Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Pity for thieves and robbers and even the child-killer Medea?

When I first read Discourses I. 18 and I. 28 in translation, I thought the translator must have gotten it wrong. Epictetus was surely recommending only some sort of understanding of these people, not pity. But pity it is. The Greek verb eleein means to pity. And at I.18.3 we read,

Why are you angry with these people?
“They are thieves and robbers!”
What do you mean ‘thieves and robbers’? They are people who have gone wrong in matters of good and evil. Ought we then to be angry with them or pity them? Do but show them their error and you will see how quickly they mend their ways

And little later at 1.18.9,

Man, if you must be affected in a way that is contrary to nature at the ills of another, pity him rather, but do not hate him.

Pity for Medea comes at I.28.9,

Why do you not, if anything, pity her instead? As we pity the blind and the lame, so likewise pity those who are blind and lame in part of them that rules.

Notice first of all that Epictetus qualifies what he says about pitying these people. He seems to allow or accept it, rather than recommend it. If you must feel some emotion toward these people, he says, then let it be pity rather than anger. The second passage from I.28 identifies pity as a pathe, as an emotion contrary to (our) nature, which the wise man will not experience. Early Stoic sources condemn pity as a form of passion and distress, and Seneca follows this line. So it is little surprising when he hear Epictetus voicing even qualified acceptance of pity for wrongdoers. What, after all, is the point of trying to feel pity for these people? Is it intended as a kind of therapy to check our anger?

There is an obvious and immediate problem with “pity therapy.” The judgment on which pity rests is that someone has suffered undeserved harm. “Intent on making a go of their poor farm, the family was devastated by the flood that ruined their crops and wrecked their home.” There are some people to pity. And, if we are able, take action to help, because pity is not an emotion divorced from action. But thieves and robbers and murderers are not people, intent on good, who have suffered unfairly and need our help to recover. Thieves and robbers and murderers are people intent on doing undeserved harm to others. If they in turn suffer harm in the course of being prevented from carrying out their evil intent, or are punished after the fact for their evil deeds, there are no grounds for feeling pity or bringing aid to these malefactors. Pity rather their victims. We cannot feel pity for thieves and robbers and murderers, and it would be utterly inappropriate to do so. “Pity therapy”, if that is Epictetus’ point, won’t work.

“But they are only misguided people, mistaken about the nature of good and evil. If they knew that good and evil did not lie in having externals, they would not do the bad things they do.”

This sort of plea seem to rest on a very naïve diagnosis of the roots of criminal behaviour. Suppose we allow that criminals commit the “error” of thinking that my property would be good for them. Perhaps we can find some mitigation for this belief in their lack of a moral and philosophical education. Not enough Epictetus in the currriculum! But this misvaluing of my property is not the key “error” in their thinking. They also must believe it is proper for them to deprive me, by violence or threat or other criminal means, of my property. (If they didn't have this additional thought and assent to it, how could their impulse to action go forward on the Stoic model?)

This last belief and assent are not, I think, in the same sense an excusable “error” or confusion about the value of externals. Aristotle thought wealth a good, but did not, so far as I know, recommend robbery as a path to wealth. What violent criminals are guilty of, their cardinal “error” if you wish, is a willingness to harm others to get the things they want. I cannot find an excuse for this error in their lack of education or philosophy. "Oh really, so it's WRONG to rob and murder to get what you want? I didn't know that. Thank you for enlightening me." They know that it is wrong to steal and rob and kill.

In Stoic terms,again, they have experienced but rejected the judgment it is not proper to do these things. They have resolved the conflict between “ It would be good to have Tom’s car” and “It is wrong to steal it” by willfully disregarding the latter. If they err, then, and let's agree that they do, it is not an excusable mistake about the nature of good and evil, but a wilful decision to harm others to obtain what they desire.

“Do but show them the error of their ways and they will repent.”

This is an clear implication of Epictetus' view that criminality is the result of a simple excusable error about the nature of good and evil, and it is, I think, demonstrably false. We have no evidence of the efficacy of "moral instruction," and much evidence that it is not effective, especially in the case of people who resort to vicious violent crimes. It is not ignorance of what is right and wrong, but a willingness and a will to harm other people to satisfy their desires that is the source of their criminal behaviour. Moral instruction will not curb their vicious habits. Serious punishment may, and if it does not, then other solutions must be sought. But let's cease to pretend that criminals will be reformed by moral instruction.

“Do not be angry with these people.”

Here at last we can find some agreement with Epictetus, though we have undercut his rationale and his remedy. Anger is not an emotion that guides wise decisions, and we need to make wise decisions about what to do with thieves and robbers and murderers. Wise personal decision in the face of crime that menaces us, and wise social decisions about how to deal with criminal problem in our society. My first thoughts are that our highest priority should be to protect society from these people. The story Epictetus tells in I.18 about loosing his iron lamp to a thief once again fails to take an honest look at the problem of crime. One lamp is a small loss, but suppose the thief had decided to completely loot Epictetus' house and beat him senseless in the process ( "It's fun to beat up old philosophers.") Should we pity this thief for his "errors", or be angry with him, or just take effective action to remove him, perhaps permanently, from our society?


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