19 June 2006

They Also Commit Injustice Who Only Stand and Wait

For Cicero it seems that the our recognition of our standing towards one another, as rational creatures who are part of the 'community of gods and men', is expressed by our refraining from harming one another.

But (as noted in the Mayweek seminar) here Cicero is rigorous and insists that we commit an injustice not merely when we directly injure another, but also when we refrain from protecting another from injury, when it was in our power to do so:

Sed iniustitiae genera duo sunt, unum eorum, qui inferunt, alterum eorum, qui ab iis, quibus infertur, si possunt, non propulsam iniuriam. Nam qui iniuste impetum in quempiam facit aut ira aut aliqua perturbatione incitatus, is quasi manus afferre videtur socio; qui autem non defendit nec obsistit, si potest, iniuriae, tam est in vitio, quam si parentes aut amicos aut patriam deserat. (I 23)

Of injustice there are two types: men may inflict injury; or else, when it is being inflicted upon others, they may fail to deflect it, even though they could. Anyone who makes an unjust attack on another, whether driven by anger or by some other agitation, seems to be laying hands, so to speak, upon a fellow. But also, the man who does not defend someone, or obstruct the injustice when he can, is at fault just as if he had abandoned his parents or his friends or his country.
It's remarkable that Cicero likens a failure to defend anyone ('who is my neighbor?'), to a failure to defend those closest to us; and he apparently regards our duty to defend as not made proportionately weaker or stronger, depending upon the closeness of our relation to the person under attack. Thus here, clearly, the 'impersonal point of view' is making a showing.

Or is it?--since I wonder whether Cicero didn't intend the qualifications, si possunt and si potest, to allow some wiggle room. After all, interventions have various degrees of risk, and someone might claim that he wasn't able to intervene on behalf of a stranger, because it was too risky to do so. ("I couldn't very well fight off so many attackers" might be an allowable defense for inaction if a stranger is under attack, but not a family member.) If so, then the equal claim that all of us have to be guarded against attack by any other is a theoretical ideal rather than an immediate, practical principle of action.


Anonymous said...

Might Cicero's capability qualification be pointing towards a number of elements in an agent's circumstances that make him able or not able to aid a victim of injustice, so that a person has an officium to aid that victim if he finds himself in a situation with the capacity to do so, but does not have an officium to go out and put himself in such situations? The thought would be that, while a person should come to the aid of a victim of injustice if he is walking down the street and comes upon someone committing an act of injustice, he does not need to go out and look for people committing acts of injustice. If something like that holds, then it might not be true to say that Cicero takes up an 'impersonal' point of view; the crucial point might be that a person incurs an obligation to aid victims of injustice because he has come into a relationship with those victims by virtue of the circumstances in which he finds himself. So while it might not be highly personal, it wouldn't exactly be 'impersonal' either.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I like this suggestion, as it would imply a relationship between the extent of someone's authority, and the attention he needed to give to preventing harm generally. A private person would have a duty to do so only insofar as he happened upon some injustice; a legislator would have a duty to pass laws against injustice and provide for public safety.