On Obligations (Cicero)

Cicero.  On Obligations (De officiis). trans. P. G. Walsh.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Cicero functions as the same structure behind much classical ethical reasoning. He trains the reader to think in terms of a gradation of goods, higher and subordinate goods, something modern conservatives seem incapable of doing.  The payoff in this line of reasoning is that it allows one to navigate the tricky waters of seeming ethical conflicts between two different goods.

Obligation precedes from what is honorable, and the honorable proceeds “from one or other of four virtues.”  These virtues are ordered under truth.

Cicero gives a very shrewd defense of private property.  He does not say that it is an absolute metaphysical right, and for a very good reason. We have a right to private property, and those who threaten it–like the US bureaucracy–commit a great evil. However, because it is established not by nature but by long standing custom, this means if we have property that was stolen from someone 10 generations ago, we don’t have to give it back.  This protects the godly today from the evil wokist who tries to undo society. Later on he points out the evil of a property tax (2.74).

In 1.57 he talks of our duty to the state.  What he means is our native land and commonwealth, not a bureaucracy.  This, of course, would get him brought up on charges by Big Eva today.

Later on he moves to the category of the “fitting.” The fitting implies the honorable, and the honorable the fitting.  What exactly is “the fitting?”  That’s hard to define.  The closest he comes to it is “keeping our life in balance” (1.111).

Cicero echoes Plato’s Phaedrus in that reason drives the chariot of the emotions.

Book 2 explains the life of virtue.  Virtue detects the true, restrains the passions, and subjects impulses to reason (2.18).  Virtues imply one another, so that a man who possesses one possesses all (2.35).  This seems counterintuitive, as we know many people who don’t.  There might be something to it, though. I think the point is that it is impossible to have just one virtue in isolation.

Book 3

Here is the problem: given that the Good exists, what do we do when what is good conflicts with what is advantageous?  Cicero’s answer is that any disagreement is only apparent, since nature and goodness cannot be at variance.

As a Stoic, his argument is that there “can be no advantage in what is not right” (III.II.8).  He then runs this template through several test cases. He defends property rights because violating these would cause the collapse of the human community, “the brotherhood of man.” This is the natural law, or nature’s rational principle.

Case study 1: Can a starving man take food from someone who was completely useless?  Robbery is unnatural, but if the case were such that your robbery rendered a benefit to the community of men, then it isn’t wrong provided it is done for that reason.  Nature’s law coincides with the common interest, and the common interest ordains that the means of subsistence be transferred to the starving.

Case study 2: Can you steal from a tyrant?   Cicero’s answer is chillingly simple: there is nothing wrong in stealing from a man whom it is morally just to kill.

Another reason that the morally right cannot conflict with the advantageous is that doing wrong damages one’s soul.  Wrongdoing leads to personal degradation.

There are other case studies dealing with insider trading, etc. Cicero’s conclusion is balanced: “Holding [knowledge] back doesn’t always amount to concealment; but it does when you want people, for your own profit, to be kept in the dark about something which you know and would be useful for them to know” (180).

Why?  Nature is the source of law, and it is contrary to nature for one man to prey upon another’s ignorance.


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