Reading Cicero for the Good Life in 7 Days:
Day 3 (“The Practice of Moral Goodness in Society”)
What is my individual duty and obligation in the world?
“For we are morally bound to cherish and observe the degree of right which comes within our comprehension just as carefully as the ideally wise man is obligated to cherish what is right in the full and ideal sense of the world. Because that is the only way in which we can maintain whatever progress we have made towards achieving goodness.
So much then for people who fulfil their moral obligations sufficiently well to be regarded as good. But those who habitually weight the right course against what they regard as advantageous are in quite a different category. Unlike good men, they judge everything by profits and gains, which seem to them just as valuable as what is right. Panaetius observed that people often doubtingly weigh those two things against one another. I am sure he meant just what he said: that they often do this, not that they ought to. For preferring advantage to right is not the only crime. It is also sinful even to attempt a comparison between the two things—even to hesitate between them.”
Do not harm or hurt others:
“Well, then, to take something away from someone else—to profit by another’s loss—is more unnatural than death, or destitution, or pain, or any other physical or external blow. To begin with, this strikes at the roots of human society and fellowship. For if we each of us propose to rob or inure one another for our personal gain, then we are clearly anything else in the whole world: namely, the link that unites every human being with every other. Just imagine if each of our limbs had its own consciousness and saw advantage for itself in appropriating the nearest limb’s strength! Of course, the whole body would inevitably collapse and die. In precisely the same way, a general seizure and appropriation of other people’s property would cause the collapse of the human community, the brotherhood of man. Granted that there is nothing unnatural in a man preferring to earn a living for himself rather than for someone else, what nature forbids is that we should increase our own means, property, and resources by plundering others.”
Source, Cicero, “Selected Works,” trans. with an introduction by Michael Grant, pp. 165, 166-7
Commentary and Reflection:
In the first passage above, Cicero argues because human beings share a common humanity and are universally endowed with a sense to fulfill their moral obligations or duties where they are in the world, they are compelled morally to do what is right and good in the world. Human beings are created with a sense to know the ideal good and the ideal right, which the Stoics called the ideal wisdom. Such moral vision of the world is inherent in the moral universe; in other words, we live in a moral universe due to divine providence and the divine spark that was universally bestowed upon every person, universally and transhistorically.
As a result, Cicero believed that it is impossible to realize moral progress without achieving moral goodness, which the Divine has gifted humanity. He connected human progress (i.e. human intelligence, reason, moral progress, economic progress, cultural progress) with the moral attributes of the cosmos; it is from this perspective, he could posit that the only way human beings could move forward toward global and universal progress is to fulfill both our individual and collective obligations in the world. In the most practical way, each one of us should be asking: what is my duty toward my family, other individuals, community, city, church, workplace, etc., to help others achieve progress and meet their respective obligations in various arenas and departments of life? Or as a national and global citizen, what am I supposed to do to contribute to the good life and human flourishing in society and in the world?
For Cicero, our moral obligations are linked automatically to the natural world and our nature as human beings, and the life worth living is the one that will fulfill such obligations already preordained in the moral universe by the Divine. Each one of us must always seek a way to do good and right, and to maximize the common good in the world. We are obligated to live in such a way because of our common identity as human beings. We do not live for ourselves, but to support and elevate our neighbor. Self-interest is the antithesis of the highest good. The pursuit of self-pleasure at the expense of the happiness and pleasure of another individual challenges Cicero’s conviction that the ideal good or the ideal right is a shared purpose of humanity.
Therefore, when an individual fails to fulfill his or her moral obligations in society, directly and indirectly, such attitude will result in postponing human progress in the world and deferring what should be profitable or advantageous to other human beings. If we follow Cicero’s logic about our moral obligations linked to his doctrine of divine providence, human-made calamities and evils such as oppression, abuse, exploitation, rape, dictatorship, authoritarianism, physical pain, poverty, famine, suffering, even death contradict the divine plan for the ordered moral universe and humanity. Harming or hurting another person is a counter action to what is morally good and advantageous. Abusing and exploiting another individual defeat our common purpose in the world. According to Cicero, if and when an individual exploits another person “to profit by another’s loss,” such action challenges “the roots of human society and fellowship” because we ought to live in cooperation and understanding and in light of the moral goodness inherent in the moral frame and order of the universe.
Practically, nobody should seek self-interest or should live a self-centered life; rather, each one of us should energetically and intentionally commit to the interest and wellbeing of others. Suppose each individually intentionally seeks the interest of others, our individual intervention will eventually complement each other and result in the fulfillment of our collective destiny and obligations. This is the only way we will avoid the (future) moral collapse of civilization and the progressive decline of our shared humanity. As Cicero warned us, “Granted that there is nothing unnatural in a man preferring to earn a living for himself rather than for someone else, what nature forbids is that we should increase our own means, property, and resources by plundering others.” The good life is how each one of us intends to live in the world in relation to the common humanity and fellowship we share as human beings and in respect to our moral obligations associated with divine providence in the world.