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The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy, University of San Francisco

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (Vol XIX, 1/2 2007), and is reproduced here by the kind permission of JIS. It won the Oleg Zinam Award for Best Essay in JIS 2007.

This essay proposes that liberal democracy cannot survive unless a monistic virtue ethics permeates its culture. A monistic philosophical conception of virtue ethics has its roots in natural law theory and, for that reason, offers a rationally defensible basis for a unified moral vision in a pluralistic society. Such a monistic virtue ethics--insofar as it is a virtue ethics--forms individual character so that a person not only knows how to act, but desires to act that way and, moreover, possesses the integration of character to be able to act that way. This is a crucial consideration, for immoral choices create a bad character that inclines the individual to increasingly worse choices. A nation whose members lack moral virtue cannot sustain its commitment to freedom and equality for all.


The thesis defended in this essay is that liberal democracy cannot survive unless a monistic virtue ethics permeates its culture. Two arguments are given in its support. First, a monistic philosophical conception of virtue ethics has its roots in natural law theory and, for that reason, offers a rationally defensible basis for a unified moral vision in a pluralistic society. Second, a monistic virtue ethics--insofar as it is a virtue ethics--forms individual character so that one not only knows how to act, but desires to act that way and, what is more, possesses the integration of character to be able to act that way. This is a crucial consideration, for immoral choices create a bad character that inclines the individual to increasingly worse choices. A nation whose members lack moral virtue cannot sustain its commitment to freedom and equality for all.

But liberal democratic doctrine presents a major practical challenge to the installation of any theory of monistic ethics. Given its commitment to functioning as a procedural democracy, the challenge springs from two premises. The first premise is that liberal democracy is committed to ensuring its individual members the widest latitude of personal freedom consistent with the freedom of others. The second is that liberal democracy is committed to moral neutrality in all matters where individual or group behavior does not violate the rights and freedom of others. These two premises are implied in John Stuart Mill's famous dictum: "The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of preserving our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it" (1954: 18). Although the argument of this essay presupposes that liberal democracy is the form of government best suited to humans insofar as they are rational, autonomous beings, the two premises are mutually contradictory and, if consistently applied, will inevitably lead to its self-destruction.

Regarding the first part of the thesis, two questions arise. What is meant here by "virtue ethics?" And, why virtue ethics, as opposed to other ethical theories, such as utilitarianism or deontologism? First, virtue ethics here refers to that state of character that integrates intellect, will, appetite, and passion, so that one regularly acts in ways that actualize one's potential to become more fully human. Thus, as Aristotle enjoins, moral virtue is an "excellence of behavior" (1941: 954-55). Second, virtue ethics is the ethics of choice because it is the only ethical theory that grounds itself in the principle that human nature is universal: since all human beings have the same human nature, they are bound by the same ethical principles. If there is a single, universal human nature, it follows that theories of virtue ethics that hold for a pluralistic understanding of the moral virtues are excluded from what is here meant by "virtue ethics" (Swanton 2003: 27). And, just because it understands that to be human is to be embodied, it maintains that ethical behavior for a human being demands harmony, orchestrated and monitored by reason, among all the human faculties, intellect, will, passions, and appetites.

Pope John Paul II called attention to the mounting danger to democracy from a concept of subjectivity carried to excess, and a notion of freedom based on the concept of the individual isolated from society (Dennehy 2006: 50-53). These developments express themselves in various ways, one of which is the change in the popular understanding of constitutional rights. Russell Hittinger shows that whereas in Colonial times rights were perceived as objective claims against the government, today, personal self-creation, to wit, the right to privacy, is lauded as the primary constitutional right (1990: 486-99). This attitude toward subjectivity cannot be separated from a sense of alienation from nature. Since nature has its own furniture and dynamics, all too frequently it poses an obstacle to personal ambition. And, since the body is a part of physical nature, it, too, must be viewed as obstructive. When the norm for conduct is subjective desire, it is inevitable that the individual should find himself increasingly in tension with both nature and society. The tension with society can be handled diplomaically: the individual limits his behavior by respecting the rights and desires of others so as to avoid retaliation. The tension with his body is handled by denial; it is rejected root and branch as a source for ethical norms of conduct, since it is perceived as an impediment to personal fulfillment.

For a consistent radical dualist, who acknowledges only one's soul or self-awareness as his true self, while seeing his body as, at best, a mere encasement, a virtuous life is still possible, as Socrates demonstrated in his own actions and commitments. The Platonic Forms--eternal, perfect, and unchanging--could furnish the unwavering standards for ethical behavior. But a glorification of subjectivism to the extent of relegating all external criteria to the realm of the oppressive demands that, as a matter of principle, freedom can have no limits. De facto, it will, nonetheless, be limited by practical considerations of living with other people, but it is perceived as a reality conceded but never accepted. G. W. F. Hegel rightly saw this attitude as a dangerous moment in the development of a people's ethics, since it dichotomizes the personal and the public. The individual grudgingly obeys the law, while believing that only his conscience has moral authority (Hegel 1962: 85).

Regarding the second part of the thesis, given democracy's commitment to pluralism (diversity), Mill's dictum seems the only defensible possibility for any political society that regards itself as liberal. But the fatal flaw appears when that dictum is compared with a possibility and a reality. The possibility is expressed with the utterance of Mustafa Mond in Aldous Huxley's novel, Brave New World: "People [here] are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get" (1966: 149). The inhabitants of Huxley's world think that they are free, for all their desires are gratified. The reality is that they are slaves, incapable of desiring anything beyond what they have been genetically designed and conditioned to desire. Like the iconic Alfred E. Newman, they ask, with candor, "What, me worry?" If there is any sense in which this may be called "freedom," then perhaps subjective freedom is the term for it, for they are aware of no limitations to their desires.

This raises the question: "Is freedom the personal state of being objectively unrestrained or the subjective state of not being aware of being restrained?" What is to prevent both Mill's dictum and Mond's observation from being true simultaneously of the same group of people? What about a nation whose inhabitants are allowed the freedom to do everything they may wish to do as long as they do not violate anyone else's personal freedom, but do not realize that they have been programmed to desire only what their government determines them to desire? One might object that such an outcome in a free society, although possible, is highly improbable, since the majority would not allow the encroachments on freedom and rights that would initially have to occur before a techno-totalitarian regime such as Huxley's Brave New World could come into existence. But the technology involved is merely an instrumental cause of the illusion of freedom, not the illusion itself. Could there be other causes?

Is it within the realm of plausibility that the majority of members of a political society could think they are free when, in fact, they are not? The answer is "Yes." The principal cause would be the attempt to preserve a freedom that is separated from moral virtue. But "would be" is the subjunctive mood and, thus, belongs to the realm of the merely possible. It is undeniably possible for a population to suffer from the illusion of being free, but the real cannot be inferred from the possible. Agreed. But the reality is already here, evident from practices ratified by legislatures and popular vote, as well as ratified by the courts as constitutionally protected. Each counts as an example of the freedom to "choose one's own ends." In terms of the public vs. private model, they are alleged to belong in the sphere of private behavior insofar as they pertain to actions that do not violate the rights of others. Relevant examples include:

1. The rapid decline of public and private support for objective and substantive ethics in favor of relativism.

2. The erosion of respect for human life in Western democracies. Since Roe v. Wade (1973), some 50 million unborn human lives have been destroyed in the United States alone. That U.S. Supreme Court decision conferred legal justification for killing more Americans than the combined number of those killed in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (North and South), World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the first Gulf War (Murti 2006: 57-60). To be sure, the classical conception of the state's goal to make men moral undoubtedly produced its share of abuses. Equally certain is the progress in public acknowledgment of the dignity of human conscience heralded by the emergence of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, the widespread practice of abortion in Western democracies shows that monstrous crimes can be allowed and condoned by a society that from its beginnings has proclaimed its commitment to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that in the name of the right to run one's life as one chooses as long as, by so doing, one respects the rights of others, nevertheless creates laws, policies, and court decisions that contradict that commitment.

3. Embryonic stem-cell research uses human beings, during their earliest stages of development, as objects of scientific research, not only for the purpose of finding cures for genetically based illness and defects, but also in the hope of creating designer humans.

4. The contradiction is manifest in a society that proclaims its dedication to the protection of the young, while failing to introduce laws and policies that shield them from easy access to pornography.

5. The mounting support for same-sex marriage in the face of the fact that the official and special recognition of marriage in society has always been intimately tied to procreation and the realization that men and women are by nature importantly different, a difference necessary to the proper development of children.

6. Legislative and judicial violence to the right of free speech. For example, the British Parliament recently approved a law that makes it illegal for teachers, even in a Catholic school, to teach that homosexuality is immoral (Bogle 2007: 1). This, apparently, to protect homosexual students from feelings of unworthiness.


The argument against a morally neutral conception of freedom collides not only with a fundamental premise of liberal democracy, but also, it seems, with a central tenet of what Americans accept as the public philosophy. Michael Sandel succinctly sets forth that tenet:

"The central idea of the public philosophy by which we live is that freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends for ourselves. Politics should not try to form the character or cultivate the virtue of its citizens, for to do so would be to "legislate morality." Government should not affirm, through its policies or laws, any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within which people can choose their own values and ends" (1996: 58).

Both conservative and liberal politics are in agreement that "freedom consists in the capacity of people to choose their own ends." The disagreement occurs when one asks whether any specific traits of character are needed for an individual's exercise of freedom, and who has the responsibility for overseeing the acquisition of those character traits. Since republican political theory sees the government's role as that of preparing people to acquire the virtues needed for sharing in self-rule, deliberating with other citizens about what the common good is and how it is to be realized, it entertains a formative conception of politics that demands its involvement with the moral virtues and chosen goals of its citizens. In contrast, the past decades have witnessed the greater influence of the procedural politics of liberal political theory, with its commitment to ensuring equal justice for all without any officially expressed concern for its citizens' personal moral state. The differences between the two theories are real, but they are not what they seem. Both denounce the government's unjustified interference in the lives of its citizens, but differ on what constitutes the injustice:

"Liberals invoke the ideal of neutrality when opposing school prayer, restrictions on abortion or attempts by Christian fundamentalists to bring their morality into the public square. Conservatives appeal to neutrality when opposing attempts by government to impose certain moral restraints--for the sake of workers' safety or environmental protection or distributive justice--on the market economy. The ideal of free choice also figures on both sides of the debate over the welfare state. Republicans have long complained that taxing the rich to pay for welfare programs for the poor is a form of coerced charity that violates people's freedom to choose what to do with their own money. Democrats have long replied that government must ensure all citizens a decent level of income, housing, education, and health care, on the grounds that those who are crushed by economic necessity are not truly free to exercise choice in other domains. Despite their disagreement about how government should act with respect to individual choice, both sides assume that freedom consists in the capacity of people to choose their own ends" (Sandel 1996: 58; emphasis added).

If both sides seek to defend the same primary value, to wit, the freedom to choose one's own ends, their conflicting reactions to government intervention in the lives of its people must hinge on assigning conflicting meanings and valuations to the phrase, "capacity to choose their own ends." And thereby hangs a tale.


At stake here is the clash between two concepts of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Simply expressed, negative liberty holds that freedom is the absence of external restraint, while positive liberty holds that freedom is the opportunity to do what is worth doing. In the Anglo-American tradition, liberalism subscribes to negative freedom. That is the underlying rationale for Mill's statement that: "The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of preserving our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it" (1954: 18).

In contrast, a review of the Continental tradition shows that liberalism is predominantly identified with positive liberty, a tradition that extends back to ancient times (De Riggiero 1959). The classical political philosophers--Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas--agreed that the primary aim of the state was to make its members moral. Plato's notion that "the State is the individual writ large," regardless of the metaphysical view that underlies it, in itself merely reflects the ancient Greek conception of the polis or city-state, which recognized no distinction between the individual's good and the good of the city-state. For the ancient Greeks, citizenship did not mean rights against the state, but rather membership in it, the opportunity to participate in the activities and life of the community (Sabine 1953: 742). It is no exaggeration to say that this participation was viewed as one with the state's commitment to the moral life of its citizens. This is evident in the Republic, where Plato argues that the aim of the state is the implementation of justice, a concept which, for him, refers both to the external relations of men and to their internal states of the soul, as well (1992: 116-21). Aristotle echoes this view (1941: 935-36).

The classical view of the individual's relation to political society underwent a gradual yet, in the end, radical change. The impact of Christianity on Greco-Roman culture transformed the understanding of that relationship. No longer did the individual exist primarily for the city-state or empire, for now he could look to a destiny in eternity with his Creator. To be sure, there was also the influence of Stoicism, which rejected the view that the individual had meaning and value only in virtue of membership in the city-state. Stoic philosophy insisted, on the contrary, that everyone, whether belonging to a city-state or not, was a world citizen, a civitas maxime. The deepening sense of the nature and dignity of the human person was accompanied by a corresponding reassessment of the nature and extent of the monarch's authority (Maritain 1966: 30-33). This transformation in the understanding of the individual's relation to political society caused, in turn, a shift in the standard of what constituted moral behavior. In place of the city-state and empire, the transcendent God became the standard. For example, Martin Luther's emphasis on conscience, rather than the Church, as the direct voice of God's will for the individual, widened further the gap between the individual and earthly institutions (Plamenatz 1963: 175). And, while it is true that a corresponding expansion of personal freedom was acknowledged, the new sense of freedom was a freedom from temporal, not divine, laws.

The classical-Christian view was supplanted in the sixteenth century by Nicolo Machiavelli who, in his manual of practical politics, formally separated politics from morality:

"there is such a distance from how one lives to how one ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns what will ruin him rather than what will save him, since a man who would wish to make a career of being good in every detail must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary for a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able to be not good, and to use this faculty and not use it according to necessity . . . . For, if everything be well considered, something will be found that will appear a virtue, but will lead to his ruin if adopted; and something else that will appear a vice, if adopted, will result in his security and well-being" (2005: 87-88).

If Machiavelli deserves credit for the separation of morals and law, the secularization of political theory seems to have begun with Marsilius of Padua who interpreted Aristotle to mean that politics reached no further than the tangible world: "Marsilius completely despiritualized politics and thereby eliminated the transcendent from any place in the world of men, a position quite the opposite of both Aristotle and Aquinas" (Schall 1984: 173). Subsequent political theory was characterized by moral neutrality, surfacing in the twentieth century as Realpolitik.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract is a reaction to Machiavellianism. Therein, he attempts to rebuild democracy on the foundation of the Greek city-state, fusing, once more, morality and politics: "the State or the City is nothing but a moral person the life of which consists in the union of its members" (Rousseau 1960: 276). Accordingly, he recognizes no distinction between the individual's moral liberty (which for Rousseau is the only genuine liberty) and his political or civil liberty. Hence, he can write that "it may be necessary to compel a man to be free" (Rousseau 1960: 262-63). This classical idea of the city-state was picked up and developed by Hegel: "The State is the actuality of the ethical idea" (1962: 107). This is not to overlook important differences between Rousseau's concept of the General Will and Hegel's theory of the State as Ethical Idea. For example, Hegel criticizes Rousseau for making the General Will a mere extension of the individual's conscious will, instead of properly making it the "absolute or rational will" (Hegel 1962: 33). Yet both thinkers sounded the alarm against the rise of amoral politics, and shared the ambition of restoring the goal of classical political theory to make men moral. That ambition carried over into British political theory, exemplified in the writings of neo-Hegelians like Bernard Bosanquet (1920: 194) and Thomas H. Green (1960: 31-32), which examined the relation of the individual to society as the preface to their challenges to the notion of negative freedom espoused by advocates of laissez-faire economics.

The concept of positive liberty is complex, more so than negative liberty. For one thing, there seem to be two distinct versions of positive liberty, which may be characterized as the metaphysical/ethical and pragmatic versions. It is important to separate the two, as the former grounds freedom in objective moral principles, while the latter looks instead to socio-economic and psychological conditions that enhance the individual's capacity to actualize one's choices. Advocates of the metaphysical version, such as Rousseau, Hegel, and Bosanquet, hold that freedom consists in being one's own master. Self-mastery requires a virtuous character, since it implies the capacity to act in accordance with reason, which is impossible without a virtuous character. In terms of political liberty, this means obeying the laws of the state, which is construed as the embodiment of reason, so that in that obedience, one is really obeying one's higher self.

The pragmatic version is clearly the conception of freedom embraced by liberal political theory. Its advocates, like John Dewey, along with his present-day descendant, Richard Rorty, are directly interested more in the individual's socio-economic condition than in his moral and rational development. They hold that freedom is having the opportunity to do what is worth doing (Dewey 1963a: 7). In terms of the individual's freedom, this version, as with the ethical version, means obeying the laws of the state, but they do not ascribe metaphysical or ethical properties to it. Rather, they see the cultural traditions, laws, and social institutions of political society as furnishing the conditions for the individual's fulfillment. It is as a member of a civilized society that one actualizes one's potential. Hence, Dewey wrote that freedom consists in the ability to participate in the cultural riches of modern democratic society (1963b: 5). In this sense, the pragmatic version of positive liberty resembles that of classical political theorists, but the resemblance ends there.

Most telling of all is that, in contrast to classical theorists, proponents of the pragmatic version do not necessarily acknowledge an objective or absolute standard. They do appeal to standards like "self-realization" and "spiritual enrichment," but interpret them broadly to mean such things as feeling that one's work is important or avoiding poverty and economic in-security. In criticizing negative liberty, advocates of the pragmatic version of positive freedom do not deny that the absence of restraint is the primary condition of freedom. What they deny is that this condition alone makes an individual free. Freedom, they insist, depends on the presence of certain socio-economic conditions, without which a person cannot do what he wishes, or at least cannot do what a civilized person ought to be able to do. Practically speaking, he or she is not free.

The rationale for this view rests on a distinction between formal and effective freedom (Dewey 1963b: 34-35). From a formal standpoint, freedom is the absence of external restraint; but this, according to advocates of the pragmatic version, is a hollow criterion. It fails to take into account the individual's specific circumstances. No doubt, every theory of political liberty, even versions of negative liberty, assumes to some extent the conditions or opportunities necessary to act on one's decisions, but for advocates of the pragmatic version of positive liberty, these are of central importance. Freedom, they say, must be effective; it must be the freedom to do something worth doing. The absence of external restraint guarantees the freedom of someone who enjoys favorable circumstances, such as enough money and education, but that guarantee does not extend to one who lacks them. This was the argument successfully deployed against laissez-faire politicians in nineteenth-century Britain by the neo-liberal movement for government interventionist legislation to help factory workers in labor negotiations with factory owners. The latter resisted proposed laws that would regulate labor negotiations by insisting that such would violate the freedom of owner and worker to arrive at a mutually agreeable labor contract. Factory owners claimed that if the worker found the contract unacceptable, he was always free to find employment at a factory that had an acceptable contract. But attempts to prevent the legislation failed when it became clear that factory owners were united in standing firm behind the same working conditions (Green 1964: 51-52).

Although advocates of the pragmatic version of freedom maintain that they are improving the possibilities for the exercise of the very freedom that advocates of negative freedom seek, the tension between them seems irreconcilable. Consider, for example, the different ways in which the Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt administrations reacted to the Great Depression in the United States. Hoover believed that the entry of the federal government into the economy constituted interference with free enterprise and, accordingly, refused to allow massive government assistance to the depressed economy. Roosevelt held the opposite view, and reacted accordingly. Not surprisingly, Hoover embraced the negative concept of freedom (1934: 107-35), whereas Roosevelt conceived freedom as positive (Schlesinger 1957, 1: 424; II: 651-52).

The classical objection to positive liberty is that, by confusing freedom with things like justice, goodness, one's higher self, or the laws of the state, its application leads to an oppressive political society in which its members are deluded in the belief that even when the law restrains them from doing what they wish to do, and requires them to do what they do not wish to do, they are nevertheless "free." Perhaps the most dramatic expression of this is Rousseau's claim that "it may be necessary to compel a man to be free" (1960: 262-53). History offers sufficient evidence of the threat to individual freedom posed by the identification of freedom with the state or with things other than choosing one's own goals. But critics of negative liberty have found ample evidence of threats to the individual from attempts of procedural democracy to form policies based on moral neutrality, illustrated by the legalization of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and sexual promiscuity. Accordingly, they warn that what Plato called the "greed for freedom" will lead to the moral collapse of civil polity and the emergence of tyranny (1992: 227-38).

Here, it would be well to return to the two premises set forth in the first paragraph of this essay. The first is that liberal democracy is committed to ensuring its individual members the widest latitude of personal freedom consistent with the freedom of others. The second is that liberal democracy is committed to moral neutrality in all matters where individual or group behavior does not violate the rights and freedom of others. Striving to fulfill the promise of Dewey's liberalism in contemporary democracy, Rorty advocates the abandonment of all absolutes in favor of a kind of mule-trading of principles that leads to "reflective equilibrium," by which he means the best practical allocation of justice in society (1991: 190). But, surely, some principles are non-negotiable, such as the right of the innocent to life. If both negative liberty and the metaphysical/ethical version of positive liberty are unacceptable as the standard of democratic freedom, on what basis can the theory of monistic virtue ethics lay claim to providing the solution?

Part One | Part Two


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