Freedom is Not a Virtue

We Americans have come to think and live as though freedom is the ultimate human virtue to be achieved. In order to live a good life, one must seek to be free above all else. Free of constraint, free of oppression, free of judgments, free of hunger, free of fear, free of responsibility. Wouldn’t that be ideal? If only the whole world could be free. What’s wrong with that?

In our culture, freedom is valued as the key to happiness, unlocking the door to the well-lived life. We often are quick to celebrate our freedom as Americans, and even quicker to defer to our favorite Amendments that guarantee certain sacrosanct freedoms to us. We seem eager to invent new ones every decade or so.

At the same time, our shared reverence for freedom is at the root of every divisive issue facing us today, lately even to the point of threatening the unity of this nation of free people. Nobody can tell me what to do with my body. Nobody can tell me what to do with my guns. It’s a free country, isn’t it? 

If freedom is the key to our happiness, it’s not working. According to the latest World Happiness Report, published in March, the general happiness of Americans has declined steadily over the past 20 years. So, why are we becoming less happy? And why are we so divided against each other?

There are likely many causes. But, maybe—just maybe—one of them is that we’ve substituted freedom for virtue, though freedom is not a virtue at all. Nowhere does it appear among Aristotle’s list of virtues, for example. In the well-known book, Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses these timeless virtues, such as courage, temperance, generosity, honesty, patience, truth, trustworthiness, friendliness, and justice, as the means to happiness. He said we must acquire these virtues, among others, both as individuals and as a society, if we are to flourish as free people. They aren’t innate. They must be learned from others and practiced in moderation.

Aristotle wasn’t alone in his thinking. When Jesus mentioned freedom in his teachings about how we should live blessed (happy) lives, it was only in relation to the virtue of truth. “The truth shall set you free.” Perhaps we’ve lost sight of this wisdom, or forgotten it entirely. If so, we have strayed far from the thinking of those who established this nation, who relied heavily on these ideas as to how a free people should live.

Freedom is not a virtue, but a state of being. Of course, living in a free state, having the liberty to develop these virtues makes it easier to pursue the good life, the virtuous life—or “happiness,” as Aristotle defined it. Freedom is necessary but is not sufficient to living the good life. Further, it is certainly possible to live a good life and not be entirely free to do everything we please, as those who are soldiers, police, doctors, judges, teachers, ministers, athletes, and even most referees would attest. Politicians may be another matter entirely, however. Few are the virtuous in that camp. Diogenes and his lamp come to mind.

So, if we are to believe the wisdom of Aristotle, Jesus, and others, then the key to living a good life is not freedom, despite what appears to be popular opinion these days. Rather, it is developing the dozen or so virtues that lead to happiness. Living a good life, or the “pursuit of happiness” (to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase) is our purpose—even our right—as human beings, according to the Declaration of Independence. If that is true, then it is not so much our freedom to which we should look to supply happiness, but the virtues that determine what we do with that freedom when we find ourselves rid of constraints, and most especially when nobody is watching—or governing—us.

Freedom, after all, is free of virtue. In itself, freedom can be as dangerous and vicious as it is beneficial and good. Freedom for the sake of freedom certainly can be destructive. Think about it. The evidence is everywhere, from Charlottesville to Portland, from Charleston to Las Vegas.

We tend to believe that freedom provides us protection and strength. It’s all good, right? In truth, however, the freer we become, the less secure and more vulnerable we are, though we might think otherwise.

Take a simple example. As kids, few things are more more freeing than having our own wheels. Most parents know the mixed feelings of joy, satisfaction, and abject fear of watching their child pedal a bicycle down the street out of sight for the first time to visit a friend. It is exhilarating, empowering, and essential to a child’s sense of self to experience such freedom.

Experiences like that are what motivate and animate us to grow as human beings. From such adventures on their own, children (and their parents) can develop the true virtues of courage, temperance, trustworthiness, pride, and friendliness, among others. 

But, a lot of bad things can happen out there, too, alone and out of sight. Freedom can be dangerous. 

So, mom and dad set limitations and boundaries to keep their children safe and secure. Don’t go beyond Maple Street. Ride with the traffic. Cross with the lights. Call when you get there. Be polite. Don’t overstay your welcome. Be home by suppertime. Even with this new-found freedom, the young children of good parents are never entirely free, are they?  As adults, in our romantic nostalgia for the lost freedom of our youth (we were happiest then, right?), we sometimes tend to forget that.

We all as children soon learn that we can ride our bikes (or skateboards) freely until we exceed the boundaries set by those who care about our safety and security. Staying within those boundaries, we learn and practice the virtues, like honesty, temperance, and trustworthiness. If we ignore those boundaries, we can quickly find ourselves in terrible trouble or danger, one way or another. True liberty comes when we learn to operate as freely as we can, within the established mores, rules, and laws that govern us. 

In other words, living the virtuous life.

Beneficent liberty, then, depends on our virtues, as individuals, as families, and as a society. Without those virtues, we can’t enjoy our freedom—at least, not for long. Freedom without virtue often becomes too excessive, too volatile, too dangerous; consequentially, the laws that govern us become more and more stringent. We eventually find the laws encroaching on our liberty. We become less and less happy, whether as children or adults. We start pointing our fingers at everyone else who is violating the law, regardless of our own propensity to do the same.

These days, the answer to every issue seems to be, “there oughta be a law.” What an odd notion for a free people. We have enough laws, don’t we? It is often said that we are a “nation of laws.” I hate that phrase. Chances are, that new law isn’t going to make any of us any happier. Except for the lawyers among us.

Perhaps James Madison, the main author of the Constitution of the United States, said it best: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Americans seem quite unhappy these days, and there is a lot of talk about just who is to blame. It’s always tempting to blame somebody else–Them. But, who is really to blame? Have we Americans become less virtuous lately? 

If Madison was right, our freedoms, as well as our happiness, depend on the answer to that question—and ultimately what we as a people are willing to do about it.

Especially when nobody is watching.

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