Reading Cicero for the Good Life in 7 Days: Day 1 (On Moral Obligations and Special Responsibility)

Reading Cicero for the Good Life in 7 Days: Day 1 (On Moral Obligations and Special Responsibility)

I am currently reading through Cicero (“Selected Works,” Penguin Classics) and would like to share with you some of his ideas on moral philosophy, ethics, and how to live the good life. In the next seven days, I will share brief personal reflections and commentaries. I will first cite texts or quotes from Cicero; second, place them under an appropriate heading; and finally, offer a brief commentary. Today, the first day of the series of seven conversations on moral philosophy, we begin with Cicero’s thought on moral obligations and special responsibility. Here are some of his ideas on some of the pressing issues and challenges we experience as human beings, especially when the matter pertains to making a moral choice (this is also called “Situation Ethics” in philosophy):

On moral evil and moral good: “One must not only choose the least among evils, one must also extract from them any good that they may contain.”

On the utility and goodness of philosophy: “My son: every part of philosophy is fruitful and rewarding, none barren or desolate. But the most luxuriantly fertile field of all is that of our moral obligations–since, if we clearly understand these, we have mastered the rules for leading a good and consistent life.”

Philosophy, Career, and Special Responsibility: “To everyone who proposes to have a good career, moral philosophy is indispensable. And I am inclined to think that this applies particularly to yourself. For upon your shoulders rest a special responsibility…Work as hard as possible (if study comes under the heading of work and not pleasure!) and do your best.”

Commentary and Reflection: for Cicero, philosophy, which intends to guide human beings in making wise decisions and good choices in life as they interact with other human beings in the world, contains all the essentials to help us living the good life that is consistent with nature and the moral imperative of life.Cicero believed that because human beings share common traits, they have moral obligations to each other. This is his main motive for his philosophy of human cooperation. We attain the good life by living according to those moral demands that sustain our common humanity and by actualizing the moral obligations we owe to each other.

What are the obligations that we owe to each other?

To answer this question, Cicero leads us to revisit the moral (philosophical) vision of Panaetius, who had had a considerable influence on him; In Panaetius, the questions relating to the moral responsibilities and demands of life fall under three broad categories:

  1. “Is a thing morally right or wrong?
  2. Is it advantageous or disadvantageous?
  3. If apparent right and apparent advantage clash, what is to be the basis for our choice between them?”

In other words, for Cicero, to know exactly what the moral demands are, we must be able to answer these questions honestly and responsibly. Evidently, there seems to be an established binary of relations between them: the rapport between morally right and morally wrong choices, and the rapport between advantageous and disadvantageous decisions. So far, Cicero is making the following deductive arguments or reasonings or at least, he wants us to think in that direction:

A. Human choices could be labelled as morally wrong or morally right.

B. Those choices could be characterized as advantageous or disadvantageous.

C. A human choice or decision could be construed as apparent right or apparent advantage.

D. Right and avantage are not the same.

E. Wrong and disadvantage are not the same.

F. As a consequence, a human choice or decision could be understood as apparent wrong or apparent disadvantage.

The heart of the threefold questions take us to the foundation of human ethics or moral philosophy. In other words, what is the driven motive when someone chooses what is morally right or advantageous? Or what is the source of a person’s decision to choose what is morally wrong or disadvantageous? Morally right to whom? Morally wrong to whom? Who gets to decide the final characterization of one’s actions and decisions? Or why is a moral characterization (of human decisions and choices) already there before a decision is actualized?

Source, Cicero, “Selected Works,” trans. with an introduction by Michael Grant, pp. 159-161

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