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What kind of privileges have you had in your life? Do you recognize the advantages that you have enjoyed? In this episode I want to talk about privilege, and how the stoics encourage us to use the privileges we have to improve society.
One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well educated, but to all our human brethren.
What advantages have you benefited from in your life? Maybe you were born into a wealthy or middle class family. Maybe you are part of the majority race or ethnic group in your community. Maybe you were born with some talent or physical attribute that gave you advantages that others don’t have. We each have different privileges that have nothing to do with anything that we do or have done, or whether or not we deserve or don’t deserve them.
Before we dig into this any farther, I want to state that having privileges is not a bad thing. They are simply things that you got that you didn’t have to work for. For example, if you are white and male in America, you have certain privileges that you gain simply by the color of your skin and your sex that others don’t have.
There is nothing wrong with having privileges!
We all have things help us, that give us some kind of advantage. Whether that’s other people, circumstances, or talent, there is nothing wrong with admitting that we had help along the way. For example, would the fact that your parents could afford the best education for you diminish your accomplishments in your chosen field? Not at all. It just means that you had access to resources that plenty of others don’t.
What I take issue with is if you are unwilling to acknowledge them and recognize that others don’t have the same privileges as you. Some people act as though their privileges are something that they deserve or earned, or they don’t even notice that they have them to begin with. We need to acknowledge them and be willing to help those that do not have access to the same privileges that we have.
“The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation. More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The Stoics would add that if we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life”
— William B. Irvine
While many aspects of stoicism are about taking personal responsibility, we often forget to examine how we should use what we learn to improve the world, and to help those that may not have had the same advantages. In fact, one of the four highest virtues of stoicism is justice. Because the world is not naturally a fair and just place, it is up to us to help make the world more fair and just. That people aren’t denied opportunities simply based on external factors such as where they were born, or their skin color, or sex, which all things that we have no control over.
What good is working on yourself to be a better person and not using what you have to help society? We’re all in this life together and there is so much that we can do to make this place better for everyone. The stoics lay it out very clearly that humans are social animals, and part of our purpose in life is to help others and to use what skills and advantages we have to improve society as a whole.
So let’s use me as an example and talk about some privileges that I have enjoyed in my life. I’m white and male and was born into a middle class family. My parents both had college degrees, my mother was an English teacher and my father was a software engineer. My mother stayed home and took care of us until we were all in school. Because of my parents’ emphasis on learning and books, I was reading before kindergarten. Because my father made pretty good money, I never had to worry about having enough to eat or having good clothing. They supported me in all of my extracurricular activities, such as soccer and theater. These advantages that I had made it easier for me to excel at school.
Because I’m white and male, I’m paid more than those who are another race or gender. I don’t worry about my safety when I’m pulled over by the police for a traffic stop. It’s easier for me a to get a loan on a house or a car, and my interest rates will be less than someone who is not white. When I’m walking alone at night downtown, I don’t have to worry nearly as much about my safety as a female. There are plenty of privileges afforded to me that I don’t have to do anything for.
When I was in college, I worked at a customer service center for a credit card company. One day I was talking to my friend Danny who worked there about why we had some many people who had emigrated from Mexico but did not speak English. Danny was from Spain and spoke 5 languages, far exceeding my meager bilingual status. I asked him why these people who had lived in the US for decades had never learned English, but I spent two years in Austria, and spoke fluent German. I assumed it was just because they were lazy, giving into the stereotype that is often attributed to Mexican immigrants. Danny looked at me and said, “Well, think about this way. Many of these people barely have an elementary school education and can barely read. How easy to you think it would be to learn another language if you could barely read your own?”
I was very humbled at that moment because the thought had never occurred to me. I recognize that the high quality education that I received made it much easier to pick up another language because I could read things as simple as a German-English dictionary, as well as higher level books about German grammar. I had also taken German in high school, so I knew a lot of the basics years before I ever set foot in Austria.
“For as these were made to perform a particular function, and, by performing it according to their own constitution, gain in full what is due to them, so likewise, a human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.”
— Marcus Aurelius
In America we have a really strong streak of so called rugged individualism, and I find that concept very problematic. I hear people talk about how they are self made, that they achieved their success in life by themselves, and I find that argument simply ridiculous. We are all dependent upon other people. When we’re born, we are 100% dependent on our parents or caregivers. There is no way that we are not dependent on others. If we didn’t have others helping us, we would never make it past childhood.
We are all better off when we help each other. You probably drink the clean water that is provided by your city. You drive on the roads that were built by your city or state. You may have gone to a university that was partially supported by the state. You rely on the fire department that is funded by your city or county. These are just a few examples, but simply put, when we pool our resources and find ways to support and help as many people as possible, then we are all better off. When others in your community succeed, then your whole community is better off, and that means you get to live in a better community, which in turn makes the world little better.
The reason why Stoicism is incompatible with racism, misogyny, bigotry, and hatred of others for things outside of their control is that because we are only responsible for the things we can control. No one can control what family they were born into. No one can control what race or sex they are born. Therefore, we cannot hold others responsible for what race they are born and hate them for it because they cannot control it.
Each of us is born into circumstances that we can’t control. We do not choose the family that we’re born into, the color of our skin, or our sex. Maybe we are born into money and have opportunities that others could never even dream of. Maybe we have some kind of gift of intelligence or natural physical or athletic skill that sets us apart from others. We all have different advantages and disadvantages in every area of our lives, and the more we share and support each other, the better the world is.
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