knowingly Do Wrong? Epictetus’ View

A common challenge to Stoic ethics: what about people who know what the right thing is, but choose to do the wrong things — usually to other people?

When a person does something morally wrong or bad, does that person know what he or she is doing is wrong or bad? This is one of those interesting questions in ethics and moral theory that seems at first simple to ask and then turns out to be complicated to answer — at least if one wants to answer it well. Easy, one-sided, simplistic answers are always an option, but nearly always turn out to be off-base and then get in the way of doing the productive thinking required for working out a more adequate answer.

When we focus on Stoic philosophy, it is practically inevitable that this sort of question about motivation, reasoning, moral knowledge, and the good will arise. One variant of this type of ethical puzzle did get brought up in a post in the Facebook Stoicism Group some time back. It was framed in terms of some categories that seem to be rather popular in moral discourse at present — sociopathy and psychopathy — but the general issue is a much broader one.

The question was put like this: What would Stoics say about sociopaths or psychopaths who know what morality is, but still want to harm others? And the answer, to start, is: quite a bit.

When People Do Bad — An Initial Response

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the exclusive focus on these categories of psychopathology that have come to mean a wide range of things in our contemporary culture. This spectrum of ambiguity runs from more or less rigorously defined psychological or psychiatric categories (though there are some disagreements and differences among experts) all the way to buzz-words casually thrown around on social media and in day-to-day discourse. So, that focus isn’t particularly helpful to start from.

What is the more general Stoic response to — or analysis of — a person doing something that is wrong? Consider some of the examples Epictetus commonly uses in his Discourses and Enchiridion.

Speaking abusively or insultingly to another person.

Stealing the goods that belong by right to another person.

Cheating on one’s spouse or seducing someone else’s spouse.

Lying, defrauding, using influence unfairly, even physically attacking another person.

All of these are things a person might do that, considered from our ordinary perspective, injure and wrong another person.

Now why does one person do what is wrong to another person? One explanation that comes to mind — at least in some cases — is that the person offending does not know that what he or she is doing is wrong. He or she does wrong, and for one reason or another, is not able to realize that fact. But presumably, if the wrongdoer was able to come to understand that his or her actions are wrong, that person would no longer engage in that sort of behavior.

Epictetus says some things that run along those lines, for example in Enchiridion, chapter 42.

When someone treats you badly or says bad things about you, remember that this person acts or speaks in this way because he or she thinks that it is right or required that he or she speak or act that way. That being the case, it is impossible for that person to follow what appears [right] to you, but [he or she follows] what appears [right] to him or her. It follows that if he or she gets a wrong view of matters, the person that is harmed is the person who has been deceived.

He suggests then, when people do things that are wrong, we should tell ourselves: “He thought that way about the matter” (edoxen autoi). It is worth pointing out as well that what I’ve translated here with two words, “right” and “required” corresponds to the term kathekein in Epictetus’ Greek, the verb connected with the substantive, to kathekon, translated as “officium” in Latin, and “duty” in English.

So when the person under consideration here is doing something wrong, they think what they are doing is right — not merely in the sense of being permitted, but in the stronger sense of being what they ought to do. They’re just very mixed up about moral matters.

Implications for Anger, Retribution, and Punishment

Epictetus also discusses these matters in the context of our emotional response of anger, and the associated issues of retribution and punishment. In both of the chapters devoted specifically to anger in book 1 of the Discourses, 18 and 28, he suggests that our responses of feeling and acting upon anger turn out upon examination to be irrational and wrong, at least in part precisely because of the moral mistakenness of the wrongdoer just discussed. I say “in part” for two reasons, one of which I’ll discuss in the next section.

The other reason I say “in part” is that what Epictetus thinks we need to attend to is not simply whether we are misjudging the other person. We could add that in doing so — and in responding out of anger — we are in some sense wronging the other person. And, since the other person no doubt does not regard our own actions as a Stoic would, that this other person also judges him- or herself injured, insulted, attacked, threatened, or otherwise harmed by our anger, and is thereby indeed harmed. But, in addition to all these considerations, he is keen to have us understand that when we respond in anger to another person who does wrong, we thereby harm ourselves. We make ourselves less good (or more bad) as persons, and this doesn’t have to be the case.

Epictetus advises that if we must experience an emotional response to those who do things that are wrong, instead of it being anger that we feel, it should rather be pity or compassion (in Greek, eleos, or eleein) towards the other person.

They have simply gone astray in questions of good and evil. Ought we therefore be angry with those people, or should we pity them? But show them their error and you will how quickly they will refrain from their errors. But if they do not see, then they have nothing superior to how things seem to them.

This focus on attempting to show a person how he or she has gone wrong, to offer them a more fully rational way of regarding matters, is a consistent theme in Epictetus’ teachings. It is precisely this sort of insight and approach that he credits Socrates with, for instance.

He goes on to draw an interesting analogy:

Ought not this robber and this adulterer be destroyed? Not at all! Instead: Ought not this person be destroyed who is in a state of error and delusion about the greatest matters, and is in a state of blindness — not [bearing on] the vision that distinguishes between white and black, but the judgement that distinguishes between good and evil?

It is possible to get all sorts of things wrong. In book 1, chapter 28, he notes that people who do wrong — and who we are likely to get angry with, and then want to impose retribution upon — can get mixed up about what is their duty and what is not their duty, what is useful or profitable and what is not so or even its opposite, what is appropriate or inappropriate to a person. Much earlier in book 1, in chapter 2, he brings up yet another distinction we ourselves can make wrongly.

It happens to be the case that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, just as good and evil, and the useful and the not-useful [i.e. the harmful] are different for different persons. It is for that reason in particular that we need education. ..

This is not Epictetus embracing any sort of moral relativism. He thinks that there are some things that are indeed good, right, reasonable, and at the same time he also maintains that people are quite often — including Stoics who are still on the way, making progress, not yet the legendary “sage” — in error about these matters.

So where does this leave us? We might well recognize that, from a Stoic perspective, it is better for us not to allow ourselves to get angry with people who do what we think — and probably think correctly— to be wrong. We can tell ourselves that it makes more sense to see them as victims of their own erroneous beliefs about moral matters, as trapped in their own vicious, unfortunate, and painful cycles of habits, responses, emotions, actions, consequences, stories about what took place, and so on — so that the appropriate response on our part would indeed be compassion, if we want to feel something towards them.

But what about cases where a person has been informed, knows what he or she is doing is damaging, unjust, insulting, counter-productive. . . what about when they can recognize that. . . and they do it anyways? What does the Stoic do then?

Rationality on One Level — Irrationality On Another

Let’s make the lines of this challenge even more stark, and let’s use an example. Imagine a person who routinely calls another person insulting names as they work together, five days a week, at an office where their cubicles adjoin each other. The person engaging in name-calling is informed by the other person that the names are hurtful. So what appeared to be a rational and right course of action — at least in some sense — is now revealed to the name-caller as the opposite. He or she has better information, so that should put an end to it, right?

But the name-calling continues. Indeed it now intensifies, no longer occasional, fairly gentle ribbing, but now something identifiable as bullying, happening more frequently, more elaborately, more savagely.

“I thought you understood that calling me those names hurts my feelings,” the victim of the bullying says. “So why are you doing it now? You want to do what’s good, what’s right, what’s reasonable, don’t you? You don’t want to do what you know is bad, wrong, harmful, irrational, right?”

The name-caller responds — and there might be a variety of different responses possible, or even common to such situations. Perhaps he or she says: “Yes, I know that calling you names hurts your feelings. Thanks for making that clear to me. For you see that’s exactly what I was trying to do, and now that I know that it works with you, I’m going to keep on doing it even more.”

One might ask why a person would do that, and the answers are many: sadistic pleasure; a sense of power or control; getting something over not only on that person but on society and its mores; or all sorts of other possible motives one might imagine. . . .

What is going on in cases like this when we consider them in terms of a wrongdoer getting things wrong through some error or set of errors about moral matters? Doesn’t it seem that in a case like this, the person does know that something is wrong, and can even perhaps formulate the wrongness in a rather sophisticated manner, admitting to the other person, to a witness, or to even him- or herself that he or she knows its not good, that it is wrong, that it is indeed unreasonable to do what one knows is bad or wrong. Perhaps this person can universalize the wrongness, saying that nobody ought to act that way or do those things, and even add that he or she is not an exception to the rule. But this person decides to do it anyway. Why?

In certain cases, there might be some other value that is being appealed to and in some way realized. For example, a person who is angry, who has been hurt or wronged repeatedly, and hasn’t had any opportunity for vindication might seek out a kind of compensatory recourse by deliberately hurting another person.

Epictetus would point out that if such a person were to examine the reasoning process that leads to that action, he or she would realize that in acting out of misplaced anger — or even anger directed right at the person who angered one — one does damage to oneself. And let’s say this person recognizes that to be the case. It’s still possible for that person to say: I’ll do it anyway.

Another value that might be appealed to, with which the Stoic can sympathize in a way, is that of freedom, not being impeded in what one desires to to, to say, to have be the case. It might even be the freedom to choose, even if one’s choice is ineffective or entirely stymied by circumstances or other people. Some people really do want to have a say, to have the last or the deciding word, even if it means that they have to contradict the confines of morality in the process. For some, going against the clear and reasonable dictates of morality can even, at least at times, be just what it is that they want, they desire, they value.

So what is going on in cases like this? What often gets overlooked when people try to think about the actions and motivations of other human beings through the lens of Stoic philosophy is that we human beings are not entirely rational to start with. We are “rational animals” in the sense that we do possess a capacity for, even a faculty (in some sense) of reason, but that in no way means that it is fully functional or entirely developed. After all, as Epictetus pointed out in a passage above, people get mixed up about what actually is rational!

It’s quite possible for a person on some level to understand what is right and is rational, and to likewise understand the opposites of those (the wrong, the irrational), and further to be able to apply those to their own words, thoughts, emotions, choices,and actions — even to carry out complex moral reasoning about whether what they are doing is right or rational — and yet for that same person on a different (let’s say higher or if you like deeper) level, to still be getting these matters fundamentally wrong.

The bully who acknowledges that calling other persons hurtful names is wrong, and represents a failure of practical rationality, grasps those matters rightly on one level. He or she has got it right thus far. But then, that person keeps on bullying the other person by name-calling. What that indicates is that there is some other reasoning process at work as well, in which doing something that is acknowledged as wrong, or bad, or irrational gets construed as something that is instead — or considered in a different light — actually good, rational, right, at least for that person carrying out that line of practical reasoning.

There’s no mystery to this. Rationality is something complex, not entirely transparent, and often requires quite a bit of work. Those who do strive to understand the full scope of the Stoic moral perspective, to apply it to the world and to oneself, and to actively practice it can readily acknowledge that when they examine themselves, pockets of irrational reasoning-processes continually come to light, some of them more intractable to being gradually brought in line with reason than others.

So why would it be any different for other people? Why would we expect that if they were just brought to better understand the good for human beings, to grasp what’s really right and what’s genuinely wrong, if they became better practical reasoners, they’d automatically be entirely straightened out? Its possible to keep on getting things wrong on some other level while getting them right on another, and that’s quite often the case with actual human beings.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Orexis Dianoētikē

Gregory Sadler is the president of ReasonIO, the editor of Stoicism Today, a speaker, writer, and a producer of highly popular YouTube videos on classic and contemporary philosophy. If you’d like to support his ongoing work, bringing philosophy to the broader public, he has a Patreon site where you can donate.

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