Philosophy

On Stoicism

Just like many people, when I first heard of the word ‘stoic’, I looked it up and many dictionaries showed me definitions which sounded somewhat similar to what google gives you – a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. The first character that came to my mind was Papa. He happens to be this hardened, seasoned, struggler, whom I’ve heard complaining on fewer occasions than the number of fingers on my hands. The second stoic in my mind was obviously Bhinaju, he’s endured many instances of pain, the likes of which most of us do not even know about, and yet he remains the same old composed, sociable, and caring Bhinaju for all of us like ever before. These are the two close men I’ve always looked up to in life. But sadly, I am nothing like them in anyway, so I don’t consider myself a stoic in that regard. I claim to be just the opposite, but this blog is not about me, nor does it deal with these two men – but rather about a philosophy that has been adopted, knowingly or unknowingly, by countless mentally strong men and women throughout human history.

I was first introduced to the idea of Stoicism in a very non-traditional way. There was this time I was watching an episode of ‘Gotham’, a FOX and DC television series based on the early life of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon – a sort of a prelude to DC’s Batman comics. The series turned out to be very superficial towards the end of the second season, but for its early episodes, it was more or less captivating. So in this one episode, young Bruce meets his company’s tech supervisor, Lucius Fox, to ask for clues about his father’s murder. Fox then explains by revealing that his father, Mr.Wayne, was a stoic and would never make careless decisions. Rest aside, the word ‘stoic’ had caught my attention. I then looked it up and was subsequently directed towards the philosophy of Stoicism itself.

For a few years then, I started casually learning about Stoic philosophy from others who knew more about it. There were numerous articles on the core tenets of Stoicism on The Atlantic and Aeon, I also devoured the Stoicism page on Wikipedia as much as my memory could retain, watched numerous video essays dealing with similar ideas, and I subscribed and listened to numerous podcasts which dealt on this topic on a regular basis – the most notable one being ‘Daily Stoic‘. However, I came to read Marcus Aurelius’s famous work on stoicism –  ‘Meditations’, fairly recently after being inspired into it by a very close friend of mine. It may seem as if I was obsessed, which is only partly true since I never seriously considered becoming a stoic myself. It’s not as easy as declaring myself into a certain doctrine, and stoicism, I have come to learn is not just about garnering the identity of this line of thought, but rather about practising it whenever you can. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t consider myself a stoic, although it is one philosophy I have found to be practically useful for daily life – especially for acquiring useful insight for enduring the long and uncertain journey in my career.

When we first look into the philosophy, we may assume that it’s a strategy for hiding our emotions. I’m guilty on this regard as well, but the more I looked into the philosophy, the more I discovered that it’s not a very organized idea to be described in just one sentence. The word Stoic comes from Greek word ‘stoa’ which simply translates to ‘porch’ in English. This is because the first Stoic philosophers in Greece, like Zeno, preached and dictated their philosophies to pupils from the porch of their schools. The word stuck after the Hellenistic period, much later than the time of Zeno, even though the tradition vanished into the vastness of history. The problem with this terminology is that not one philosopher we know as a Stoic today, ever assumed that title for themselves in their teachings. For instance, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor towards the end of the old Roman empire, wrote Meditations as a diary for objective self reflection and to practise philosophy for just himself. He never really intended it to be spread through publications. Likewise, Zeno never really taught his pupils the philosophy of Stoicism, he just taught philosophy. Epictetus and the Roman Seneca, never really mentioned the term Stoicism in their writings or teachings – they all just called themselves philosophers practising philosophy.

What we today identify as Stoicism, is nothing but a set of practically useful philosophies, which many men in history have come to agree or elaborate upon. Individual stoics have ranged from emperors like Marcus, to slaves like Epictetus. They have been highly spiritual and pious, but they have also have been skeptics who doubted the gods of their times. They span across different times, religions, and cultures but the core tenets of their individual philosophies for approaching life remain strikingly similar. Ibn-sinha (aka Avicenna) and Rhazes, for instance, were physicians and philosophers of the Islamic golden age with keen interest in the Stoic philosophy. It could be said that some eastern philosophers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, Zen master Ikkyu Sojun or even the Hindu economist Chanakya were in some ways Stoics as many of their ideas on self-reflection and endurance resonated to those of the classical Stoics from the West. What’s even more interesting to note is that the reiterating themes of endurance and composure in the Stoic philosophies, could be said to have been simple empirical observations of these diverse group of people, pertinent to their time of existence.

Even some well-known critics of Stoicism, like Friedrich Nietzsche, have inadvertently adopted some aspects of the Stoic philosophy for themselves. It can be said that Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism was borne out of an obvious lack of understanding, perhaps he assumed the Stoic philosophy of being a singular conformist attitude in favor of the Judeo-christian way of life he was so critical of. Perhaps he thought Stoicism was just about wearing a mask in public to suppress our emotions. But regardless, his ideas of Amor Fati (The love of one’s fate) and the purpose of his thought-experiment of Eternal Recurrence, are intimately tied, albeit unknowingly, to the core tenets of the Stoic way of life. Why this has happened is probably because Stoicism encompasses a set of observations made by people for the sole purpose of introspection, selective indifference and coping and for endurance – skills that are very useful and needed by all of us, regardless of gender, culture, race, or era. And since Human nature is too obviously universal, our philosophies in this way do tend to resonate across millenia. For instance, I’m almost certain that my Papa and Bhinaju had never even heard of Epictetus in their lives, but regardless, they still have more in common with the Greek man than Siddhartha Gautama himself.

Although many people can get their insights from other means such as Zen Buddhism, Sufi mysticism or even Hindu Vedic philosophies, most of us make the mistake of immediately identifying with the name of the first idea we come across. For example, we tend to readily identify as a ‘Buddhist’, even if Buddha himself may never have intended the same for himself or his disciples. This approach, I think is quite hasty, and similarly it may also be wrong to call ourselves ‘Stoics’ just because we like many aspects of this philosophy. However, what has drawn me towards Stoicism is it’s immensely useful practicality rooted in the basic rules of Human nature. In short, Stoicism is perhaps one line of thought that never really goes against human psychology, all the while being a useful tool for improving it. It teaches us to see ourselves and other humans as phenomena, like how we observe rocks or other animals. One recurring idea in Stoicism is to not complain about the rain – not because we shouldn’t but because we should identify the futility of the complaint as we cannot do anything about it.

Marcus Aurelius specifically found it useful to read people, and he did that by seeing them as facts of nature, even through their emotional outbursts – all so he could deal with people in the way they wanted and could also empathise with them or avoid them when needed. Stoic ideas have less to do with suppressing our emotions, than with acknowledging them so in the end we become less affected by our own as well as those of others. Basic common sense. In this way Stoic philosophers have talked about many different areas concerning human life, from relationships with others, and proper use of power, to perseverance and curiosity. Contrary to the popular criticism that Stoicism makes us suppress our feelings and emotions, it instead encourages us to channel it safely to where it’s worth, thus removing the need for us to suppress our emotions in the first place. Obviously, my take on Stoicism is limited in this particular article. Perhaps I’ll talk more on the details of the Stoic philosophy in a later sequel to this blog, but I can’t stress enough on how important the findings of Stoic philosophers can prove to be for us all.

A topic for a later day, I’m also intrigued about how Stoic ideas have been supported in many ways by the current findings of present day cognitive and evolutionary psychology. For example, an empirical psychological therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT (a kind of psychotherapy) has proven to be effective for addressing numerous mental conditions and personality disorders in the clinic. CBT teaches us to envision ourselves objectively, to reflect on our past actions, and to see our emotions in action and exactly how we are affected by other people and how we react to them. It gives us insight to improve upon our mental resilience – much like the core ideas in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and the rest of Stoicism. Perhaps this is how Nelson Mandela, who was a self-admitted follower of Marcus’ notes, endured his stressful 27 years in prison. And much like him, I think it is about time we all gave Stoic ideas a try, even if we can do that just once.

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Marcus Aurelius

 

 

 

 

 

Altruism, Philosophy, Psychology, Rationalism, Secular Humanism

Effective Altruism

When you see a beggar or a homeless person on the street asking for some tip, what do you do?

Most of you reading this tend to give them a change or two as you pass them by without even giving your action a little thought. Others tend to be undecided and perhaps depending on mood, sometimes give, whereas at other instances dont. On the other hand, there are others who never give out change at all for a variety of reasons known only to themselves; whether they are them selves broke, whether they don’t want to lose hard-earned money, whether they are emotionally indifferent or whether they think it’s not an effective move to solve the beggar’s problems once and for all.

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Let’s imagine for a while that a neutral onlooker is observing each person from their respective groups as they pass a beggar. The first one will be judged as benevolent (and rightly so), the second one as hesitant and the last one as a miser or ‘kanjoos’ or ‘daya nabhayeko’.

Now this blog is actually a focus onto the latter non-giving group of people. I’ll try to go even deeper into this cohort of interest. A subset within the group, who do not believe in charity that has no potency for change (especially the latter of the last group). Thus the term effective altruists.

I’d like to consider myself an effective altruist even though I haven’t really participated in any major philanthropy so far. I’m one of the third group, for I simply do not think that giving a man a fish for a day will solve his problems in any way.

Now you may argue in this age of individualism, that giving them money for a day will make you “feel better”. Better you may feel, but the short-sight in this way of thinking will not alleviate the number of beggars in the street but in fact may even make matters worse for them by encouraging begging. You create a vicious loop of begging instead.

This analogy was my effort to help readers grasp the concept. It would surely help if you all were to briefly learn about the very psychology behind philanthropy.

What is altruism and why do we indulge in charity?

Altruism is not anthropocentric as most people tend to believe. The meaning of being a human is not defined solely by the joy we find in giving. To give is not only being human. To give, is actually being an animal as altruism can be observed in hundreds if not thousands of species, vertebrate or invertebrate.

Perhaps the best explanation of biological altruism has been provided by evolutionary ethologist, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene. He explains that we are all survival machines for the residing genes which code for our bodies, and for the genes to survive, the survival machines must be kind, empathetic and protective even at the cost of one or two individuals so long as their genes are safely passed on to their offspring. This explains why parents rush into a burning building to save their child and why animals give out warning calls when they spot a predator and why we feel empathetic towards the plight of other humans.

All major and minor acts of philanthropy throughout human history is based on this single fact. This is our urge to survive. We act kind because we want the human race to survive. It’s the same principle even when we talk about the ‘collective good’ or ‘greater good’, be it borne out of religion or by other means. Our psychology has been shaped much in the same way, so as to cater to the survival of our genes, when it come to donation.

So why think while giving? Give away then! Right? Not entirely.

Bring in reason and evidence and we have effective altruism

Like I said before, the meaning of being a human is not solely defined by our capacity to empathize. It’s rather defined by our ability to think and reason and of our ability to make things work when it comes to manipulating the nature around us for our benefit. This is what separates us from other species (often wrongly used by anthropocentrists to glorify our illuded superiority). So there is a reason why the word effective is emphasized.

Compared to the act of just giving away money or charity, the act of doing so effectively can matter a lot. First of all it ensures that the money you spent is able to provide maximum good or benefit for that sum. A utilitarian mindset. Secondly, in this age of information overflow, fact-checking and empiricism is ensured so that you are not hoodwinked by fraudulent or corrupt organizations; and lastly, to gain the satisfaction that your work is actually helping to change people’s lives for the better, because you were smart enough to think responsibly before setting out to donate.

Effective Altruism or Effective Philanthropy, as a means to meet charitable ends that was spearheaded by the moral philosopher Peter Singer through his two books The Life You Can Save and The Most Good You Can Do, is gaining popularity especially among self-aware, conscious and responsible people and is being used by reputable organizations such as Oxfam, UNICEF and GiveWell. Some core aspects of this new philosophical movement are discussed briefly below.

Evidence Based Philanthropy

Effective philanthropists, whether individual people or organizations, opt for an empirical approach while giving away charity. It is imperative that one research thoroughly and usually adhere to Randomized Controlled Trials, meta-analyses, research evidence and the general scientific consensus in an effective altruism.

This is to prioritize the area of charity so that when you spend your money, the sum that you have paid is likely to bring about maximum benefit. Some notable examples are Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

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Bill Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates through their foundation have delivered billions of dollars worth of effective charity to fund vaccines, infectious disease prevention programs and research in developing nations, as a result of which millions of children world-wide recieve essential vaccines for free or at lowered cost. The end result: lesser infant and child mortality rate and greater national productivity.

I’ve brought up Elon Musk as another example because unlike Bill Gates, his philanthropy is mostly focused on individual research primarily in technology so as to inspire pioneering innovations among enthusiastic scientists, science-entreprenuers and researchers. This is to make a statement that effective altruism is not only limited to delivering responsible empathetic charities to poor people, but it’s scope can extend to any activity which helps towards the betterment of human (or animal) lives.

Consequential Approach

Effective Altruists are consequentialists; i.e those who know that the consequences of their actions are the only basis for judging whether their actions can be deemed right or wrong. That is to say that if you donate for a particular cause, and the end result bears desired benefits, then your action can be rightly deemed effective or successful. In short, their ethics is consequential means that they are to be judged by the results of their actions. And in most effective philanthropy, since the means is scientific and fact-based, the end is often successful. So I’ll again exemplify Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, as they are perhaps one of the most influential and ethical effective charity foundations that have actually made significant positive changes in people’s lives.

Egalitarian Mindset

For an effective altruist, no human is above another. In practice it may not be consistent, but most tend to consider that people in a developing nation have equal value to people in their own community. While most of their effort is focused on reducing human suffering in a selfless but thoughtful manner, some altruists may also argue the case to extend their moral compass towards ethical treatment of animals.

Cost-Effectiveness

Since money is hard-earned and doesn’t come easy, it is common sense to be strategic and careful while trying to spend it, even for a noble cause. For a utilitarian approach, most effective altruists go for the cheapest commodities and materials that bring out the most benefit for their cause. Most nowdays even think in terms of QALY (Quality Adjusted Life-Years) saved per dollar and DALY (Disability Adjusted Life Years) reduced per dollar. These are useful indeces used to assess tge improvement in tge quality of people’s lives. Whatever saves the dollar but still maximizes the benefits, effective altruists tend to go for it after much calibration.This allows money to be literally ‘well spent’.

Cause Prioritization

Cause is prioritized and usually a single cause is taken into consideration. This allows room for proper planning of logistics and makes it easier to assess the end result, i.e to measure it, and to work step by step to deliver the best services or programs.

For example, instead of donating money to poor people, effective altruists focus on certain core aspects as to what a certain community is most at need for (such as vaccination or family planning) and deliver accordingly to improve that sector first before moving on to other ones.

Criticisms

Most vocal philosophical criticisms of Singer’s Effective Altruism dig at it’s utilitarian aspects, while they do commend the motive it carries along. As John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism goes, as I’ve mentioned above, this is the act of doing the maximum amount of good. Critics argue that utilitarian views in philanthropy may seem strategically beneficial but in the end it may even miss, during the process of weighing out options, quite a lot of important sectors that may require more attention even if it doesn’t look so on paper.

One important area of criticism is on the over-reliance of people who call themselves effective altruists, on third party institutions (or ‘evaluators’ such as Charity Navigator) who do their research for them instead of the altruists doing it by themselves. This could at times be contrary to the core principles of effective altruism and this reliance is in itself a weakness of this otherwise noble concept.

A Lesson To Be Learnt

So let’s come back to the initial question: When you see a beggar or a homeless person on the street asking for some tip, what do you do?

Reference and Further Reading…..

If you want to learn more about effective altruism start from some of the links provided below. Also if you are not satisfied, there are a number of links on some valid and some invalid criticisms of effective altruisms that you can go through.

  1. Biological Altruism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Effective Altruism, Wikipedia
  3. The Live You Can Save: How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty – Peter Singer
  4. The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically – Peter Singer
  5. Altruism, Wikipedia
  6. Effective Altruism, Website
  7. Basics of Altruism, Psychology Today
  8. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, General Information
  9. Combining Empathy with Evidence, Center For Effective Altruism
  10. Ted Talk – Peter Singer: The Why and How of Effective Altruism
  11. Effective Altruism and It’s critics, Journal of applied Psychology 2016
  12. Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism, By Prof Jeff McMahan
  13. Effective Altruism Has 5 serious Flaws, Avoid it and be a DIY Philanthropist – Hank Pelliser 
  14. Altruism, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins