No Virtue Without Liberty

It saddens me to see people in what should be the freest country on Earth give up their liberty in exchange for a sense of safety. One reason is, I don’t think it will truly make them safer, but that is not the discussion here. The main reason is that liberty is a vital part of becoming a virtuous person.

Before we go forward to see why liberty and virtue are so integrally linked, it’s important to understand what I mean. Virtue is when one conforms his life to ethical and upright behaviors in pursuit of the good. Virtue is a habit, a way of life.

Liberty is the ability to go about your life and choose how you’d like to live it without interference or coercion, as long as your actions do not negate another individual’s liberty. The idea that “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins,” is a great way to understand it.

So, why then is liberty so important in attaining virtue? Why can one not become virtuous without liberty?

Sheep being herded around will find what they need: food, water, and shelter. They will attain the goods necessary to grow to adults, yet they will never actively pursue anything. Rather, they will be guided by a shepherd or a herd dog to where they need to be, mindlessly. 

The wolf, on the other hand, does go out in its own pursuit of food, water, and shelter. It makes its own way. It is up to the wolf if his hunt is successful. He must go and actively seek the goods he needs to survive, and has no guidance other than that of the pack, which is also doing the same. Together, they freely seek the good inasmuch as they can.

In order to truly pursue good, you must be free to do so. Otherwise, you are simply going along to go along. The pursuit of good in the virtuous person is a rational decision, one that is thought through fully, and chosen with the end in mind of pursuing the good. It was not to avoid punishment or find a reward – that would not be an honest attempt at attaining virtue.

Instead, one must seek what is good for sake of the good, not as a means to some other end. We need space to act autonomously so that we can actively pursue the ends which we see fit. This does not mean we must be an island, since that would likely neglect duties to people we know and love. Instead, it means we must have room to act out our values as we seek good in our own lives.

Obedience is a virtue. But again, it must be freely chosen. I choose to obey my parents, my boss, and the Catholic Church. I do not choose to obey the government, rather, I’m forced to. A kidnapping victim doesn’t choose obedience of her captor, rather she is forced to comply. So, we must be free from threat of punishment to truly act freely. If I choose not to murder someone, that is a good thing. If I choose that because I know I’d go to prison, it’s still good that I didn’t do it, but it’s only virtuous if I chose it freely in pursuit of good.

If a child shows gratitude under threat of a spanking or a timeout, is that really a virtuous act? Not really, and especially not if it’s contrary to what they want to do. It may be a good way to get them to do what the parent wants, but I don’t find it especially useful. 

What should be done is explain the value of gratitude in a way the child of that age could understand and show that you and other people the child cherishes expect that of them. Now, they have a choice. While this can seem coercive due to the difference of power between parent and child, it gives the child space to make the decision at the appropriate level of liberty for their age.

The same is true for adults. We must have the leeway to make decisions for good or bad in most parts of our lives. If we cannot fall into vice, we are not free to inculcate virtue because both are freely chosen. Thus, we need liberty, and wide-ranging liberty at that, to be able to act virtuously and create the habits that make one a virtuous person.

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