Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Freedom and Virtue

The United States is notorious for prizing its freedoms, and for extolling the virtues of freedom globally. And rightly so, in my mind, because the alternative to political freedom is tyranny, and tyranny leaves much to be desired in terms of a just political system. There are some dangers associated with granting mere freedom--in the sense of unrestrained voluntarism--the elevated status of virtue, and our culture largely reflects the consequences of this elevation.

Freedom as a political goal is indeed a righteous goal, if only because the alternative is intolerable. This political form of freedom is achieved largely by restricting and dispersing the power of the state, through a system of checks and balances, so that people's rights and freedoms are retained. The problems arise when, as a society, consciously or subconciously, we begin to attribute value to our rights and our ability to choose. While obtaining and preserving basic fundamental freedoms is a noble political goal, that does not mean any decision we freely make is a noble decision. This should be obvious, but as a culture we have absolutely conflated the good of freedom from tyranny with the 'good' of the freedom to make poor choices (which is no good at all).

So where freedom is at stake there are two entities to consider: the individual and the potential restrictive or coercive agency, most commonly in the form of the state or a despot. It is good to prevent the potential usurper of freedom from doing its usurping. That doesn't mean that the actions of the individual, in the absence of this illegitimate coercion, are necessarily worthy or virtuous actions. Only that they should be permitted. This is the sense in which political freedom is a 'good' thing, though not a good thing.

David B. Hart has written about this subject at length (most memorably in his essay 'Christ and Nothing'), and I tend to mostly agree with him. He asserts that the modern, American model of freedom--the one that I've been describing--is not the classical, Christian model of freedom. The latter having more to do with the freedom of human beings to choose to align themselves with the greater good, the absolute good, the good of God. As opposed to the freedom to follow our own spontaneous desires to any end, including wicked ends. I would only add that, while this is an important distinction to make for individuals and for our culture, on a the level of law the latter form of freedom must be preserved at the political level. This is to make what I feel to be a necessary distinction between political and personal realms.

Compared to a centralized government controlling the economy, the free market is good. Compared to government censorship, the freedom of speech is good. Compared to absolute power, a dispersal of powers is good. Etcetera. Which is not to say that any of these things are good in any absolute or moral sense--any of the these freedoms can be abused--only that they are superior to the alternatives. They are neutralities where their negation would constitute coercion and tyranny. We tend to think of the negation of an evil, in this case coercion and tyranny, as necessarily good, and the prevention of tyranny is in fact good, but what is left in its wake is not necessarily good, it's merely a blank space within which to operate.

And it is precisely at this point where we as a society confuse the context of an action for the action itself, conferring virtue to any action taken within the sphere. Apparently concluding that because freedom is precious and difficult to achieve that therefore anything we choose to do with it is similarly precious. This clearly mistaken notion is at the heart of our cultural malaise and vacuousness. It is this confusion that has spawned our banal consumer culture. The negative consequences have numerous manifestations.

Although tyranny is evil, freedom is not virtue. It is what we do with freedom that has the capacity--and only the capacity--to be virtue.

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