Virtue Requires Liberty – Misconceptions

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A common argument regarding liberty is that one cannot have liberty without first having virtue. There is merit to this argument, since the two are certainly linked. If individuals are not virtuous and do not take responsibility for themselves and the greater society around them, there will be a tendency to outsource one’s problems to the state.

What many advancing this argument often ignore is that the inverse is true as well. Virtue requires liberty. Virtue is not simply a physical act, but a choice to act in a moral way. Those that do good things solely because they want the payment for doing so are not placed on the same moral pedestal as those that enjoy volunteering to help those in need. It is the mindset behind the act that is important.

More importantly, it is the choice that is moral. If a mass murderer is locked away in prison, and therefore unable to murder anyone else, is he now a more virtuous person than he was before? Of course not. If he had a choice, he would continue acting immorally, but it is his imprisonment preventing him from doing so.

Therefore, a moral act requires the liberty to choose the good. Although liberty requires virtuous people to preserve it, virtue also requires liberty to exist at all. If one is not free to make either the right or wrong choice, he is unable to be virtuous in making the right choice. If the ability to make the wrong choice is removed, he is unable to make a choice at all. There is only one path that can be taken.

Saint Augustine of Hippo

This sort of argument dates back millennia. It can be found as early as the 5th century AD, in Book I of Saint Augustine’s The City of God. Saint Augustine did not set out to write specifically on the relationship between liberty and virtue, but makes such a case in addressing women who had been violated. In Chapter 16, (the title in the Penguin Classics edition is translated as Violation of chastity, without the will’s consent, cannot pollute the character, which summarizes his argument) he argues that although a woman committing adultery is sinful, a woman being violated is not, because she is against the act in the latter situation and has made no choice, and therefore she herself has done nothing wrong. Saint Augustine (again, translated in the Penguin Classics edition) states:

“In the first place, it must be firmly established that virtue, the condition of right living, holds command over the parts of the body from her throne in the mind, and that the consecrated body is the instrument of the consecrated will; and if that will continues unshaken and steadfast, whatever anyone else does with the body or to the body, provided that it cannot be avoided without committing sin, involves no blame to the sufferer.”

Essentially, Augustine is making a point that no one would dare disagree with: one could not blame a woman for cheating on her husband if she was raped. To accept this is to accept that one’s decision to act plays a defining role in the morality of the act.

Lord Acton

One of Lord Acton’s many famous quotes regards the meaning of liberty as he defines it: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” This definition identifies liberty as a protector or precursor to virtuous acts. Liberty gives us the right to do what we are supposed to. Not only must we have the ability to make moral choices, but a free society also provides us with the means of better pursuing and accomplishing virtuous acts.

Frank Meyer

Nearly a century ago, Frank Meyer made the argument repeated here, that virtue requires the ability to choose. He perfectly stated that, “Unless he can choose his worst, he cannot choose his best.” Good and bad choices are like hot and cold: one cannot exist without the other. So long as the wrong choices are unavailable, he is not choosing to be moral, but simply following the only possible path.

In his In Defense of Freedom, he wrote:

“For moral and spiritual perfection can only be pursued by finite men through a series of choices, in which every moment is a new beginning; and freedom which makes those choices possible is itself a condition without which the moral and spiritual ends would be meaningless. If this were not so, if such ends could be achieved without the continuing exercise of freedom, then moral and spiritual perfection could be taught by rote and enforced by discipline — and every man of good will would be a saint. Freedom is therefore an integral aspect of the highest end.”

To achieve a more virtuous world, one cannot simply force others to be good. We can throw people in prison to prevent them from further violating the rights of others, but simply using force to prevent people from engaging in vices does not create a more virtuous world. It is the choices of these people that matter, and liberty is a necessary component.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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