Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable

The parable:

Imagine that 100 randomly selected humans are locked in a large room without food or water. During a panicky struggle to break down the door, 50 of the humans are trampled to death. The other 50 humans then agree to cooperate in an effort to escape. Because that cooperative effort doesn’t quickly succeed, however, it breaks down in acrimony; cliques develop and fights break out. Before long, there are only a few dozen humans left, and they have split into three camps.

One camp (the scientists) believes that it can find a way to escape the room, given adequate observation and analysis. The second camp (the stoics) believes that there’s no way out and prepares for death by calmly meditating. The third camp (the pragmatists) is agnostic about escape, but isn’t ready to die, so its members begin to kill and eat the stoics.

As they are being killed by the pragmatists, the stoics console themselves by saying that death is inevitable.

What happens next? After eating the stoics, do the pragmatists turn on the scientists and eat them as well? Or do the pragmatists keep (some of) the scientists alive, in case the scientists can find a way out of the room?

If the pragmatists eat all the scientists, the pragmatists will then begin to eat each other. The last pragmatist to die (of starvation) will say that he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.

If the pragmatists spare the scientists (or some of them), and the scientists don’t find a way out of the room, the pragmatists will begin to finish off the scientists, then each other. The last pragmatist to die (of starvation) will say that he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. The last scientist to die of cannibalism will say that death was only one possible outcome — an outcome that seems inevitable only in retrospect.

If the pragmatists spare the scientists (or some of them), and the scientists find a way out of the room, the pragmatists will claim that their decision not to kill all the scientists made escape possible. The surviving scientists will say that escape was only one possible outcome — an outcome that seems inevitable only in retrospect.

And the surviving scientists will say this about the stoics: If they had survived they would have claimed that survival was inevitable.

Happiness requires a judicious blend of stoicism, action, and reason:

  • Stoicism makes it possible to accept that over which we have no control. But unblinking stoicism can lead to premature acceptance of a bad outcome.
  • Action is essential to progress, but it must be harnessed to reason. Action for action’s sake is indulgence.
  • Reason is essential to progress, but it must be harnessed to action. Pure reason wields no more power than pure stoicism.