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.
Categories: Stoic advice