Stoic advice: Should I support my evangelical family?

Massimo Pigliucci
Mar 13 · 5 min read

(If you wish to submit a question for this series, please write to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.)

J. writes: My brother and his family are about to move to another country to begin working as evangelical Christian missionaries. In preparation for this move, they have been asking friends and family (including me) to financially contribute to their missionary work. I feel very conflicted about the virtuous course of action in response to this. On the one hand, I do not share their faith and thus do not believe that the mission they’re embarking on is useful or helpful to society. Their goals solely have to do with proselytizing. This inclines me very strongly towards not supporting them, and of course if a stranger were to approach me with such a request I would turn it down without question. On the other hand, I feel a strong sense of duty to support and care for the needs of the members of my family, regardless of whether or not I share their religious and ideological beliefs. The virtue of justice directs us to fulfill our duties to others, based on their relationships to us. But in this case I feel my duty to my family is conflicting with my duty to the broader society. What do you think of this situation? And perhaps more broadly, what advice do you have for situations where more specific duties (to family, friends, country, etc…) seem to come into conflict with our general duties to humanity more generally?

This is an excellent and crucial question for the practice of Stoicism. And the best way to work toward an answer is by considering Epictetus’ role ethics. This is an approach original with Epictetus, though Panaetius developed an earlier, simpler version, as described by Cicero. At my old How to Be a Stoic blog I devoted a six-part commentary to Brian Johnson’s book on the role ethics of Epictetus, and you may want to check those posts for a fuller account (or, obviously, get a hold of Brian’s book!).

According to Brian, Epictetus thinks that we have to learn how to recognize the “call” for different roles, by following four specific criteria: (i) our particular capacities; (ii) our social relations; (iii) personal choice, or preference; and (iv) a “divine” sign. (Of course, “divine” here is to be understood in the broad Stoic conception of god as the universe itself.) Your situation falls squarely into the second category, that of social relations. The Stoics did think that we have a duty toward those with whom we have direct social intercourse, be they family, friends, colleagues, and so forth. As it concerns specifically the family, you may want to check another six-part commentary I wrote, this one on Liz Gloyn’s treatment of Seneca and the family in the context of Stoic philosophy.

The problem, of course, is that recognizing that we play different roles is fine, but developing strategies to balance those roles when they come into conflict with each other is quite a bit more challenging. Epictetus, in standard virtue ethical fashion, does not give specific advice to his students, as what they ought to do depends on the details of the circumstances. But he does issue a warning:

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

So far, I am reinforcing your sense that you do have a special duty to support your family, even though you may disagree with the specifics of what they are doing. However, there is more, and it has to do with that “careful how cheaply you sell your integrity” bit. Independently of our specific roles, we all share a more fundamental one, what Epictetus refers to as the “profession of a human being” (Discourses II.9.1). Johnson clarifies that Epictetus does not make the distinction between the universal and the particular roles explicit, but it is strongly implied in the following passage:

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. (3.23.3–5)

In the case at hand, your specific role is that of a family member, and the specific standard of that role is that you should be supportive, within limits. What are these limits, other than the practical ones imposed by your financial situation, the time you have available, and so for? They are imposed by the duties connected to your overarching role of a human being, a member of the human cosmopolis. Here is, again, Epictetus:

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. (II.10.3–4)

Again, “divine” here is best understood in the Stoic, not the Christian, sense. This notion that our duty as members of the cosmopolis trumps our specific duties within our roles, whenever the two come into conflict, gives you, I think, a pretty clear answer to your question. You explicitly say that “Their goals solely have to do with proselytizing. This inclines me very strongly towards not supporting them, and of course if a stranger were to approach me with such a request I would turn it down without question.”

If your family members’ chief concern were being practically helpful to other human beings, even in the name of their god, you may consider a compromise, at least to a point. But — given the way you are depicting the situation — my advice is to stand up, deploy the twin virtues of courage and justice, and politely decline your support.

Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

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