Powerlessness and Integrity

Sandra LaFave

Notes on "The World of Epictetus" by James Stockdale

Stockdale and fellow officers in the POW camp are being extorted, in a manner of speaking. What is extortion? You've seen movies about mobsters, right? Extortion happens when the mobster threatens the guy who's trying to open a small restaurant. The mobster says something like, "Gee you got a nice place here. It would really be too bad if you had a fire and lost everything. I notice your wife and kids work here. Maybe they'd get hurt, too, you know what I mean? But, hey, me and my friends can protect you. Just hand over $100 a week to my guy, and everything will be okay."

Organized crime really did do this sort of thing once, especially in big cities where lots of immigrants lived, who didn't speak the language and were afraid to go to the police. The crime is called extortion. If you're the one without power, with no recourse to a lawyer (because you can't afford one) or cops (because they're on the payroll of the mob), then the extortionists can threaten you and make you their puppet.

The mob scenario isn't the only kind of extortion. Broadly speaking, extortion is any abuse of power. Sometimes your boss is an extortionist, for example ("Do this degrading thing or I'll fire you" and you do it because you really need the job); sometimes teachers or parents or clergy. In Stockdale's case, the extortionists are the prison camp guards. They hold all the power.

The moral terrain gets especially treacherous for victims of extortion. Extortionists try to mess with your integrity. They succeed with some people but not with others. Why? Who is less likely to fall apart when the going gets rough, e.g., in the POW camp? Stockdale thinks education in the humanities can make you less liable to lose integrity when you are victimized.

The ideal victim for an extortionist is the person who has no center, no fixed principles. A downward spiraling cycle begins:

(1) Extortion, victimization (bad moral luck)


(2) Forced betrayal of one's ideals e.g., false confession, forced humiliating behavior, e.g., paying the mobster for "protection"


(3) “Taking it personally”. Feeling guilty (losing self-respect), AND at the same time, knowing you're not guilty (trying to maintain self-respect).


(4) Dis-integration of character from trying to do two conflicting psychic tasks


(5) Greater vulnerability to extortion

LEADS BACK TO (2) if the extortion is ongoing. The more the victim cooperates with the extortionist, the more conflicted and dis-integrated the victim becomes — more and more vulnerable to the extortion that is tearing him apart.

According to Stockdale, not everyone is equally prone to this cycle. The people most vulnerable to it are people who tend to assume responsibility even when they're not responsible (i.e., people who can be extremely valuable to society). In effect, Stockdale says integrity consists in knowing the limits of what you're responsible for; you must have a true idea of your real moral and historical situation, and this requires both education and personal honesty. Education in history and philosophy (especially, for Stockdale, Stoic ethics) tells you that “Life is unfair, and it's nothing personal.” This message helps prevent the move from (2) to (3) and thus breaks the cycle. Is Stockdale's answer complete?

We must, I think, add another element: moral luck. The American officer who collaborated with the enemy may exemplify moral tragedy. The officer was especially vulnerable to extortion; his self-respect depended on the approval of others (any others). He had the habit of dis-integrity; as his wife said, he was a “just a phony.” He wasn't anyone (any fixed person), because he wanted so much to be liked he would change at the drop of a hat. He sacrificed his “self” (his adherence to principle) for “approval” from persons whose approval he shouldn't have been seeking in the first place. He had a weak character — and maybe it wasn't his fault; we'd have to know a lot more about him.

In any case, weak character is a commonplace, run-of-the-mill moral failing. It doesn't necessarily result in harm to others; in fact, weak character might even make a person behave extra-virtuously, from desire for others' approval. Remember the collaborator had been a model officer; he took on extra responsibility because he wanted so much for others to like him. In other words, this officer's ordinary bad moral habit (failure of integrity) might have been entirely harmless in a less stressful, more fortunate life, if he hadn't been captured. (How many saints were just such chameleons, who happened to live in less chaotic times?) But the officer was unlucky too. He got captured and the POW camp was more than he could handle. He fell into a situation that required him, morally, to stand for something even if it cost him others' approval; and he couldn't do it, because he simply didn't have a moral center. (And maybe that wasn't his fault.)

Thus it's understandable that Stockdale doesn't seem to know whether or not to blame him. One thing is clear to Stockdale, however: even commonplace bad moral habits may catch up with you when the going gets tough.

Here are a couple of books that address the issue of moral luck:

  • Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (this is one of the best books I've read in the last decade)

  • Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

Do you buy Stockdale's argument? Do you think people with solid training in philosophy and history are really any less likely to fall apart if they are unlucky enough to fall into the world of Epictetus?

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