Today, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves in the thick of moral ambiguity and ethically questionable behaviors.

Sometimes we’ll be questioning our own behavior, wondering if we did the right thing, and sometimes we’ll be trying to figure out if other people have done the right thing.

Fortunately for us, we’re not the only ones thinking about this. The Stoics thought about the subject of virtue all the way back in ancient Greece as they gathered together under the baking Athenian sun to debate and figure out the best ways to live.

One subject that became a core virtue of stoicism is the idea of justice. A key part of living a virtuous life is a concept that stitches together our social fabric, from our small friend groups to the large countries and cultures of the world.

Just that you do the right thing. The rest does not matter.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Today we’re going to go over:

  • The fundamentals of the Stoic concept of justice as a cardinal virtue

  • The importance of justice in personal development and social harmony

  • Understanding justice not only in terms of fairness but also in terms of being a good member of a social group

The Stoic Philosophy of Virtue

The Stoics, through all of their discussion, debate, and writings, all decided that virtue was the highest good. It is our ability to act with virtue and show high moral standards that will determine whether or not we are living a good life.

But what are these virtues we should be aiming for?

The Stoics identified four cardinal virtues:

  1. Wisdom

  2. Courage

  3. Temperance

  4. Justice

Justice, specifically, refers to our relationships with others, emphasizing fairness, empathy, and community service.

It is not just a legal concept (which is how it is understood today), but a broad idea that covers personal ethics and social responsibility.

Why Justice Matters in Stoicism

The Stoics taught that living in accordance with nature involves recognizing our social nature as human beings.

Justice, therefore, means harmonizing our actions with the common good and treating others with respect and fairness.

The opposite of this is to do what benefits us to the detriment of the community. Examples of this are doctors pushing drugs they know are harmful but bring in money, scammers convincing you that you need to pay them, or financial institutions fraudulently manipulating the stock market.

A Stoic aims to cultivate justice not only as a personal trait but as a societal ideal. Holding the people in their society to the same moral standard as they hold themselves.

The Components of Stoic Justice

Under the Stoic framework, justice includes both negative and positive obligations:

  • Negative justice involves abstaining from harm. For example, there should be no theft, injury, or deceit.

  • Positive justice involves active benevolence: helping others, advocating for fairness, and contributing to the common welfare.

Justice as an Expression of Love

Justice in Stoicism is also understood as an expression of love.

The Stoic philosopher Hierocles envisioned concentric circles of concern (Hierocles’ Circle), starting with oneself and extending out to family, community, and ultimately all of humanity.

A Stoic exercises justice as an unfolding of empathy toward wider circles of their social group.

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

Applying Stoic Justice in Everyday Life

So now that we know what it is, what do we do with it?

To become more Stoic and practice justice in our own lives, we can do the following:

  • Accountability: Hold ourselves accountable for our intentions and actions towards others.

  • Community Engagement: Engage with our communities, aiming to impact them positively.

  • Empathy: Strive to understand the perspectives of others and treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Challenges in Upholding Stoic Justice

Practicing justice is not an easy thing. It often requires us to reject attractive opportunities that benefit us but do not benefit the wider world; it requires us to resist social pressure from groups that might want to behave in ways that damage other people; and it requires a good amount of self-reflection so that we can be honest with ourselves about where we are doing well and where we could be doing better.

It’s difficult to really treat other people in the same way we treat ourselves and to consistently have a wider society at the forefront of our decision-making.

The Stoics also recognized that one’s commitment to justice might often mean standing against the tide of popular opinion or personal gain. This can be unpleasant.

Justice and Modern Applications

In today’s world, the Stoic virtue of justice can inform debates on social justice, equity, and human rights.

While the Stoics were products of their time, their emphasis on universal human kinship offers a great example for ethical action and social reform.

It is possible to make progress for all without sacrificing the quality of life for some. It just requires objective solutions to complex problems.

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Q: How does Stoic justice differ from modern legal justice?

A: Stoic justice is broader than legal justice and includes personal ethical conduct and benevolence towards others. It is more about inner morality than external law.

Q: Can one practice Stoic justice in a competitive environment?

A: Yes, Stoic justice can be upheld even in competitive settings by maintaining fairness, honesty, and respect for others.

Q: Is Stoic justice only about human interactions?

A: While primarily focused on human relationships, Stoic justice can also extend to how we treat animals and the environment, reflecting a respect for all forms of life.

Remember that our experiences are deeply influenced by our mindset, and by building the virtue of justice into our behavior, we can make a meaningful shift not only in our own lives but also contribute to a more compassionate world.

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