Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Excerpts from Stephen White's's entry on Cicero in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)

Cicero(106-43 BCE)

Life and writings

Marcus Tullius Cicero, elder son of a locally influential family in the town of Arpinum, moved to Rome in his youth to pursue a career in law and government. There he studied with several Greek philosophers, including the Academic Philo of Larissa, and after a brilliant legal debut he spent two years in Greece studying philosophy and rhetoric with Antiochus and the Stoic Posidonius. Upon his return he won election to a major office that brought lifelong membership of the Senate (Rome's supreme governing body) and soon established himself as the foremost advocate of the age. Elected consul (Rome's chief executive office) in 63 BCE, he suppressed an insurrection and was hailed his country's saviour. But opponents contrived his exile in 58 BC, and when he returned the following year, he found his influence severely diminished. Turning to writing, he formulated and defended his political ideals in three pioneering dialogues. When Julius Caesar precipitated civil war in 49 BCE, Cicero sided reluctantly with the opposition as the lesser threat to Roman institutions. Caesar's swift victory brought dictatorship, and Cicero, although granted clemency, was excluded from politics. Returning to writing, he championed free political discussion in a series of rhetorical works, then composed in twenty months a dozen works (nine survive whole or in large part) discussing central problems in Hellenistic philosophy. The political turmoil that followed Caesar's assassination in March 44 BC slowed, then halted this astonishing pace as he rallied resistance to Mark Antony's despotic designs. His campaign might well have succeeded had Antony not colluded with Caesar's adoptive heir, the future Augustus: Cicero was assassinated and his head impaled in the Forum where he had spoken so often and so eloquently.

Cicero's extant works, although only part of his enormous output, comprise over fifty speeches, nearly a thousand letters to friends and associates, several works on rhetorical theory and practice, and twelve on philosophical topics. This vast corpus, besides displaying great intellectual range and stylistic virtuosity, embodies Cicero's conviction that philosophy and rhetoric are interdependent and both essential for the improvement of human life and society. His oratory bears the stamp of his theoretical studies, and his treatises and dialogues are richly oratorical. The philosophical works in particular unite the rhetorical techniques and ample style of Roman oratory with the analytical methods and conceptual apparatus of Greek philosophy in a unique fusion of eloquence and insight. All but one of these works are fictional dialogues. Some portray Cicero or eminent Romans of the previous century discoursing at length among friends; others, employing a format that reflects Roman political and legal practice but also the critical spirit Cicero admired in Plato and his sceptical heirs in the New Academy, present paired speeches for and against Epicurean and Stoic theories. Composed for audiences unused to abstract theory and systematic analysis, the discussions lapse at times into earnest declamation, and the close questioning found in Plato's dialogues is rare. However, they are methodically organized and often incisive, and by presenting opposing views and arguments in clear and engaging terms, they dramatize the significance of fundamental problems and encourage critical reflection.

Classical republicanism

Cicero's first philosophical works are three long dialogues that analyse and evaluate the political institutions and practices of contemporary Rome in the light of Greek theory. Although largely conservative, they provided the first political theory in Latin and remain the most systematic ancient account of Roman government; while others described events, only Cicero advanced a structural analysis. Written when Rome's republican traditions were collapsing under unprecedented concentrations of economic and military power, these dialogues champion political liberty, rational debate and rule by law. Articulating the principles behind his lifelong goal of harmonizing Rome's competing interests in a just and stable 'concord of the orders', they propound a comprehensive vision of civil society directed by an elected elite schooled in rhetoric and philosophy, devoted to constitutional government and able to shape public opinion through effective oratory.

The first of these works, On the Orator, explores the role of rhetoric and philosophy in public life. Oratory had long been a potent tool in Roman politics, and Cicero aims to reinforce its prestige and legitimize its influence by showing that its success requires wide learning and sound reasoning. Much of the discussion focuses on education, as he weighs the merits of the traditional Roman emphasis on history, poetry and practical experience against the Greek disciplines of formal rhetoric and philosophy. His model orator, who clearly reflects Cicero's own proficiencies, unites thorough knowledge of history and law with complete command of logical method, philosophical theory and rhetorical techniques in a Romanized version of Plato's philosopher-rulers. Both expect philosophical education to produce the best statesmen; but whereas Plato's ideal hinges on mathematical training and transcendental metaphysics, Cicero proposes a thoroughly pragmatic programme of instruction designed to foster eloquence and informed civic debate.

Cicero delineates the institutional framework behind his conception of leadership in On the Republic, which was almost entirely lost until most of the first third was recovered in 1820. Challenging the utopian bent of Greek political theory exemplified by Plato's Republic, Cicero argues that the best constitution, far from being unattainable, was largely realized in Rome, where a unique blend of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy formed a 'mixed constitution' that provided a system of government ostensibly stable and just. This account, which recasts Rome's narrow oligarchy as a paradigm of aristocratic paternalism, rests on an incisive and apparently original analysis of political legitimacy. Defining a republic (res publica) as 'a people's affair' (res populi) and a people as a community 'united by consensus about right and by mutual interest', Cicero criticizes all other constitutions for contravening the people's rights and interests, then argues that no political system is legitimate unless it distributes legal rights equally to all, but electoral, legislative and judicial authority proportionally according to merit and wealth. Other extant sections of the dialogue classify types of constitution in classical Greek fashion and survey the development of Roman institutions; lost or poorly preserved sections summarized Hellenistic debates about the nature and rewards of justice, discussed Roman education and measured past Roman statesman against Cicero's ideal. Ending the work is the famous 'dream of Scipio', which interweaves astronomy and eschatology to sketch a theodicy that rewrites Plato's myth of Er in the light of Stoic cosmology and exalts public service by reserving the finest posthumous rewards for outstanding statesmen.

On Laws, a sequel probably left incomplete and published only after Cicero's death, fills in his constitutional model by outlining a comprehensive legal system. Vying with Plato's Laws this time, he continues his argument that Rome already embodied much of the ideal. His treatment of religion and political administration, which is all that survives, is deeply conservative, largely an explanation and defence of existing statutes and institutions by appeal to Greek theory and Roman history, with proposals for change limited to streamlining and archaizing reforms rather than extensive revision or thorough codification. The work was extremely influential, especially on Christian and early modern thought, because it contains the fullest surviving ancient account of natural law. Drawing heavily on Stoic ideas, Cicero argues that the natural world exhibits a divinely ordained and rationally intelligible order that can be codified in legislation and provides the ultimate tribunal for all positive law.

Civil war interrupted Cicero's writing and he never returned to constitutional or legal theory. But his very last book rounds out his political thinking by examining the role of personal morality in public life. In the guise of an extended epistle to his son, On Duties maps out a code of conduct for the Roman nobility that emphasizes justice, benefaction and public service. The focus throughout is on men of high station and the problems of integrating personal ambitions and social obligations. Borrowing heavily from the Stoic Panaetius, Cicero argues that virtuous conduct is always expedient as well as morally required, and that apparent conflicts between morality and personal advantage are illusory because virtuous action is always the best option.

Humanist ethics

Informing all of Cicero's work is a profound faith in the natural goodness of humanity and the power of reason to direct and improve human life. The assumptions behind this humanist outlook, which is probably Cicero's most constructive synthesis of Greek ideas, are systematically examined in On the Ends of Good and Evil (usually known as the De finibus). Tackling the central question of ancient ethical theory, the dialogue inquires into the ultimate end of human action and how happiness is attained (see Eudaimonia). Paired speeches expound and criticize Epicurean and Stoic accounts of human nature and the status of moral virtue; ending the work and receiving only brief criticism is a neo-Aristotelian account derived from Antiochus. Cicero speaks throughout as an Academic sceptic, arguing that Epicurean hedonism is incoherent and morally subversive, and challenging the Stoic doctrine that moral virtue is the sole good and hence sufficient for happiness. But he commends the moral austerity and theoretical rigour of Stoic ethics, and while he finds the Aristotelian position intuitively attractive and most conducive to public service, he questions whether Antiochus' view that non-moral interests are also intrinsically good undermines the supremacy of moral virtue.

Setting aside sceptical worries to address practical questions, Cicero explores some applications of his ethical rationalism in two substantial works and a pair of earnest but elegant moralizing essays. On Duties employs a Stoic framework to spell out systematic rules of conduct. Tusculan Disputations similarly uses Stoic theory to analyse problems in moral psychology. Adopting a format used by Carneades, Cicero presents five lengthy disquisitions refuting common beliefs about the emotions; but since each speech upholds a Stoic paradox, the result is a sustained defence of Stoic doctrines. Invoking a legion of philosophical and literary authorities, Cicero argues vigorously that philosophy is the medicine of the soul, and that it alone enables us to scorn death, endure pain, overcome grief and other passions, and lead good lives. Much of the argument rests on an acute Stoic analysis of emotions as governed by beliefs. But Cicero's ideal of rational restraint and self-control as the source of mental tranquillity and happiness distills ideas central to Greek and Roman culture alike. Two shorter dialogues portray eminent Romans from the previous century as sage advisors on more personal topics. On Old Age enumerates the lasting rewards of honourable character and education, including a glorious afterlife. On Friendship extols a paradigm of aristocratic male companionship based on mutual benefit but also integrity and loyalty. Both works, while distinctly less systematic than Cicero's other dialogues, exemplify his ability to illuminate vital human concerns with philosophical insight and graceful eloquence.


Cicero was the most influential writer and intellect of his time, and his impact on Western culture has been lasting and profound. His philosophical writings, by forging expressions essential for theoretical discussion, inaugurated over sixteen centuries of philosophy in Latin. They also fuelled the rise of Christianity in the West, as the Latin Fathers mined his dialogues in their campaigns against pagan religion and philosophy (see Patristic philosophy). Augustine, whose life was transformed by the exhortation to philosophy in Cicero's lost Hortensius, drew on his writings extensively, especially in Against the Academics and City of God. Through these and other writers, most notably Ambrose, Jerome and the pagan Macrobius (whose Neoplatonic commentary on 'Scipio's dream' was widely studied), Cicero's ideas shaped medieval thought, especially ethics and theories of natural law. His influence reached its zenith in the Renaissance, when Erasmus and other humanists emulated his critical spirit and reaffirmed his secular outlook and ecumenical ideals. By making his writings the foundation of a liberal education, they also increased his moral authority; and in the following centuries his ethical and political works (above all On Duties, dubbed 'Tully's Offices' in English) fostered the revival of republicanism and the development of liberalism, while his dialogues on religion were inspirational to deism. Voltaire proclaimed him the model of enlightened reason; and Hume was deeply indebted to Cicero, especially in his critique of religious dogmatism and his conception of 'mitigated' scepticism. The rise of idealism in the nineteenth century lowered Cicero's philosophical reputation considerably. But renewed interest in scepticism and virtue ethics, along with improved understanding of Hellenistic philosophy, has in recent decades stimulated intense discussion of his work yet again.

Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge
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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)