08 June 2006

Virtues as Sources of Duties (Officia)

I want to begin raising a series of questions about the philosophy of Cicero's De Officiis--today, what Cicero means in saying that a virtue is a source of duties (officia). That he holds this is clear; also, that he takes it to be obviously true; and yet what he might mean by it is unclear.

First, that he holds it:

Quae quattuor quamquam inter se colligata atque implicata sunt, tamen ex singulis certa officiorum genera nascuntur...(I.15)
"Although these four [sc. wisdom, justice, greatness of spirit, moderation] are connected and interwoven, still it is in each one considered singly that certain definite kinds of moral duties have their origin..." (Loeb translation)

Ac de primo quidem officii fonte diximus. (I.19)
"With this we close the discussion of the first source of duty."

Intelligendum autem est, cum proposita sunt genera quattuor, e quibus honestas officiumque manaret, splendidissimum videri, quod animo magno elatoque humanasque res despiciente factum sit. (I.61)
"We must realize, however, that while we have set down four cardinal virtues from which as sources moral rectitude and moral duty emanate, that achievement is most glorious in the eyes of the world which is won with a spirit great, exalted, and superior to the vicissitudes of earthly life."
But what can this mean? Suppose we say: Cicero thinks that a virtue is a kind of knowledge (scientia), and he thinks that a virtue is a source of duties in the way that knowledge can serve as a source of things. But this seems wrong, because knowledge would presumably be a source, or origin, of actions of certain sorts ('the things that a knowledgeable person does') rather than duties. It would be strange to say, for instance, that a physician's knowledge is the source of 'duties of a physician'. (Perhaps through knowledge he recognizes those duties.)

An Aristotelian might agree that virtues are sources of duties insofar as a virtue is defined in terms of an ideal. For instance: define courage in terms of its extreme manifestation (in hand-to-hand combat, feeling reasonable degrees of fear and confidence, and holding one's position nonetheless), and then say that we have a 'duty' to do anything that helps us attain to this, or carry out some approximation or analogue of this. But: (i) it would be strange to say that, when we reason in this way, the virtue is the source of the duty; also (ii) Cicero, working within a Stoic framework, does not wish to define virtues in terms of ideals of this sort.

It might make sense to say that a virtue is a source of duties, if we take a virtue to be an inclination or impulse (a rational impulse, which Cicero refers to as a ratio): an action is an officium, then, if it somehow advances that impulse. (This is what it would be to 'follow nature' in that respect.) But then: paradoxically, everyone has the virtues (because everyone, in being a human, has these rational impulses). Also, it would still be unclear why, or how, a certain kind of action constitutes 'advancing' an impulse.

I don't think it helps to say that Cicero is merely following Panaetius in this (if he is), since Cicero himself seems to think of this as evident, not something he takes on the authority of someone else. Also, it's not clear that it is helpful to appeal to Stoic ethics generally, because, again, what one wants to know is the manner of Cicero's derivation of duties from the virtues: that virtues are sources of duties is the organizing principle of De Officiis.

But what does this mean?


Anonymous said...


One intuitive connection between virtue and duty is implicit in the maxim “Just as inability excuses, so ability obligates.” And special abilities, i.e., excellences, obligate even more. So we excuse the man who plainly lacks andreia from the most hazardous military undertakings, but we expect the brave man to be equal to such. The brave man, moreover, sees it as his duty to do these things which others cannot.

Several passages in De Officiis suggest to me that this connection is something Cicero is aware of if not emphatic about. For example, at I. vii, in discussing the second kind of injustice (omissions), he says that this dereliction occurs when, though someone is able, he neglects to shield from harm the innocent. Such a duty clearly does not pertain to someone without the courage & power & resouces to shield or rescue others. The fact that the virtuous man has these excellences creates the duty to aid or the derliction if he fails to act.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

It's interesting that you cite I.vii, from the discussion of justice. Cicero's remark there that iustitiae primum munus est, ut ne cui quis noceat nisi lacessitus inuria received much attention in the seminar, as it seems to be an impartial principle of action. Cicero doesn't say, "You, don't harm anyone", but rather "Each is not to harm anyone".

This is consistent with your point, of course, because it's certainly something that each of us has to power to do--not to harm someone!

But the concern about virtues as sources of duties seems to be an is/ought problem. It doesn't seem to follow from the fact that I can do something, that I ought to do it. It looks as though one needs to supply some fundamental precept, such as, "You have a duty to bring about whatever good you are capable of bringing about" (i.e. in some reasonable order).

But what would be the 'source' of this duty, for Cicero? Wisdom, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael:

Thank you for replying.

Certainly you are correct that when Cicero speaks directly to what a virtue is, he usually sounds like Socrates: virtue is knowledge or wisdom. But knowledge—do you agree—is at least by itself a very doubtful foundation for obligation. From “I know” we do not slide easily and gracefully to “I should”.

My suggestion was to try another thread in his treatment of virtue that emphasizes virtues as (special) abilities. The practical virtues in particular, we are told ( I.v ), are both physical and mental abilities. Here the idea is not to try to the force the inference from “I can” to “I ought”, but to recognize another key premise when the “can” is a special ability conferred by an arete. So, perhaps from “I can and others cannot” to “I ought”.

Think, for example, of the duty to rescue. Many Good/Bad Samaritan laws have sprung in the US in the last 30 years. A pretty much universal feature of these laws is that they wisely impose a duty to actually aid or rescue ( versus merely summoning aid ) only upon trained medical/ EMT/ rescue professionals. Those are people who have the requisite skills ( aretai ) to perform these dangerous tasks competently. Because they can and others cannot, the Laws seem to be reasoning, they ought.

My mastery of the Cicero's text is too UNimpressive to push this suggestion farther.

Eric Brown said...

Did I come in too late?

You say, "But this seems wrong, because knowledge would presumably be a source, or origin, of actions of certain sorts ('the things that a knowledgeable person does') rather than duties."

But this seems to me to invoke an anachonistic contrast. There might be a contrast in English between 'actions' and 'duties', but I don't see any contrast in Cicero's Latin between 'actions' and 'officia'. Officia (Greek kathêkonta) just are actions of a certain sort, namely, appropriate actions, and to say that virtue is the source of officia just is to say that virtue is the source of appropriate actions.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Eric,

You're not too late by any means!

I suppose we're hampered in determining what an officium is because Cicero, it seems, never gives the definition he promises at I.7.

But I find your suggestion very helpful. You must be right about that. The virtue is the source of the action; but that is not to say that the appropriateness of the action (which makes it an officium), is explained by the virtue, as I was supposing.

But this seems to lead to other difficulties: What is the reason for an action's being appropropriate? (What do we need to know, in order to know that?)--Since appeal to the virtues isn't carrying any of this weight. It had looked as though by Cicero's mentioning a virtue (say, iustitia), we were getting help in figuring out what counted as appropriate--but now it seems not.

Also, why should we group various sorts of officia together, and not others, as the outgrowth (outflow, effluence) of one and the same virtue?

Also, if your suggestion is correct, then one would think that wisdom should bear much of the explanatory weight: through justice (say) we act towards others in ways that wisdom tells us are appropriate, that is, in ways that 'the wise man' would act. And yet, I think, there is little of this sort of appeal in De Officiis. The virtues of justice, great spirit, and moderation are not, it seems, treated as shorthand ways of referring to how a 'wise man' would act.

I'm not saying that these difficulties imply your suggestion is wrong--not at all. I suppose I'm simply explaining why I was looking for 'a virtue as a source of officia' to mean something else--something more.