spring/summer 2006, no. 7



Why Be Good?


by Jeff Miller




A review of Cunning by Don Herzog; Princeton University Press, 2006.



In the vocabulary of most virtue ethicists, cunning has a particularly distasteful flavor. But why? After all, cunning is only a slightly exaggerated — or perhaps slightly more truthful — word for what grounds much of how we achieve what we want in the world: instrumental rationality. Cunning is instrumental rationality taken a bit too far: the pursuit of goals at the expense of friends, country, religion, love; the ruthlessly efficient means to an end.


Niccolò Machiavelli was the first modern thinker to emphasize the role instrumental rationality plays in politics, though Don Herzog, author of the new book, Cunning would be quick to point out that the roots for a philosophical discussion on cunning go back at least to Plato, and at the very foundation of the Western canon one finds Odysseus, the cunning man par excellence.


But it is Machiavelli who distinctively marks modernity off by decoupling ethics from politics and emphasizing the importance of instrumental rationality. The problem with most rulers, Machiavelli tells his readers in The Prince, is that they are unclear about their goals: they want to be both good men and good rulers. One cannot, alas, be both. And so, says Machiavelli, most rulers fail at both: employing half-way measures which result in both physical and spiritual doom. One should, rather, be clear about what one wants. If you want to be a good person, stay out of politics. If you want to be successful in politics, says Machiavelli, “learn how not to be good.”¹


And what is wrong with this advice? Surely cunning is a quality we sometimes want in our political leaders if not in our friends and partners. Surely instrumental rationality aids the business leader if not the lover. Surely? First-year seminars in political theory are full of students debating Machiavelli’s advice, and my suspicion is that backers of Machiavelli are usually in the majority, even if that majority is (perhaps cunningly) silent.


While Machiavelli at least seems single-minded on the question of instrumental rationality, Herzog is not. But his book does follow Machiavelli in addressing the topic of cunning through a dense thicket of examples, most of which frustrate easy moral categorization, and which instead slowly reveal the deeply embedded nature of cunning in human life and our equally deep ambivalence about it. Along the way cunning impacts two larger philosophical questions. The first is how firmly or loosely one holds one’s social role. The question here is to what extent one embraces positional duties, moral or otherwise: “I know I’m supposed to hold office hours, but why should I?” “I know my friend needs help moving, but why should I give up my Saturday to help him?” Most of us have some degree of practical detachment from our social roles, and some of us even play out our roles ironically. But too much detachment can result in the rejection of the role and the adoption of a purer form of instrumental rationality. Too much detachment lends itself to viewing everything — including other people — solely in terms of their use-value.


The second question is a larger one which is just as old as the question of cunning — indeed, they probably appeared at the same moment: what is the justification of morality? Why not cheat a little bit, or a lot, if one suspects one can get away with it? If one would cheat in cards or business, why not in a marriage?


Most philosophical essays on ethics take a particular abstract stand on these questions — deontological, utilitarian, expressive accounts — and then argue to a conclusion abstractly, with perhaps some examples. Inevitably, though, the conclusions seem too pat, too detached from the messy world of experience and some are too single-minded in their search for explanations (rational choice theory, evolutionary psychology). Then there is the additional problem of proof. For my money, some three thousand years of attempts have not yet yielded a thoroughly convincing answer to the question: “Why should one be good?” And in the face of the sorts of desires which assail the self daily, the question is an even more intractable one.


Herzog’s approach is, then, an interesting one, and eminently more readable than, say, Kant’s Critique. If a final answer is unlikely, why not explore the depth and range of the problem? This is exactly what Herzog does. Three chapters, titled “Dilemmas”, “Appearances”, and “Despair?” treat the reader to descriptions of seventeenth-century murder, Tupperware, astrology, Plutarch, Dashiell Hammett and a blur of other examples. Herzog rarely rests long with a particular case, and in fact, the collective effect is felt rather through the accumulation of examples rather than the details in any one case.


There are some touchstones, though. Categories like murder, theft and betrayal recur, as does the elusive character of Odysseus, who makes his first appearance early on in chapter one, “Dilemmas.” Odysseus is the gold standard for cunning. Homer describes him as aner polutropos, the man of many ways. Whereas most Homeric heroes have a particular excellence (mostly involving military prowess), Odysseus’ chief excellence lies in his ability to adapt to any situation and exploit it. He’s an expert at deception, and often winds up harming even those who are close to him; it’s not completely an accident that he returns to Ithaka alone at the end of his travels.  He is, in a word, cunning.


Odysseus’ behavior, then, sets up the central problematic for the book. Why hold back from acting due to moral scruples when there are gains to be had? Why not break the rules when one can do so with impunity or anonymously?


Herzog’s suggestion of an answer to this question comes only at the end of the book, and then only faintly. It goes by so quickly, in fact, that the casual reader might miss it. Introduced as Plato by way of Aristotle and Kant, Herzog writes:


If your conception of rationality is [instrumental], something like finding the way to the things desired, you’re a slave to your desires. Instead you should be asking yourself what makes a life worth living. And if your conception of morality is a laundry list of “thou shalt nots,” you have an impoverished account of something like a dictator’s snarls. Instead you should be thinking about stances that express care and respect for others (p. 182).


This light theoretical touch may be all that is possible to say in view of the irresolvable problems not only of cunning, but also of setting up philosophical foundations. Indeed, at the end of the final chapter Herzog writes that ethical philosophies like Kant’s, Plato’s, utilitarianism, and so forth, should be employed more like idealizations of particular aspects of our deliberations rather than rival candidates for our adherence (183).


I confess that I find theoretical looseness like this interesting and certainly one of the best available current approaches to ethical dilemmas. If I had one complaint about the book it is that I rather wish that Herzog had spent a bit more time articulating his thoughts about his approach. That would have added the finishing touches to what is otherwise a cleverly written and quite enjoyable book. g



1. N. Machiavelli, The Prince tr. W. Wooten (Hackett, 1995) Ch. 15 (p. 48).




Jeff Miller is an assistant professor in the Political Science and International Relations department at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he also directs the Honors Program. He teaches political theory and conducts his research on fourth-century BCE democratic theory. Jeff is also featured in the Editors' Musings section of this journal; see "Meta Review: Reactions to a Review of The Blank Slate."



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