Read the Corn-Sale Dilemma (Cicero, On Duties 3.50-57). How can this scenario help to understand the ancient arguments for treating other people gener
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The Corn-Sale Dilemma was included in Cicero’s philosophical work De Officiis, aka On Duties. It was written in 44 BC, specifically addressing his son Marcus. It deals with problems of moral behaviour, drawing on the opinions of different sects of ancient philosophy. The Corn-Sale Dilemma exemplifies the main problem of the treatise, namely, finding the right balance between what is “honourable” (honestum) and what is useful. The passage may read like a page from a course on Business Ethics, but in fact Cicero’s focus is primarily moral in the philosophical sense: the emphasis is on the character of the hypothetical seller. This individual is assumed to be a good man1 and, therefore, would not increase the price of his corn if he knew it would be unethical. Cicero goes on to talk about the differences in opinions that the Stoic school of thought had in approaching the problem. Through the exchange between the two Stoics, Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tarsus (both flourished in 2nd century BC),2 it becomes clear that the crux of the argument is centred around the relationship between legitimate self-interest and philanthropic other-concerned obligations. This is a moral dilemma, a probelm that is open; the person has a choice over what to do according to their own morals.
The story reflects a rich spectrum of historical and ideological contexts. Cereals were the staple foods in Greco-Roman antiquity;3 still, food shortages were endemic. Prejudice against profiteering merchants dates back to Homer’s Odyssey (Bk 8.163-4). Generous giving by the affluent elite, on the other hand, was both expected and celebrated. For instance, in the anonymous Latin romance Story of Apollonius King of Tyre4 the hero’s donation rescues a city fr...
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