22 March 2005

"The Abolition of Reciprocal Wrongdoing"

I said in my inaugural post that occasionally I would post on topics in medieval, if they had some connection to classical, philosophy.

Here's something that arises out of my reading of Maimonides for a class in medieval philosophy.

Maimonides is explaining the purpose of law. All law, he says, is for the welfare of the soul or the body. Laws that promote the welfare of the soul do so by inculcating true opinions about divine things, proportionate to a person's capacity to understand. Laws that promote the welfare of the body do so in two ways: they either 'abolish reciprocal wrongdoing', or they aim to inculcate 'noble qualities', the virtues.

It's this notion of the 'abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing' which I find fascinating and profound. Why? Because it looks at harm socially, as typically eliciting a comparable response. According to Maimonides, the law aims to rule out not so much injuries but rather 'squabbling', 'warfare', 'strife'.

In this regard, the notion is set off from modern principles such as Mill's Harm Principle, which, I believe, looks at harm in relation to individuals only, either the one who harms, or the one who is harmed. (A harm is, after all, the violation of a 'distinct and assignable duty'.) (Yes, I am maintaining that a principle is not social, if it does not take into account reciprocity.)

The relation to classical philosophy of all this? --Because Maimonides' insight seems to me classical, and I would use it as a guide to interpreting, say, the perplexing reform that Socrates seems to have promoted in rejecting the popular notion of 'helping friends, harming enemies'. Harming enemies is precisely 'reciprocal wrongdoing'.

Okay, this is mere speculation (but why not?): It seems to me that, for instance, Vlastos' reading of that reform ( in "Socratic Piety") is, in contrast, individualistic--in a way that is not entirely faithful to a classical outlook. Vlastos has Socrates replace 'harming enemies' with (in effect) universal benevolence, grounded in an individual's grasp of some objective characteristic of Form.

There may be nothing to this, but then again there may--and, after all, this is a blog.