In 1946 Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he presented an argument that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. He sketched one such dilemma for his audience, about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, concluding that the answer to ethical questions always depends on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to go the Existentialist route and “trust in our instincts.” The question I wish to explore here is that of what a Stoic would do in the scenario imagined by Sartre.
Here is an excerpt from the essay to give you the full picture Sartre is presenting, as well as his reasoning for why Existentialism is the answer:
“As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two. What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbour, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means, but always as an end. Very well; if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means: but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating my mother as a means. If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.”
Now, I actually think that Stoicism is a better model for Secular Humanists (as well as for many religious people, actually) than Existentialism, a topic I explore in this video, and that I have recently discussed with my friend Skye Cleary (who defended the Existentialist position, video to be published soon).
Before getting to Stoicism, though, let me complete Sartre’s analysis and add that yet a third major approach to ethics isn’t going to be very useful here either: utilitarianism. While it would seem obvious that from a utilitarian perspective the young man ought to leave his mother and help the greater cause, because of the high degree of uncertainty about what he will actually be able to do, and how effective he will be, it may turn out that overall happiness will be increased (and pain reduced) if he stays with his mother. There just is no way to tell. (Other utilitarian scenarios, in different situations, are much more clear, so this in itself isn’t a critique of the whole utilitarian approach.)
Back to Stoicism. To begin with, since Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics, it too does not provide universal answers, but needs to weigh the details of individual situations. While many consider this a weakness of virtue ethics when compared to “view from nowhere” systems such as Kantian deontology and Mill-style utilitarianism, I think it is a strength and agree with Sartre that ethics is often, if not nearly always, situational.
The second thing to notice is that Stoics recognize that we all play multiple ethical roles during our lives, in this specific case that of a dutiful son and of a concerned citizen. As Epictetus says:
“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II, 10.10)
But as Larry Becker also points out in his A New Stoicism, we need to arrive at decisions guiding our actions “all things considered,” i.e., taking into account that these different roles will often pull us into different directions, and that we need to chart the best possible course through many competing demands. What shall our guiding light be? Virtue, of course, the very point of a Stoic existence. As Seneca nicely puts it:
“The reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXXI. On Benefits, 19)
Now, it seems to me that in the scenario posed by Sartre the greater virtue lies in defending liberty from tyranny, even at the cost of causing distress to one’s own mother. I cannot imagine a Cato, for instance, setting aside plans of taking on Julius Caesar on the ground that Cato’s mother will inevitably suffer as a result of the possibility of her son’s death. Or consider whether Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, could have possibly decided not to go on the Roman frontier to fight the Marcomanni on account of the very real anguish that his decision would cause to his family and friends.
(There is a caveat here, going back to Sartre’s story: it isn’t exactly clear what the young man’s motivation in joining the Resistance would be. If it is vengeance, as it is stated at one point, then that’s hardly a positive reason, and not likely one that a Stoic would defend; if, instead, he is moved by a sense of justice, then the Stoic account has given here holds true. Virtue ethics puts a premium on the character and intentions of the agent, more than on his specific actions.)
This example also shows, I think, where Stoicism most sharply differs from one of its main ancient rivals, Epicureanism. Epicurus very clearly advised his followers to stay away from social and political action and to focus instead on family and friendships, because doing the former will decrease their happiness and especially augment their pain.
Contrast, for instance, Marcus:
“Human beings exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)
With Epicurus (admittedly, though, cited by Epictetus, Discourses II.20.6):
“Don’t be deceived, men, or misled or mistaken: there is no natural fellowship of rational beings with each other. Believe me: those who say otherwise are deceiving you and reasoning falsely.”
The important thing to realize is that a Stoic would join the Resistance not because of some sort of utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits — since there Sartre is right that any such calculus is next to impossible. Nor is the Kantian “ends not just means” imperative going to be useful here, for precisely the reasons Sartre outlines. The Stoic would, painfully, leave his mother and fight for a broader cause because it is the virtuous thing to do, regardless of outcome.
It is virtuous because it exercises the virtue of justice, which guides Epictetus’ discipline of action, and because the Stoics were cosmopolitan, caring for all of humankind.
It is to be done regardless of outcome because the outcome is not up to us, only our judgments and actions are, the crucial distinction at the root of Epictetus’ famous dichotomy of control.
But the Stoic decision wouldn’t be reached via Sartre’s rather nebulous (and likely unreliable) “instinct,” but rather by reason, the very thing that according to the Stoics distinguishes us from every other species on the planet:
“Bring the mind to bear upon your problems.” (Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi X.4)