Stoic Serenity 5.9: Thought Experiment 1

Cicero, Cicero, CICERO! (sing to the tune of “The Barber of Seville,” anyone?)

After learning about the Stoic principles for living in society, today we get to test ourselves in a thought experiment!

The Roman philosopher, politician, and wearer of many more hats, Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106-43 BC; placing him somewhere on the timeline between founder Zeno of Citium and good ol’ Seneca; read about Cicero here), wrote a book called On DutiesIn it, Cicero pointed out that sometimes cases arise in which humans weigh convenience against honor. Thus here is his thought experiment:

(Imagine that there has been a crop failure, and a terrible famine has taken hold of the island of Rhodes as a result. The only bit of food remaining can be purchased only for enormously inflated prices. A merchant from Alexandria is currently on board his ship with a large shipment of corn to bring to the famine-stricken island.)

The merchant is aware that several other traders are also on their way from Alexandria—he saw their ships on the way to Rhodes, each hauling substantial cargoes of grain. When this first merchant arrives at Rhodes, should he tell the Rhodians that other merchants are on the way? Or should he keep his mouth quiet and sell his own stock for the best inflated price he can get? I’m assuming he’s an enlightened, honest person, so the question is not whether you think he should be dishonest or honest. What I want you to do is imagine that he is an honest person, and therefore consider what his deliberations and self-searching would look like if he really believed that dishonesty wasn’t even involved in keeping the Rhodians in ignorance.

Is your ultimate goal to earn as much profit as possible? …

In cases like this, the eminent and respected Diogenes of Babylon habitually takes one side, and his clever student Antipater of Tarsus takes the other. Antipater says that all facts must be revealed, and that the purchaser must be as fully informed as the seller. But Diogenes, on the other hand, maintains that the seller must declare the defects of his wares only as far as the law of the land requires, and as long as he tells no untruths, he is entitled as a seller of goods to sell his goods as profitably as he can.

“I’ve brought my cargo, I’ve offered it for sale, I offer it as cheap as other traders—perhaps even cheaper when I’m over-stocked. Who am I cheating?”

Or is it to help mankind?

But Antipater argues the other side. “You ought to work for your fellow-men and serve the interests of mankind. These are the conditions under which you were born, these are the principles which you are duty bound to follow and obey—you must identify your interests with the interests of the community, and theirs with yours. So how can you conceal from your fellow-men that abundant supplies are scheduled to reach them shortly?”

“Concealing is one thing,” Diogenes might reply, “but not revealing is another. For example, I’m not concealing information if I don’t reveal to you at this very moment the nature of the Highest Good. I’m not obliged to tell you everything that would be useful for you to know.”

“Oh yes, you are.” Antipater will reply, “if you remember that nature has joined mankind together in one community.”

(Cicero, On Duties 3.50-3)

Cicero finishes by reminding that neither Diogenes or Antipater is arguing for the merchant to be “dishonest,” that is, to do something anyway despite it being wrong. Diogenes maintains that selling at a high price is advantageous, utilizing the convenient situation for benefit, but that it’s not wrong. Antipater argues that despite the opportunity being an advantageous one, selling at a high price would be wrong because its end is the benefit of the merchant alone, instead of the benefit of humankind.

Imagine that you’re the merchant on your way to bring food to the starving people of Rhodes. What would you do in this situation? Would you tell the people that more food is on the way and, as a result, benefit humankind but end up selling your own stock for less profit? Or would you choose not to reveal the information and therefore sell your stock for higher price?

My Take

I’ve gotta say, I’m firmly with Antipater on this one. Part of it is due to my own instinctive response, or perhaps I was simply raised to be this way. But I cannot sell anything, perform a duty, etc. without full disclosure of possible shortcomings. True, this makes me a terrible salesperson (and terrible at interviews!) if my ultimate goal is to earn as much profit as possible. But that’s not my ultimate goal. And if I were, for example, to sell a product that I knew had some defects, I would not be able to sleep at night if I didn’t fully disclose to the buyer what the defects were and sell it for a lower, but fair price. For me, I see this as simply being honest. So it’s hard for me to even digest the idea of Diogenes’ not revealing vs. concealing as one being morally acceptable and one morally unacceptable. It’s a very thin line, and I think a lot of people try to work the system with this one, or rather act out of selfishness yet proclaim the salvation of the loophole: “But I didn’t lie!” No, you didn’t outright lie, but your intent behind it was the same, nonetheless.

Principle > Rule

Besides the concept of honesty vs. dishonesty, because Cicero asked us to imagine that dishonesty is not involved at all here (although the fact that he had to ask that of the reader provides further fuel that dishonesty is involved here, in my opinion)—but besides honesty vs. dishonesty, I really think Antipater takes the cake here:

Diogenes: “I’m not obliged to tell you everything that would be useful for you to know.”

Antipater:  “Oh yes, you are, if you remember that nature has joined mankind together in one community.”

Boom, roasted. What’s your intention? If we’re accepting the Stoic principles, if we’ve studied them and examined them from this angle and that, if we’ve still decided that yes, the principles have validity, then we arrive at the conclusion that it’s our human duty to contribute toward the common good.

If you don’t reveal the fact that more ships are coming, and then when the other ships do arrive, the people of Rhodes might perceive you to be a complete load of scum; someone who intentionally withheld information in order to gain big profit from their misfortune. Regardless of reputation (yes, reputation is an external), but is their perception accurate? Didn’t you do what you did in order to gain profit from their misfortune? And to what extent are you willing to not reveal” this information? When does common good surpass your goal to earn maximum profit? Is it still acceptable to withhold information as long as ribs aren’t showing? As long as people aren’t dying? As long as people aren’t eating each other? What’s the limit? Is there a limit?

But if you fully disclose the information at hand, then you have benefited your fellow humans, and who can be angry with you? Your profit-driven boss? And what has Marcus told us about dealing with difficult people whose values are different from ours? We shouldn’t be disturbed by them in the least, because they are after their own values which conflict with our own sound values. To worry on their side is to adopt their values. Don’t do it. Stick to your guns. You’re a good, honest, and noble person.

We need to decide:

Are we ultimately after material success, built on loopholes? Or are we working toward the benefit of humankind, built on a solid foundation which cannot be shaken?

3 responses to “Stoic Serenity 5.9: Thought Experiment 1

  1. JB May 19, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Excellent thought experiment and a well thought-out response. I’ve noticed a lack of explicit discussion of duties amongst the Stoics I’ve been reading–it sounds like Cicero fits the bill well! Any particular translation you recommend?

  2. madamewriter June 25, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Excellent experiment! Thank you for considering ancient thought – I’m constantly amazed that humanity saw such advancement at an early period. It’s a wonder, though, why more contemplative thought isn’t recognized today. This experiment is a perfect example of how philosophy is applicable in modern life. Personally, I agree with you – I would feel awful for slighting the starving peoples of Rhodes; however, I see where the conflict resides. The ultimate goal for the individual is necessary in which one determines what they want to do: is feeding the hungry the goal or personal gain? Capitalism suggests material success is the highest goal, and a merchant could justify his containment of information on the grounds that he himself may starve if he doesn’t sell his wares at a higher price. Socialism places the concerns of the society above those of the individual; holding that for progress the entire community must move together. Had the merchant in the experiment been one of social concerns, he automatically would have relayed the information and reduced his costs so as to continue society. But…a merchant is a man of business, and 9 chances out of 10 see a business man holding the success of the business over social concerns. In this sense, a merchant who happens upon a starving community of people will see flashing dollar signs and not the chance to better a suffering people.

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