Why You Can’t Do the Right Thing if You are not Wise

The best advice you can ever give someone who is struggling with a tricky situation is to just do the right thing. As a general rule of thumb, doing the right thing produces the best outcomes. If you want things to work out best, your best bet is probably doing what is most appropriate in the situation.

This is tricky however, because it is not always easy to tell what the right thing is. Life is complex. It is hard to achieve a sense of cetainty about which course of action is best. I think Stoicism is helpful to us in this regard.

In “Lives of Eminent Philosophers”, Diogenes Laertius tells us that the Stoics used to say; “the wise man is the true dialectician”. This is an interesting description of what it means to be wise. This statement comes at the end of a passage of text in which Diogenes expounds the principles of Stoic logic.

Stoic logic in a nutshell

All principles of Stoic Logic are fundamentally guided by the aspiration towards effectively laying hold of truth. The central activity of the Stoic study of logic is the active contemplation of everything involved in most consistently assenting only to truth. This is essentially the aim of dialectics. Dialectics can be described as the various actives of thought and discourse that aim at acquiring insight into what is true and what is not true. If we accept this description, we will have to associate dialectics, as an activity, with the study of logic. To master the study of logic is to become a true dialectician.

We see then that there is a fascinating place for logic in becoming virtuous more generally. This is because virtue is, in the first instance, something that is overwhelmingly informed by wisdom and being wise. Logic then has a very prominent place in what it means to be virtuous. This is particularly the case because being virtuous is a unified state that is simultaneously virtuous, wise and a “true dialectician”, among numerous descriptions.  These are all varied descriptions of a single unified state.

Logic and ethics in Stoicism

Another essential part of this state of being virtuous for a Stoic is concerned with how you deport with regards to action. Becoming virtuous and becoming wise was also a matter of acting well and doing good. It is doing good in the deep sense of doing what is, all things considered, appropriate in the situation that you are in.  If we bear this in mind, it is easy to see the connection between acting well and logic. The very ability of being able to recognise what is appropriate in the situation that you are in is itself an insight into what is true in the situation, and is, in this sense, a dialectical and logical achievement.

Transactional correctness

The best way to make sense of what this means in our day to day lives is to consider Etsko Schuitema’s transactional correctness model. In a very basic sense, one can describe being virtuous as a matter of being here to give. This is a further articulation of the idea that being virtuous is a matter of acting well and doing good. Being here to give is doing what is appropriate in the moment that you are in.

Giving means being generous

This is an apt description of being here to give because giving, in a broad sense, presents itself to us in two categories. In a primary sense, giving is about having a generosity of spirit. When you give things that are associated with the self, because it is appropriate, you are being generous.

For example, a situation in which a relative needs a helping hand and it is appropriate to assist. Or a situation in which an employee needs to be supported, either materially or emotionally through a time of need. Or when a employee needs to be supported into some opportunity for future growth. Even beyond our interactions with other human beings.

An animal may be in need of some nurturing care that is appropriate to give. In this case generosity means a kindness of spirit that goes beyond just social interactions. Even subtle appreciativeness of a beautiful landscape; the giving of significance to a beautiful sight or experience; can manifest, in a more subtle sense, the spirit of generosity within us. All acts of generosity are kind in nature and carry a sense of gentle benevolence towards the other.

Giving means being courageous

But this is not the entirety of what giving tends to require from a human being. There are times in which the appropriate thing to do involves a form of confrontational self-sacrifice. In such instances, the appropriate thing to do requires courage from us, in addition to generosity. The essential difference between courage and generosity is that courage requires us to put ourselves on the line whereas generosity does not.

We see this difference practically with the granting and withholding of significance in a social context. To be generous is to grant significance, to show respect, to make important and to give undivided attention to. These are all descriptions of a generosity with regards to the granting of significance. Courage on the other hand would be concerned with situations in which I have to face the risk of losing significance, or in some sense being shunned in the eyes of another. Situations that require a confrontation that could result in some loss of face are examples of situations that require courage.  Courage in this sense is a matter of enduring or facing and overcoming the fear of some form of personal loss that may accompany an appropriate action.

Giving: do the right thing

Giving clearly then can require two very different things from us. This is why my father always tells me that “giving is not about being nice, it is about being appropriate”. In other words, giving is about doing the right thing. This informs the first assertion of transactional correctness:

“Being here to give is about giving the situation its due.”

Giving each situation its due means acting either with the generosity or with the courage that is required in the situation. This is matter of acting in the world, and is, as such, the outward manifestation of being virtuous. This is what we mean when we tell people to do the right thing.

To do the right thing requires seeing things as they are

But, as we saw with the Stoic description of the wise man as the “true dialectician”; you cannot separate the inward faculties associated with being virtuous from acting well in the world. Clearly, an important part of giving the situation its due is the ability to recognise which of either generosity or courage is required of us. My father describes this ability as a matter of “seeing things as they are”; which is a form of reliably laying hold of truth, or more practically, the truth of a situation. This is a form of excellence in perception as the faculty of making interpretative judgements that reliably track truth.

Seeing things as they are is the root of doing the appropriate thing, or giving the situation its due. It order to recognise what is appropriate to give in a situation, you need to able to understand the truth. This is, on the Stoic description, a logical and dialectical achievement. So the Stoics appropriately described the wise man, and hence virtuous man, as a true dialectician. Because seeing things as they are is the root of giving the situation its due. Mastering logic ensures that the wise man sees things as they are in order to give the situation its due.

If you want to read further on this topic, I recommend reading The Two Sandals.

Please feel free to engage with my thoughts in the comments below. If you want to engage further on this topic, please check out our LinkedIn Group

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