An Ethical Response to the Fragility of Human Life

Human life is a fragile thing. The goodness of human life is dependent on (or threatened by) external circumstances such as wealth, health, beauty, talent, and simple luck. Since antiquity, people have pondered how to factor in the seeming necessity of external contingents into an ethical account of the “good life.” The Stoics were notorious for their conclusion that external contingents like health, wealth, friends, and family were not relevant factors in the formula for a good life. For the Stoics, all that mattered was virtue. If you were a virtuous person–that is, a courageous, temperate, just, and prudent person–you could lose your home, your friends and family, all your possessions, and even your health and still, if you kept your virtue, you would still be happy.

Although most of us probably feel that the Stoic response is somehow not really human, we can be sympathetic to what this school of philosophy was trying to achieve. Bad things happen to good people. Even in antiquity, this was a truism. In light of this, the task of ethics is to keep good people from turning into bad ones when disaster hits. The Stoics concluded that detachment from the need for external goods was the only way to stay good in a world full of badness. “Love only virtue,” was the Stoics’ rallying cry. If you loved only virtue, you could lose a child and remain unfazed. If you loved only virtue, you could get a cancer diagnosis and not be troubled. In the face of any adversity, you stayed stoic, and most importantly, virtuous.

The alternative to the Stoic conception of happiness and morality in light of the fragility of external goods is Aristotle’s way. Aristotle said that we need more than just a virtuous character to be happy. As humans, we need food and shelter, we need a certain degree of wealth and life success, we need good health, and we need relationships. No amount of virtue will create a happy life if we are missing any of these things.

The Stoic tendency shows up a lot in history, Christianity included. Christian morality is often caricatured as teaching the saints live an austere life, indifference to grief, joy, pleasure, or pain. I want to argue, however, that the Christian conception of happiness is much closer to the Aristotelian notion than the Stoic, namely, that we need certain external goods to be happy.

Enter Job. Job is a righteous man, and blessed by God. He has a big family, robust health, a huge estate with lots of animals, and quite a bit of wealth. Not only is he a happy guy, he’s virtuous as well.

But then he gets tested. He loses his animals, his children die, his home is destroyed, and eventually, even his health goes. Poor Job is sitting on the ash heap covered with boils and sores, and he is miserable. Not only is he miserable, but he wants answers from this alleged “good” God that has allowed him to suffer so.

And God gives an answer:

Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)

I heard my husband preach on this text this weekend, and he brought Job into dialogue with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6 who is not, unlike Job, complaining about his suffering, but actually boasting and rejoicing in it. My husband pointed out that there is a major difference between Job and Paul when they confront the contingency of external goods, and the terror that comes with losing them. The difference is that Job has something to lose, but Paul, as well as the other apostles, have already given everything up. They have left their homes and their families, and given up any hope of being rich. With nothing to lose, suffering does not present the same sort of problem for the disciples of Christ as it does for Job.

The moral lesson of the story, according to this sermon, was to be preemptive when it comes to losing the external goods that cause so much suffering by giving up these goods voluntarily. If you don’t want to be afraid of losing your money, give most of it away. If you don’t want to suffer badly when you lose your job, don’t get to attached to it.

That sounds nice in theory, but Paul’s boasting in his suffering and the disciples’ total renunciation of worldly goods is not the way most Christians live. And it sounds a little too Stoic for my taste. Plus, it is fine to talk about the renunciation of external goods like property and wealth, but what about external goods like relationships and health? Surely Christians are meant to have at least some attachment to these external goods. So how are Christians to make sense of external goods that the world offers, and which sometimes are cruelly taken away?

Thomas Aquinas is Aristotelian in his approach to the question of external goods. This means that he is not going to recommend detachment from externals, like the Stoics or some Christian interpretations of the command to “hate the world.” Instead of detachment, Aquinas recommends “ordered love.” External goods can be loved, but they have to be loved in the right way. This means that goods like a nice home, a reliable car, a big family, and a sound bill of health are all goods that we can and even should desire. We just may not desire these goods as ends in themselves. Ordered love prefers always the greatest good, which is God, to all other lesser goods.

We pervert the proper order of love when we either love lesser things inordinately, like loving someone loving their car so much that they go bankrupt in taking care of it, or we pervert the proper order of love when we don’t love greater goods enough. The greatest good being God, all other goods should be subordinated to Him. This means that it is disordered to love your friends so much that you skip worship to spend time with them. It is disordered to love our health so much you spend all of your money on gym memberships and supplements and health food, to the neglect of other financial pursuits like charity and tithing.

But what is important to note about this idea of ordered love is that according to Aquinas, Christians can still love the goods of this world, and be attached to them, and mourn them when they are lost. It is good and proper to mourn for a lost loved one, and it is appropriate to worry about losing your home and possessions during tight economic times. Aquinas recognizes that we need these things to be happy, that is, to lead full and flourishing human lives. Aquinas’ way is not a way of detachment, but rather of proper attachment. Aquinas recognizes that becoming a Christian disciple does not necessarily prevent you from becoming Job yourself, sitting on top of an ash heap and mourning the fact that you’ve lost everything against your will.

Life on this earth is full of contingents. Sometimes things work well for us. Sometimes, we get to marry the person of our dreams, land a dream apartment in a cool city, get a job that is not only a career but a vocation, and surround ourselves with friends and family that love and care for us. At other times, we may have to deal with the mess of losing our job, or having a spouse lose their job. We may have to face a debilitating illness or watch a loved one succumb to a terminal disease. We may lose our home to the force of nature, become victims of violence, or find that the love we once thought was strong has grown dim or even disappeared. A good ethical response to the fragility of life on this earth is not detachment from external goods, but rather, fostering the sort of attachment that allows you to desire and love and mourn properly, without losing your desire and love for the greatest good—the God who is the source of all good things.


3 comments so far

  1. James Gray on

    We are happy when good things happen and unhappy when bad things happen. A Stoic will agree to this. Health and wealth are not truly “good,” according to a Stoic. The only good for them is doing the right thing. Only worry about if you do what you can or not. They can enjoy and prefer health, but they are not attached to it strongly. They would claim not to be “immoderately attached.” They will not suffer from a lack of health by avoiding that kind of mindset. Do we really want to suffer from that kind of health, or do you claim it is impossible to?

    If you can prove to a Stoic that they are wrong about what is truly valuable in the strong sense, then they might agree that we should attach ourselves to those things. However, they might not agree that it is impossible to avoid suffering. If we can stop believing that health is of true value, then we can stop suffering from it. I think they had good reason not to want to suffer from ill-health. Seneca had a lot of health problems, for example.

  2. everydaythomist on

    The Stoics are in a difficult situation philosophically because they want to claim that virtue alone is good, all else (health, wealth, glory) being indifferent. But at the same time, they recognize both that among these “indifferent” things, some are better than others, and should be preferred to others. For example, it is better to have health than it is bodily pleasure, and it is definitely better to have health than sickness. So they rank external things as being either (1) preferable (health), (2) not preferable (pain), and (3) completely indifferent (wealth). But logically, that is inconsistent. If virtue is all that is necessary for happiness, then in what sense would a person prefer health? How does health contribute to happiness, since only virtue leads to happiness?

    The Stoic would probably not agree with your first sentence. They would say, “we are happy when we are virtuous, and unhappy when we are vicious. We prefer for good things to happen, and do not prefer for bad things to happen.” This being the case, I agree with you that a Stoic would claim in practice to have moderate attachment with the good of health, but I see this as a logically inconsistent position philosophically. I think the Stoic logical difficulties are resolved with the Peripatetic position that health and health and glory are external goods that are necessary for happiness, but that virtue is the greatest and most important good.

  3. James Gray on

    I am glad that you know a bit about the Stoics so that we can have an interesting discussion. I disagree that the Stoic would not agree with my first sentence. It is part of the Socratic/Epictetus’s moral psychology for good things to produce happiness. (Actually even believing something good happens could be enough to cause pleasure, but true happiness would require that good things really happen.) The Stoics simply think that “good things only happen” is only relevant when we are talking about virtue itself. If you could prove a Stoic to be wrong about virtue being the only good, then they might agree that there are other ways to be happy.

    What exactly is logically inconsistent about the Stoic philosophy? Happiness and good health are good instrumentally for virtue, but they can also be used for evil. Therefore, they are not really good in the ultimate sense. One interpretation: Virtue is intrinsically good, but health is merely an instrumental value.

    An external good necessary for happiness would not have intrinsic value. It would just be an instrumental value. If happiness is intrinsically good, that would just mean that the Stoics are wrong about what has true value.

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