April 17, 2020 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Appropriate action Stoic Self-help Stoicism

How To Act Appropriately

By Dr. Chuck Chakrapani

The concept of appropriate action (kathekon) was introduced by the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Stoics, 7.108)

What is the meaning of ‘appropriate actions’?

All our actions fall into one of the following three categories: appropriate actions, inappropriate actions, and neutral actions.

  1. Appropriate actions are those that involve one or more virtues. Actions than can be considered wise, just, moderate, or courageous fall into this category. Acts like nurturing our family, doing something for society and the like are considered appropriate acts. These actions do not have to be generated by one of the virtues but should reflect one or more of them. For example, if the main purpose of your action is not justice and yet the action involves justice, then that would make it an appropriate action.
  2. Inappropriate actions are those that involve one or more vices. Actions than can be considered foolish, unjust, extravagant, or cowardly fall into this category. Examples of inappropriate actions include being unsympathetic, overlooking the interests of society, neglecting our family, and the like.
  3. Neutral actions are those that don’t touch upon virtues or vices. Should you shave first or shower first? Should you have breakfast at 7 am or 8 am? Neither alternatives are related to virtue or vice.

The goal of a Stoic is to maximize appropriate actions and minimize or eliminate inappropriate actions. Let’s talk some more about appropriate actions.

How do we know that something is an appropriate act?

An appropriate act is an act of choice and so it is deliberate. Although it conforms to virtue, an appropriate act is not necessarily generated by virtue.

To see an act to be appropriate action you may want to ask yourself four questions:

"1. Is this wise?

2. Is this just?

3. Is this moderate (show self-control)?

4. Is this courageous (that is, are we doing this simply because we are afraid of doing something that we really consider appropriate)?"

You should be able to say yes to at least one of four questions and also show that it is not incompatible with the remaining three. For example, a courageous act is an appropriate action only if it is not an unjust, unwise, or extravagant act. An act of courage is not an appropriate action if it is also an unjust one.

An appropriate action needs to be appropriate only at the time of action. Looking back, it is quite possible you may realize that what you considered an appropriate act had a different consequence than you expected. But as long as it was an appropriate action given your knowledge and understanding at the time, it is still an appropriate act.

Inappropriate acts, on the other hand, involve at least one of the following: folly, injustice, extravagance, or cowardice.

All other acts are neutral.

How to narrow the gap between the actual and the intended results?

In Stoicism, we are fully responsible only for the things under our control. We bear no responsibility for things not under our control. So before performing an act, we consider all possible consequences of our action (which is under our control) and then act. We have done all we possibly can but the results are not up to us. And yet, we would prefer the actual results are not different from the intended results.

THE ROLE REVERSAL METHOD

Hierocles suggested a method to minimize the gap between intended results and actual results. Assume that the person who is at the receiving end of the action is you and you them. Do you still think it is an appropriate action? For example, you are about to tell your friend that she is wrong. You might think it is an appropriate action because it requires courage to correct someone else as they can misunderstand your intention. Is it an appropriate act? Now assume that you are your friend and your friend is you. If you are at the receiving end of this, would you still feel the same? Perhaps you feel that your friend could have expressed her views a bit more skillfully. Or you might think your friend hasn’t really thought it through. Or you might feel your friend is not justified at all in making her comments. Reversing the roles is likely to make you pay closer attention to the appropriateness of your action.

Of course, we need to use our common sense when we apply the role reversal method. Suppose you want to kill someone who happens to be suicidal. Role reversal will give you the impression that hurting the other person is an appropriate act. After all, the other person feels the same way about dying as you do about killing. So, it is important that, in using the role reversal method, we take into account the intent behind the method and not follow it mechanically. Barring such extreme situations, the role reversal method is likely to put things in perspective and help us in deciding if an act is an appropriate one.