FRIENDS: I am the Vulgar Moralist…

and I’m launching this blog as an inquiry into the relationship between morality and freedom.

The matter rarely receives much ink, yet carries tremendous implications.  If freedom lacks connection to morality, then we are justified living in any way that suits our personalities, regardless of tradition, or convention, or the feelings of our neighbors.  If freedom requires limits on our behavior, then it is imperative to learn what these limits are, and how to coexist within them.

Two very different societies arise in consequence.

What do I mean by “morality”?  Nothing more than rules of right behavior in public and private life.  (Whether a distinction can be drawn between public and private morality is a question I intend to pursue later on.)  But why do we need any rules of right behavior?  Why can’t we do just as we please?

The question can be answered by an examination of freedom.

Here we’d best tread carefully.  Freedom in the Byronic mode, as an ideal, is deeply problematic.  If all our desires are hardwired into human biology, how free are our choices?  If every form of expression, from language to underwear, is conceived and produced by the surrounding culture, how meaningful is the concept of individual freedom?

We are less free than we think.  Still, let’s make an assumption, supported by what little information exists on the subject, that most of us are free at least some of the time.  The question is what to do with that freedom.

Every person (as William James observed) brings a set of claims against the world.  Why should we voluntarily surrender even one of those claims?  We can go for broke.  We can try to use freedom as the means to fullfill every desire, but we immediately bump into a couple of problems.   The first is that desires are contradictory.  I may want to spend the next two years bass fishing and getting a Ph. D. in nuclear physics, but it’s unlikely, given the realities of time and space, that I’ll be able to accomplish both.

Some of my claims will have to be surrendered to other, more powerful claims.  Some of my freedom will have to be mortgaged so I can achieve my ends.

The second problem is even more serious, and consists of other people’s freedom.  Suppose I do everthing I want, and others do the same:  soon my freedom will collide with theirs.  What then?  If all insist on freedom, a “war of all against all” will ensue.

The winner will be magnificently free, a law unto himself, the kind of individual Nietzsche imagined as his moral ideal:  the Artist-Tyrant.  But we who live a century after Nietzsche’s death have seen this type in the flesh.  The greatest freedom in human history was enjoyed by individuals like Stalin and Hitler, whose every whim and prejudice met immediate gratification, regardless of the cost in the blood or misery of others.

But let’s be clear from the outset:  I am not interested in that type of freedom, which is necessarily disconnected from morality.  My inquiry is concerned with the shared freedom of liberal democracy.  Here is our way of life:  a system, unprecedented in human history, that allows the greatest number of individual claims consistent with social peace.

Of course, not everything is allowed.  Otherwise we’re back to Nietzsche and Stalin.  The question at the heart of this inquiry is:  “What is the line between tolerable and intolerable behavior in a liberal democracy, and how is that line known?”  The second part of the question can be quickly dispensed with.  The line between tolerable and intolerable behavior is determined by a set of rules derived from our traditions, modified by reason.  Some of those rules are laws, democratically enacted.  In those cases, right behavior gets enforced by the police.

So the first question to be examined really is:  “Should any shared considerations govern our behavior, other than the power of the law?”


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