12 June 2006

Method in Ethics

I raised the question in an earlier post of how Cicero thinks that virtues are sources of duties. As I indicated, he states this and presumes that it is almost obvious, throughout De Officiis. He is not a systematic philosopher himself, of course, and we won't find any further or explicit explanation of what he means.

And yet this raises, I think, an interesting question about method in ethics and moral philosophy. What I wish to suggest is that Cicero's text should serve as an authority for moral philosophy. To indicate what I mean by this, I will draw some contrasts.

I don't have the book with me, but if I remember correctly, in Sen and Williams, Utilitarianism and Beyond, Tim Scanlon begins his essay, "Contractualism and Utilitarianism", by saying something like: it's interesting how much moral philosophy resembles mathematics--one simply sits back, reflects on moral judgments, and thinks creatively to identify an adequate formal structure. --Well, it is unnecessary to identify this view with Scanlon's essay, since we are all familiar with it. Especially after the large-scale migration of analytic philosophers from the area of philosophical logical to the field of practical morality, it has been common to think of moral philosophy as the mere exercise of analytical skill.

Rawls (to take another example) of course draws a comparison with natural science and offers the method of reflective equilibrium: in moral philosophy we collect 'considered judgments' and use these like data points, formulating more general principles which account for them. (Yes, of course, these need to be placed in 'wide reflective equilibrium' with other views.)

But the method of 'moral authorities' (as I shall call it) rather proceeds as follows: we judge that Cicero himself (the man, not his particular, 'considered judgments') is a moral authority; we examine what he writes or says; and we pose the question, What would one need to believe--how would one have to see things--in order to reason naturally in the way that Cicero does? And then one's answer to this question provides the starting point for reflection in moral philosophy (which indeed could take various forms: systematization; looking for 'foundations'; clarification; articulation of principles; etc.).

The difference between the 'method of moral authorities', and the approach I ascribed to Scanlon, is that the method I propose can be carried out only by someone whose moral character and sensibility is sufficiently developed, first, to indentify moral authorities correctly, and then to understand what they are saying (insofar as they may be met in understanding--that is, to 'have a sense' what they are saying) . That is, there is a requirement of a certain moral maturity and (if I may use the term) wisdom, on the part of the person who employs it. Mere cleverness will not be sufficient, although it will be necessary. Similarly, simply thinking creatively will not be sufficient, but rather life experience, and a certain kind of moral achievement as shown in deeds, will be necessary as well.

The difference between the 'method of moral authorities', and Rawls' approach, is that the unit of observation (so to speak) is not the individual moral judgment, but rather the entire moral personality (as it were) of the person one takes as an authority. Furthermore, one's reflection on that authority's character or moral personality needs to be somehow congruent with, or natural to, that person's own reflections. (In reflective equilibrium, the principles one proposes, to make sense of separate considered judgments, may be quite different from those that were, or might have been, entertained by those who formulated those judgments.) One's goal in reading (say) Cicero, is to become Ciceronian, in outlook and sensibility.

It follows, too, that the 'method of moral authorities' does not yield results that can be, as it were, transferred without effort. It leads to few, if any, conclusions that can simply be passed on to others, to save labor and effort. Rather, each person needs to develop the right sort of understanding on his own, through effort and growth in moral understanding.

Also, there is a kind of transitivity in application of the 'method of moral authority': someone who applies it well, to the extent that he applies it well, himself becomes an authority, equal to that of the person whose moral character he is explaining. This is the way I conceive of what used to be the common practice in American colleges, of the college president delivering, for seniors, as a kind of capstone, the only course on moral philosophy that they would take. The president's lectures would take the form of reflection on authoritative texts; it would be understood that he had standing to do so, given his experience and proved practical wisdom, in his successful administration of the college; and his lectures would accordingly take on something of the weight of the tradition he was attempting to explain.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, not the least because it seems to capture something that actually happens in real life. I wonder, though, how the method of moral authorities could escape the charge of subjectivism, given that the only apparent way to adjudicate between the inevitable disagreements about who counts as an authority will be appeals to the moral 'maturity' of the people doing the judging. Is there some non-question-begging way to vindicate the judgment that any given person is a moral authority?

You would, as you may know, find that most Ciceronian scholars -- at least among American, and I suspect also British, classicists -- would not think of Cicero as a moral exemplar. I've always found it difficult to persuade people even to be sympathetic to Cicero, let alone admiring. I'd be interested to know whether you've read his letters, and whether you would still think of him as a moral authority if you have.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

Alasdair MacIntyre and others have attempted to give formal criteria for evaluating traditions; perhaps something similar could be done for moral authorities. I'm not sure ultimate disagreement could be avoided, but must that imply 'subjectivism'?

I've done some reading in his letters but confess that I am disposed to think favorably of Cicero because of the high regard in which he was held by thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Cicero is sometimes vain, vindictive, ambitious. He seems often 'selfish' and preoccupied with his own interests and reputation. How is this consistent with his being a 'moral authority'? I don't think that this is the same as being a saint. Also, it's almost inevitable that someone with a long political career will appear tarnished in some way--because of the inherent conflictedness of politics, and also because even the most justified decisions will carry with them unforeseen and problematic consequences. (Who has been spared this? Abraham Lincoln, perhaps, in the US? But what if he had lived through Reconstruction?)

What would make Cicero a 'moral authority', if he is such, would be he ability to say what should be the case. His character and experience would be necessary for that, even if he did not always live up to it well.

Anonymous said...

The one area of Cicero's life and thought that people might still point to as a reason to reject him as a moral authority would be his more or less consistent attitude towards the poor Roman plebs and his opposition to any and every attempt at redistributing land to aid them. In the process, he reverted to some very slimy rhetoric about the 'real' motivations of the poor (see, for instance, the second Catlinarian) and he consistently tried to defend a view of private property which, whatever its merits, could not legitimately be called upon to support his actual decisions, which were pretty clearly motivated by an oligarchic fear of losing power over the plebs. Of course, the majority of Classicists might be keen to fault him for this because their politics are leftist, and I'm sure that somebody out there would be willing to defend Cicero's opposition to state-organized poverty relief on the grounds that the state is evil, but such a position would be, well, overblown and hardly consistent with Cicero's own republican ideals. Would it be very reasonable to take someone who opposed any government assistance and criticized the poor for being greedy and luxurious during the our own country's Great Depression? Cicero did virtually that. It's hard, for that reason, to think of him as a moral authority.

That said, the ethics of De Officiis and De Finibus are at least as good as anything we have today, when one makes allowances for the fact that they were written more than 2000 years ago and so require a more constructive kind of reading if they are to stand next to the works being written by our contemporaries. I think there is as least as much to be said for these works once we look past their cultural and political biases as there is to say for the Nicomachean Ethics. In all likelihood, Cicero has only been neglected in the past century or so because people can't get over his character flaws; I don't think his philosophy is any more intrinsically flawed than Aristotle's, and people have been quite willing to accept that Aristotle could be wrong about, say, slavery and women, and still be quite right about a whole lot else. I think the same is true of Cicero. We're lucky that you've taken such an interest in him.