Epictetus and the Importance of Reason before Ethics
Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived in the early second century AD, provided a simple yet powerful argument for ethical behavior in his Discourses. Epictetus stressed that human beings are oriented toward embracing theory over practice. Theory is all too easy and Epictetus warned his students that they were all too eager to skip over the practical learning required to implement sound ethical behavior. This is based on making real decisions and taking real actions, all of which can be difficult. Epictetus was concerned that many of his students were more conveniently drawn to the clever wordplay and tedious arguments of logic found in philosophy, many of which provide the very means to justify avoidance of ethical actions as opposed to embracing them. Of course, we all remember former President Bill Clinton’s classic statement: “it all depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
Epictetus noted that our capacity for developing the skills to act ethically is predicated on our innate capacity to reason. We may invent conventions like laws, grammar, and even language to explain what is “right” and “wrong;” yet, these conventions do not in themselves embody “right” and “wrong.” A law is only a series of words. Grammar is only a set of rules about syntax, structure, and the sequencing of words, which are themselves only a medium for expressing what our mind and senses perceive. However, our capacity to reason provides the basis to recognize many ethical truths. It is based on the instinctive ability to determine what is harmful to ourselves and others, what is painful to endure, and what is inequitable with respect to consequences of our actions upon others. The human capacity for reason, according to Epictetus, coincides with the laws of nature which govern man and animal.
Accountants all over the world are bound by ethical codes which are, as you would expect, theoretical in nature. These codes are generally based on frameworks that are a set of rules and/or principles. They outline the conditions and circumstances that lead to “right” and “wrong;” prescribe or proscribe actions under different contexts, and define the parameters where ambiguity may exist and individual discretion may be necessary. An ethical code is a convention, but like any convention, we must apply our own faculties of human reason to achieve the ideals that they are intended to represent. In line with what Epictetus stressed, one cannot simply learn a code of ethics by memorizing it or even acquiring the skill to eloquently argue its logic. Instead, we must exemplify it daily through our actions and the decisions we make. This requires practice and a competency that can only be learned outside of the theoretical realm. In his Discourses, Epictetus argues for the capacity to reason as something we must acquire through practical exposure:
… is it necessary that a man should acquire the faculty of examining and distinguishing the true and the false, and that which is not plain? "It is necessary." Besides this, what is proposed in reasoning? "That you should accept what follows from that which you have properly granted." Well, is it then enough in this case also to know this? It is not enough; but a man must learn how one thing is a consequence of other things, and when one thing follows from one thing, and when it follows from several collectively.
So what would Epictetus advise to accountants with respect to following ethical codes? I believe he would say that the code is only a code; conventions are not failsafe and words do not in themselves have the power to guarantee that our decisions and actions are right. He would stress that our capacity to reason must always be activated and vigilant—before, during, and after any ethical consideration.