The Partial Coherence of Cicero’s De officiis


Martha Nussbaum has provided a sustained critique of Cicero’s De officiis (or On Duties), concerning what she claims is Cicero’s incoherent distinction between duties of justice, which are strict, cosmopolitan, and impartial, and duties of material aid, which are elastic, weighted towards those who are near and dear, and partial. No doubt, from Nussbaum’s cosmopolitan perspective, Cicero’s distinction between justice and beneficence seems problematic and lies at the root of modern moral failures to conceptualize adequately our obligations in situations of famine and global inequality. And yet a careful reading of Cicero’s On Duties shows many duties that appear to be partial. It is hard to believe that Cicero’s discussion of these “partial duties” was a mere oversight or omission on his part. Rather, Cicero seemed to have no problem endorsing what I will call the “partial coherence” of duties in the work—namely, the claim that asserting that duties are exhaustively partial or impartial is a false dichotomy. With the help of conceptual analysis by Richard Kraut, my paper aims to establish and defend Cicero’s “partial coherence” against Nussbaum’s criticisms.

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Thornton Lockwood
Quinnipiac University


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