The morality of freedom

A modern strand of thought equates freedom with lack of restraint.  If true, then freedom stands in fundamental opposition to morality.

Amoralists of every stripe have certainly argued loud and long on behalf of this proposition.  Nietzsche sought a “transvaluation of values,” by which he meant a kind of aristocratic selfishness untouched by Christian guilt.

Nietzsche’s idiot grandchildren, the postmodernists, hold that the right of self-expression overrides conventional notions of right and wrong behavior.  Worldlier types, like the economist J. M. Keynes, merely sought to indulge the flesh without limit or restraint, and without the reproaches of his bourgeois neighbors.

Freedom and morality, say the amoralists, repel one another like two positive electric charges:  where one is, the other can’t be.

Yet the theme of this blog pulls exactly in the opposite direction.  I believe that freedom without morality is impossible, and that morality absent freedom is meaningless.  In support of this proposition I could cite the Founding Fathers — I have in the past — but here I prefer to examine the argument on its own merit.

The question is whether freedom and morality are incompatible.  I will argue that they are complementary.  Rather than to identical electric charges, freedom and morality should be compared to two poles, positive and negative, between which is matrixed the astonishing range of good lives available under liberal democracy.

Let’s examine the amoralist proposition.  Because I have dealt with this matter elsewhere, I’ll be mercifully brief.

What the amoralists propose is in fact a morality of the Darwinian sort:  everybody transvaluating everybody else’s values, and let the strongest survive.  Nietzsche, I’m sure, wouldn’t object to this characterization.  The postmodernists would throw a fit, but then they are wedded to an absurdity:  that we can discard all the behaviors that make liberal democratic toleration possible, yet preserve (or even increase) toleration itself.

Postmodernists sometimes claim that only the law should enforce limits on behavior.  But laws don’t crystallize out of thin air:  they arise from a shared sense of right and wrong.  Laws grow in the soil of morality.  Legislation means moral compulsion, and those who seek to expand the circle of human freedom would do well to stay away from this approach.

Here are the facts of the matter.  Liberal democracy for its health requires a powerful civil society, thriving quite literally above and beyond the government:  churches, schools, corporations, sports teams, the performing arts.  To exist and endure, civil society requires a shared understanding of right and wrong behavior.  Our constitutional rights and protections depend on a morality of freedom.

Although it won’t often come up in polite conversation, such a morality is already in place, guiding our actions.  It happens to be the same vulgar morality after which this blog is named.  Why “vulgar”?  In this context, the word means “based on public opinion,” rather than on absolute principles that ultimately seek their justification in reason, nature, or God.

American morality depends on Americans’ opinions about morality:  we are free to believe in God or reason, of course, and we can embrace absolute moral principles and act accordingly, but in the end the judgment of the community, based on our traditions, will decide the matter.  This is why nudity is forbidden in public places, and why Mormon men aren’t allowed multiple wives.

Opinion appears a shaky ground on which to build a code of behavior.  Won’t opinions differ, leading at best to moral confusion, at worst to arbitrary moral judgments — mob rule?  Opinions will vary to some extent.  We call this variance pluralism, an approach best explained in John Locke’s Letter on Toleration.  Every other society known to the record — Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, mandarin China — envisioned a single version of the good life, with a single path leading to it.  It is one of the glories of liberal democracy that it allows many paths to salvation.

Yet the variation isn’t really very great, because of the relation between freedom and history.  The freedoms we enjoy have entered the present as a set of traditions — about community life, about the role of the individual — which endorse specific behaviors and condemn others.

John Searle has shown that there’s nothing soft or arbitrary about such traditions:  they are real or (in his words) “epistemologically objective.”  Antonio Damasio, in turn, has investigated their neurological power over us.  When a spouse cheats, when we see a child abused, we don’t think, “This is wrong only in the context of one set of moral traditions.”  We feel angry or hurt, no less so than if an absolute principle were being violated.

American morality is a vulgar morality, rooted in epistemologically objective traditions that channel our behavior and can be appealed to for justification.

What does this morality enjoin us to do?  Broadly speaking, the American morality endorses those behaviors that promote the greatest amount of freedom compatible with a functional social order.  Specifically, a morality of freedom demands a certain nobility of character:  the willingness freely to take on burdens that belong to others, because these others are part of us.

This willingness is first rehearsed in the family, by parents who sacrifice for their children, husbands and wives who yield to one another out of love and respect, and children who care for aging parents.  It extends outward to the community, and inward to oneself, and can be exemplified in a small number of virtues — self-rule, self-reliance, public-mindedness, courage, integrity — without which freedom becomes either unattainable or indistinguishable from selfishness.

Because of their fundamental importance, these virtues will require a separate post.

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