24. Conflicts Between Good and Expedient
25. Selfishness vs. Common Interest
26. Justice vs. Common Utility
27. Moral Rectitude as a Higher Utility
28. Morally Right Pursuit of Utility
29. Expediency vs. Duties of Friendship
30. Moral Duty vs. Expediency of the State
31. Concealment and Fraud
32. Public Expediency vs. Personal Justice
33. Oaths and Pacts; Fortitude vs. Expediency
34. Temperance vs. Expediency
The conflict between the good and the expedient was more readily addressed by the philosophers of antiquity than conflicts between expedients. This problem held special importance to the late Stoics, who sought to reconcile the supremacy of ethical virtue with their admission that the pursuit of the expedient is also good.
Following the late Stoics, Cicero held that there could be no real conflict between the good and the expedient, since it is truly most expedient (i.e., of greatest benefit to a person) to pursue what is right in itself (honestum). Thus he formulates the problem as choosing between that which appears to be morally right (honestum) and that which appears to be expedient (utilitas).
Panaetius never discussed this subject, though he promised to do so at the end of his three books on moral rectitude and utility, and according to Posidonius he lived for another thirty years. Posidonius himself only briefly touched on this subject, though he acknowledged that this is the most important topic in philosophy. In one of his letters, he says, "no one, because of the surpassing excellence of what Panaetius did complete, would venture to supply what he had left undone." (III, 7-10)
Why the omission? Some say it is because there can never be a conflict between expediency and moral rectitude. For both the Stoics, who says honestum is the only good, and the Peripatetics, who make it the highest good, to the point of all else being negligible, "it is beyond question that expediency can never conflict with moral rectitude." Cicero adds: "With this doctrine the Stoics are in agreement in so far as they maintain that if anything is morally right, it is expedient, and if anything is not morally right, it is not expedient." (III, 11) In other words, utility is defined in a way that is subordinate to moral rectitude.
But if Panaetius were the sort of man to say that virtue is worth cultivating only because it is productive of advantage, as do certain philosophers who measure the desirableness of things by the standard of pleasure or of absence of pain, he might argue that expediency sometimes clashes with moral rectitude. But since he is a man who judges that the morally right is the only good, and that those things which come in conflict with it have only the appearance of expediency and cannot make life any better by their presence nor any worse by their absence, it follows that he ought not to have raised a question involving the weighing of what seems expedient against what is morally right. (III, 12)
Here Cicero alludes to the doctrine of the Epicureans, for whom there could be a real conflict between expediency and righteousness. Yet for Panaetius honestum is the only good, and anything conflicting with it has only the appearance of expediency, and is a matter of indifference. Earlier, Cicero said Panaetius would deal with conflict between that which appears to be good and that which appears to be useful, so this omission is still not explained.
Cicero understands the Stoic doctrine of living according to Nature to mean "that we are always to be in accord with virtue, and from all other things that may be in harmony with Nature to choose only such as are not incompatible with virtue." (III, 13) This would account for why Panaetius first tells us what is virtue, and then helps us to choose those useful things that are compatible with virtue.
We recall the Stoic distinction between absolute duty (katorthoma, which you must do no matter what, and ordinary or mean duty (kathekon), that which you do for some other reason. Only the wise possess absolute duty (katorthoma), which is truly honestum, while most people have a sense only of common duty (kathekon).
In this vein, Cicero says that the common crowd regards ordinary duty as perfect, so those commonly praised as virtuous - the Scipios, Marcus Cato and the Seven Kings of Rome - were really exemplars only of ordinary duty, not perfect duty. The Scipios were not truly brave; Cato and the Seven were not truly wise. (III, 16) It seems here that Cicero is setting an impossibly high standard, as none but a few philosophers are admitted to truly possess virtue. His criticism of Rome's heroes appears to be that they cultivated wisdom and courage for the sake of their reputations or some other reason, rather than regarding these as absolute duties.
...it is unlawful either to weigh what is truly honestum against a conflicting expedient (utilis), or that which is commonly called honestum, which is cultivated by those who wish to be considered good men, against what is profitable (emolumentis); but we everyday people must observe and live up to that moral right which comes within the range of our comprehension as jealously as the truly wise men have to observe and live up to that which is morally right in the technical and true sense of the word. (III, 17)
Here Cicero articulates two levels on which there might be a conflict. First, one must always prefer absolute duty (katorthoma) over any conflicting expedient. Second, one must always prefer common duty (kathekon) over any conflicting temporal advantage. By making this distinction, he places the philosophers on a higher moral plane than the rest of humanity. The philosophers are choosing absolute duty or virtue, choiceworthy for its own sake, over anything that is desirable for some other reason. The common lot of humanity pursue virtue only because they think it will enhance their reputations or help them in some other way, so they choose between common, non-absolute duty and those expedients (e.g., wealth, pleasure) which would lead them away even from common duty.
It might be thought that this distinction between absolute and non-absolute duty is overly subtle, and really no different from the distinction between honestum and utilitas. The introduction of such apparently redundant distinctions suggests that Stoicism has not neatly resolved the relationship between the good and the expedient. The late Stoics recognized that, in practice, most people pursue virtue not for its own sake, but for some other reason, thereby treating virtue itself as a sort of utility. Although wisdom, courage, justice and temperance are desirable for their own sake, most people view these as means to some other end. The Stoic is then forced to reconcile his belief that virtue is intrinsically choiceworthy with the fact that most people choose the virtuous path for other reasons. The distinction between katorthoma and ordinary kathekon is not so much in what you do, but why you do it. A man like Scipio or Cato could exemplify nothing but kathekon, resembling a true sage in his actions, yet still lack the perfection of recognizing that the good is choiceworthy for its own sake.
Since our discussion deals primarily with dilemmas over which actions to choose, the analysis is the same whether we regard honestum in the sense of katorthoma or merely common kathekon. Ideally, one should choose the good for its own sake, but it is still virtuous to choose the good even for some other reason. Both the sage and the common man should pursue morally good actions over conflicting expedients.
As an example of an apparent conflict between the good and the expedient, it is said that you may kill a tyrant who is your friend even though it is wrong to kill friends. This might be constructed as a conflict between expediency - the desire to be free from a tyrant - and righteousness (the injunction against murder). Cicero holds that there is no real moral conflict, since killing a tyrant is a most noble act, not murder, so expediency here goes hand in hand with righteousness.
The older Academicians and the Peripatetics acknowledged that there could be scenarios of genuine conflict between the morally good and the expedient. Cicero, however, follows the Stoics in insisting that there can be no such conflict. He does not consider this to be a betrayal of Academic philosophy, for the New Academy allowed wide latitude of thought, permitting its students to defend any theory consistent with reason. (III, 20)
A more common example of apparent conflict between goodness and expediency is taking from others for one's own advantage. Yet here Cicero holds that the expediency is only apparent, and we are actually harming ourselves by acting in this way. To take from one's neighbor and profit by his loss "is more contrary to Nature than is death or poverty or pain or anything else that can affect either our person or our property." (III, 21) First, defrauding your neighbor is unjust, and injustice ruins the fellowship and social life of man. It is as if one member of your body should thrive by enfeebling the other members.
This accounts for why Cicero is against confiscation of property, as we saw in Book II. Yet by this same principle, we can see that he is not completely laissez-faire, since he considers it a grave injustice that one should profit by another's loss. Thus, any sort of wealth acquisition that operates by defrauding or enfeebling another would fall under his opprobrium. This is why, for example, he disparages moneylending as a profession.
Second, such defrauding is against positive human law. (III, 23) Nonetheless, the principle against such activity...
...follows much more effectually directly from the Reason which is in Nature, which is the law of gods and men. If anyone will hearken to that voice (and all will hearken to it who wish to live in accord with Nature's laws), he will never be guilty of coveting anything that is his neighbour's or of appropriating to himself what he has taken from his neighbour. (III, 23)
Note that not only the law against stealing, but even against coveting, follows from natural law (the "reason of nature," ratio naturae), the law of gods and men (lex divina et humana). This is consistent with Christian interpretations of the respective commandments in the Decalogue, which are principles of natural law. They are accessible to anyone who will consult the lights of natural reason, and thus they are binding on all men, not just Jews and Christians. There is no need for a special divine revelation to know these principles, so those who lack such revelation are without excuse. Nonetheless, natural law has the character of divine law, as expressed in Nature. This is consistent with the Stoic belief that Nature itself is a manifestation of divine Logos.
Coveting is against human nature (i.e., the telos proper to human rationality), since it is contrary to our sociability and fellow-feeling. Since humans are social animals, covetousness is every bit as unnatural as if one part of the body should seek to aggrandize itself at the expense of others, as is the case with cancer. Note here that "natural" is considered in a teleological Stoic sense, rejecting the modern notion that all occurrent phenomena in nature are natural by definition.
Greatness of spirit, courtesy, justice, and liberality (i.e., moral virtues) are more in accord with Nature than pleasure, riches, and even one's life. Nonetheless, "it requires a great and lofty spirit to despise these latter and count them as naught, when one weighs them over against the common weal." (III, 24) Although the pursuit of virtue is more "natural" than pursuit of the expedient, Cicero acknowledges that only a lofty few are able to pursue the higher good over the lesser.
Viewing things objectively, it is more opposed to our nature to rob our neighbor than to suffer death or pain. Theft is contrary to our fundamentally social nature and our highest good, while individual death and pain, though real evils (as the late Stoics acknowledged), are not necessarily opposed to the good of humanity, and might even be toward the service of humanity.
Cicero again invokes the heroic example of Hercules, who undertook great toil and tribulation for the service of the world, rather than living in seclusion and reveling in one's own wealth and strength. This portrayal of Hercules as enduring hardship for the sake of the world seems to prefigure the mission of Christ, who taught perfect self-giving charity as the form of divine love. For present purposes, we need only consider that the nobler a man's spirit, the more inclined he is to serve others, so harming one's fellow man is incompatible with obedience to nature. Here Cicero relies on our intuitive admiration for self-sacrificing figures such as Hercules, and uses this as evidence that altruism is in accord with our better nature.
The best way to harmonize our actions with nature is as follows:
This, then, ought to be the chief end of all men, to make the interest of each individual and of the whole body politic identical. For, if the individual appropriates to selfish ends what should be devoted to the common good, all human fellowship will be destroyed. (III, 26)
Cicero holds that there is no objective opposition between the good and the expedient, so it is the work of all men, especially statesmen, to make this harmony explicit in practice. Now, this may seem to be a contradiction, for if there is no conflict between individual expediency and the common good, there should be no need for any work of harmonization. Yet apparent expediency may often conflict with the common good, so it is the work of all men to learn to discern their true expediency or interest, that which is in harmony with the common good.
If, as indicated above, Nature prescribes that a man should help his fellow man just because he is a fellow man, it follows that according to that same Nature there is an interest (utilitas) that all men hold in common. From the existence of this common interest (or utility) of mankind prescribed by Nature, it follows that all men are under a natural law. If this is all true, then certainly to do injury or violence (violare) to another is prohibited by natural law. (III, 27)
Cicero's reasoning starts with our intuitive perception that those of nobler, more admirable natures, such as the heroic Hercules, will serve mankind rather than their own superficial utility (personal wealth and power). From this we deduce that altruism is a perfection of human nature, and thus is included in Nature's prescription for what man ought to be when he is at his best. Once we acknowledge that a regard for the interest of other men is prescribed by Nature, and that this regard is not confined to concern for the utility of any particular man, but for any man, then there must be some utility that is common to all men. In other words, there is a sort of solidarity of interests (at least in some matters) among all mankind. This is the only way we can regard some deeds as being in the service of mankind in general. For example, a discoverer of scientific wisdom serves all mankind, because wisdom is beneficial to all.
Since Nature prescribes that each of us ought to show regard for those interests common to all mankind, this prescription has the character of a natural law. It is a natural law because it is derived from teleological human nature (what man ought to be) in two aspects: (1) each of us is able to discern the same law by consulting our rational nature, and (2) the object of this law is a utility that is common to all men by virtue of a shared human nature.
Once we acknowledge that our regard for the common interest of mankind has the character of a natural law, it follows that to oppose this common interest is against natural law. Doing injury to a fellow man is against the common good, for all men share a desire not to be harmed, so this is a utility common to all men. The one who gains only by injuring another is like an organ that grows by destroying another. Such a cancerous growth is an enemy not only of the ravaged tissue, but of the body as a whole.
Civil society binds humanity in mutual obligations and common interests, so it is wrong to assert that we owe respect only to the persons and property of our kin. (III, 28) Such familial tribalism is destructive of the structure of civil society, which Cicero regards as an imperative of nature. Our duty to our fellow man is no less natural an obligation than our duty to our kin. This is because man, as a rational creature, is capable of a society bound by common rational interest, not mere similarity in flesh. This distinguishes human society from animal society. Even human families are ordered to rational ends beyond carnal utility.
Regard for our fellow man must extend even to foreigners (externorum), or else "kindness, generosity, goodness, and justice must utterly perish." (III, 28) We can see how Cicero's cosmopolitan "brotherhood of mankind" would appeal to Enlightenment thinkers, and for good ethical reason. If we confine humane regard to our countryman, there is nothing to prevent us from committing all kinds of atrocities against other nations, leading to large-scale evils that deaden our sense of kindness, liberality, and justice. In these offenses, man is "wickedly rebelling against the immortal gods," for he is rejecting the fraternal nature they have ordained for men.
Some might object that, strictly speaking, it is possible for us to maintain virtuous fellowship among our countrymen even while showing little regard for foreigners. Indeed, the bonds among compatriots tend to be strengthened in wartime, and Cicero himself often cites examples of heroic virtue in war. While Cicero does not deny the virtuous aspects of war, he would have warfare circumscribed by justice and other virtues. A war must be waged for just cause, not because foreigners have no right to their lives or property, and the fact of war does not eliminate the need for due regard toward their human dignity. This is why ancient civilizations recognized that not everything is licit in war. Most importantly, when peace is restored, good will ought to be shown to foreigners in due measure.
The closest bond of man's fellowship with man "is the conviction that it is more repugnant to Nature for man to rob (detrahere) a fellow-man for his own gain than to endure all possible loss, whether to his property or to his person... or even to his very soul." (III, 28) This strong statement emphasizes the organic solidarity of mankind. It would be unnatural for one organ to detract from the rest of the organism; on the contrary it should contribute to the health of the whole. Similarly, it is against man's social nature to take away from his fellow men; rather he should give of himself for the sake of all.
This notion of natural altruism is markedly different from modern ideas of "natural" behavior. Informed by capitalist thinking, Darwinist interpretations of biology often tend to look at the individual as in competition with others of the species, though lately biologists have been coming to grips with the need to reconcile altruism with evolutionary theory. Some try to make altruism into a sort of hidden selfishness, but a more promising interpretation, found in social insect behavior, is a genuine identification with the whole society as an evolutionary unit. Cicero contends that such solidarity exists among humans, arguing that this is the most perfect use of our rational nature. We certainly admire self-sacrifice in our heroes, even if we are reluctant to make it a general rule of our own behavior. Yet if we are to seek our own betterment, we ought to emulate the more perfect, rather than excuse ourselves with existing mediocrity. A cancer may be "natural" in the sense of naturally occurring, but who would argue that it is for the good of the organism? Similarly, if we are to work in favor of human nature, rather than against it, we should be self-giving rather than selfish at the expense of our fellows. Injuring others is "against nature" in the sense of opposing the betterment of humanity.
There is an exception to the rule against depriving a man of his life or property, and that is where this is demanded by justice, "for justice is a virtue that is mistress and sovereign of all virtues." (III, 28) Our sense of fellow-feeling should not suppress our will to do what is just. Modern liberalism commits this error when it is indulgent toward criminals, eliminating the death penalty for all crimes and softening other sentences. Such liberality is a false virtue, for it is not subjected to the higher criterion of justice.
Cicero's claim that justice is the supreme virtue seems to be well founded, for ius is that which is right or proper, and this is the principal object of all morality. We should show generosity to others only insofar as this does not violate justice. If administering justice entails giving every man his due, there may come times when we have to inflict losses on a man. For example, if he has stolen from his fellow, he should be forced to make reparations. This infliction of loss on the thief is not itself immoral, for in fact it is rectifying a prior wrong by restoring another man's loss. It is just that the thief should lose his property.
Other types of crime do not admit of simple reparation, and even theft has consequences beyond the victim's loss of property. A crime is a threat to all of society, and this itself may deserve punishment, not only as a deterrent, but because of the real harm caused by spreading fear and insecurity among the public. Every crime strikes at the solidarity of man, so it is fitting that something be taken away from the criminal in order to benefit the good of the whole. Some crimes are so dangerous to society, either by actual harm caused or by bad example, that the criminal needs to be removed from society altogether. This is why the death penalty was widely administered in early civilizations, where society's survival was most precarious. We recognize this insight to a lesser degree even today, as practically all our criminal punishments involve imprisonment, an effective severance from society.
While fellow-feeling should never be an excuse for us to act unjustly or to decline to impose justice, it nonetheless seems problematic to make fellow-feeling entirely subordinate to justice. After all, kindness often calls us to be generous beyond what mere justice requires. This does not violate justice, but it is something beyond justice. Sometimes we may even show mercy to criminals, punishing them less harshly than what they deserve. This may seem, on its face, to violate justice, yet we consider mercy most commendable. It is praiseworthy for you to pardon one who has offended you, but it would be an injustice to excuse an offense committed against another, if it is not your position to forgive on that other's behalf. Mercy might be compatible with justice, but it is not subordinate to it.
Also, making justice the supreme virtue would seem to be at odds with the idea that human solidarity is the perfection of human nature. If fellow-feeling is so basic and fundamental to our nature, how can another virtue be greater? The answer may be that this fellow-feeling is itself oriented toward justice. True fraternity entails that we want what is best for our fellow, and that means, at a minimum, what is just or right (ius) for him.
Cicero produces two examples where actions apparently contrary to natural law can be justified. First, consider a wise man starving to death. Ordinarily, in such a situation, he may not steal the bread of some useless person in order to feed himself, "for my life is not more precious to me than that temper of soul which would keep me from doing wrong to anybody for my own advantage." (III, 29) However, such an act might be permissible if, by remaining alive, the wise man was able "to render signal service (multam utilitatem) to the state and to human society". (III, 30)
The social utilitarianism of this first example is problematic. We are told that an otherwise unjust act may be defensible if motivated by a desire to help society. This suggests an ends-justify-the-means ethic, which in practice is frequently destructive of morality. Further, this renders the rights of individuals practically subordinate to the good of the whole, as though an individual had little worth except as part of the collective. The standard of comparing great service (multam utilitatem) against a useless person is a clear anticipation of Bentham and Mill's "greatest good for the greatest number."
Yet the preliminary assumption of Cicero's argument is conceived in more individualistic terms. I may not do wrong to another person for my own advantage. This injunction is commanded by moral duty, and the good man will prefer the virtue of his soul even to his own life, which is why he will not steal even if he is starving. Here individual property rights are given a frighteningly near-absolute character, so that even starvation does not justify their infringement.
I would argue that Cicero is individualist where he ought to be collectivist and collectivist where he ought to be individualist. First, he makes private property claims a matter of near-absolute right, when in fact they are subordinate to the good of helping all men secure the necessities of life. Thus a truer answer is given by St. Thomas Aquinas, when he holds that it is licit to take the property of another in order to avoid starvation. Indeed, private property claims of what is naturally held in common (the goods of the earth) are justified only insofar as they do not detract from the common good (as Cicero admitted earlier) of securing the necessities of life. Thus St. Thomas contends that not only is the starving man not stealing, but he who would prevent him from taking what he needs is the real thief.
Yet Cicero becomes a collectivist when arguing that a starving wise man may steal from a useless man in order to perform some great public service. Given his assumption that it is ordinarily wrong to steal when starving, this principle allows doing wrong in order that some good may come of it. Such a principle, even if it were sound, could easily be abused. Why shouldn't a wise man steal from the useless even if he is not starving? After all, he may need considerable wealth to perform great public works, which the useless man would have frittered away. Cicero admonishes that such exceptional acts should be motivated not by self-esteem or self-love, but the general interests of society. Yet what could be more vain than the conceit that I am indispensable to society, or that I could perform much greater public service than my fellow?
Just a short while ago, Cicero insisted that generosity and benevolence must be subordinate to justice. While this may restrict our liberality toward individuals, our regard for the good of the collective apparently knows no such bounds, and we may violate justice in order to promote the common good. Yet violating justice even in a single instance does a disservice to society, since any love of our fellows that is divorced from a desire for what is right (ius) is a false love. The common good is not promoted, but opposed, whenever we oppose justice. Justice is choiceworthy for its own sake (as are all four parts of honestum), which means injustice is always wrong, regardless of consequences. (You might still weigh one good against another, but this will not abolish the wrongness of the unjust act.)
In both classes of error, Cicero appears to be motivated by aristocratic biases. First, he is extraordinarily defensive of property rights, in part because he has witnessed the calamity of unjust confiscations by populist governments. This wariness caused him to become too extreme in articulating property rights as absolute. Second, he takes for granted that some men are of much greater worth than others. This in itself is not problematic (modern democratic prejudices notwithstanding), but he takes it to the extreme of making the life of one innocent man being worth more than another, on account of his greater talent, ability, or virtue. It would remain for Christianity to impose upon Europeans the principle that the life of the slave is as valuable as that of an aristocrat, not because he is necessarily equal in virtue or ability, but because he partakes of a human nature that has a God-given transcendent value. Since Cicero is dealing primarily with natural ethics (though regarding Nature as an expression of divine will), he has no recourse to the insight of the absolute transcendent worth of human life. Instead, people are valued according to their relative virtue and utility.
A second example given is that of a righteous man stealing clothes from the tyrant Phalaris, in order not to freeze to death. This action is justified not by any utilitarian calculus, but by the claim that "we have no ties of fellowship with a tyrant." (III, 32) Tyrants are a bane to humanity, and it is our duty to banish or remove (exterminare) them from society. This duty makes it licit to kill a tyrant, in which case it is also in accord with nature to take his property. The bodily analogy is that of a diseased member that must be amputated in order to preserve the health of the body.
The crimes of Phalaris must have been grave in order for his very existence to be a threat to human society. Cicero calls tyrants monsters (beluae) in human form, to emphasize that we are committing no crime against human nature by warring against them. Indeed, Phalaris was known for remarkable cruelty, even by the standards of despots. He is said to have roasted people alive in a brazen bull, and to have practiced cannibalism on infants.
It is not merely the severity of their crimes that makes tyrants a threat to human society. The mode of performing their crimes, through public authority, poses a special threat since it affects all of society, and public authority is brought into disrepute as it is abused. Government is the primary instrument for promoting the common good, so its perversion to criminal ends can be fatal to society. To take up our bodily analogy again, it is as if some cancerous growth threatened the heart or the brain as opposed to some less vital organ.
The notion of the tyrant as an enemy of society might also be applied to other sorts of criminals. Those guilty of murder or other capital offenses might be considered such an immediate and dangerous threat to public order, that it is necessary to remove them from society. Traditionally, this was done through execution or banishment, though imprisonment is now the preferred punishment. It is no crime against nature to deprive a recalcitrant criminal of his life or liberty, since he has firmly renounced fellowship with society and set himself up in opposition to humanity.
These sorts of problems are what Panaetius would have taken up in his last book, according to Cicero.
Consider the Stoic axiom: "nothing is worth seeking for its own sake except what is honestum." (III, 33) Peripatetics such as Cratippus challenged this principle, contending that natural goods such as health and honor are also worth seeking for their own sake. Yet even on that assumption, we should at least hold that honestum is most worth seeking for its own sake. Cicero dismisses the Epicureans as unworthy of consideration, since at the outset of Book I he showed that they were unsuited to ethics.
According to Cicero, Panaetius never held that honestum could ever conflict with utility, but only with apparent utility.
For he often bears witness to the fact that nothing is really expedient that is not at the same time morally right, and nothing morally right that is not at the same time expedient; and he says that no greater curse has ever assailed human life than the doctrine of those who have separated these two conceptions. (III, 34)
Here the universal compatibility of utility and moral rectitude is clearly attributed to Panaetius. All conflicts between them are only apparent, not real. Apparently, Panaetius (and Cicero) thought that insistence on this compatibility was a necessary bulwark against Epicureanism and other kinds of utilitarianism. Yet the Peripatetics, we have noted, allowed for the possibility of such conflict without falling into utilitarianism. Indeed, if there is never any conflict between moral rectitude and utility, people would do just as well following the latter rather than the former.
Really, we ought to speak of utility on two levels. First, there is the common understanding of utility, which is to maximize health or wealth or whatever else one finds desirable or useful. This sort of utility is what the Stoics would call merely apparent. Yet moral rectitude, being more beneficial to man than what is commonly called useful, is more choiceworthy. Thus it represents a higher order of utility, being most truly beneficial to man. Those who know what is truly in their best interest will always choose the morally right course of action as being also the most expedient. Those who choose immoral actions do so because they are confused about what is truly in their best interest.
This analysis would seem to reduce Stoicism to a sort of utilitarianism, but there are important distinctions from what is ordinarily called utilitarianism. First, utility is not measured by pleasure. Second, utility is not evaluated by arbitrary, subjective desire, but by objective criteria. These criteria are none other than those which determine moral rectitude. So the Stoic position does nothing more than state that moral rectitude is always beneficial.
There still seems to be a confusion of concepts, for the useful is not desired for its own sake, but for the sake of something else (e.g., pleasure). Moral rectitude, by contrast, is supposed to be desired for its own sake, yet this seems to be contradicted by making it a sort of useful thing. If moral rectitude benefits man, then it would seem that moral rectitude is desirable, at least in part, for this benefit, rather than for its own sake.
A way out of this conundrum is to make virtue its own reward. We might see virtuous actions as perfecting the faculties of the soul, enabling us to perform more virtuous deeds. The utility of virtue is circular. Saying that we do good deeds in order to be virtuous, and are virtuous in order to good deeds, does nothing to explain why we should be virtuous doers of good deeds. This is perfectly alright, since the choiceworthiness of honestum is not derivable from utility; it is desirable for its own sake. The so-called "utility" of honestum is directed toward the benefit of maximizing honestum.
Cicero says that nothing in this line of thinking - conflict between honestum and apparent utility - has seemed satisfactory. What follows is his own original work, "without any auxiliaries". (III, 34)
Given that moral rectitude is the highest utility, those who pursue apparent expedients and dissociate this utility from moral right are committing a serious error. "For with a false perspective they see the material rewards but not the punishment I do not mean the penalty of the law, which they often escape, but the heaviest penalty of all, their own demoralization (ipsius turpitudinis)." (III, 36)
The man who corrupts his own soul is committing serious injury to himself, whether he realizes it or not. Here we are measuring utility objectively, as opposed to reducing it to what a person desires. We see self-destructive behavior so frequently that we should easily recognize that what a man desires is not always what is best for him. If the good of the soul is more important than any material benefit, it follows that the corruption of the soul's faculties is the greatest evil that can befall a man. This higher utility is clearly expressed in the Gospel precept: "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" (Mark 8:36; Matthew 16:26)
Those who even contemplate pursuing (apparent) utility in opposition to moral right are not worthy of consideration, "For there is guilt in their very deliberation, even though they never reach the performance of the deed itself." (III, 27) To consider committing a crime is itself villainous.
Against the "vain hope" that a crime may be kept secret, those who have made real progress in philosophy should be convinced that "even though we may escape the eyes of gods and men, we must still do nothing that savours of greed or of injustice, of lust or of intemperance." (III, 28) To make real progress in philosophy, the love of wisdom, one must cling to what one knows is right, or else we would love some other thing more than we love wisdom, and would judge things not according to truth. Wisdom includes knowledge of one's moral duty (honestum), so the one who has learned something of philosophy should do his duty simply because he knows it is his duty. This conception of moral duty is apprehended directly through human wisdom. It does not depend on fear of punishment by man or god.
It might be said that Cicero's notion of moral duty is independent of divine law, but this is not accurate. Objectively, honestum comes from the divine law imposed on Nature, known as natural law. However, this natural law is directly apprehensible by human reason, without explicit knowledge of theology. Thus we may know our duty under natural law without knowing whether or how the gods might punish our offenses. Accordingly, even the non-religious ought to be capable of discerning correct ethical principles (by studying human nature in its teleological aspect), and by the same token, they are without excuse if they fail to obey the natural law, becoming guilty of greed, injustice, lust or intemperance. Still, the natural law objectively depends on the divine Logos that orders Nature and gives it purpose, for there could be no natural moral law if there were no teleology in Nature.
Another class of problems is whether an apparent utility can be secured without moral wrong. It is already established that we cannot sacrifice moral duty for expediency.
When Brutus deposed Collatinus from the consular office, even though the latter had been his associate and helped drive out the monarchy, this might have seemed unjust. Yet the leaders of the state determined that it would serve the country's interests to obliterate every reminder of the Tarquins, and this was so right (honestum), that even Collatinus ought to have acceded to this. "And so expediency gained the day because of its moral rightness; for without moral rectitude there could have been no possible expediency." (III, 40)
In this example, we find the right course of action by perceiving what is truly expedient. Thus any associated injustice is only apparent, for there could be no true expediency without moral rectitude. That is, we discern rectitude indirectly after we have determined true expediency. This ethic, in practice, seems susceptible to eliding into "utility makes right." Yet Cicero rejects such a conclusion in a second example.
Romulus killed his brother Remus so that he could rule alone. This selfish expediency did not justify his violation of brotherly love and humanity, nor did his excuse that Remus had insulted the city by leaping over its wall. The latter was "a specious show of moral rectitude, neither reasonable nor adequate at all." (III, 41) Thus Romulus, for all his greatness, was guilty of a crime, and Cicero would dare say the same of Quirinus, god of the state, in like circumstances.
The choice of personages in the second example is pertinent, because it shows that Cicero is not a pure statist. The will of the state does not make right, even if it is expressed by the founder of Rome or the god of the Roman state. This shows that the rectitude of the first example is not determined simply by a priority of state interests over individual interests.
Addressing the need to balance interests, Cicero quotes Chrysippus:
When a man enters the foot-race, it is his duty to put forth all his strength and strive with all his might to win; but he ought never with his foot to trip, or with his hand to foul a competitor. Thus in the stadium of life, it is not unfair for anyone to seek to obtain what is needful for his own advantage, but he has no right to wrest it from his neighbour. (III, 42)
According to Chrysippus, there is nothing wrong with vigorously pursuing one's own self-interest, even if this means raising oneself above others. The only constraint is that he should not pursue this utility by doing unjust injury to one's neighbor.
Special dilemmas of duty can arise when dealing with friendship, "for it is a breach of duty either to fail to do for a friend what one rightly can do, or to do for him what is not right." Cicero proposes as a general rule that "apparent advantages political preferment, riches, sensual pleasures, and the like should never be preferred to the obligations of friendship." (III, 43) The duty of friendship takes precedence over personal utility, or "apparent" utility, as Cicero would call it.
The interests of the public do take precedence over friendship: "But an upright man will never for a friend's sake do anything in violation of his country's interests or his oath or his sacred honour..." (III, 43) Is this because Cicero takes for granted that the polity's interest is a real utility, not just apparent? Otherwise, it could be simply that the oath of allegiance is a solemn moral obligation.
It is allowable that a moral man should prefer a friend's side in a case "to be the juster one and that he will set the time for presenting his case, as far as the laws will allow, to suit his friend's convenience." (III, 43) Such advocacy is consonant with justice.
But when he comes to pronounce the verdict under oath, he should remember that he has God as his witness that is, as I understand it, his own conscience, than which God himself has bestowed upon man nothing more divine. (III, 44)
Every Roman juror swore an oath "to do what he can consistently with his sacred honour." To pronounce a false verdict in favor of a friend would defile one's own honor as a friend of truth and justice. Cicero understands the invocation of the Deity to really be an appeal to one's own conscience, which is a most divine gift. In much of the ancient world, a deity was invoked to act as a witness to a solemn pact or oath, in analogy to the presence of human witnesses for ordinary contracts. Witnesses were chosen on account of their reputation for wisdom and honor, as a guarantee that both parties would respect the contract. Invoking a deity as a witness appealed to divine honor, and such solemn pacts were often accompanied by dreadful curses upon anyone who should violate the agreement. Cicero does not expect there to be divine punishment upon the one who breaks his oath, but rather he understands God to be invoked indirectly, through the medium of the human conscience. It is conscience that accuses us if we act dishonestly, and we suffer a real loss of honor when we break our oaths without just cause.
In ordinary friendships, friends may be expected to advocate for each other even when in the wrong, but this is not the case with perfect friendships. An example of ideally perfect friendship is found between Damon and Phintias of the Pythagorean school.
...when the tyrant Dionysius had appointed a day for the executing of one of them, and the one who had been condemned to death requested a few days' respite for the purpose of putting his loved ones in the care of friends, the other became surety for his appearance, with the understanding that if his friend did not return, he himself should be put to death. (III, 45)
In perfect friendship, no demand is made that would conflict with moral rectitude. Each friend is willing to sacrifice any apparent expediency, even his own life, rather than violate honor.
In both perfect and ordinary friendship, moral rectitude should always prevail over apparent expediency. There should be no immoral demands made in friendship.
Not even the apparent expediency of the state can justify wrongdoing. Thus Cicero condemns the Roman destruction of Corinth, and the Athenians' cruel decree that the Aeginetans should have their thumbs cut off, to nullify their naval threat. Too often, we hear "the national interest" invoked as justification for some suspension of moral law, especially in the warmongering United States (both political parties are guilty in this regard). Yet Cicero says "no cruelty can be expedient; for cruelty is most abhorrent to human nature, whose lead we ought to follow." (III, 46)
"They, too, do wrong who would debar foreigners from enjoying the advantages of their city and would exclude them from its borders..." (III, 47) Although foreigners do not deserve the rights and privileges of citizenship, the expediency of the state cannot be invoked to deny them the advantages of the city. Such denial "is altogether contrary to the laws of humanity." Here Cicero is appealing to basic hospitality and human fraternity. What is available for public use should not be denied to any man on account of nationality.
There are positive historical examples of placing moral right ahead of the state's apparent expediency. The Romans courageously refused to surrender or make terms after the disaster at Cannae. The Athenians stoned to death a man who urged them to stay and open the gates to the invading Persians rather than abandon the city. In both these cases, honor was preferred to an apparent expedient. Lastly, the Athenians rejected a proposal to secretly burn the Spartan fleet while onshore, preferring what is morally right even to their own security. Such honor is completely foreign to the thinking of today's military powers, who mistake their strength and aggressiveness for real courage.
Suppose there is a famine at Rhodes. You have some grain from Alexandria, yet you know there is much more grain on the way. Should you let Rhodians know that, or should you try to sell what you can at higher prices?
The Stoics themselves were not agreed on the morality of this situation. Diogenes thought there was no moral obligation to reveal any information beyond defects in one's wares as required by law. Antipater considered that solidarity with one's fellow men required full disclosure of any information that would be of benefit to them.
Before trying to resolve the dispute between Diogenes and Antipater, Cicero notes that neither man held that the expedient should take precedent over what is morally right. Rather, one philosopher held that the act was expedient, without being morally wrong, while the other held that it was morally wrong, and therefore not expedient.
Cicero sides with Antipater, holding that a vendor is duty-bound to share known facts that are in the seller's interest. While silence alone is not concealment, "concealment consists in trying for your own profit to keep others from finding out something that you know, when it is for their interest to know it." (III, 57) A person who practices such concealment by silence would not be considered candid, sincere or honest, but rather shifty, sly, and cunning. It is hardly expedient (i.e., advantageous) to subject oneself to such terms of reproach.
Outright lying is even more inexcusable, and Cicero follows Gaius Aquilius' legal definition of criminal fraud: "pretending one thing and practicing another" (III, 60) If this principle is followed, all sorts of business practices are forbidden to the honest man, such as misrepresentation of goods or using false bids to drive up prices.
It might be said that such scruples will prevent the wise man from becoming wealthy, so honesty is in clear conflict with what is expedient. Yet Cicero does not allow that the primary benefit of wisdom is wealth; rather, it is to make a man good. Citing Panaetius' pupil Hecaton of Rhodes, the wise are duty-bound to take care of private affairs, not for themselves alone, "but for our children, relatives, friends, and, above all, for our country. For the private fortunes of individuals are the wealth of the state." (III, 63) This is not an advocacy of socialism, but rather a recognition that all private wealth is ordered toward the good of society. Thus the honest man cannot content himself with keeping the letter of the law, but must acquire and use his wealth in a way that is consonant with the good of his fellow men.
Against those who would claim that deception, concealment and other kinds of conniving benefit a man:
What is there that your so-called expediency can bring to you that will compensate for what it can take away, if it steals from you the name of a "good man" and causes you to lose your sense of honour and justice? For what difference does it make whether a man is actually transformed into a beast or whether, keeping the outward appearance of a man, he has the savage nature of a beast within? (III, 82)
Even if you should be able to hide your crime, you will suffer the loss of your sense of honor and justice, which is a greater injury than any loss of wealth, status, or power. Such a loss degrades man, making him savage like a beast. The loss of our humanity can hardly be considered expedient.
Modern thinkers who try to reduce all ethics to calculations of utility, or the pursuit of biological imperatives, effectively treat man as if he were nothing more than a beast. Some are so inept as to think that the animal status of man is proven by evolutionary theory, as if man were nothing more than his flesh, as if rationality were purely carnal. There is nothing authentically human about such "humanism".
Caesar is presented as the supreme example of the folly of preferring apparent expediency to righteousness. "The man who maintains that such an ambition is morally right is a madman; for he justifies the destruction of law and liberty and thinks their hideous and detestable suppression glorious." (III, 83) There can be nothing advantageous in committing the murder of one's fatherland. He who rules the world by tyranny, though he seems to have achieved the highest utility, actually acquires "occasions for worry, anxiety, fear by day and by night, and a life all beset with plots and perils". (III, 84)
The Stoic equation between expediency and the good seems to falter as Cicero discusses use of public revenues. He faults Cato for failing to see that generosity to allies and publicans was beneficial to the republic by maintaining social harmony.
Curio, too, was wrong, when he pleaded that the demands of the people beyond the Po were just, but never failed to add, "Let expediency prevail." He ought rather to have proved that the claims were not just, because they were not expedient for the republic, than to have admitted that they were just, when, as he maintained, they were not expedient. (III, 88)
Curio suggested that the just demands of the people beyond the Po should be denied for reasons of expediency, i.e., the finances of the state. Cicero claims he should have instead argued that the demands were unjust precisely because they were inexpedient. Yet how can the justice of their demands be determined by the condition of Roman finances, of which they had no knowledge? This would be effectively to build expediency into our definition of justice.
Suppose I demand that the state should pay my pension, at the very least restoring what I have contributed. This demand is certainly just, yet the exigencies of the moment or some series of financial disasters may have made it inexpedient for the state to pay any pension. It might be said, following Cicero, that it is unjust for me to insist on my claim when the state is facing more dire necessities at the moment. Conversely, if the other expediencies of the state are not so dire as to require denial of my claim, then justice demands that my pension should be paid rather than pursue such other expediencies. Still, it seems like artifice to make the justice of my claim depend on the finances of the state. A more natural way of expressing the situation is to say, with Curio, that justice must yield before expediency.
A Stoic must object to the latter assertion, since justice is an absolute duty, and so should never yield to mere expediency. If honoring a just claim is impossible because of practical necessity, then no injustice is done, for duty can never demand the impossible. The person with the unrealized claim is a victim not of injustice, but of misfortune. Yet if the claim is denied not because of necessity, but on account of some expediency judged to outweigh this claim, a very high standard must be met. The only way the absolute duty of justice can be outweighed by expediency is if the benefit in question is itself an object of absolute duty (e.g., justice, fellow-feeling). Mere expediency detached from honestum could never justify denial of a just claim.
Some Stoics, however, allowed that expediency could determine moral duty in a way contrary to what justice would ordinarily demand. Hecaton, in his sixth book on moral duty, allows that a good man may let his slaves go hungry when provisions are at famine price. Here expediency permits a man to give his slaves less than their due.
A common area of conflict between honestum and the expedient is in keeping promises or pacts. There are examples where it is expedient to break such agreements, without violating justice.
If one man gives another a remedy for the dropsy, with the stipulation that, if he is cured by it, he shall never make use of it again; suppose the patient's health is restored by the use of it, but some years later he contracts the same disease once more; and suppose he cannot secure from the man with whom he made the agreement permission to use the remedy again, what should he do? That is the question. Since the man is unfeeling in refusing the request, and since no harm could be done to him by his friend's using the remedy, the sick man is justified in doing what he can for his own life and health. (III, 92)
Breaking the promise is not unjust, since no harm is done by using the remedy again, and the one who insists on the contract is guilty of lack of fellow-feeling, which is a failure of absolute duty.
Similarly, one should not keep promises that require one to behave immorally, nor should we honor wishes that will bring harm on the one making the request, even if we promised to do so. Changes in circumstances may justify breaking a promise, as we should not return a borrowed sword if the owner has gone mad. Also, we should not return money to someone who decides to make war on our country. A change of expediency, in these cases, effects a change in whether something is morally right.
What is clear from this discussion is that the question of what is morally right cannot be altogether separated from questions of expedience.
The examples discussed so far in the third book have weighed the virtue of wisdom against cunning, and justice against the apparently expedient, though Cicero finds that justice is always truly expedient. Now we compare the demands of fortitude or great-spiritedness against apparent expediency, in the context of keeping an oath or pact.
Ulysses, as described in the tragedies (though not in Homer), is said to have feigned madness in order to evade military duty and return to his throne and family. The latter expediencies, in Cicero's estimation, ought to be valued at naught in comparison to the loss of honor. Again, moral rectitude itself is considered to be the highest expedient.
Marcus Atilius Regulus, held captive by the Carthaginians, was sent to Rome, having sworn to return to his captors if he could not secure the release of some Carthaginian generals in exchange. Naturally, it might seem expedient for Regulus to have broken his vow and returned to his consulship and family, much like Ulysses of legend. "Who says that this was not expedient? Who, think you? Greatness of soul and courage say that it was not." (III, 99) Again, virtue is conceived as man's highest expediency. Yet this requires a non-intuitive notion of expediency, forcing us to deny that it is expedient to return to one's home and office.
Regulus refused to vote on whether the prisoners should be released, since he was still in captivity by oath, not a member of the senate. In fact, he argued before the senate that the captives should not be returned in exchange for him, since he was old and they were still young. His advice was heeded, and Regulus returned to Carthage, knowing he would be tortured, but valuing his sacred oath. "And so even then, when he was being slowly put to death by enforced wakefulness, he enjoyed a happier lot than if he had remained at home an aged prisoner of war, a man of consular rank forsworn." (III, 100)
This course of action is most truly expedient since virtue is the highest expediency, and the utility of the state should be preferred by all its citizens. "Nay; can what is inexpedient for the state be expedient for any individual citizen?" (III, 101)
The highest objects of endeavor are "good report, propriety, and moral rectitude (laude, decore, honestate)". What is commonly called expediency is just "a necessary incident to living." It is a mistake, then, to divorce expediency from moral rectitude.
Regulus' love of honor was not motivated by any fear of divine wrath. The Stoics and Epicureans agree that "God is never angry, never hurtful." The Epicureans thought this since they regarded God as free from troubling cares or concern for others. The Stoics thought that anger was a purely negative emotion, unworthy of God. We need not investigate the rectitude of this theology here, since our subject is natural ethics.
Still, the invocation of divinity does seem to be an essential part of an oath. Cicero admits that "an oath is an assurance backed by religious sanctity; and a solemn promise given, as before God as one's witness, is to be sacredly kept." (III, 104)It is not that divine wrath is feared, but rather the gods hold us to our obligations of justice and good faith.
The religious aspect of oaths was not a mere formality for the Romans. In fact, they had a special priesthood, the fetiales, who represented the public faith before other nations, regulating declarations of war and peace, swearing before the gods that cause for grievance was well founded. The Roman concept of just war, and all its attendant commitments regarding the conduct of war and international relations, was mediated by this overtly religious system.
We should not be surprised at this appeal to the divine, for the root of all morality is in a certain personal integrity, which is best exemplified by a solemn oath. Courageously keeping an oath in the face of hardship is the most praiseworthy act Cicero identifies. The motive of this act is to preserve the honor of one's good conscience, which is the most divine aspect of man.
Lastly, we examine how apparent expediency may come into conflict with the fourth category of classical virtue, which includes "propriety, moderation, temperance, self-restraint, self-control..." (III, 116)
The Cyrenaics found all good to consist in pleasure, and that virtue is praiseworthy only because it yields pleasure. The substance of their doctrine was revived by Epicurus.
If pleasure is the highest expediency, then expediency and the so-called happiness that is its object depend on a sound physical constitution. For without such, the experience of pleasure is practically impossible. Not only the Cyrenaics, who believed in bodily indulgence, but even Epicurus falls under this criticism, since he too held that all mental gratification was really the same thing as bodily pleasure. This being admitted, Cicero shows as a consequence that such a doctrine will conflict with the virtues.
For first of all, what position will wisdom occupy in that system? The position of collector of pleasures from every possible source? What a sorry state of servitude for a virtue to be pandering to sensual pleasure! And what will be the function of wisdom? To make skilful choice between sensual pleasures? Granted that there may be nothing more pleasant, what can be conceived more degrading for wisdom than such a rτle? (III, 117)
We recognize such a degraded role for wisdom in our day, as all our science seems to have no higher purpose than to make life more pleasant and convenient. A select few may seek knowledge for its own sake, yet even this is a sort of vain satisfaction in knowing how things work. If the highest wisdom is physical science, while ethics is reduced to maximizing the utility of pleasure, then scientists and other learned men are no better than engineers, salesmen and other professionals devoted to creating physical comforts. This is why we usually find no special virtue among academics, and indeed they are indulgent in the same vulgar pleasures common among the more brutish - food, drink, drugs, sex, video entertainment - showing that their utilitarian science gives them no advantage in wisdom.
Then again, if anyone holds that pain is the supreme evil, what place in his philosophy has fortitude, which is but indifference to toil and pain? For, however many passages there are in which Epicurus speaks manfully of pain, we must nevertheless consider not what he says, but what it is consistent for a man to say who has defined the good in terms of pleasure and evil in terms of pain. (III, 117)
Although Epicurus and other utilitarians may still praise fortitude against pain, they do this only by contradicting their own definition of good and evil. It is not enough to point out that Epicureans, or their modern secular counterparts, actually exemplify the virtue of fortitude. It must be shown that this is logically consistent with their professed philosophy. Otherwise, their philosophy is not vindicated but actually refuted, since they themselves cannot really believe and live by it.
And further, if I should listen to him, I should find that in many passages he has a great deal to say about temperance and self-control; but "the water will not run," as they say. For how can he commend self-control and yet posit pleasure as the supreme good? For self-control is the foe of the passions, and the passions are the handmaids of pleasure. (III, 117)
Temperance and pleasure-seeking are plainly opposed, so Epicurean attempts to reconcile them are least convincing of all. Clearly, the Epicureans try to preserve the classical virtues in some form in order to salvage the credibility of their doctrine, but the real basis for belief in these virtues is external to Epicureanism. The classical virtues can be forced into an Epicurean framework only by stripping them of their plain meaning and making them subservient to pleasure-seeking.
Justice totters or rather, I should say, lies already prostrate; so also with all those virtues which are discernible in social life and the fellowship of human society. For neither goodness nor generosity nor courtesy can exist, any more than friendship can, if they are not sought of and for themselves, but are cultivated only for the sake of sensual pleasure or personal advantage. (III, 118)
This too is a fair criticism of Epicurus, since he conceived utility in individualistic terms. It would remain for the English utilitarians to reconceive Epicurean philosophy along social lines, maximizing the utility of the collective rather than the individual. Yet the English philosophers also conceive utility in terms of pleasure, so they too may be criticized for valuing generosity, courtesy, and friendship not for their own sake, but for the sake of pleasure and advantage. Modern attempts to reduce altruism to utility can be every bit as contorted and unconvincing as Epicurean attempts to reconcile temperance with pleasure-seeking.
Cicero holds that all sensual pleasure (omnem voluptatem) is opposed to moral rectitude. This seems to be overstating the case against Epicureanism, for he only needs to show that such pleasure is sometimes opposed to the good. At most, he is willing to grant that pleasure "may contribute something that possibly gives some spice to life, but certainly nothing that is really expedient." (III, 120)
We will explore the relationship between pleasure and the good more fully in our treatment of Epicureanism. Cicero claims that pleasure has qualities that are absolutely incompatible with moral rectitude, so the two cannot be joined any more than the higher nature of man should be coupled to that of a beast. The supreme good must be pure and free of contradictory qualities. (III, 119) The Stoic conception of the good presupposes a teleological aspect to human nature that orients man toward some eternal, divine good that is desirable for its own sake. Epicurus and his followers would challenge this theology, separating God from man, leaving the latter to make choices only on the basis of worldly utility.
Cicero finds pleasure-seeking to be worthy of beasts, not men, and thus he considers it a supreme gift to his son to present this teaching on ethics, for this is to impart a higher rational nature on one's progeny, as opposed to merely giving them their flesh and its security. It is doubtful whether young Marcus, who never saw his father again, ever profited from this teaching, but the elder Cicero has been a father to countless readers who have taken his teaching to heart.
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