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Morality, Duty, Responsibility, and Authentic Liberty

Among its many features, religion is primarily the worship of God. If the desire to worship God is genuine, then there naturally will arise a suitable code of morality as man’s expression in action of what is true and good. This is due to man’s innate need to satisfy God, that is, to do what is pleasing in his sight. By nature, man fears God; a fear born out of ignorance of God. Unless his fear overwhelms him in an inexhaustible grip of anxiety about his daily life on earth and his state after death, man attempts to satisfy and thereby appease God. In this way man wants by nature to know, to love, and to serve God. Moreover, God has created each man with an innate ability to do this: a conscience.

The conscience is that inner voice in every man’s own heart that speaks the truth about what is to be done and what is to be avoided. The individual conscience is every man’s “better self”; that is, his trustworthy and constant “friend”. It tells a man that he must do what is good, upright, and virtuous. Whether or not he actually executes in morally good action what his conscience originally instructs, no man can deny that at some point in his decision to act he did not first hear a voice of truth that was advising, even begging, him to act morally. Even when the “right” thing to do is difficult to judge, the conscience is still present to advise and eventually determine what is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to avoid. And when one acts on the dictates of his conscience, despite how “practically expedient”, “politically correct”, or “publicly acceptable” the consequences of his actions might seem, what he has done ultimately is right. His conscience, moreover, confirms that what he has done is right and is pleasing before God. Having acted in “good” or “clear” conscience, then, serves to appease his innate fear of an omnipotent and omniscient divinity.

Such an account of conscience and moral action, though, suggests that the principal reason for moral behavior is fear of God. What has been stated thus far is actually the rudimentary stages of the moral life, the first experience of conscience in a child. As the moral life develops properly, as the child’s fear of parents and God matures into loving obedience, the motivating principles for moral action likewise mature. The reason for acting in the mature person is not so much the fear of God as the desire itself to do the right thing – an obedience to and love of truth and justice. This comes about because the more one does the right thing, the more pleasing it is. Since doing what is right is pleasing to the agent, he wants to do the right thing more and more. Eventually, the thought of doing anything other than what is right becomes so unattractive to him that it is dismissed from his mind and heart all together.

Moreover, the more man acts upon his conscience, the less he fears God, since he will find that doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong will make him free. His freedom is the result of taking responsibility for his own actions, of following what he initially set out to do, and of doing it. That autonomy, at the core of freedom itself in the moral sphere, is satisfying indeed. In a sense, such autonomous action makes man a kind of “co-creator” of things in the world and gives him the power to stamp his own actions with the words, “It is good.” In finding greater freedom in doing what is right, he will come to love more the God who gives him freedom to choose what is right from wrong.

In coming to love his conscience as that “better self” which, like a good friend, is trustworthy and pleasurable, he will come to love God who is the author of all that is true and good and noble – who is ultimately the “friend” behind that inner voice. In this way, he will desire to know and serve God more fully. By following the dictates of his conscience to do what is right, then, man not only finds his freedom in autonomous human action but worships God out of love for all that is true and good. It is the same God who has etched the inviolable conscience within each man’s soul who also desires that every man come to live the truth in love. In this way, when a man acts morally, he not only fulfils the plan God had in mind for him, but such action renders fitting praise to God because what is morally done is right and just. Quoting Lord Acton in this regard, one can positively conclude the role that religion plays in the fostering of a free, just, and virtuous society: “Liberty is the highest political end of man ... [but] no country can be free without religion.”

However, moral and religious development of men in society is not necessarily a positive maturation. The point is obvious from the experience of world affairs, but it needs to be philosophically explained. For this reason, Aristotle noted in his Nicomachean Ethics that very few men ever really become virtuous, while the majority are described as being continent and incontinent. Unlike the virtuous agent who both knows and wills the good with ease and simplicity, continent and incontinent men experience a conflict between what they know they ought to do and what they will to do and consequently never really find moral action truly pleasurable. Specifically, while the continent man ultimately succeeds in doing the right thing, he must struggle to achieve this end; virtue is not easy for him. The incontinent man, however, knows what he ought to do and, like the continent moral agent, struggles to will a good action, but succumbs to other interests and pressures of various sorts and fails. He delights even less in moral action than the continent man. Unlike the virtuous agent, neither the continent nor incontinent man really finds moral action an unqualified pleasure. Aristotle would describe their wills as weak. In the final analysis, we approve the continent man’s efforts in overcoming the weakness of his will, and a modern society all too easily excuses the incontinent man’s behavior since the apparent conflict he experiences in his will and the failure to act appropriately were personally “unintended.”

For Aristotle, the behavior of the virtuous man is the paradigm for all moral action. He shows what is most excellent and good, and any other type of agent is held in relation to that of the virtuous man. In the classical perspective, therefore, the actions of a continent or incontinent man are not primarily viewed as excellent because their wills are weak. Certainly an incontinent man’s will is weaker than the continent man’s will, but both are weak in relation to the strength of the virtuous agent. What the Modern Mind has done is to dismiss the virtuous type of agent from the perspective as the exception and shift the focus of ethics primarily to the moral intentions and motivations of the other two types. In other words, modernity reduces morality to a function of a good will, irrespective of the completed action. As long as one intends to do what is good, one is acting morally. This is a different account of morality from Aristotle’s and represents the modern Cartesian “turn to the self” in the history of Western philosophy.

The shift we have noted is one from the realism of human action expressed in concrete actions held up to public inspection for approval or blame (characteristic of the Classical Mind) to an inward and personalist appreciation of “my” action and “my” will. One significant difficulty with this shift in the moral appraisal of human action is that the standard for judgment is no longer objective as based on the nature of things but subjective and private, relative to one’s own intentions. Consequently, the only way to insure moral, public action is to appeal to duty. To perform an action out of duty is a relatively modern phenomenon, with its roots firmly grounded in the moral thought of Kant. Where the moral standard is no longer the virtuous agent himself who acts out of a free and willing desire to do what is right and just, society compels its citizens by law to act in accord with duty. This has proven to be an efficient means of organizing society and maintaining good order, but there is a consequence. When duty alone becomes the principal motivation for morality, men do not advance in their freedom. If duty replaces human morality, if duty is left unchecked, it can easily degenerate into coercion; it can be used for political aims and become an institution of tyranny. For example, among others, the Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes exploited their citizens’ duty and left them enslaved.

The other consequence of a duty-oriented morality requires that a society establish laws that can monitor and direct citizens’ behavior. What often results is a certain antagonism between the agent’s own sense of autonomy and the law, which, if unobserved, has the power to punish. Where there is antagonism toward the law, a person will tend to evade or to ignore the law, or, in extreme cases, to hold the law in contempt. Because the principal agents in a duty-oriented or law-based morality are men of weak or conflicting will (continent and incontinent men), one eventually comes to resent both duty and law because one’s own autonomy is perceived as challenged and even threatened. What ensues is the typical attitude, “I perform this action not because I want to [freedom of will] but because I have to [duty orders by law].” This kind of attitude inhibits a positive notion of duty that is not fundamentally designed to restrain men’s moral development but to advance it. Likewise, a negative view of duty cultivates fear and suspicion on the part of its citizens. This is consonant with Lord Acton’s words, “If men are not kept straight by duty, they must be by fear. The more they are kept by fear, the less they are free.”

Given the fact that the vast majority of men are unable to be virtuous and that duty must be imposed by law for the purpose of social order and moral stability, the question at this point is just how men can view duty in positive terms and come to appreciate its role in fostering their own moral development and autonomous behavior. We have demonstrated that true religion provides the basis for moral autonomy insofar as each man, acting in accord with his own good conscience, comes to value the right for its own sake the more he follows the honest voice of his conscience. Moreover, in following his autonomous conscience he ultimately comes to value, indeed love, the Cause of all goodness and truth who is God. In recognizing the source of his own freedom, man desires to worship God not out of fear but out of love. Hence, the relation between men’s own liberty and that of religion is clear.

Yet, precisely because in the majority of cases men’s wills are weak and therefore cannot act without the inner conflict between knowing what ought to be done and actually doing it, duty is necessary to command, even to compel them to do what is right and good. While duty is a certain guarantee of good and right action, it must be grounded in something that simultaneously respects man’s liberty, his moral autonomy, and that also serves to foster the maturation of his moral life. This is the role that religion itself plays once again. While there is no true liberty without religion, following Lord Acton’s logic, it is religion that “....strengthens the notion of duty.” Unless one carefully understands the link between religion and liberty, one cannot fully appreciate a mature sense of duty in the moral life. A proper sense of duty is grounded in the freedom of conscience and true religion born out of love of God. Religion “strengthens” duty and gives it this positive sense. In other words, despite the fact that their wills may be weak, men still desire to do what is right and to live in good conscience. They will respond positively to duty the more they see it in relation to true religion, which secures their liberty. In this way, then, we can also appreciate the careful and wise logic in Lord Acton’s synthesis: “The greater the sense of duty [the positive sense of duty which is also reinforced by true religion], the greater the liberty.”

The apparent triad of a relationships suggested by the quote from Lord Acton here is interesting to note: the triad of liberty, religion, and duty. (1) There can be no true liberty without religion {“....but no country can be free without religion.”}; (2) There can be no proper sense of duty without religion {“It [religion] creates and strengthens the notion of duty”}; and (3) There can be no true liberty without true duty {“The greater the strength of duty, the greater the liberty.”}

What we have sought to do in this essay is to explicate the logic of Lord Acton’s careful synthesis of liberty, religion, and duty. His synthesis is packed with wisdom for the moral life of men who desire both to do what is right and to follow their autonomous consciences by serving both their country (in accord with duty) and their God (in accord with free religion). The key to the triad it seems is religion, for there can be neither liberty nor duty without religion. It is worth noting here that Lord Acton does not arrange the triad of relationships differently. For example, he does not say that there can be no religion without liberty (since men will go on worshiping God despite the tyranny of state), nor does he say that there can be no religion without duty (since the very nature of true religion already implies its own sense of duty, namely, loving obedience of God’s will, which is etched upon every man’s conscience). One might conclude, therefore, that the foundation for liberty and duty is religion that fortifies men’s autonomous consciences to do what is pleasing and just before God and their country. Religion calls men to duty: to love God and to love their country.