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Toward a Free and Virtuous Society

It is a telling commentary on our times that the political and ethical cognoscenti associate freedom with licentiousness, antinomianism, atomistic individualism, and an array of similar vices antithetical to virtue. Despite this attitude on the part of many professional intellectuals, common sense tells any sane person that a society that is both free and virtuous is the place in which he would most want to live. But what exactly would it mean to advocate and work toward the construction of such a society?

One frequently hears the comment: “Liberty is fine, but it must not be taken to an extreme.” According to this line of reasoning, liberty is only one virtue among many and should be balanced with numerous other virtues. The mistake here is that it is assumed that liberty or freedom is a virtue. Liberty is, rather, the context of actions and social institutions that facilitate or enable virtue. In other words, the requisite condition for a virtuous act is the ability to exercise choice in that action. We can thus say, then, that the predicate for virtue is liberty.

An animal cannot behave virtuously because it lacks the faculty of reason; it is only the human capacity for reflection and purposeful action that enables man to act in a virtuous manner. Indeed, the exact opposite is true as well: No one can be said to be behaving viciously who does not have the capacity of moral reflection toward his actions. If conscious moral action is to have any virtue or vice, then free choice must be presupposed. Freedom, therefore, is closely linked to the nature of the human person, since free choice depends upon man's ability to reason. Any person who fails to employ his God-given capacity for reason is acting below his human potential. So an understanding of the nature of the human person is fundamental to any discussion of man's freedom.

Broadly speaking, we can describe the human person as possessing both a physical and spiritual nature. Different religious traditions will describe these aspects of the person divergently, but each description must attempt to account for the tangible material components of the person and for the spiritual or transcendent reality of the human condition. This fact of transcendence may be expressed as the soul or spirit; that creative impulse that tugs us beyond the corporeality of our existence; that produces art, literature, music, and philosophy; and that, ideally, expresses itself in surrender to the call of God.

The Reverend Edmund Opitz, a Congregationalist minister who has been writing on these themes for many years, puts it this way: “Political theory in our tradition is based on the assumption that men must be free in society because each person has a destiny beyond society which he can work out only under conditions of liberty.” If it is true that each individual has such a destiny, then he cannot be treated merely as a means to an end, but as an end in himself. And if each individual is an end in himself, then it would be a gross violation of the essential nature and basic dignity that each person possesses to treat him as a means to someone else's ends. In addition to the violation of human dignity that would result, such a treatment of people (as means rather than ends in themselves) would undermine the very foundation of civil organization. No one, not even the perpetrator of human rights violations, ultimately would be safe in such a situation.