20 June 2006

Classical and Modern Conceptions of Autonomy

...the concepts of obligation and duty--moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say--and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of 'ought,' ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.
Thus Anscombe, in her famous "Modern Moral Philosophy".

We saw that Mill does indeed think of duty as specifically 'moral', at least insofar as he connects duty essentially with someone else's right to legislate, coerce, and punish.

Cicero, in contrast, lacks what Anscombe decries. As someone was urging at the Mayweek Seminar, he presents in De Officiis a continuum of 'things to be done' (or 'not to be done'), which encompasses everything from protecting others from injury, on the one hand, to wearing appropriate clothing, on the other. True enough, he holds that we should always act consistently with our belonging to the 'community of gods and men', which takes the form, usually, of simply not harming others. But this viewpoint (a 'persona' for Cicero) is only one of several that we need to get right in order to act well. The viewpoint has no special standing, except for its being the most universal and most general context of our action.

What goes along with this relatively relaxed notion of duty and ought (expressed with the gerundive, not any word implying legal right), is, strangely, a more rigorous notion of autonomy. Here there is a striking contrast between Cicero and modern conceptions. The relevant text in De Officiis is perhaps this:
Huic veri videndi cupiditati adiuncta est appetitio quaedam principatus, ut nemini parere animus bene informatus a natura velit nisi praecipienti aut docenti aut utilitatis causa iuste et legitime imperanti; ex quo magnitudo animi exsistit humanarumque rerum contemptio (I 13).
As someone judiciously observed at the Mayweek Seminar, what Cicero here calls appetitio principatus, is what might be called an impulse for autonomy and true freedom. As rational creatures we properly wish to obey no individual (nemini), and no one person as simply giving orders, but rather someone who appeals to some rational consideration, for the relevant common good (utilitatis causa).

(By the way, Adkins seems to get this wrong in at least two respects in her translation:
In addition to this desire for seeing the truth, there is a kind of impulse towards pre-eminence, so that a spirit that is well trained by nature will not be willing to obey for its own benefit someone whose advice, teaching and commands are not just and lawful. Greatness of spirit and a disdain for human things arise as a result.
Surely utilitas here is not simply the agent's benefit; and surely too Cicero wishes to draw a distinction between reasonable private authority, based on appropriate precept or instruction, and reasonable public authority, which must be grounded in justice and law, and directed at the common good.)

Modern notions of autonomy-- since duty is taken to imply the right of another to coerce-- depend upon a restriction of the scope of duty: duty is limited to our acting from a 'moral point of view', or in accordance with laws selected from some viewpoint of reason (the 'original position'), or something similar. An individual when not acting from this viewpoint, say, in making decisions as regards private life, is therefore regarded as unconstrained in doing whatever he or she sees fit--unconstrained because there is no question of a publicly accessible viewpoint of reason, from which these actions may be evaluated.

But the classical notion, in contrast, depends upon an expansion of the scope of duty, so that it covers every thought, choice, action, and circumstance. That an action be reasonable, and that it be an officium, are one and the same. If our goal as rational creatures is to be entirely reasonable, then every aspect of a person's life should be an expression of officium. Moreover, there is no dualism between public and private reasonability, because an action by its nature is open to reasonable evaluation by others. (This is implicit in the correlative notions of splendor and gloria; also, in the affirmation of a shared human nature.)

The contrast is one between a limited visibility to coercive reason, and an unrestricted visibility to evaluative but non-coercive reason.

But is the classical notion of autonomy ultimately unsatisfactory as a vision of human freedom?--But why should it be, if there is no necessary connection between duty and coercion, and if it carries with it a rich enough concept of the common good, that law may presume to coerce only when directed at that, and even then only as an unfortunate expedient?


Anonymous said...

The question is probably more likely to be whether the classical view has too rich a conception of the common good, so rich that it justifies too much compulsion. That, at least, is the objection that I can imagine coming from both conservatives of a libertarian stripe and Rawlsian liberals.

Your point about the relationship between something being reasonable and something being an officium is very interesting. My initial reaction was that it would not do, because there are surely many circumstances in which it will be reasonable to take any number of various courses of action, and surely we should not say that each of those is obligatory just because it is reasonable. I wonder, though, whether or not that problem is precisely why Cicero felt it necessary to expand Panaetius' treatment in order to answer questions about how we should respond to a plurality of honorable or advantageous things and not simply how we should handle the honorable and the advantageous relative to their opposites. Though the identification of reasonableness with officium would still seem to be problematic for Cicero if it turns out to be possible for there to be a plurality of equally reasonable courses of action for the same person in the same circumstance, he may deny that there are. Now I'll need to go back and look.

Michael Pakaluk said...

My word rich was poorly chosen. Perhaps definite would be better. My idea was that we can confidently make a distinction, and hold that some things to not pertain to the common good, only if we have some definite idea of the 'good in common' is.

I think Cicero uses officium to mean what we might call a prima facie duty.

We of course can use 'reasonable' in the same way. Think for instance of the viewpoint in casuistry known as 'probabilism': a course of action may responsibly be undertaken if there is some line of thought or authority (a 'reason') which would indicate it.