Stoicism and Community Service

There’s an interpretation of Stoicism that’s seems to verge close to a kind of egoism. I see this once in a while in exposés with titles like “entrepreneurs bringing back ancient philosophy.” But if Stoicism is a kind of egoism, then why is The Stoic Fellowship celebrating the “Month of Service” this April? Why did I and a few other L.A. Stoics participate in the “Great L.A. River Cleanup” with the “Friends of the Los Angeles River“? Why is picking up bits of trash on the bank of the L.A. River and Arroyo Seco in line with Stoic values? Well, I came up with two answers:

First, the standard Stoic line: it’s rational to care about my community… When I was young, I had a very myopic understanding of my “self” as concerning just my physical constitution and my mental-emotional integrity. I cared only about preserving my “self” in this sense; this is egoism (all babies start out like this and many don’t grow out of it!). As we wise up, the Stoics claim that will should start realizing that humans are not just physical entities (otherwise, we would just be content with a life of food, comfort, and relative safety). What humans actually are are A) social entities and B) rational entities. So, to better preserve this more accurate conception of my “self” as a rational, social entity, I need to preserve A) my community and B) reason itself; this is what it means to be social and rational. When I volunteer to pick up trash in my community, I’m still working towards preserving my “self” but now my understanding of “self” is more complete… With this in mind, a more accurate description of Stoicism is “self-centered.” Just keep in mind that the “self” is the center of an ever-expanding circle of concern that moves outward into the world.

Second, from my own reflections: laborious community service is good ethical training. As I spend a couple hours doing repetitive and relatively straight-forward work, I found myself thinking about what habits I was developing (because I’m a rational entity, I care about preserving rational habits and weeding out irrational habits). As I was picking up bits of trash, I noticed that I was slowing down and counteracting an irrational habit of ignoring details in my surroundings. Community service is a shift away from my normal routine — a shift in focus away from myself and my personal tasks to a larger context. If done regularly, I think a pleasant byproduct of this work would be the development of a kind of mindfulness and receptivity which is an important prerequisite to ethics. Before I react appropriately to moral demands in my environment, I need to be aware of my environment! Thus, I considered community service to be good training; again, if done regularly, it would help me develop good moral habits.

To reiterate, Stoicism is not a kind of egoism. But, it might look egoistic in folks who are just trying to integrate it into their already-established daily routine. Certain virtues are easier to practice as one goes about their normal business: virtues of fortitude, resilience, moderation. For example, when I go get lunch, I can resist getting larger portions (moderation); when I something doesn’t go my way, I can practice, I can learn from the experience instead of lashing out (resilience). This is really GREAT… but… if I keep to myself, there may be little opportunity to practice the virtue of justice and the subordinate virtues of moral respect, kindness, civic duty, fairness, etc. These are all consistent with living a rational social life and need to be practiced if you to live up to your potential as human being.

— Justin K.


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