[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.