Stoic advice: my career doesn’t impact the world, should I change it?

Figs in Winter
Oct 26, 2020 · 6 min read
[Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels]

C. writes: Currently, I am an academic. But before that, I had been in the industry for quite some time. (I suppose most people go the other way.) I have been reading Peter Singer intensively this year, starting with the book “How Are We to Live” recommended by you, followed by “The Life You Can Save,” “Animal Liberation,” etc.. Although Singer is a Utilitarian, not a Stoic, I found many of his ideas resonate with me, and are compatible with the Stoic principle of using reason for the improvement of humanity. As a result, I became a vegan and started to donate a bit more to effective charities.

However, one thing that made me feel uneasy is my career choice. Academic research is much more interesting for me than working in the industry. But I do realize that the technical papers I wrote, despite the great effort I put in them, perhaps have only a limited audience, and won’t ever have “real-world” implications (except a few of my very applied papers). If I go to work for a company, I will have a lot more dispensable income. And by donating more, I will help much more people than if I keep writing papers. I think this is perhaps a philosophical problem for both Stoicism and Utilitarianism. I have read you and Stoicism long enough to guess that you may say “It is up to you to evaluate your situation and decide what is the virtuous thing to do.” But what would be the factors to take into account when we decide where to draw the line between self-interest and the common good?

If my advice were to reduce to something along the lines of “It is up to you to evaluate your situation and decide what is the virtuous thing to do” this column would have only one very short entry… While certainly true that (i) the ultimate decision rests on you and that (ii) that decision should take into account the specifics of the situation, I think the Stoics have quite a bit more to say in terms of practical advice.

First of all, I’d like to point out that I know exactly how you feel. In a recent essay I wrote about my academic career, and if you read between the lines you’ll see that there has been a gradual but unmistakable trend toward more worldly involvement. Even before switching from biology to philosophy I became interested in public writing and speaking about pseudoscience, and such an interest eventually developed into my main contribution (such as it is) to the field of philosophy of science. And now I write almost exclusively about Stoicism, mostly for a general public. The reason for this trend is exactly the one that is bothering you with your current career.

The Stoics are actually pretty clear about this. Consider Seneca:

“I should deem your games of logic to be of some avail in relieving men’s burdens, if you could first show me what part of these burdens they will relieve.” (Letter XLVIII.9)

Or Epictetus:

“We know how to analyses arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4–5)

This, I hasten to say, does not imply an anti-intellectual tendency in Stoicism. In a different context, Epictetus makes it very clear that to study logic, for instance, is essential:

“When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ he said, Would you have me demonstrate it? ‘Yes.’ Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument? And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much — whether it is necessary or not. (Discourses II, 25)

And of course Seneca wrote an entire book on what we today call natural science. Because for the Stoics a good life (ethics) results from sound reasoning (logic) and good knowledge of how the world works (physics).

The Stoics, however, drew a distinction between what medieval writers (including Thomas Aquinas and Dante) referred to as curiositas and studiositas: the first one is curiosity for its own sake, an indulgence that may be acceptable, but doesn’t do anything in particular to improve the human cosmopolis; the second one, by contrast, is curiosity applied to the specific goal — shared by the Stoics — of making the world a better place. The more I thought about it, the more I consciously tried to shift from curiositas to studiositas in my own professional life.

So one way to look at your situation is to see whether you can effect the same kind of shift, even in part (remember, Singer agrees that perfection is the enemy of the good!) without actually leaving academia. While you are contemplating this, consider also that there is more than one way to be an academic that contributes to the general good. Regardless of the specifics of your scholarship, you probably teach. Teaching is a direct way to improve humanity.

The problem is that a lot of colleagues consider teaching an obstacle to their scholarship, something to get done with minimal effort so they can get back to whatever minutiae interest them. What if, however, we actually took our teaching seriously, as the primary reason why universities exist, so we can serve the next generation and equip it with the critical thinking skills that will turn our students into effective citizens? Our scholarship, then, could be regarded as a fair indulgence we have given ourselves permission to pursue in exchange for the good we are doing by teaching (which, by the way, was the original idea of the early universities, like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford — the first three to be established, back in the 11th century). What I’m saying, I guess, is that you could think of your research and technical papers as dessert, not as the main course.

A second possibility is the one you suggest, along the lines of what is often advised by proponents of the Effective Altruism movement: get yourself a high paying job, regardless of whether you like it or not, and donate a lot of money to worthy causes.

Here, though, I think Utilitarianism and Stoicism part ways. The goal of a Stoic is to become arete, the best human being you can be, in an ethical sense. Human psychology being what it is, I honestly doubt that that’s compatible with taking a job you may hate, or even simply not care much about. Seems to me that that sort of choice may well undermine your quest, making you resentful or at the very least unmotivated. Deadening your soul, in a sense.

Moreover, there is a risk that your high paying job actually involves activities that are not ethically acceptable for a Stoic, even though they may be perfectly legal in our society. For example, making money by exploiting other people (because they are paid low wages, or not afforded health care, etc.) is not justifiable for a Stoic, as it violates the virtue of justice. Even more obviously, working for an industry that positively harms the human cosmopolis — and there is a wide range of them, from the oil sector to weapons productions — is not something that a virtuous person should consider.

So yes, leaving the academy for a more remunerative job is an option, but be careful that it doesn’t make you miserable or that it doesn’t entail a corruption of what Epictetus considers your fundamental role as a human being.

One more thing. You talk about “the line between self-interest and the common good,” but in Stoicism there is no such line. We are deeply interconnected with each other via the universal web of cause-effect, which is why Hierocles invites us to “contract” our circles of concern so that, ideally, we make no distinction between helping ourselves and helping others (Singer speaks of expanding such circles, but the concept is the same). This also means that whenever you help the cosmopolis you are actually helping yourself; and, conversely, whenever you help yourself (in the sense of becoming a better human being) you ipso facto help the cosmopolis.

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