Many films put particular emphasis on emotion and its impact in our daily lives, but Changing Lanes (2002) is a film that very accurately portrays the struggle between emotion and rational thought from a Stoic perspective. In this film, we see characters take action based on passions and distress, which in turn leads to more distress. By the end of the film, the two central characters make rational decisions (free from emotion) and they are finally content. The plot broadly outlines the Stoic school of thought concerning emotion and rational thought, or “rational selection,” by showing the consequences of the characters’ actions and the impact of those consequences on their overall happiness. The Stoics assert that a person can only live a truly happy life by being in tune with Nature through rational thought and action. Since this school of thought considers emotion to be the antithesis to rational thought, and in turn the antithesis to happiness in life, Stoics believe that a truly virtuous person does not allow outside forces to give rise to their emotions. The Stoic assertion that emotions, or “passions”, are detrimental to living a happy life serves as the strongest argument in favor of rational selection, because rationality allows for a life that is happier and more stable, as can be seen in Changing Lanes.
In the film Changing Lanes, Samuel L. Jackson plays a man named Doyle Gipson, a middle-aged recovering alcoholic who is trying to regain custody of his children. Ben Affleck plays a young, successful attorney named Gavin Banek. Banek is in the middle of a court case in which he intends to prove that the foundation he started was illegally signed over to the law firm he currently works for by a dead man. The two men are on the way to their respective court cases when their cars crash into each other. Banek’s luxury car sustains minor damage, while Gipson’s more modest car won’t start after the accident. Gipson insists that they “do the right thing” and file a police report and exchange insurance information, while Banek attempts to give Gipson a blank check to bring the matter to a quick close, so that he can make it to court on time. Gipson refuses the check, at which time Banek leaves Gipson on the side of the road saying “better luck next time.” Later that day, Gipson arrives late to court to find that the case was conducted without him, and he is told that he did not regain custody of his children. Due to his absence, he was unable to tell the judge that he had bought a house for his estranged wife and children. While Banek arrives on time for his court case, he realizes that he left a crucial document at the scene of the accident. The judge tells him that he has until the end of the day to produce the document or the case will be dismissed. Gipson retrieved the document after Banek drove away, and he wrestles with whether or not he should give it back. However Banek, desperate to retrieve the document, seeks the help of a computer hacker to erase Gipson’s credit, thus disallowing him from buying the house for his family. Both men continue to commit increasingly vindictive and dangerous acts on one another, until they both conclude that it must stop. They eventually apologize to one another, and commit to living more virtuous lives. Gipson returns the file, even though it is too late to do Banek much good, and Banek offers to represent Gipson pro bono, and explain everything that has happened to Gipson’s estranged wife. While he cannot win the court case, Banek is able to use the returned document to force his boss to conduct business in a more ethical manner in the future.
In the Stoic school of thought, “passions” are undesirable because they lack reason, which is the basis of rational selection. The Stoics define happiness as the “rational selection of the primary things according to Nature.” Essentially, happiness comes from our ability to gravitate towards aspects of Nature that are inherently good or beneficial to our well-being, and are also rational for us to choose. Passions tend to lead us toward objectives that are often detrimental to our happiness, and are most often irrational. For example, in Changing Lanes, Banek decides to abandon Gipson on the side of the road, and later Gipson decides not to give Banek the vital document that he needs for his court case. He does this out of contempt for Banek’s behavior, thus allowing passions to rule his decisions. This in turn causes a firestorm of passive-aggressive conflict between the two men. Rather than discussing the issue rationally, both men allow their passions to overwhelm them, exacerbating the situation exponentially. This scenario is a perfect reflection of the legitimacy of the Stoic position on emotion. In real life situations, people often allow outside forces to enflame emotional responses, and they allow those passions to rule their thoughts and actions rather than a “rational selection of things.”
The Stoics emphasize that happiness comes from a rational selection of “things in Nature.” But what constitutes Nature? The Stoics classify nature as our physical world, which is “identical with the fully rational creature which is God, each part of it naturally constituted so that it seeks what is appropriate or suitable for it…[therefore] the Stoic doctrine of the natural attachment to what is appropriate provides a foundation in nature for an objective ordering of preferences.” This reasoning helps further validate rational selection over emotion. As human beings, we are part of Nature. We can objectively see that Nature is a complex system of individuals gravitating toward things that are beneficial to their survival and happiness. For example, a lizard living in the desert crawls under a rock to escape the heat of the sun. The shade of the rock serves as a beneficial thing that the lizard is gravitating toward. The leaves of plants grow toward their light source (most often the sun) because they gravitate toward that which provides nutrients and is beneficial to their survival. By our objective understanding of Nature, emotion has no natural place in decision-making.
Two issues that could arguably hinder the legitimacy of the Stoic position are that of virtues and the impact of other people, or outside forces, on happiness. The Stoics classify virtues as “prudence or wisdom, justice, courage and moderation, and other related qualities” and that these virtues are “both necessary and sufficient for happiness.” Not only are these qualities rather broadly outlined, it could be argued that they are capable of preventing happiness. In Changing Lanes, Gipson momentarily decides to give back the document, only to find out that Banek has wiped out his credit, which makes him change his mind. He decided to act prudently only to have the selfishness of another person prevent his own happiness. His choice to act virtuously backfired. The Stoic position arguably provides little explanation for the impact of other people’s decisions on one’s own happiness. However this argument can be refuted by looking at the Stoic position on the necessity of other people, regardless of their ability to be rational. They argue that it is “not only other rational creatures that are appropriate to us, but also the perfection of our own rational natures.” Using the same example from Changing Lanes, it is not Banek’s actions that prevent Gipson from being happy, but Gipson’s reaction to Banek’s actions that prevented his own happiness. Rather than practicing rational selection and reasoning with Banek, Gipson allows anger to overpower him, allowing the chaos to continue. Had Gipson been able to reject the negative emotions and act rationally, he could have helped both Banek and himself.
Without the application of rational selection, human beings are consumed by emotion and cannot function with any sense of reason in their lives. Not only would this scenario be chaotic, it would also not allow a person to live a truly virtuous, happy life. Changing Lanes justifies the idea that emotion is a negative factor in achieving happiness because the characters are never truly happy until they choose to practice rational selection and virtuous qualities like wisdom (recognizing their mistakes) and justice (attempting to repay one another for past grievances). The Stoic position on emotion is valid because it promotes rational behavior and has real-life applications that reinforce the importance of Nature and virtues.
Baltzly, Dirk, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/stoicism/>.