Cultural Psychology

Archive for April 2012

Cicero, Just War and American Foreign Policy

with 3 comments


Cicero, Just War, and American Foreign Policy

Despite the combined opposition of legal experts and activists, US government disregard for just war principles keeps getting worse.  The latest example is the Obama administration’s announcement that it will relax requirements for selecting drone strike assassination targets in Yemen.

To resist this seemingly implacable trend, perhaps we need some new ideas.  We might get them from an unlikely source:  the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE).

This is too large a topic to deal with fully in a blog post – a book or long article would be more fitting.  But we can at least touch upon some main points, hopefully stimulating interest and further inquiry.

Why Cicero?

Cicero, who could easily be considered the father of just war theory, deserves our attention for several reasons. First, he presents a concise, coherent, and surprisingly modern just war theory, all in a single place:  the first book of his work, On Duties (De officiis, 1.11.33–1.13.41).

Second, an important feature of Cicero’s virtue ethics – predominantly Stoic, but also influenced by Aristotle and Plato – is that morality is absolute, not relative. In his view, virtue, not material comfort, is the highest good (or perhaps the only good). Material comforts or discomforts, temporary, are of little importance compared to health of the soul, which is eternal.  As Socrates put it, “A person who harms my body does not harm me.  Only I can harm myself.” –  and that by acting nonvirtuously.

It follows from the absolute basis of morality that nothing can be expedient if it isn’t moral, and that the moral choice is also the most expedient, even if it may appear inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Third, Cicero’s ethical theory is embedded within a detailed and compelling Natural Law philosophy, explained both in On Duties, and other works like Republic (De republica), On Laws (De legibus), and On the Gods (De natura deorum).  Consistent with the cosmopolitanism prominent in later Stoicism, Cicero maintains there is a community of all human beings, and that our moral duties extend to everyone, not just family and country.  Man is a social animal, and any anti-social action is also anti-self, because it violates ones moral nature.

Moreover, to violate Natural Law is to act contrary to the order of the universe, and therefore to invite divine punishment. As surely as Providence aids the righteous, or those who follow Nature, it also responds to immoral personal or national actions with ‘divine frowns’.

Fifth, the parallels between the situation of the US today and Rome’s in Cicero’s time are significant.  He was familiar with the ethical ambiguities associated with preserving and defending a global superpower with military force.

Guilt vs. Honor Cultures

Anthropologists make a distinction between a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘guilt culture’.  In a shame culture (which could also be called an honor culture) morality is inseparable from an instinctive urge to be socially accepted and respected.  To act immorally is to suffer shame, the low opinion of others, and social ostracization.  To act morally is to merit a good reputation and honor. In a guilt culture, morality tend to depend more on abstract or codified (and not infrequently incorrect) ideas of right and wrong, and fear of punishment.

A shame-honor culture, based on social instincts, is arguably more compatible with Natural Law ethics than a guilt culture, based on rules and concepts, in which rationalization and sophistry can easily obscure ethical duties.

Most people agree that Western culture today is a guilt culture.  Cicero, however, wrote in the context of a Roman shame-honor culture.  The historical transition to a guilt culture has, arguably, diminished the natural, instinctive moral sense in the West, producing, in the end, the radical moral relativism we see today.  Cicero, by connecting us with natural, instinctive morality, may supply a remedial influence.

Ciceronian Ethics and Political Realism

Ciceronian Natural Law ethics could even be seen as supplying a definitive answer to political realism. Realism asserts, in short, that the end justifies the means, and that the strong not only may, but should, exert their will over the weak. Cicero replies that nothing is more expedient, pragmatic, and self-serving than to act virtuously and morally.  To act immorally is to become dissociated from one’s own moral nature, to become inauthentic,  to “flee from oneself”, to violate ones conscience  — and to suffer inevitable adverse consequences as a result.  Hence, what the realist considers expedient is not expedient at all, if it violates moral law.  Only what is moral is truly expedient.

Cicero relates an example (On Duties 1.13.40) involving the Greek general, Pyrrhus of Epirus, with whom Rome fought for supremacy in southern Italy around 280 BC.  A deserter from Pyrrhus’ army offered to return to camp by stealth and assassinate Pyrrhus.  Despite the fact that it would have assured their military victory, the Roman Senate would have nothing of it – they promptly had the would-be assassin returned to Pyrrhus.  Here is a striking example of the Roman sense of honor in war.

Cicero was also keenly aware of the need to follow the spirit of the law, and not merely its letter. He describes (Duties 1.13.40) an incident when, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal released and sent ten captured Roman soldiers to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, having first make them promise to return in the event of their failure .  After their release, one prisoner immediately returned to Hannibal’s camp, pretending to have forgotten something, and then left again.  He later claimed that he had fulfilled his promise to “return”, and so could remain in Rome.  This was utterly detested by the Romans themselves, and the censors penalized the man for the remainder of his life.

A Non-Sectarian Religious Morality?

American foreign policy is schizophrenic.  One the one hand, our actions are governed entirely by realist policy and expediency. And yet Americans profess to be deeply religious.  The motto of the United States, ‘In God We Trust’ seems diametrically opposed to and utterly irreconcilable with realism.

Were one to seriously suggest that we ought to base foreign policy on religious virtue ethics, one could well imagine the chorus of voices that would complain how this violates the principle of separation of church and state.  But Ciceronian ethics could supply what many social critics have already called for: a moral system that is religiously based, yet not connected with any particular religion, sect, or denomination.

The alternative is to remain mired in relativistic ethics, political realism, and an increasingly inhumane and unnatural society.

Cicero on Just War

with 2 comments


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 BCE)

Source:  Cicero, De officiis. (Walter Miller, transl.;  Loeb Classical Edition; Latin/English parallel text).    Harvard University Press, 1913.

De officiis (On Moral Duties), 1.11.33-1.13.41, 3.29.107.

11. Again, there are certain duties that we owe even to those who have wronged us. For there is a limit to retribution and to punishment; or rather, I am inclined to think, it is sufficient that the aggressor should be brought to repent of his wrong-doing, in order that he may not repeat the offence and that others may be deterred from doing wrong.

[34] Then, too, in the case of a state in its external relations, the rights of war must be strictly observed. For since there are two ways of settling a dispute: first, by discussion; second, by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion.

[35] The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Aequians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage and Numantia to the ground. I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did — its convenient situation, probably — and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile. And if my advice had been heeded on this point, we should still have at least some sort of constitutional government, if not the best in the world, whereas, as it is, we have none at all.

Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.

[36] As for war, humane laws touching it are drawn up in the fetial code of the Roman People under all the guarantees of religion; and from this it may be gathered that no war is just, unless it is entered upon after an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made. Popilius was general in command of a province. In his army Cato’s son was serving on his first campaign. When Popilius decided to disband one of his legions, he discharged also young Cato who was serving in that same legion. But when the young man out of love for the service stayed on in the field, his father wrote to Popilius to say that if he let him stay in the army, he should swear him into service with a new oath of allegiance, for in view of the voidance of his former oath he could not legally fight the foe. So extremely scrupulous was the observance of the laws in regard to the conduct of war.

[37] There is extant, too, a letter of the elder Marcus Cato to his son Marcus, in which he writes that he has heard that the youth has been discharged by the consul [Lucius Aemilius Paulus (B.C. 168)], when he was serving in Macedonia in the war with Perseus. He warns him, therefore, to be careful not to go into battle; for, he says, the man who is not legally a soldier has no right to be fighting the foe.

12. This also I observe — that he who would properly have been called “a fighting enemy” (perduellis) was called “a guest” (hostis), thus relieving the ugliness of the fact by a softened expression; for “enemy” (hostis) meant to our ancestors what we now call “stranger” (peregrinus). This is proved by the usage in the Twelve Tables: “Or a day fixed for trial with a stranger” (hostis). And again: “Right of ownership is inalienable for ever in dealings with a stranger” (hostis). What can exceed such charity, when he with whom one is at war is called by so gentle a name? And yet long lapse of time has given that word a harsher meaning: for it has lost its signification of “stranger” and has taken on the technical connotation of “an enemy under arms.”

[38] But when a war is fought out for supremacy and when glory is the object of war, it must still not fail to start from the same motives which I said a moment ago were the only righteous grounds for going to war. But those wars which have glory for their end must be carried on with less bitterness. For we contend, for example, with a fellow-citizen in one way, if he is a personal enemy, in another, if he is a rival: with the rival it is a struggle for office and position, with the enemy for life and honour. So with the Celtiberians and the Cimbrians we fought as with deadly enemies, not to determine which should be supreme, but which should survive; but with the Latins, Sabines, Samnites, Carthaginians, and Pyrrhus we fought for supremacy. The Carthaginians violated treaties; Hannibal was cruel; the others were more merciful. From Pyrrhus we have this famous speech on the exchange of prisoners:

Gold will I none, nor price shall ye give; for I ask none;
Come, let us not be chaff’rers of war, but warriors embattled.
Nay; let us venture our lives, and the sword, not gold, weigh the outcome.
Make we the trial by valour in arms and see if Dame Fortune
Wills it that ye shall prevail or I, or what be her judgment.
Hear thou, too, this word, good Fabricius: whose valour soever
Spared hath been by the fortune ofwar— their freedom I grant them.
Such my resolve. I give and present them to you, my brave Romans;
Take them back to their homes; the great gods’ blessings attend you.”

A right kingly sentiment this and worthy a scion of the Aeacidae.

13. [39] Again, if under stress of circumstance individuals have made any promise to the enemy, they are bound to keep their word even then. For instance, in the First Punic War, when Regulus was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, he was sent to Rome on parole to negotiate an exchange of prisoners; he came and, in the first place, it was he that made the motion in the Senate that the prisoners should not be restored; and in the second place, when his relatives and friends would have kept him back, he chose to return to a death by torture rather than prove false to his promise, though given to an enemy.

[40] And again in the Second Punic War, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal sent to Rome ten Roman captives bound by an oath to return to him, if they did not succeed in ransoming his prisoners; and as long as any one of them lived, the censors kept them all degraded and disfranchised, because they were guilty of perjury in not returning. And they punished in like manner the one who had incurred guilt by an evasion of his oath: with Hannibal’s permission this man left the camp and returned a little later on the pretext that he had forgotten something or other; and then, when he left the camp the second time, he claimed that he was released from the obligation of his oath; and so he was, according to the letter of it, but not according to the spirit. In the matter of a promise one must always consider the meaning and not the mere words.

Our forefathers have given us another striking example of justice toward an enemy: when a deserter from Pyrrhus promised the Senate to administer poison to the king and thus work his death, the Senate and Gaius Fabricius delivered the deserter up to Pyrrhus. Thus they stamped with their disapproval the treacherous murder even of an enemy who was at once powerful, unprovoked, aggressive, and successful.

[41] With this I will close my discussion of the duties connected with war.

Pirates, the “common foe of all the world” not “lawful enemies”

In 3.29.107, Cicero makes these remarks:

[107] Furthermore, we have laws regulating warfare, and fidelity to an oath must often be observed in dealings with an enemy: for an oath sworn with the clear understanding in one’s own mind that it should be performed must be kept; but if there is no such understanding, it does not count as perjury if one does not perform the vow. For example, suppose that one does not deliver the amount agreed upon with pirates as the price of one’s life, that would be accounted no deception—not even if one should fail to deliver the ransom after having sworn to do so; for a pirate is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but is the common foe of all the world (communis hostis omnium); and with him there ought not to be any pledged word nor any oath mutually binding.

Source:  Cicero, De officiis. (Walter Miller, transl.;  Loeb Classical Edition; Latin/English parallel text).  Harvard University Press, 1913.

Related Reference:

Related posts:

Pseudodoxia – A New Term for an Old Psychological Disorder

with one comment


Most educated people know at least a few facts about the life of Socrates, including that:

(1) he claimed to have wisdom only insofar as he admitted his ignorance;

(2) he constantly battled the word-twisting Sophists of his day; and

(3) he was ultimately tried and executed by the ignorant mass opinion of the Athenians.

Knowing just this much one could easily characterize Socrates’ mission as a crusade against false opinion.

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, the term ‘false opinion’ occurs often and prominently. Interestingly, the actual Greek term used, pseude doxazein is a verb, not a noun. We might translate it in modern English as something like ‘false opinionizing’, ‘false opining’, or ‘the mental process of forming false opinions’. This is significant, for by understanding false opinion as a cognitive process, we can potentially understand and remedy it..

False opinion afflicts us everywhere, and it is no small wonder that Socrates was so committed to opposing it.  Some examples at the individual and collective level include:

  • I know that I’m right.
  • This other person injured me, so I must retaliate.
  • All Republicans are greedy (or all Democrats are soft-headed ‘bleeding hearts’).
  • The only way to counter terrorism is with multiple wars.

We could easily list a hundred other examples.  Not a day occurs that false opinion doesn’t harm us in dozens of ways.  Every human problem, if not caused by false opinion in the first place, is at least made worse by it.

Because of the importance of false opinion, I propose that we supply a better name for the phenomenon.  A plausible candidate is pseudodoxia (pseudo = false; doxia = opinionizing). This has the same form we use for other abnormal cognitive processes, such as dementia, melancholia, mania, and paranoia. A  term like this helps to underscore the nature of false opinion as a real and distinct cognitive abnormality or disorder.

What, then, do we know or what can we plausibly conjecture about pseudodoxia? Plato and Socrates give us clues, including these:

First, it involves a failure to distinguish between a proven fact and mere opinion. Valid reasoning involves (1) a proven or highly plausible first principle (e.g., all triangles have three sides), and (2) logical inferences derived from valid first principles.

Pseudodoxia, in contrast, involves (1) uncritical acceptance of an unproven and completely conjectural first principle (e.g., ‘I really want to smoke this cigarette’) and (2) logical inferences deduced from a such false or merely conjectural first principles.

Second, pseudodoxia involves an intrusion of wants, desires, and needs into the sphere of reason.  That is, wants and fears co-opt reasoning and judgment. In English, we informally call this sort of thing ‘wishful thinking.’  With false opinion or pseudodoxia, such wishful thinking is not distinguished from true, rational logic; one accepts the conclusions of the former as if it were the latter.

Plato and Socrates also outline for us what must happen to overcome this powerful enemy:

Our first recourse is to avoid the dangers of false opinion is to know it exists.  Once a person is alerted to the workings of false opinion, it becomes apparent how much harm it causes, and one develops the motivation to oppose it.

Second, people must understand that there is an alternative to false opinion.  As noted, false opinion develops in connection with faulty, self-serving first principles.  The antidote is to recognize the role of what philosophers call noesisNoesis is a special mental faculty, like seeing, which apprehends truths directly (bypassing verbal or discursive thought).  Not everything is knowable by noesis — rather, it concerns such things as direct insights into one’s own nature, (‘know thyself’) and moral truths.  For example, sometimes in life we have little epiphany experiences, where, either by reflection, or reading, or by noticing something in another person, we are made aware of the real meaning of something like love, friendship, integrity, and so on.  It is these sorts of things that should form the foundations of our logical inferences, not idle opinion that merely enters our mind as a hostile prejudice or wish-fulfilling daydream.

Thus, to take a concrete example, a soldier at war tends to accept uncritically the assumption that “my opponents are evil, demonic beings.”  Yet something may happen that causes him to see the enemy in a different light.  He may see them wounded, say, or interacting with families.  Then he has a valid, noetic insight:  “Wait, these people are no different from me.”  The conclusions he derives from the latter would constitute knowledge.

Third, another alternative, one based on ‘Socratic ignorance’ is to learn to be content simply to say, ‘I don’t know.’  This is also the strategy of Pyrhhonic skepticism.

I will write more on this, either with further posts or adding to this one, but this is enough to get started.

Written by John Uebersax

April 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm