What is the role of human freedom in morality? It’s a question I’ve been pondering and researching since graduate school.
C.S. Lewis once explained the different aspects of morality by using the metaphor of a flotilla. Every ship must be well run on its own, but each must also coordinate with all the others so that they avoid collisions and stay in formation. Finally, the fleet must be set on a destination, which constitutes the purpose of their journey. This is a helpful way to think about morality regarding self, others, and our ultimate end.
Virtue can be guided by cultural traditions and social institutions, but it cannot be coerced.
The personal aspect of morality—which might more properly be called ethics—is about the cultivation of virtue: the development of character traits so that choosing the good becomes a matter of habit.
An efficient and well-run ship is like a virtuous person: both have regularized the internal practices necessary to be a good example of what it is. There is one crucial difference, however: a ship’s crew is run hierarchically, under the command of a captain. But a person, in order to be truly virtuous, must be free to cultivate the virtues, or not.
There is no virtue in being temperate when you are being forced not to indulge. There is no virtue in being charitable when someone is forcing you to give up what is yours. Virtue can be guided by cultural traditions and social institutions, but it cannot be coerced. A virtuous man must also be a free man.
Morality Regarding Others
The interpersonal aspect of morality is more about rule following. These rules are important because, like the rules governing ships in a fleet, they prevent us from “colliding” with each other. They permit us to live together in harmony, and they also make us recognize, apart from the mere consequences to ourselves, the rights of others. Here too, liberty is essential.
When some people are permitted to dominate others, they treat others as merely a means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. Not only does this fail to honor the basic dignity within each person, it also stifles the flourishing of human potential and creativity. A society of domination will be a society that never reaches its full potential in the human sciences, physical sciences, and creative arts. Liberty affords us the greatest space possible to pursue our projects, in a way that enables us to live well with one another.
The Big Questions
Freedom is essential to a genuinely good human life at all the levels of morality.
Finally, there is the question of ultimate ends. Why are we all here? Where are we going? This will necessarily be the most contentious since the idea of a final end for man often goes in tandem with a specifically religious view of man’s vocation. As a Christian, this is the position I hold.
But having a final end does not obviate the need for liberty. Freedom remains essential. To paraphrase Lord Acton, freedom is so precious that God will not override it, even when we badly misuse that freedom. In other words, we can’t get where we’re going if we’re not free to walk the road. I think this is a point on which religious, spiritual, agnostic, or even atheist persons can agree.
Thus, freedom is essential to a genuinely good human life at all the levels of morality. In my view, the classical liberal tradition remains the keeper of the flame of liberty, and I want to spend the rest of my career advancing classical liberalism as a research program. I look forward to sharing with you what I find.
Reprinted from Learn Liberty.