The lure and danger of extreme examples

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A real life trolley problem, from the sitcom The Good Place

One of the main reasons I turned away from modern ethics — either of the utilitarian or of the Kantian-deontological stamp — is that it is both too narrow and too infatuated with thought experiments and increasingly convoluted, extreme (alleged) counter-examples, aimed at knocking down opponent schools, rather than actually being useful to people’s day-to-day lives. In other words, a lot of modern ethics indulges in precisely the kind of things that Seneca warned us against:

“I should like to have those subtle dialecticians of yours advise me how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word ‘friend’ is used, and how many meanings the word ‘man’ possesses.” (Letters XLVIII.4)

Consider, for instance, the cottage industry informally referred to as “trolleology,” the study of trolley dilemmas. Plenty of professional philosophers spend their careers inventing more and more convoluted scenarios to “test” our ethical intuitions about who we should allow to get hit by a runaway trolley. This has resulted in the piling up of a large literature about situations that will never occur in anyone’s real life, or that — if they did occur — would require a snap judgment based on knowledge of very specific circumstances, not idealized cartoonish thought “experiments.”

Here is a short video from the sitcom “The Good Place” that justly makes fun of trolley dilemmas. And the irony is that the whole thing got started with a landmark paper by Philippa Foot, who invented the problem as a way to show the inadequacy of modern ethical approaches and call to a return to the nuances of virtue ethics!

There are several other reasons I think ethics took a decidedly wrong turn with Kant, but this isn’t the place to elaborate on that. Instead, I will turn to what I’ve noticed being a somewhat common kind of “objection” to Stoicism (and, presumably, to other kinds of virtue ethics), inspired by the same attitude that fuels that trolley dilemmas. I am talking about people who bring up exaggerated or highly unlikely scenarios in an attempt to undermine Stoicism by a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Here are two examples.

Case 1: “Tell it to victims of a genocide”

Epictetus famously said:

“What, after all, are sighing and crying, except opinions? What is ‘misfortune’? An opinion. And sectarian strife, dissension, blame and accusation, ranting and raving — they all are mere opinion, the opinion that good and bad lie outside us.” (Discourses III, 3.18–19)

There are several other places in which the sage from Hierapolis talks about “opinions,” so much so that Marcus Aurelius, who was strongly influenced by Epictetus, writes:

“The universe is transformation: life is opinion.” (Meditations, IV.3)

Marcus here isn’t endorsing some kind of postmodernist philosophical position ante litteram, arguing that anyone should be free to adopt any opinion they happen to like. Rather, he is following Epictetus in making a clear distinction between facts and values. Facts exist in the world outside the human mind, and persist independently from it. Values, by contrast, are entirely a creation of human minds, and do not exist outside of it. And it is in this sense that Epictetus says that misfortune, sectarian strife, blame, accusation, ranting, and raving are all opinions. They do not have to be, they are our own choices.

This does not mean that such opinions are necessarily unreasonable. That remains to be seen, as one needs to articulate and defend one’s take on things. The point is simply that they are not facts, and therefore not unchangeable. Consider this famous exercise in the Meditations, where Marcus reminds himself of the distinction between facts and opinions in a rather sharp fashion:

“When you have savories and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus.” (VI.13)

This is often cited as an example of both Marcus’ misanthropy and of Stoicism’s lack of appreciation for the good things in life. But it’s actually neither. What the emperor-philosopher is doing here is to redescribe things he probably liked too much (gourmet foods, good wine, the power of his office, and sex) in objective fashion, so to better appreciate just how much he was adding of his own onto these facts — by way of his “opinions.”

And that’s the point of Epictetus’ advice: when we indulge in “catastrophizing,” as modern cognitive behavioral therapists put it, we should step back and carry out an “objectification” exercise, like the one Marcus engages in above. This will help us see things from a different perspective, focusing our attention on the actual nature of the thing under examination, and thereby on what we can do about it — other than catastrophize.

Notice also the last bit of the quote from Epictetus: “the opinion that good and bad lie outside us.” This is the Stoic doctrine that the only true good for human beings is to arrive at correct judgments, and the only true bad to arrive at incorrect judgments. Why? Because considered judgments are the only things that are truly up to us. The rest we may be able to influence, but is ultimately outside of our control. And the key to a meaningful life, for the Stoics, is to keep focusing on our locus of control while accepting the rest with equanimity.

Given all of the above, what sense can we make of the following objection, then? “Epictetus says that it’s all in our mind. Go tell it to the victims of genocide.” Well, to begin with, I wouldn’t tell anything to anyone unless they wanted to hear it. The first rule of Stoic club is that you don’t say “bad Stoic” to people outside the club. The second rule is that you don’t say that to other Stoics either. The third rule is that you don’t say that even to yourself. I’m not making this up:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 5)

Moreover, while it is true that for the Stoics the only truly bad things are one’s own misjudgments — for the reasons explained above — that doesn’t mean that some externals do not result in injustice and ought, therefore, to be opposed. The Stoics did this in practice, and we have plenty of historical evidence to that effect, for instance in the case of the famous “Stoic opposition” to the tyranny of emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. One can reasonably assume that they would have opposed the Holocaust, or any other genocide, as well.

There is also direct textual ground to conclude that the Stoics are opposed to injustice and the suffering of people. They were cosmopolitans, thinking that the whole point of a life worth living is to use reason to improve human society:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations, IV.24)

Hardly a callous attitude toward human sufferings, no? But even when human beings are exposed to the worst possible tragedies, we do have a choice to think about what is happening differently from what may seem obvious, and gain spiritual strength from that rethinking. That is the whole point of Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. And Frankl was, in fact, a Holocaust survivor. (Though there have been questions about the details of the story he recounts in his famous book.)

Finally, let us say that most of us would not be able to remain Stoic — in the sense of exhibiting a behavior coherent with Stoic philosophy, not in the sense of the stereotypical “stiff upper lip” — in the face of genocide. Well, hopefully most of us will not have to suffer through a genocide. But we are guaranteed to suffer through a lot of more common human tribulations, from having to counter daily problems to having to deal with irritable people, from not getting a job we wanted to the end of a relationship we cared about, from losing loved ones to, eventually, having to face death. In all these cases a Stoic attitude is useful precisely because it helps us put things into perspective, retraining our perceptions of what is happening and focusing on the best ways to deal with the issue, rather than just throw our hands up in desperation.

Case 2: “If the world were made entirely of Stoics there would be no art”

I’ve heard this one recently, and it is more amusing than anything else. But it shows the same pattern as the previous case, on steroids. Here is the “argument,” such as it is: the ideal Stoic, the sage achieves both apatheia and ataraxia. The first is a stage of non-disturbance from negative emotions, what the Stoics call “passions” (not what we mean by that term, though, the technical word is pathē). The sage, for instance, is not affected by rage, because she realizes that rage is a negative emotion — defined in Stoic philosophy as any emotion that overpowers reason — a temporary madness that she has trained herself never to fall into.

Ataraxia is a more general state of serenity, achieved by the sage because not only she has freed herself from the pathē, but she has accepted the dichotomy of control: she concerns herself only with what is up to her, and has developed an attitude of equanimity toward outcomes, knowing that in life sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and that to become upset at losing is only a self-inflicted, avoidable, wound. The sage, instead, will cultivate the positive emotions, termed by the Stoics eupatheiai, such as joy, love, and a sense of justice.

Boring, says the critic. If the entire human race where to turn into sages, there would be no art to speak of, since all the major masterpieces produced by humanity — music, paintings, poetry, literature, operas, movies — are the result of distress and tragedy experienced emotionally.

Okay, let me lay out a few responses. In the first place, the empirical premise of the objection is highly doubtful. Is it really the case that all great art comes out of tragedy and suffering? I’m not so sure, and at the very least the premise should not be granted without systematic empirical inquiry.

More to the point, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we are nowhere near having turned into a race of sages. Indeed, Seneca says this is highly unlikely:

“Do you know what kind of man I now mean when I speak of ‘a good man’? I mean one of the second grade, like your friend. For one of the first class [i.e., a sage] perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.” (Letters to Lucilius, 42.1)

So, just like the trolley dilemmas, this isn’t exactly an urgent problem. And why not move the same objection to other philosophical and religious traditions, while we are at it? I mean, wouldn’t the same issue arise if we all became enlightened, by following the Buddha? And what if we all became Christians, I mean true Christians, actually behaving like Jesus taught?

Finally, let me bite the bullet. Let’s say — for the sake of argument — that an ideal Stoic society would indeed be one in which human suffering had been banished forever, at the cost of no more production of artistic masterpieces. Is someone seriously suggesting that that wouldn’t be a price worth paying? Is the “argument” really that we’d rather have more Dostoyevsky, Beethoven, and Neruda than eliminate injustice, oppression, war, and genocide? Seriously?

You see why Seneca reacted to such sophistry by asking to be advised on “how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word ‘friend’ is used, and how many meanings the word ‘man’ possesses.” In other words, let’s be serious.

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