16 June 2006

The Impersonal and Personal Points of View

I've mentioned:

  • virtues as sources of officia and
  • splendor as a mark of virtue.
Another interesting theme, I thought, in the Mayweek seminar discussions on De Officiis, was that of the relationship between what might be called the 'impersonal' and 'personal' points of view in Cicero's ethics.

Cicero acknowledges the importance of the impersonal point of view, in his echoing the Stoic theme that duty involves our acting toward one another precisely in view of what sets us apart from non-rational animals: in our belonging to a universal community of rational beings, of 'gods and men', under Zeus.

Thus Cicero says, strikingly, that 'the first office of justice' is not some principle such as 'do no harm' (e.g. the famous primum non nocere) but rather 'no one is to harm anyone unless provoked' (i.e. presumably, in self-defense):
Sed iustitiae primum munus est, ut ne cui quis noceat nisi lacessitus inuria (I 20).
In discussion during Mayweek I tried to minimize the significance of this in various ways. "Cicero says primum munus, which indicates, perhaps, that he has in mind the role of the lawgiver--it's the first 'office' or 'responsibility' of justice, that is, of law--and of course the first concern of a lawgiver should be to forbid harm generally, not simply to resolve for himself not to harm another. It would be absurd for a lawgiver to make a law, 'I should not harm anyone'."--But then it was urged that surely the burden of proof is on someone who holds that munus here has a sense different from officium, as Cicero often uses these interchangeably; and furthermore in the texts that follow immediately it seems that by iustitia he means the virtue, not the function of law.

"But, even so," I then argued, "is the scope of this prescription universal, or is it perhaps meant to hold only among members of the same polity?--since surely Cicero does not think that each state has the responsibility of seeing that no state harms any other." But then someone pointed out that later, in Book III, Cicero moves directly from affirming a more restricted principle of aid to fellow-citizens, to affirming an unrestricted duty which we have toward all human beings.

First, he gives what is perhaps meant as a political principle (that is, if we take utilitas universorum to mean only the political common good--which is unclear):
Ergo unum debet esse omnibus propositum, ut eadem sit utilitas unius cuiusque et universorum; quam si ad se quisque rapiet, dissolvetur omnis humana consortio.
Therefore all men should have this one object, that the benefit of each individual and the benefit of all together should be the same. If anyone arrogates it to himself, all human intercourse will be dissolved (III 26, Atkins translation).
But then, immediately following this, he asserts an unrestricted principle, appealing to what human beings are qua human:
Atque etiam, si hoc natura praescribit, ut homo homini, quicumque sit, ob eam ipsam causam, quod is homo sit, consultum velit, necesse est secundum eandem naturam omnium utilitatem esse communem.

Furthermore, if nature prescribes that one man should want to consider the interests of another, whoever he may be, for the very reason that he is a man, it is necessary, according to the same nature, that what is beneficial to all is something common (III 27).
So it must be granted, then, that Cicero affirms this kind of moral universalism.

But then what is the difficulty? The difficulty is that it is unclear how this universalism fits with his equal emphasis on the theme of oikeiwsis: that our affection toward others is the consequence of some process of familiarization, and that our bonds and responsibilities towards those closer to us, are consequently greater than those toward persons further away.

At first glance, these two ideas do not seem consistent: I have an equal responsibility toward all rational creatures; I have greater responsibilities toward friends and family than toward strangers.

This is of course an old chestnut. It is a problem that arises today especially with regard to modern variants of Kantianism. But how does Cicero deal with it? --More in a later post.