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Ambiguity of the Term “Injustice” and Stoic Ethics Beyond your “Job Description”

You must be wondering if I am some kind of moral-relativist when I suggest an ambiguity of the term “injustice“. But then when you see that I am tying this in to Stoic ethics beyond your “job description”, i.e., suggesting that there is a moral standard we should strive to that supercedes that which Epictetus prescribes in Enchiridion 30-31, it might be clear that I am not advocating moral relativism.

Okay – if there is an ambiguity to the term “injustice”, that must mean that there are two or more possible definitions that the term, and that context can not clarify which definition is used with enough reliability to avoid philosophical confusion. So what philosophical ambiguity am I referring to? And why is it essential to resolve that if we are to come up with a standard of ethics beyond that which is defined by relation?

Epictetus says: “Duties are universally measured by relations. Is a certain man your father? In this are implied, taking care of him; submitting to him in all things; patiently receiving his reproaches, his correction.” This kinda implies that, if you ask Epictetus (and I’m guessing that if you asked any of the ancient Stoics) it’s never okay to go against what your father says to do.

However, what if you happen to live in a Nazi-like regime, and your father happens to be either the Fuhrer, or one of those in the Fuhrer’s inner-circle?

Oh — but you must say that it does not apply in cases like this. Well – let’s see what the very next thing Epictetus says is: “But he is a bad father. Is your natural tie, then, to a good father? No, but to a father.”

Now, of course nobody should expect themselves to do something that is beyond their ability to do — and that includes the fact that no matter how reprehensible the actions of your regime is, you should not expect yourself to oppose it when you are not presented with an opportunity to do so. However, I submit that when an opportunity does arise to oppose an oppressive regime such as the Nazis, it is your obligation to do so — and that should your father happen to be one of the chief-culprits, you should not allow your natural tie to him to stop you.

Of course, at this point, there is still a way to resolve this. You could say that you still have your natural obligation to your father — but due to the principle of cosmopolitanism, you also have your obligation to all humanity. Two conflicting obligations are the definition are the definition of a moral dilemma. For a stoic, it is obvious how to overcome a moral dilemma. You recognize that the option of doing something that is “right” by every account is beyond what has been given to you – and therefore (without losing any sleep over it) select the option which is least-objectionable among those offered to you.

The problem here? For you to invoke cosmopolitanism in such a manner, you have to accept that a such thing as “injustice” exists. This, of course, is something Stoicism has a problem with — because if injustice exists, then it can be unjust for you to have something external taken from you. This would cause Stoicism to unravel from it’s very core.

Unless — unless we recognize that there is an ambiguity to the term “injustice”, and find a way to resolve that ambiguity.

Let’s go away from the extreme example of a Nazi-like regime — and find a scenario a bit less extreme and a bit more commonplace. Someone on another Stoic discussion group elsewhere (not on Facebook) asked why Stoics would make such a big-deal about supporting Universal Healthcare, as there is nothing external which is our inherent right. Not even our lives, our bodies, our very health are truly our own, but on loan to us from the Universe – so surely healthcare isn’t.

My answer was – worrying about ensuring Universal Healthcare, from a Stoic point-of-view, is not our concern as potential recipients of said healthcare, but rather, in our capacity as voters and citizens. As such, our relation to the state requires us to do our part to promote the state doing the morally correct thing. But once again – this requires us to accept that there is an inherent injustice in denying someone healthcare.

Clearly, the only way to resolve this is to come to an understanding that there is more than one definition of “injustice” at play. On one hand, the term “injustice” could refer to something existing in the Universe that we have the obligation, when possible, to oppose. The other definition of the term “injustice” is something that can force distress on us.

We need to resolve this ambiguity surrounding the term “injustice” if we can have a variant of Stoicism that has ethics beyond what is defined by our relations.


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