The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue

By Raymond L. Dennehy
University of San Francisco
Ignatius Insight

(The following are excerpts from Dennehy's essay. Read the complete text of his essay here.)

Liberal democracy cannot survive unless a monistic virtue ethics permeates its culture. A nation whose members lack moral virtue cannot sustain its commitment to freedom and equality for all.

What about a nation whose inhabitants are allowed the freedom to do everything they may wish to do as long as they do not violate anyone else's personal freedom, but do not realize that they have been programmed to desire only what their government determines them to desire? This raises the question: "Is freedom the personal state of being objectively unrestrained or the subjective state of not being aware of being restrained?"

Is it within the realm of plausibility that the majority of members of a political society could think they are free when, in fact, they are not? The answer is "Yes." The principal cause would be the attempt to preserve a freedom that is separated from moral virtue. But "would be" is the subjunctive mood and, thus, belongs to the realm of the merely possible. It is undeniably possible for a population to suffer from the illusion of being free, but the real cannot be inferred from the possible. Agreed. But the reality is already here, evident from practices ratified by legislatures and popular vote, as well as ratified by the courts as constitutionally protected. Each counts as an example of the freedom to "choose one's own ends." In terms of the public vs. private model, they are alleged to belong in the sphere of private behavior insofar as they pertain to actions that do not violate the rights of others. One relevant example is the rapid decline of public and private support for objective and substantive ethics in favor of relativism.

There are two clashing concepts of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Simply expressed, negative liberty holds that freedom is the absence of external restraint, while positive liberty holds that freedom is the opportunity to do what is worth doing.

The argument against a morally neutral conception of freedom collides not only with a fundamental premise of liberal democracy, but also, it seems, with a central tenet of what is accepted as the public philosophy. Michael Sandel succinctly sets forth that tenet:

"The central idea of the public philosophy by which we live is that freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends for ourselves. Politics should not try to form the character or cultivate the virtue of its citizens, for to do so would be to "legislate morality." Government should not affirm, through its policies or laws, any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within which people can choose their own values and ends."

Both conservative and liberal politics are in agreement that "freedom consists in the capacity of people to choose their own ends." The disagreement occurs when one asks whether any specific traits of character are needed for an individual's exercise of freedom, and who has the responsibility for overseeing the acquisition of those character traits. Since republican political theory sees the government's role as that of preparing people to acquire the virtues needed for sharing in self-rule, deliberating with other citizens about what the common good is and how it is to be realized, it entertains a formative conception of politics that demands its involvement with the moral virtues and chosen goals of its citizens. In contrast, the past decades have witnessed the greater influence of the procedural politics of liberal political theory, with its commitment to ensuring equal justice for all without any officially expressed concern for its citizens' personal moral state. The differences between the two theories are real, but they are not what they seem. Both denounce the government's unjustified interference in the lives of its citizens, but differ on what constitutes the injustice.

If positive freedom, especially the metaphysical version, poses threats to a people's freedom to choose their own ends by imposing the state or a higher self as one's true self, so that one is deluded into believing that by obeying the law, one is really obeying oneself, negative freedom hardly offers a better prospect. The possibility of a nation enslaved in their respective and collective actions by their vices, but believing they act freely because they do what they wish, is as disturbing as it is plausible.

The illusion reveals itself in the inconsistency between the criticism of objective moral norms as the fulfillment of personal freedom and the fact that living and acting without moral virtue inevitably yokes one's will to one and the same object of desire. The standard criticism of positive freedom is that the demand that one act according to putative objective standards in order to be free is to confuse freedom with things, which, however laudable--truth, justice, beauty, goodness, or the law--are not what freedom is. The criticism goes on to say that the confusion is dangerous, since it can delude a population into believing that their adherence to those kinds of lofty standards makes them free when it fact it allows an oppressive regime to control their lives.

But a characteristic of the lack of virtue, and surely of the state of vice, is the will's enslavement to a specific object of desire. So, despite insisting that to be free, the individual must have before him a range of options, the lack of virtue produces the opposite: prospective choices are inevitably evaluated in terms of their relation to the principal object of one's vice.

Virtue ethics offers the solution to the extent that it furnishes the standard for action based on understanding and choice unhampered by un-disciplined passions and appetites. For the virtuous person, freedom is negative in the truest sense insofar as he or she enjoys a freedom from both external restraints and the inner restraints of vice. That is the route to human flourishing, both for self-fulfillment and preparation for citizenship. The argument for a virtuous society must not be allowed to go begging. Thomas Aquinas observed that after one loses the virtue of chastity, thereby succumbing to the vice of lust, the next virtue to be lost is justice, the obligation to pay each his due. That is because vice, being a malignancy, metastasizes.

The enduring ideal is a democracy that confers the widest latitude for personal freedom on its members, the vast majority of whom, including elected officials and judges, have characters shaped by a monistic virtue ethics. The crucial question is, who has the responsibility of inculcating ethics in society? The cackling of the sacred geese warned ancient Rome of impending danger. Where are our geese?