Stoic advice: can a salesperson be a Stoic?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

D. writes: How should a practising Stoic ethically approach their work if it involves rhetoric, persuading others and achieving sales, e.g. salesman, copywriter, etc.? This could also apply to grant writers, lawyers and so on.

That’s a very good question, and I think there is a general answer, even though there may be significant differences in how to implement it among the professions you list, and others that may fall under the same category.

The obvious way to approach it is through Epictetus’ role ethics, as brilliantly elucidate by my friend Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, which I discussed on this blog in a 6-part series. As you may recall, Epictetus distinguishes among roles that we are given by accident or circumstances (e.g., being someone’s son), roles that we choose (e.g., our career), and our foundational role as members of the human cosmopolis. Consider:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

The “common” standard in the quote above is that which applies to all human beings qua human beings. The “specific” standard is the one that applies to our particular roles. If you are a cithara player you ought to practice your cithara, take care of your instrument, and perform to your best. If you are philosopher, you ought to work on your reasoning ability, and use it to help others live a better and more meaningful life. (Note: unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of thing you’ll learn in most modern philosophy departments, but that’s a different story.)

So a first answer to your question is that a salesman, copywriter, grant writer, lawyer and so fourth ought to do what salesmen, copywriters, grant writers, and lawyers do. That is, if you choose one of those professions, the Stoic thing to do is to practice it well.

That should be the case unless your specific role within your profession comes into conflict with your broader role as a human being. As Epictetus puts it, you don’t want to behave randomly, like a sheep, or destructively, like a wild beast. This means that if your job is demanding something from you that you know is unethical, in conflict with the wellbeing of humanity, then you ought not to do it. Your role as a member of the cosmopolis trumps every other role you may play. Why? Because:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (Discourses II.10.3-4)

In a modern sense, “divine administration” in the quote above can simply be understood as what reason and justice demand, without specific metaphysical overtones. So far, then, we have the idea that whatever one does, from a Stoic perspective the way to do it is to do it well, with integrity. Moreover, there is a limit imposed by our broader duty to humanity itself. How might we bump into such limit, in practice?

Let’s take the example of a salesman, let’s say someone who sells cars. He is within Stoic bounds in doing his best to sell as many cars as possible to potential customers, because that is what the role of a car salesman is. But consider a scenario where he is actually aware that a given used car has defects that he has been asked by his employer not to disclose, in order to make a quick sale and get rid of the lemon. That’s where his duty to humanity at large kicks in: if he followed through, he would commit an injustice toward another fellow human being, so — Stoically speaking — he should politely refuse. Even to the point of being reprimanded, or losing his job.

That’s a tall of order for most of us, but nobody said practicing Stoicism coherently was going to be easy. (I would maintain that practicing any philosophy or religion coherently — including Christianity or Buddhism — ain’t easy.) The Stoics recognized that none of us is a sage, and that we will inevitably fall short of the ideal. Here is how Epictetus puts it:

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

The idea is that we should strive to do our best, while at the same time acknowledging that we have limits. For instance, going back to our hypothetical car salesman, he may not want to refuse his boss’ request because he has a family to take care of and cannot afford losing his job. That is a reasonable tradeoff to make, but perhaps he can implement an alternative strategy: he could be purposively less convincing when it comes to cars he knows are lemons, thus stealthily undermining his boss’ unethical request; and at the same time he could begin to look for another job in which he is not asked to compromise his integrity, and yet can still take care of his family.

As a final thought, note that this sort of situation calls for the application of all four cardinal virtues: the courage to stand up to your boss’ unethical demands; a sense of justice that allows you to recognize that you are not playing your cosmopolitan role to your best; temperance in your response to the boss, given that other things are at stake, like your family’s welfare; and especially practical wisdom, the knowledge that the only things that are truly bad for you are not externals, such as losing your job, but your own bad decisions, such as knowingly scamming your customer.

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7 thoughts on “Stoic advice: can a salesperson be a Stoic?

  1. Paul Braterman

    “Rhetor”, the dictionary tells me, can mean either a teacher of rhetoric or a practitioner. If the former, presumably there is no special problem, except perhaps if one is asked to teach someone who will abuse their rhetorical skills. If the latter, the example is provocative, like your own example of copywriter, with the built-in tensions that are the subject of this post.

    Salespersons may be operating in an environment where it is clearly expected that a prudent customer will seek independent advice. In that case there may be no problem in simply failing to mention a defect, unless it is dangerous. But they may also be expected to practice techniques to earn a buyer’s misplaced trust, so that the buyer will wrongly assume that they would have been told of problems. I cannot see how anyone could remain virtuous while working in such an envronment.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Torc the Sinister

    This very thing occurred to me before I was aware I was of a Stoic mindset when I got into selling funeral protection insurance. I worked hard to provide this service (as I believed in the company and the insurance) and when things were getting hard, I went to the management for some advice on how to better close on sales. One call, in particular, was reviewed and the customer asked if her son could be added to her policy if she had one, which I told her it was not possible. I was told I should have told her yes and made the sale, which I challenged him twice by asking if he could legally make such a claim and all he did was give me a condescending smile. I told him that I would not commit such an act both on a moral as well a legal grounds. Three days later I was fired and it felt so good to be free of such a company and people that ran it.

    Liked by 8 people

  3. Robin Luethe

    If someone likes sales keep in mind that industrial, commercial, technical, and IT sales are out there. These positions often rely on relationships that last decades. Read the biography of John Leahy the Airbus salesman. Such people make sales of billions of dollars and need to and do face their customers ten years later – and are welcome.

    A good salesperson knows what the customer need sometimes before the customer does. He or she is also the person who takes his own company to task when it does not deliver what was expected. Reputation really becomes the name of the game. And subtlety that sales person tells the customer what cannot be delivered and the price the customer wants to pay.

    I did not really follow what sales people do until I was in my 50s when I became friends with or related to a number of people in sales. One such sold industrial glues. He was always trooping off to some obscure wood mill – why weren’t those pieces of wood sticking together as easily, as fast, as long as they should? Leave the used car lot behind, our technical, industrial, information economy needs smart, honest, creative people of integrity.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sarah Huerta

    I really appreciated this article. It actually responded to a question I had for some time. I used to be a marketer for a company I viewed as unethical- a great deal of it was the behavior, selling practices, and regard for the customers by the management. As a practicing Stoic, I felt extremely challenged to continue my work and found another job which placed me a support role, genuinely helping others, which I love. I always wondered how other Stoics are able to do this sort of psychological manipulative work- convincing others that they have a problem and there is a product to solve your previously unrealized issue. A Stoic I admire, Ryan Holiday, is actually a marketer himself (see his book, Ego is the Enemy). Its always baffled me how to mitigate this sort of work with my ethics and morality. Thank you for this article- I see that I appropriately practiced my Stoic values by acting as I did.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Victoria

    Hi Sarah,

    Good on you for having the courage to leave an unethical role! 👏

    To be honest, I often felt Marcus Aurelius surly lived in perpetual conflicts of moral values. He was also in a role that he couldn’t run away from easily!

    Liked by 1 person

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