Friday, April 30, 2021

Evening Note for Friday, April 30

Thought for the Evening: Officia

An important aspect of traditional Western virtue ethics that gets very little discussion in post-medieval discussions of virtue ethics is the entire field of officia. Officium is usually transliterated as 'office' or translated as 'duty'; either works, although we have to be careful of any distorting baggage that might get attached to either. Some (although not all) uses of the word 'norm' overlap with the idea of offices, as well.

If you take the excellent or virtuous life of a human being to be the heart of ethics, then there's a question of how obligations fit into such an approach. There are different ways; for instance, one way is what is covered by natural law theory, another by positive jurisprudence, and so forth. But if you only focus on these, you get a very limited understanding of obligations. Natural law theory primarily offers a general framework for obligation; positive jurisprudence, of course, is focused on human law-making. But there are many other kinds of obligation. Officia are probably the most important kind. To put the matter roughly, officia are obligations that arise in the context of trying to fill legitimate roles virtuously.

The essential idea was heavily influenced by the Stoics, but the primary conduit that leads to discussion of office historically is Cicero's De officiis. Cicero, who was partly building on and partly criticizing an older work (no longer extant) by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, argues that offices need to be understood in light of moral goodness, and thus organizes his discussion in terms of the cardinal virtues -- prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. These are human excellences we all need to achieve. But the sort of thing that is needed in order to achieve the virtues will shift depending on the roles you occupy in life. Someone may need to be prudent as a student, as a mother, as a professional, as a citizen. The virtue is fundamentally the same, but the virtue is responsive to role, taking into account its conditions and circumstances, and because of this our duties or responsibilities or offices in that role may differ in a number of important ways from those we would have in another. As Cicero puts it, "For no phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its duty (officium); on the discharge of such duties (officia) depends all that is morally right, on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life."

Cicero distinguishes two kinds of offices, honesta and utilia, although they are not equally important and he also recognizes that their relationship means that often both are relevant to our particular actions. Honesta, which we could translate as 'nobilities', are more strictly linked with virtues. They are concerned with acting nobly or decorously in the role. Utilia, which we could translate as 'expediences', are more loosely linked to virtues, and are about acting advantageously for oneself and others in a role. To put it roughly, while nobilities are directly required by virtue in a role, and so are properly moral in the strict sense, expediences are what are required for effectively acting in a role in a manner consistent with virtue, so are things that make the moral life one that prospers, and thus are moral responsibilities in a looser sense. In English we sometimes cover the latter in terms of 'enlightened self-interest', although expediences also include what is in the interests of other people. If you are a legislator, refusing to take bribes is a nobility; getting important legislation passed for your constituents by negotiating reasonably with other legislators is an expedience. But, as noted before, while we can consider nobilities and expediences distinctly, in actual life they can be interwoven in complicated ways. And, of course, there's a sense in which in the long run, the big picture, all things considered, nobilities tend toward being expedient and expediences tend toward being noble.

St. Ambrose of Milan also gives us an extensive discussion of offices, with a particular concern for the offices of the priesthood, in his own De officiis. In a broad sense, Ambrose's account is modeled on Cicero's. But there are important differences, arising from the fact that Cicero is writing his book on offices for the benefit of his physical son, whereas Ambrose as bishop is writing his book on offices for the benefit of his spiritual sons, and there are a number of distinctive features of the role of being a Christian priest that inevitably affect how the offices are understood. The biggest difference that Ambrose notes is that for a priest, expediences in the usual sense are largely irrelevant, since the important measure is not success in this world but preparation for the next. Because of this, Ambrose generally prefers to distinguish offices using another distinction mentioned by Cicero, namely, media and perfecta, which, as he understands it, is heavily influenced by the theological distinction between counsels and commands. However, he still organizes his treatise like Cicero's by dividing it into three, with the first book on nobilities, the second on expediences, and the third on their union; it's just that he primarily seems to think of these things as different aspects of the same offices rather than different kinds of office. Perhaps because of Ambrose's arguments, later discussions will tend to keep their primary focus on the virtues, although consideration of offices will often come up (e.g., Aquinas takes a brief moment to discuss them in ST 2-2.183). But they do get a little crowded out in terms of the actual discussion, so it is perhaps not surprising that discussion of them vanishes almost entirely in the early modern period.

Almost, but not quite. They do still come up here and there in discussions of casuistry or cases of consciences. And wherever Cicero is read, you can see some influence from the idea, especially when people discuss duties. The topic of offices comes up in the interaction between David Hume and Francis Hutcheson. Hume, who is the early modern philosopher (other than the Baroque scholastics) with the most sophisticated grasp of virtue as second nature, develops a virtue ethics that is heavily influenced by Cicero. Hutcheson, who is heavily influenced by Cicero as well, at one point will criticize Hume's account for conflating virtues and offices. (It is definitely true that Hume to some extent does so; Hume organizes his virtues in ways that are clearly influenced by Cicero's organization of offices, with immediately agreeable virtues corresponding to nobilities and useful virtues corresponding to expediences, and many of Hume's virtues are things that Cicero would have considered kinds of offices.) We can also see the influence of the ideas on Mill's discussion of the relationship between Right and Expedience in Utilitarianism, and on discussions of imperfect duties and perfect duties that will eventually influence Kant's uses of the same distinction, although in both of these cases we have left any kind of virtue ethics behind.

Unlike virtues, which are necessarily consistent with each other (they are unified by reason and prudence in particular), offices can seem to conflict, both within a role and between different roles one person might have. (I say 'seem' because historically a lot of people have been uncomfortable with the notion of having conflicting moral responsibilities given that virtues on which moral responsibilities depend don't conflict. Cicero, for instance, is opposed to the notion of a real conflict among offices. Ambrose, I think, can be read as taking this only to be strictly true of Christian offices, which are further unified by charity.) Obviously, nobilities should generally be preferred to expediences; offices that affect others should usually be preferred to offices that affect oneself alone; offices for more fundamental roles should generally be preferred to offices for less fundamental roles; and so forth. But while the guidelines are easy enough to recognize, there are no hard and fast rules for weighing offices; the weighing of offices is something done by the virtue of prudence. Virtues operate in roles, but virtues are not confined to roles, and therefore provide the platform by which you are able to determine what is actually appropriate to your own case. This is why the criticism of Hume as conflating office and virtue has some bite. Virtues are more fundamental than offices, and they are what make it possible for us to fulfill our offices in a confusing world.


Various Links of Interest

* Becca Rothfeld, Sanctimony Literature 

* Michael Cuenco, America's New Post-Literate Epistemology

* Lee Alan Dugatkin, The Botanist Who Defied Stalin

* Miguel J. Romero, Aquinas on the Happiness of "Those Who Lack the Use of Reason"

* Brendan Case, The Brain Resides in the Soul (Not the Other Way Around), discusses Berkeley's idealism

* Suki Finn & Sasha Isaac, Evaluating Ectogenesis via the Metaphysics of Pregnancy (PDF)

* Aemlia Soth discusses the contribution of the Claude glass to the development of the concept of the picturesque

* Brendan Hodge, Paying and Praying: Is there a link between parish devotions and weekly collections?

* Joseph Bendana & Eric Mandelbaum, The Fragmentation of Belief (PDF)

* Tamar Newar, Augustine's Master Argument for the Incorporeality of the Mind (PDF)

* Dan Kemp, Created Goodness and the Goodness of God: Divine Ideas and the Possibility of Creaturely Value (PDF)

* Joshua Harris, Collective Action and Social Ontology in Thomas Aquinas

* Colin Marshall, Hume versus the vulgar on resistance, nisus, and the impression of power (PDF)

* Stefanie Rocknack, Constancy and Coherence in 1.4.2 of Hume's Treatise: The Root of "Indirect" Causation and Hume's Position on Objects (PDF)


Currently Reading

Hafnkel's Saga and Other Stories
Richard Courant & Herbert Robbins, What is Mathematics?
Guha, Dasti, & Phillips, trs., God and the World's Arrangement: Readings from Vedanta and Nyaya Philosophy of Religion

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