What is Good?


Review of On Duties by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Quintus Curtius.

The old windbag Cicero lived during a definitive, pivotal time in Western history – perhaps the moment, along with the American Revolution, that produced our world – but you wouldn’t have wanted to live then unless you have a fondness for starving and being chopped up.  The Roman republic was on the ropes with two cut eyes and early signs of Parkinson’s, and Julius Caesar and others sought to deliver the knockout blow in order to establish a totalitarian empire in its place.  Cicero, a lawyer and famed orator, favored the old republic.  Sometimes exhiled and eventually killed, he is best know today for his philosophical writing.  On Duties consists of a series of letters containing Stoical advice to his son.

His main focus: What is good?

His answer: Virtue is good.

He who proposes the idea of the “highest good” in such a way that it is completely disconnected with moral virtue, and rather measures it according to how it relates to one’s personal expediency, [. . .] can cultivate neither friendship, nor justice, nor generosity.  He who judges pain to be the greatest evil is certainly in no way strong; and he who sets up pleasure as the highest good cannot be considered temperate.

Hard to argue.  But might this not raise certain values – friendship, strength, temperance – above pure moral duty, which would be quietly reduced to the position of a proximate good?  Cicero later clarifies and ranks each virtue lest we become confused.

And how do we know about these virtues?  Our man says:

All moral goodness originates from four sources: (1) it is developed in the skilled examination of the truth; (2) in the protecting and developing of the society of man, with faithful observance for the rights of each man and his counterpart; (3) in a lofty and invincible spirit, possessing greatness and power; or (4) by the order and method in all things which happen and are debated, in which modesty and temperance are involved.

Let us pause and consider some of these in turn.  (1) Today, ‘skilled examination of the truth’ would refer to scientific observation and formal logic.  What experiment could be performed to determine whether abortion is morally acceptable?  Or same-sex marriage?  As for formal logic, it can identify a contradiction or an unsupported conclusion but that is all.  Two totally different moral frameworks might enjoy complete, internal consistency and total agreement upon all relevant scientific facts while nevertheless reaching disagreement on matters of good and evil.

(2) As for protecting the society of man and rights – are these not different and competing claims, once we scratch the surface?  Arguments to the good of society move us towards utilitarianism, i.e. an ethical approach favoring the greatest good for the greatest number.  Rights, on the other hand, must be protected regardless of the consequences.  To say we should protect rights in order to achieve the greater good necessitates that in the (perhaps rare) cases when abusing rights would achieve the greater good, we should do that.  For example, imagine a person with plague slouches towards the city.  He does not know he is infected.  Nobody can approach him and explain the problem lest they be infected.  There is only one solution – shoot him with a crossbow before he gets too close.  This would abuse his right to life (as he is innocent) but protect the city.  On the other hand, protecting his life would endanger the city.  Sometimes you gotta choose one or the other.  Cicero later addresses this and seems to promote a rule utilitarian approach, i.e. rights first and then utility:

. . . as a first principle and the very foundation of justice: first, that no man should be harmed; and finally, that the common good be served.

Bye, bye city.  On the other hand, Cicero also states:

It is not against moral duty to place the greater good before the lesser good.

A real life example came up in Cicero’s time, with Caesar talking of land redistribution:

“There are not two thousand people in the state,” he said, “who own property.”  This is dangerous talk and directly implicates the equal redistribution of property.  What curse could be worse than this?  Republics and states have been constituted specifically for the purpose of ensuring that each person may keep his own property.

Land redistribution – voluntary, compensated or otherwise – has been essential to the capitalist industrialization of many places, including Japan, Taiwan and parts of India.  Its absence probably holds back development in places like the Philippines.  There is no clearer battle in the war between rights and utility.

In any case, can either rights or utilitarianism be founded in reason?  Take rights – where did they come from?  How can you prove that they exist?  And as for utilitarianism – why should we achieve the greatest good for the greatest number? What if I just happen to care more about a lesser number because those individuals are my mates?  How can you prove that I should rank everyone’s interest equally?  Either approach very quickly gets us tangled up.

(3) ‘ . . . a lofty and invincible spirit’.  Now you’re talking.  This sounds like a subjective defence of morals, i.e. ‘I can feel it in my bones’.  Non-cognitivists such as Hume suggest that morals are not out there in the universe – rather, they are subjective moral feelings within us.  They therefore lie outside the realm of reason.  In other words, there is no rational or scientific reason why I should not drown a puppy.  It just feels bad, man.  If another fellow feels cool about it I can try to stop him by appealing to law, or to his interests, or I can punch him in the nose, but I cannot reason him out of drowning a puppy.  The universe does not care about puppies, or you, or me.  People might, but the universe doesn’t give a rat’s arse.

At another point, Cicero attempts to justify moral duty by Nature:

The idea of duty, which is drawn from this principle of decorum, has a primary pathway which leads to harmony and the preservation of Nature.  If we follow Nature’s lead, we will never err.


Cruelty is greatly offensive to human nature, and Nature is what we ought to be guided by.

As a citizen of an empire that had conquered a fair chunk of the world, Cicero might have noticed that different morals, practices and conceptions of duty prevail among different cultures.  The Germanic tribes performed human sacrifices and probably thought them quite essential from a moral point of view.  The Greeks were infamous boy-botherers.  Speaking of which, Cicero at one point offers this story:

Pericles had the famous poet Sophocles as his colleague in the praetorship and they both held joint responsibility for command.  An attractive boy once walked by them both.  Sophocles said to Pericles, “What a handsome young lad, Pericles!”  But Pericles responded, “A good praetor, Sophocles, ought to be abstinent not only with his hands, but also with his eyes.”

But if Sophocles had said this, for example, at a training gym for athletes, he would have been fairly free from reprimand.  Such is the authority given by place and time!


Continuing with the theme of diverse cultural views on morals, the Romans were also cool with slavery, and Cicero did not speak against it (though he said they ought to be treated justly – his conception of justice apparently did not extend to letting the poor bastards go).  Cicero accepts slavery as perfectly natural.  At one point he ponders,

“In selling a slave, should someone disclose not only those defects that, unless disclosed, would require the slave’s return under the civil law, but also non-mandatory information, such as the fact that the slave is crafty, a gambler, a thief or has a taste for alcohol?”  One authority believes such disclosures should be made and the other does not

Oh, the dilemmas a superior man faces.

People will subjectively extract whatever morals from ‘Nature’ their hindbrain deems expedient, together with some random drift.

Further, we can generally agree that watching YouTubers play computer games is utterly unnatural, yet, while perhaps a waste of time, is probably not immoral.

Nature is that which we can observe through science, and there ain’t no morals to be found there.  A big male red-bummed baboon takes over from a rival and kills all the cute little baboon babies.  Killer whales play with injured seals, tossing them around until they die.  Nature is a wicked stepmother.

Continuing with Nature:

We have not been created by Nature for the purpose of playing games or telling jokes; rather, we are here for serious purposes, for great and important pursuits.  Of course one may play games and tell jokes, just as we divert ourselves through sleep and other types of rest; but this should happen only when we have first completed our serious and important responsibilities.

The Romans and the Victorians have a similar vibe, don’t they?  Must be an imperial thing.  To the meat of the matter, I am convinced here by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (review coming soon), who says that a suitably developed man chooses his own virtues and goals, and thereby begins to become more than man.  If you want to be the world’s greatest comedian, go for it.  If you want to work your way through the Karma Sutra and become a truly extraordinary lover, fine.  If you want to spend as much of your life as possible down at the park playing boules, please yourself.  Just remember that the enlightened man knows he is free to choose, and chooses consciously.

Cicero says,

But while all philosophy [. . .] is fecund and fertile, and no part of it desiccated or barren, we can say that no part of it is more fruitful or rewarding than the study of moral duties, from which are gleaned the principles for living a steady and upright life.

Two thousand years later, it seems that that the study of moral duties is indeed the most desiccated and barren part of philosophy.  Let’s give it a respectful send off so that future moralists may address only its silent ashes – and let the rest of us seek greener intellectual pastures.

Having said that, Cicero is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand Western history and philosophy.  His work is part of the foundation upon which all the rest stands, including that of opposing writers here mentioned.

Curtius’ translation is modern and clear without being vulgar and his copious notes add essential background for the non-specialist.  I highly recommend this book as a fascinating snapshot of the birth of our civilization.

Further reading:

Fortress of the Mind (author blog)

Cicero’s letter and Cicero’s death from the series Rome.  Not quite historically accurate but I think they capture the personality we admire today.



  1. BaruchK · April 26, 2017

    >But if Sophocles had said this, for example, at a training gym for athletes, he would have been fairly free from reprimand. Such is the authority given by place and time!

    I think he probably meant that if Sophocles was commenting on the youth in a sportsmanlike, non-gay sense. Maybe-those Greeks were pretty fruity.

    >Two thousand years later, it seems that that the study of moral duties is indeed the most desiccated and barren part of philosophy.

    Jews still study it. For instance, The Duties of the Heart: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chovot_HaLevavot

    >Further, we can generally agree that watching YouTubers play computer games is utterly unnatural, yet, while perhaps a waste of time, is probably not immoral.

    Maybe. According to the Jewish perspective, this may be bittul, a waste of time, and time is given one by G-d, so immoral.


  2. Nikolai Vladivostok · April 30, 2017

    What I mean is that morals are entirely subjective and that trying to study them in a logical way will leave us chasing our tails. Theists can use holy texts as a basis for moral reasoning but without God we have nothing to stand on.
    This is not an argument for God – it is an argument against morality. But don’t tell the plebs.


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