Morality and the Maintenance of Liberty
by Gilbert Meilaender
Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics,
Valparaiso University
(Adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College)

Freedom, Truth and Virtue

True freedom is liberation of the human person from slavery to ignorance, oppression and vice.

A free person is enslaved neither to the sheer will of another person nor to his own appetites and passions. A free person lives uprightly, in harmony with truth and virtue. Moreover, a free person believes there are such values.

A person given over to his appetites and passions, a person who scoffs at truth and chooses to live in defiance of moral law is not free.

The popular counterfeit of freedom is the idea of liberation from morality and responsibility. This is what our nation’s founders expressly distinguished from liberty and condemned as “license.”

The so-called freedom celebrated today by so many of our opinion-shaping elites in education, entertainment and the media is simply a pseudo-philosophy of license to do whatever they please.

This false idea of freedom – false because it is disordered, being detached from moral truth and civic responsibility – shackles those in its grip no less powerfully than did the chattel slavery of old.

Indeed, enslavement to one’s own appetites and passions is no less brutal a form of bondage being self-imposed. It is ironic, is it not, that people who celebrate their slavery to appetite and passion call this form of bondage “freedom”?

Counterfeit freedom is worse than fraudulent. It is the mortal enemy of the real thing. Counterfeit freedom can provide no rational defense of its own claims.

It speaks the language of rights, but in abandoning the ground of moral duty it provides no rational basis for anyone to respect the rights of others or to demand of others respect for one’s own rights. That is why it is worse than just a bad idea.

Rights without duties are meaningless. Where moral truth as the basis of duty is thrown overboard, the language of rights is so much idle chatter fit only for Hollywood cocktail parties and faculty lounges.

It has been observed, in relation to the movement for unfettered abortion, that those who demand liberation from the moral law have talked themselves out of the moral premises for their own rights and liberties.

If freedom is to be honored and respected, it must be because human freedom is required by the "laws of nature and nature’s God"; it cannot be because there are no laws of nature and there is no God.

The Dangers of License

But counterfeit freedom poses greater dangers still. As our founding founders warned, a people given over to license will be incapable of sustaining a republican government, for government by the people requires a people who are prepared to take responsibility for the common good, including the preservation of the conditions of liberty.

Slaves to appetite and passion, lacking in the understanding and virtue needed for self-government, will surely lose it.

They will look not to themselves but to government to provide for the satisfaction of their desires.

Where counterfeit freedom prevails, the republican principle of limited government is inevitably sacrificed as people surrender personal and, ultimately, political liberty to whatever power promises to protect them from predators and supply the appeasement of their appetites.

People are reduced from being citizens, then to being subjects, then to being slaves. That can happen only if they allow it to by trading their birthright of freedom for a mess of pottage. Yet, ironically, so long as the big-government-provided mess of pottage works as a suitable narcotic, they imagine themselves free.

At the same time, the want of virtue creates a counterfeit idea of equality which parallels the counterfeit conception of freedom. True equality – equality under the law, equality of opportunity – is displaced by the demand for equality of results. Thus distinctions, grounded in such intrinsically retributive ideas as personal merit, are cast aside.

Ultimately, the counterfeit of freedom is a counterfeit precisely because its view of the nature, dignity and destiny of man is false.

Men and women are not mere bundles of appetites. Our destiny is not to be slaves to our passions. On the contrary: men and women, made in the very image and likeness of the Divine Ruler of the Universe, have an intelligence more profound, and a freedom more God-like, than that.

We are, to be sure, fallen creatures; dust of the earth; sinners every one. Yet the divine image – the icon of God Himself – is not destroyed.

And commensurate with the dignity of creatures fashioned in God’s image, we are indeed, as the Declaration of Independence says, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Freedom – true freedom – is God’s gift to mankind. The self-government that is the right of free men and women is truly a sacred trust.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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