Cultural Psychology

Cicero, Just War and American Foreign Policy

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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.


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  1. […] Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, the subject of several recent posts here,  never specifically identified prayer as a condition for just warfare, but the principle […]

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