Stoic advice: I work at a place whose values I find morally objectionable

Roman chamber pot from Pompeii

Roman chamber pot from Pompeii

L. wrote: I work at a Christian university, the policies of which I disagree with more and more. I find the institution’s stance on homosexuality especially repugnant. I consider it to be harmful to the LGBTQ students who are here and to those who are alumni. I have really struggled in the past year or so trying to reconcile working here with my beliefs about the harm the institution does with its views and its proselytizing. It seems to me that I am condoning and approving of their stance, or at least making others think that I do, when I claim this place as a workplace. Sometimes I think seriously of leaving. Sometimes I think I should let them pay me all that they will and work for causes that fight against those like my institution.

I know that I cannot control what the institution does.  I have used the opportunities I have to speak for LGBTQ students on campus. I have voted with the rest of the faculty, futilely, to change the current climate here. And of course this is how I make my living. It’s hard to give up a job that pays well. So, my question is this — am I behaving immorally by continuing to work here? Is working here unvirtuous? By consenting to work here, am I truly in the moral quandary that I feel I am?

There is a famous section of Epictetus’ Discourses that directly addresses your problem, even though, of course, the specific situation that Epictetus uses as an example is completely different from yours. The context is what Brian Johnson calls the role ethics of Epictetus (see complete series of commentaries here), the idea developed by the Stoic philosopher that we all “play,” so to speak, different roles in society. Our most fundamental role is that of a human being, a member of the human polis at large. But then we also play a number of additional roles, some that we choose (e.g., our careers, whether to become parents), and others that are given to us by our circumstances (e.g., being the son of certain parents, or a sister).

In Discourses I.2, Epictetus tackles the case of two slaves who are faced with the unpleasant and demeaning task of holding their master’s chamber pot. One obliges, one refuses. The first one is playing the straightforward role of a slave, while the latter seems to choose instead to put his more fundamental role as a human being, and the dignity that comes with it, ahead of the role of slave. As Epictetus colorfully puts it, the second slave wears “the purple stripe in the white toga,” meaning that he stands out from the crowd.

The way the conflict is resolved hinges on each individual’s assessment of his own character, which in turns leads to the choice of whether to accept or refuse to hold the chamber pot. It’s a matter of what a person thinks is reasonable for her to do. (Incidentally, this is one case in which a Stoic philosopher encouraged slave rebellion, though at the individual, not systemic level.)

As Johnson summarizes Epictetus’ advice: “It is for the slave himself to determine if the role of a slave genuinely belongs to him or if, for example, he is a figure like Diogenes the Cynic who can be bought as a slave and yet insist that his role is to govern humanity (Diogenes Laertius VI.29–30). Under one role, the slave should obey; under another, he should resist.” (p. 116)

Johnson continues: “A lowly slave can not choose to do the work of an extraordinary individual because he does not have the power to bear it any more than the extraordinary individual can bear to hold the chamber pot. … It is up to our own initiative for each of us to introspect and identify what our own self-worth is since that is the operative and necessary capacity in these two conflicting roles.” (p. 125) Or as Epictetus summarizes the concept:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

That, seems to me, is the same question you are facing, but nobody can tell you what the price of your soul is, so to speak. You are the only judge of that. At one extreme, as you say, you could quit your job out of principle, maybe even try to make a splash with your decision, say by writing to a local paper to publicly explain why you left and openly criticizing your former employer.

But that isn’t the only possibility, and you yourself have highlighted a number of others. You can keep fighting from within, provide support to students who need it, donate money to organizations that work against the principles of your university. Or all of the above.

One thing I would like to make clear: Stoicism is not about judging other people, and it is a very self forgiving philosophy as well. So if your assessment is that, all things considered, you cannot afford to leave your job (maybe because you have family responsibilities, for instance), then the virtuous thing to do is to seek the next best available option. Besides, it’s very possible that you may be able to do more good from the inside, over a long period of time, than with a one time noisy protest.

Look, we all compromise, and none of us is perfectly virtuous. I try to do my best, for instance, to fight against what I see as overwhelming corporate power and corrupting political interests, but I’m not going to leave the country to do so. The cost would be too high for me, my family, and my friends. But I am trying to oppose those interests and that corruption, by writing, talking to people (especially my students, the next generation of voters), and by donating money to organizations that are aligned with my political and social beliefs. Could I do more? Certainly. But I’m doing something, which is better than what most people do. You could say that the two of us are in a privileged position compared to Epictetus’ two slaves: we don’t have only two options, so we can act somewhat virtuously without losing our neck, or our job and country.

6 thoughts on “Stoic advice: I work at a place whose values I find morally objectionable

  1. Yilmaz Rona

    One thing to bear in mind… nobody is compelled to attend university. LGBQT students at the university are there because they choose to be. And those who come to the conclusion that the cost of attending the university outweighs the benefits of attending are free to leave and go somewhere else. It’s highly likely that they knew of the school’s policies when they chose to apply and to attend. Though such a choice may seem incomprehensible to those of us who didn’t have to make it, it’s a choice they have made.

    And it’s quite likely that staff like your correspondent are ones that temper the hostility of the institution to the LGBQT students’ desires, making the university a more appealing (or less unappealing if you will) place to stay.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paul Braterman

    “the policies of which I disagree with more and more.” It is relevant to ask whether the policies have changed, or their impact, or the questioner’s strength of feeling about the matter.

    The questioner is not being required to implement personally any of the policies of which (s)he disapproves. That would of course be unacceptable; it would be damaging to carry on teaching biology in an institution that decided to outlaw evolution.

    It also seems that the questioner is free to state objections to the policy, and to proffer moral support to those made uncomfortable by it. These are surely virtuous activities.

    Disclosure: I did actually leave the country (the US) because of dislike for its institutions and policies, but that was a relatively cheap decision, since I was not many years away from retirement. And now, I sometimes wonder if I am guilty of having deserted my post.

    None of this helps resolve the dilemma, but it may help to place it in a broader context.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nanocyborgasm

    I was faced with this same dilemma and I ultimately chose to leave the position and find employment elsewhere, but it wasn’t easy at all. I had to consider the jeopardy it would put my financial situation, and I had family to support. I also thought, for a time, that I could fare better as an insider, working to change the system from within. There was a moment when it seemed that positive change was about to happen, but then it was reversed quickly. That is when I realized that the abusive and malevolent conditions were going to continue, and that no one had the power to stop them. That’s when I realized I had to leave, and quickly.

    One thing I learned that OP could take from me is that, unless you are someone of authority in your organization, you’ll never effect any change at all, no matter how much pressure you put. This isn’t a democracy where the people can vote candidates into offices they like if they are displeased. And what is more is that as long as you continue to work diligently for the organization, you are making money for them while not doing anything to prevent them from doing whatever deplorable things they want. So while you’re struggling to change the system, the system is laughing at you and at most, throwing you gratuitous gestures of conciliation that don’t amount to anything. So if you want to be a force as a insider, gain authority and then work within your authority. But if you have no hope of real authority, don’t bother.

    Same holds true for the cabinet of the current president. Some might think they’re doing some good, but they’re not accomplishing anything so long as the governing authority prevents them, and they only fool themselves to think otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. jelle van dijk 🌍 (@theblub)

    It is not clear whether you really would want to leave but would feel quilty about doing so, or whether you would actually rather want to stay but would feel quilty about doing so.

    If the latter, the reassurance would be that indeed:

    “it’s very possible that you may be able to do more good from the inside, over a long period of time, than with a one time noisy protest.”

    A lot of students may see you as a support for their struggles, even if you don’t know them and they’ve never spoken to you (given that you let it be known here and there what your position is on things, doesn’t even have to be very explicitly, people quickly read between the lines).

    I absolutely do not agree with the first commenter about LGBT students being at the university because they want to be and would be free to leave. Technically, yes. Culturally, socially, no. I figure most students at this university have been brought up in (dogmatic) Christian families. It may take half a life or longer to break away from that, if you succeed at all. If only for the internal struggle: Am I right in abandoning God, abandoning my family, etc. Is it really ok to be homosexual, or am I a sinner? Etc. This takes time. While attending the university there will be students going through all these phases of struggle. You could be there to give hope, reassurance. See yourself as the Red Cross in the war-zone. Or as the secret resistance, whatever you find fitting. But do try and find ways to let students know on whose side you stand.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. metastoicism

    I find the OPs situation to be ludicrous. The Christian Church’s dislike of homosexuality, whether one agrees with it or not, has been decided for almost 2000 years. Moreover, exactly because people might not be familiar with the Christian worldview, church members from the very beginning have funded missionaries and later printed bibles to convey their teachings. The Mormons, for example, manage to cross my path every couple of months no matter where I am in the world.

    In electing to join a Christian university as an employee, the OP presumably knew what s/he was getting into. The same applies to any students who the OP imagines s/he is supporting.

    To have second thoughts today about church teachings is reasonable. To engage in polite discussion while maintaining a personal view contrary to the church position is reasonable, up to a point. To undermine the institution from within, is not reasonable at all (and the OP should be fired for so attempting).

    There are comparatively few Christian universities these days, while there is a surfeit of universities hospitable to persons with a favourable view of homosexuality. So clearly, if the OP feels strongly about the issue, s/he should move along ASAP. The university is being true to its values, and so should the OP.

    (Lest someone assume I am partisan here, the fact is I am an atheist, and one who is rather unsympathetic to Christians in general, given their track record over the centuries.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    I understand your reasoning, but I disagree. I find nothing ludicrous about working within an institution to improve it. Religions — despite much protestation — do change over time, and that change often comes from within, precisely from people like L.


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