“People Will Be Terrible. Deal With It.”

This is the first of a series of posts I introduced last week wherein I will be critically reading Stoic writings that have bearing on ethics. In February 2016 I will also teach a one month long course on Stoic Ethics. Get more information here and write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com if you want to sign up so that I can schedule the class’s time around your availability. Also I will be teaching a regular length class on the ethics of war.

I first encountered Kent Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments* when I was a high school freshman and I immediately loved them, got a hold of a poster with them on it, hung it on my wall so they would face me straight across the room whenever I was propped up on my bed facing forward, and read them countless times throughout high school. They read as follows:

  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  • If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  • If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  • The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  • Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  • The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  • What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

My poster put the Paradoxical Commandments over pictures of clouds as this one, pictured below, does. But my poster had clouds that were more purplish and pinkish, indicating more tumultuous weather in the offing. It also accurately represented Keith’s actual injunctions instead of modifying them (for the worse) in the common ways below. Most significantly, my poster didn’t try to justify all this resilient goodness in the face of obstinance with an interpretive “final analysis” such that “it is all between you and God anyway; It was never between you and them anyway” as posters like this one do. My poster ended off only with Keith’s unpromising promise that for all your efforts to give the world your best you will get “kicked in the teeth” and his stoic advice that nonetheless you should keep on giving the world your best anyway.

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Fortunately, the world does not treat the virtuous quite as badly as the Paradoxical Commandments warn. We are a social species that depends on quite a bit of cooperation in order to survive and thrive. And, accordingly, people are quite inclined to socially reward those who reliably commit themselves to the cooperative virtues and priorities recommended in the Paradoxical Commandments. And it is important to always stress that there is a difference between being persistently virtuous while being mistreated, on the one hand, and allowing oneself to be exploited and abused, on the other. But, with these gigantic caveats in mind, there is a profound wisdom worth internalizing and reinforcing through meditation upon these Paradoxical Commandments. The core point that I would encourage people to take from them is that our focus should be on doing what is virtuous, irrespective of whether it yields the desired outcomes. Sometimes virtue will not yield good outcomes and yet that does not make it any less worth the while. There are inevitably circumstances that we cannot control that will determine how things wind up. And sometimes what we cannot control can be genuinely ruinous. All we can focus on, with utmost resilience, is our own character, our own thoughts, our own attitudes, and our own behaviors. These are the only things we can directly control. And so persisting in the virtues that have the potential to create the good, regardless of whether they successfully do so in any given instance, must be our focus.

And, of course, at the heart of the Paradoxical Commandments is a resignation to the inevitability that not just any circumstances will thwart and frustrate you, but, specifically other people will reliably be illogical, unreasonable, self-centered, cynical, insincere, toxically competitive, uncharitable, unappreciative, unsympathetic, and, numerous other terrible things. The Paradoxical Commandments are about framing your expectations. People will treat us badly no matter what we do but we must do good anyway. Expect people to exhibit vices from the outset, so that you’re not surprised or derailed when they do so. Banish the naïve and futile optimism that if only you are virtuous you can avoid other people being vicious. You will regularly suffer frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness if you pin your happiness on the expectation that people will not exhibit characteristic human vices. They will. So just resign yourself to the fact in advance. And, worse, if you condition your own willingness to be virtuous on whether other people are virtuous to you, then you will fail to be virtuous. So set your expectations low—other people will not be virtuous—and set your own resolve according to the highest standards: I will be virtuous irrespective of how others treat me.

Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments is a fleshed out version of the advice that begins Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations Book 2. Here is Book 2, Section 1 in its entirety, as translated by Gregory Hays:

1. When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. 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 someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Here again we have an injunction to engage in mental preparation to deal with poor behavior from other people without losing sight of the need to be virtuous. Specifically, in this case, Aurelius stresses that we need to find a way to work with other people. So preparing for the flaws people can be expected to exhibit is a way to keep them from frustrating us. We can see it coming, so we do not merely react to it out of shock or disappointment. As they are defaulting into their predictably bad behavior, we are prepared to internally detach and start thinking proactively and constructively about how best to deal with them, rather than let them influence us because we’re unprepared and they are pressing emotional buttons unexpectedly. If we see it coming, we can ready ourselves to emotionally disengage before it’s too late and they have gotten to us.

For the most part this kind of resignation to the inevitable is a very constructive practice which I have personally found an indispensable tool in gaining control over my emotional reactions. Particularly when I can anticipate that a particular person has the potential to press particular emotional buttons on me, I can resign myself to the reality of the frustrating behaviors that are coming and then think through my constructive responses one by one as the behaviors start, rather than be taken off guard.

But Aurelius does not merely provide us with a constructive plan of action. He gives a series of thoughts that look like they’re supposed to justify the course of action to ourselves and show it to be rational.

First he starts by telling himself that the reason people engage in negative behaviors is that they do not know good from evil. I hear echoes of Plato’s Meno, wherein Socrates argues that no one could knowingly do what they genuinely thought was evil but rather that evil must always stem from a misperception about what is good. He argues that it makes no sense to actually want what is bad for yourself and tacitly assumes in doing so that people would inherently view their own performance of an evil action as bad for themselves. So when people choose what is bad or evil it must be because they are misperceiving it as good. If we interpret wrongdoers as confused about the good rather than merely desiring evil for its own sake Aurelius seems to assume that this would remove the justice of blaming them or disposing ourselves poorly towards them. If they “can’t tell good from evil”, then we cannot think of what they do as evil in itself, at least in its motive. So even if we must reject what is evil, we need not reject those who do evil when they do not have the only kind of understanding that could make them evil in doing it. So even though they do something evil, they are not themselves evil and so not to be hated.

I am of two minds about Aurelius says here.

On the one hand, I think that it is wise to employ Hanlon’s Razor and “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” (Official formulations use the word “stupidity”, but I strongly think that that word should be avoided as false, needlessly abusive, and uncharitable.) I do find it quite compelling that much of the wrong we do is less malicious than it feels to those whom we wrong. We have an empirically confirmed natural cognitive bias towards assuming the worst of others and the best of our own motives. It is wise to correct for that. We will learn much more from trying to understand others’ perspectives and how even what is bad can appear good to them. In fact, it is imperative if we are to take the pitfalls to evil seriously, that we not underestimate any of the various ways that good people with good motives can wind up doing evil, but rather be especially vigilant about each one since they can corrupt otherwise good people that we are disposed to trust. Plus, no matter how good we are in our intentions, we simply have brains that are hard to control according to our values, and will, in the heat of moments, react negatively before our higher desires and values that we want to live by can step in and stop us. We know this happens to ourselves all the time. It is unfair not to take this into account in assessing others.

And we will make much more constructive progress if we appeal to the ordinary person’s powerful need to see themselves as good and treat them as though they are people of good will and capable of improving. Tying people to their mistakes and trying to interpret those actions as revealing that they have terrible characters is a surefire way to turn them off to us. Unless someone is demonstrably and callously unrepentant and uncompromising in their indifference to (or joy from) others’ unjust suffering and so really needs to get the emotional message that this will cost them our good will, it’s usually best to try to separate someone from their mistakes. If I tell you, “what you just did reveals that you’re a terrible person”, you are more inclined to defend what you did, rather than accept the implication that if it’s proven that what you did was indeed wrong then you’re exposed as a terrible person. Whereas if I signal to you that I think what you did was wrong in a way that failed to represent what I think are your basically good character and intentions, it is much easier for you to be receptive to an argument because even if you’re persuaded you did something wrong this prospect doesn’t carry the threat of the psychologically intolerable conclusion that you’re a bad person. Even good people make mistakes, so you can accept that you made one and maintain your perception of yourself as a good person. (For more on this theme, see my post Intent is Not Magic, But it Still Matters.)

But, for all of this, I cringe a little bit at Aurelius’s framing. Instead of giving these nuances I’ve distinguished, he writes that people engaging in poor behavior “are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil”. When meditating in edifying ways, one shouldn’t indiscriminately characterize all the people one encounters as prone to poor behaviors and then judge oneself the only one who can tell right from wrong. Of course, Aurelius is not literally making this argument, he knows there are other virtuous people. But the frame of mind he is setting up is one that focuses on how everyone else but he is confused. Too many hypocrites lazily rail against the ways that everyone else supposedly is “stupid” or prone to some specific error instead of putting in the due diligence to work on their own character instead. Given this reality Aurelius should model self-awareness and dispose himself more towards self-reflection. Perhaps sometimes when he perceives others as meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly, it’s because of his own failures to tell good from evil? And perhaps a better reason to be merciful towards them would be one that did not strip them of their moral agency entirely. Sure, people make mistakes with respect to right and wrong all the time. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot ever tell right from wrong. Nor does it mean that they are the problem and not us ourselves. And, while we’re at it, it might be worth meditating on all the ways people will be good and start preparing ourselves to see that too, instead of holding onto only pessimistic and prejudicial ideas about people from the moment we awake. This has the potential to make it so that they cannot even pleasantly surprise us through our cynicism.

Charitably we should probably regard Aurelius as just writing in an overly simple and abbreviated way here that doesn’t do justice to his considered opinions. But I think it is more than that. I think this glibness is a symptom of a larger problem. One thing that I regularly find in Aurelius’s writings, and which will become a critical theme throughout this series, is a tendency to rationalize negative things as his preferred method of resigning to them. Or, rather, he rationalizes them instead of resigning to them as they really are. Some negatives are unavoidable in life. I admire the Stoics’ steely minds in unflinchingly preparing themselves for the worst as a matter of deliberate practice. But then some of the judgments about reality that the Stoics engrain in their minds in order to cope with the negative reality they are trying to accept are false. Rather than saying, “This terrible reality is inevitable, so I will face it head on, in all its terribleness, staying focused on figuring out the most rational possible response and carrying it through”, Aurelius has an awful habit of saying a habit of saying (in effect), “This is reality is inevitable so it cannot be terrible, so I will prepare myself to constructively deal with it by convincing myself that it’s not really terrible at all.”

This leads Aurelius at numerous points to make arguments that range from obviously terrible to seductive yet harmful in his predetermined quest to rationalize everything that is unavoidable as a matter of indifference (or even positively good) rather than genuinely bad. This makes him not only a poor friend to truth, but to anyone who suffers and blames themselves (or is blamed by others) because they are unable to successfully manage to turn off their natural (and usually more accurate) judgment about values and substitute Aurelius’s distorted perspectives instead.

The case at hand is one where Aurelius goes overboard rationalizing. Rather than confronting the truth that even people who do know good and evil can, to at least a partially blameworthy extent, do wrong anyway, he tells himself a sweeping lie that infantilizes them and strips them of an integral part of their autonomy. They can’t tell good from evil. This may make it easier not to hate them or be angry with them than if he acknowledged that they did understand good and evil and were to at least some extent blameworthy. But it’s a simplifying lie that insults them. It takes more intestinal fortitude to not be overcome with negativity to those we adequately recognize as blameworthy. Rather than denying the fact of their blameworthiness in order to be able to resign ourselves, it is precisely the fact of their blameworthiness that we must resign ourselves to. We need not and should not exaggerate the extent of others’ blameworthiness, of course. We can focus on numerous truly existing mitigating factors that partially exculpate people and allow that to help us in our efforts to think sympathetically towards them and act charitably towards them. For all the reasons I gave earlier, we should figure out the most constructive ways to understand and work with others’ perspectives and limitations. But that does not mean convincing ourselves that they can’t tell good from evil and so are hopelessly, almost mindlessly, behaving poorly. That is just insulting to them and dangerously self-congratulatory to ourselves. If we are to focus on others’ faults we should spend at least as much energy attending to our own and using awareness of our own as reason not to get excessively angry with theirs.

Similarly it is a flatly bad argument when he claims that because we share a similar nature with someone else that that person cannot hurt us. Of course they can. He might say that what he really means is that we should not let ourselves feel hurt by them, but that makes little sense. We need to actively learn how not to hurt each other if we are to cooperate in the ways he recognizes are necessary in this passage. Doing that means paying attention to how others hurt us so that we know it is happening and can let them know how not to hurt us in the future. Just convincing ourselves not to feel hurt is not a solution. Just as our natural feelings of pain are generally attuned to warn us of physical dangers, our emotional feelings of hurt are a warning about social and emotional dangers. We need to pay attention to them. They can misfires and misapprehend a situation, of course. But hurt feelings can be clues that others’ behaviors are not healthy—and not only for us but for others they might be affecting too. Rather than writing people off as hopelessly prone to their poor behaviors and take it all onto ourselves to just learn to deal with them as they are, we should actually give them credit as moral agents who can apprehend good from evil and ultimately want to do so. In order to criticize them we must cultivate exquisite skills to get past their defense mechanisms and overcome the natural propensity to moral laziness. The elements of these skills are what we should be meditating on in this context. We shouldn’t be lying to ourselves that others cannot hurt us in order to take out the sting when they do so.

Finally, he denounces anger too broadly when flatly declaring it to be an obstruction. I think that Hamlet was fundamentally wrong when he (somewhat stoically) said that “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so”. Some things are objectively more bad than good for us. And we should not vitiate our ability to grasp the difference as much Stoic advice would have us do if really internalized. Rather we should cultivate our sensitivities with respect to value discrimination. And I think that the negative emotions are properly to be used for aligning ourselves dispositionally against what is bad. And our positive emotions are properly to be used for aligning ourselves dispositionally towards what is good. The untutored emotions are not perfect detectors of good and bad, of course, any more than our untutored reason is a perfect detector of truth and false (or good and bad, for that matter). We need to train both reason and emotion to discriminate good and bad with ever more refinement and precision. And I think that our natural emotional inclinations, though not perfect, do start out as generally good for making broad discriminations between good and bad. And then with rational cultivation they can become our first and fastest means of making specific good judgments about value.

But even beyond their role in helping us ascertain good and bad, I think that sometimes feeling aversion towards genuinely bad things and feeling inclination towards genuinely good things are themselves modes of comprehension itself. One way to grasp something’s goodness or badness is to feel that thing positively or negatively. Having the truth as fully as we possibly can means feeling that truth in whatever ways are available to us. To banish the feeling of anger, specifically, would be to banish an integral way of comprehending injustice adequately as injustice and as something that deserves our aversion and is better understood through it. Finally, anger is an indispensable contributor to the motivation structure for responding to evils in many people.

What is harmful is anger that is misdirected or excessive. And anger should only be expressed towards other individuals (instead of just situations) when it will help make things better compared to alternatives that do not involve it. And even in these situations, anger should be expressed constructively rather than destructively, wherever possible. Anger must not consume a person and corrode her ability to live happily. When our anger is an expression of a correct recognition that something evil has occurred, we deserve to have others validate that our anger was a correct perception (rather than invalidate it as merely an “obstruction” or an overreaction). Sometimes others suffering under an evil will be benefited by expressions of anger in solidarity which convey that we are allowing ourselves to feel the wrongness that hurts them for ourselves, rather than insulate ourselves from it. Anger can be toxic. Many have overdosed on it or poisoned others with it. But it is facile and counterproductive to call it unnatural or try to extirpate it.

Your Thoughts?

Table of contents of posts in the series so far:

Revisiting The Stoics, Towards Revising Stoicism
“People Will Be Terrible. Deal With It.”
CWH Revised Stoic Meditation #1: On Frustrations with Other People
Which Motive Worsens A Bad Action More: Desire or Anger?

*The Paradoxical Commandments are widely misattributed to Mother Theresa but originate with Keith’s . He has since expounded upon his popular advice for the book Do It Anyway: Finding Personal Meaning and Deep Happiness by Living the Paradoxical Commandments (which I’ve not read).

This was the first of a series of posts in which I will be critically reading Stoic writings that have bearing on ethics. In February 2016 I will also teach a one month long course on Stoic Ethics. Get full information on the course here and write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com if you want to sign up so that I can schedule the class’s time around your availability. To learn about more of my class offerings and how my classes run, click on any of the banners below. This month (January 2016) I will also be starting a new Ethics of War class. 

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