Why Stoicism and Police Work Are Incompatible
Start a criminal justice degree at American Military University.
By Scot DuFour, alumnus, American Public University
The hit movie “Gladiator” starring Russell Crowe depicted the story of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus. Aurelius, the humble emperor, and Maximus, his stalwart general, exude many desirable qualities that are especially appealing to public servants like police officers and military personnel. These qualities include being indifferent to pain, enduring hardship without complaining, and pursuit of abstract goals like justice.
While the movie made many people familiar with Aurelius, he is actually well known for publishing a journal called “Meditations,” which is considered one of the most prominent examples of the philosophy of stoicism.
Stoicism is a philosophical school of thought that promotes the idea that wise people should aim to be indifferent towards pleasure and pain and be completely submissive to the laws of nature. Stoicism’s goals require a great deal of self-discipline and a resolute demeanor from those who adhere to its tenets.
Over the years of my law enforcement career, I have heard many police officers talk about stoicism as a kind of personal philosophy to which they adhere. And, while I think there are lessons to take from the stoics, I also think stoicism, as a whole, is incompatible with police work.
Foundations of Stoicism
Zeno of Citium founded the stoic school of thought in the 3rd Century B.C. and laid out some of its important foundations. They include that all of nature and the universe is a holistic system in which everything is predetermined; there is no such thing as chance. Additionally, the only thing to aim for in life is virtue, which means to act in accordance with nature (Russell, 1972; Copleston, 1946).
Virtue is the greatest good and really the only thing good in itself, according to the stoics. Virtue, in this sense, means the will of each individual person. Their will refers to their personally determined choices or their disposition to adhere to natural laws. A person’s will is not changed by their health, happiness, sorrow, relationships, or possessions so these things are irrelevant.
Aurelius differed from Zeno in some respects, but he agreed strongly with these important tenets. Aurelius wrote, “Whatever may happen to thee, it was prepared for thee from all eternity” (Russell, 1972, p. 265). These two aspects of stoicism mean accepting the world as it is and recognizing that everything that occurs in the world is predetermined; it has to occur, there is no other option.
Why Determinism Clashes with Tenets of the Criminal Justice System
There is extensive argument throughout philosophical literature regarding whether people and actions are predetermined or if free will actually exists. Stoicism clearly places a heavy emphasis on determinism rather than on free will, which undermines a significant tenet of the criminal justice system: that people are worthy of punishment for wrongs they freely commit.
For example, if bad acts committed by a mass shooter were predetermined and outside the rational choice of the actor, then how do we as a society justify punishing that person if he could not have chosen to do otherwise?
There are other philosophies that justify that sort of punishment but stoicism is not one of them. Some stoics, like Seneca, stress benevolence and claim that the most effective punishment to reform people must be mild punishment (Copleston, 1946). As Aurelius said, “The wickedness of one man does no harm to another” and that evil people “do wrong through ignorance and unintentionality” (Russell, 1972, p. 266).
Stoics view punishing criminals as irrelevant because of determinism and because they ultimately view wrongs committed by individuals as harmless because it does not take away the victim’s virtue. Being victimized should be irrelevant to the stoic because it does not change their ability to adhere to the natural laws and it should create no sorrow or pain in their life. Plus, being victimized must have been predetermined so it was therefore necessary.
Choosing a Noble Profession is Irrelevant to Stoics
This idea also extends to the idea of sacrifice and the seeking of a noble goal that we admire in people like doctors, police officers, and military servicemembers. People who choose such professions strive to make a positive change in society by ending illnesses, diseases, crime, oppression, and tyranny. But, if the whole universe is deterministic, then nothing can change. The sacrifice is meaningless because they could not have chosen to be something other than a doctor, police officer, or soldier. Those sacrifices are valuable when people freely choose to make them. So, what are the lessons of the stoics that we find so valuable?
When individuals are described as being stoic they are often thought of as calm, even-keeled, and disciplined. These are certainly valuable attributes for doctors, police officers, soldiers, or leaders. The stoics take this idea to extreme and turn these attributes into an exercise of endurance rather than a practical skillset by which to make positive change in our world.
A.C. Grayling (2010) wrote that stoicism wants individuals to cultivate indifference to the things they cannot control while gaining self-mastery of their own fears, passions, and hopes. On the surface these are good goals to aim for, but the stoic says all things must be accepted as fate. Thus the stoic should not feel sympathy “when his wife or children die, he reflects that this event is no obstacle to his own virtue, and therefore he does not suffer deeply” (Russell, 1972, p. 255).
If virtue is the only good to which individuals should aim and criminals are predetermined to conduct their bad acts, what can be the argument against crime and injustice? And if stoics want us to worry only about things we can control in a world where everything is predetermined by fate, then we are powerless to control anything except our acting in accordance with nature. These are not the attributes of a good police officer nor are they the goals society has set for its justice system.
I define police officers and others in the service professions as those who freely choose to work towards the goal of justice; they want to overcome the odds to change the world for the better. Free will or an argument explaining why determinism doesn’t matter are necessary to support our justice system.
The value we get from stoicism comes in striving to cultivate our self-control, self-mastery, discipline, and our ability to see through the false facade of things like money or notoriety.
As a police officer, you shouldn’t be a stoic. Police work needs people who recognize their free will to act in response to the needs of a community and can reap the benefits of health, happiness, hope, and equality of opportunity. Developing yourself and your virtue should not come at the cost of not being able to share your gifts with the world. Police officers need to be a conduit through which positive change can occur.
About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently a Field Training Officer with a police department in Colorado. He was previously an investigator in a domestic violence prosecutions unit for a district attorney’s office, a police officer with the Phoenix Police Department, and a Task Force Officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
Copleston, F.J. (1946). A history of philosophy: Greece and Rome (Vol. 1). Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press.
Grayling, A.C. (2010). Ideas that matter: The concepts that shape the 21st century. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Russell, B. (1972). A history of western philosophy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.