Stoic advice: should I volunteer during a pandemic, at risk of my health?

[The Roman Senator Helvidius Priscus, a role model for Epictetus]

K. writes: During this time of crisis I’m grateful everyday for my privilege. I contacted my local food bank to offer my time as a volunteer and they responded immediately regarding a 6-hr shift next week. It’s in the warehouse, picking food items for government issued care packages for people in vulnerable communities that may or may not be unwell but are certainly at risk.

When I told a friend he strongly suggested that I should stay at home and not put myself at risk. That I should donate money or pay someone to do the shift for me. The latter seemed morally redundant and the former seemed like an “easy way out” option. What are your thoughts? How do you balance personal responsibility with altruism during a pandemic? You could argue that my work -- educational programs for students in vulnerable communities -- would suffer if I fell sick, potentially limiting its impact. But as someone who is physically fit and useful, is it my moral duty to contribute as I am able? Especially when there are people still working, not to mention the healthcare workers who are going to be stretched to their limits over the following months.

This is a common, and crucial moral problem that we all face, in one form or another: what are the limits of our moral obligations? And what ethical criteria should we use to calibrate our behavior toward others?

For instance, your friend seems to be suggesting that your priority should be to "look after number one," discharging your responsibility toward others either by giving money to a certain cause, or by paying someone else to do on your behalf what would otherwise expose you to some risk. And you raise the issue of the balance between the good you'd be doing by volunteering for the food bank vs the potential detriment to your educational programs, should you get sick.

The answers to these questions will depend dramatically on your chosen moral framework. If you are a utilitarian, you should try to maximize most people's happiness, or at least minimize most people's pains. In that case, the answer to your question about the food bank vs the educational programs will depend on your best guess at the outcome of such utilitarian calculus. (Good luck with that, since it seems to me that a fatal weakness of utilitarianism is that there is no logical stopping point: how far down the causal web do you go before you make a decision, and how reliable is your estimate of changes in global happiness and misery as a function of your actions?)

If you are a deontologist, Kant-style, you certainly wouldn't want to use another person only as a means to and end, which means your friend's suggestion of paying someone else to do something risky on your behalf would definitely be out. 

What about the Stoic-virtue ethical framework? Here the answer, as usual, is "it depends." On the circumstances, on your own assessment of what would be virtuous to do or not to do, and on how much you are up to do given your own character and situation. A good starting point is Discourses I.2, a chapter entitled "How may a person preserve their proper character upon every occasion?" There Epictetus compares the responses of different people to the same situation. He begins by observing that virtue ethics does not provide universal answers, that each of us has to decide on their own where to draw the line:

"Now it so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable, are different for different persons. It is for this reason especially that we need education, so as to learn how, in conformity with nature, to adapt to specific instances our preconceived ideas of what is rational and what is irrational."

He then goes on to use the example of two slaves, each of whom had been asked by his master to old a chamber pot -- an obviously humiliating request. One slave acquiesces, because he wants food and does not want to be beaten. The other refuses, because he values his dignity above food and physical pain. Epictetus continues:

"If you ask me, then, 'Shall I hold the pot or not?' I will tell you that to get food is of greater value than not to get it, and to be flayed is of greater detriment than not to be; so that if you measure your interests by these standards, go and hold the pot. 'Yes, but it would be unworthy of me.' That is an additional consideration, which you, and not I, must introduce into the question. For you are the one that knows yourself, how much you are worth in your own eyes and at what price you sell yourself. For different people sell themselves at different prices."

One way to look at this anecdote, as far as your dilemma is concerned, is to say that no one would blame you for staying home and contributing money to the food bank. Just like Epictetus does not blame the slave who values food and the avoidance of pain. But is that going to satisfy you when it comes to your own assessment of your character?

In the same section of the Discourses we get a story about the Senator Helvidius Priscus, who opposed the emperor Vespasian out of his own understanding of what his ethical duty was. Priscus paid a price for his integrity: first exile, then death. Epictetus comments:

"What good, then, did Priscus do, who was but a single individual? And what good does the red do to the mantle? What else than that it stands out conspicuous in it as red, and is displayed as a goodly example to the rest?"

This also, I think, may be useful for you to think about. One thing that it is next to impossible to factor in a utilitarian calculus is the long-term effect of providing a moral example to others, of being the red that stands on the mantle, even at the cost of paying a personal price for it.

Near the end of Discourses I.2 Epictetus advises his students:

"Only consider at what price you sell your soul. If you must sell it, man, at least do not sell it cheap."

What he means is that we ought always to strive to do our best, not selling our soul cheap, so to speak. But where "our best" is varies from person to person, and only you know where you can stop and still be comfortable with yourself and the progress you are making.

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