Friday, December 09, 2005

Morality and Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, known typically as Cicero, was the greatest Roman orator. He also was a philosopher and wrote long essays about how to be moral and how to live a happy life. My favorite essay is De Officiis III, or On Duties Three. It is the third in a series of philosophical works which were written ostensibly as letters to his son in an effort to show him how to live. In On Duties III, Cicero puts forth a code of morality. He says that in order to determine our actions in any given circumstance, that we must ask ourselves three questions.

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?

His assertion, much like that of Spencer W. Kimball in The Miracle of Forgiveness, is that true advantage and true morality can never be separated. While Kimball discusses this in terms of repentance and some people who claim to be better off having sinned and repented, Cicero says that any action which is truly advantageous by definition is truly morally correct. He says that since men don't have perfect knowledge that they still have "second class obligations", essentially that they are still obligated to judge advantage and morality to the best of their ability.

Cicero qualifies this by saying that the ability to be perfectly moral is therefore dependent on having a perfect knowledge. If you can't perfectly understand the consequences of your actions, then you can't determine whether they are truly advantageous or not, and thus cannot determine whether they are truly moral. So, you can see why I like this kind of argument. This means that some actions which are conventionally considered immoral can become moral if the result of those actions are truly advantageous. We see this kind of dilemma rather often in the scriptures, in the Book of Abraham when God instructs Abraham to lie about Sarai, the killing of Laban, and elsewhere no doubt. So it is clear that the commandments we have been given are given because they are almost always moral, not because they are immutably so. An example my friend D-Train always used to put forth is, if it's 1942 and the SS knocks on your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews, you best tell them no whether you are or not.

Cicero states that each man ought to identify his own interest with the interest of all. So an individual's morality is based on the advantage of the group, not necessarily on personal advantage. He states that all men have identical interests and by helping each other we help the body politic of which we are a part, and thus help ourselves. This sort of attitude, if enacted, works wonders.

Cicero states that any instance in which there is an apparent difference between right and advantage, it is simply due to a mistake. We cannot properly interpret the situation because we lack that perfect knowledge. He states that this binding of advantage and right is the law of nature and that nothing can deviate from it.

So as you can see, the parallels between Cicero and LDS thought are pretty big. Cicero, having died a few years before Christ was born, wasnt a Christian or even a monotheist but he seems to have arrived at quite a few brilliant moral conclusions several decades before the adult ministry of Christ and 1800 years before Joseph Smith. We have been told by revelation and by the Prophets to search out the best books. Was Cicero divinely inspired? I dont know. But I know that the fact that I read his works has been advantageous to me, and therefore good.


Blogger Mike said...

so, uhm- did you take this post down? What'd I miss?

11:31 PM  
Blogger D-Train said...

Interesting.....but what does Cicero's argument really do? For anybody? Is it all that insightful to say that morality is always what is good? I think it's a lot more interesting to look at morality and interest as opposed and then to see why you might choose morality. Am I missing something or is this nothing more than a tautological wordplay?

6:53 PM  
Blogger D-Train said...

On further reflection, I am a big fan of the concept of a second degree obligation. It's much worse to do something that you know is wrong than to do something based on your best effort that happens to be wrong. The part of Cicero that I don't seem to care for is the bit about moral good=utilitarian good. How much space does he devote to making that point?

8:36 PM  
Blogger Lager Jager said...

Cicero really does not spend too much time discussing the second class obligations. He usually talks about how ideal people behave. He spends a lot of time discussing the issue about moral good and utility being the same. While this argument may not really be ground-breaking now, for the time it was vitally important. More often than not he is mixing pre-existing philosophy from the stoic schools, the parapeteic schools, and the academy. For example, the part about the second class obligations is actually from the stoic school. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is Cicero's thought and what isnt, but in the end he provides us with a great source for ancient philosophy and I think the way in which he explains it is helpful today as well.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Joseph Smith, Jr. said...

Interesting blog. Enjoyed reading it.


Joseph Smith Jr.
what is mormonism

5:07 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

buy viagra

viagra online

generic viagra

1:50 PM  
Blogger Ben Donahue said...

Being a huge fan of Cicero, I enjoyed your blog. Being an atheist, i find it also somewhat amusing.
I thought it was interesting to see that you were somewhat astonished that such an insight into morality came from a pagan. However, morality is not inherently christian. In fact, considering the amount of violence in the bible, I would even argue the opposite. That being said though, Morality has been debated for millenia. I think it was socrates who used to teach that morality is inherent in us. Typically the only one's who have no issues with killing or other atrocities have mental disorders like sociopathy.
Anyway. Good Blog.

4:53 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home