Virtue and liberty are both good things, and when the world is well-ordered, they are in harmony with one another. Today we often find them at odds. The friends of virtue see liberty abused in the pursuit of vices which prove self-destructive to the individual and harmful to others, while friends of liberty think the friends of virtue want to force them to live a certain way, confining their personal freedom, and for that matter, differing vastly among themselves about what virtue is. Consider, for example, the practices permitted by modern sexual freedom, on the one hand, and the debates over whether society can establish a normative definition of marriage on the other.
Let me suggest a way of thinking about this question that can allow harmony between liberty and virtue. Define virtue as human excellence, as the ancient Greeks defined it, including moral excellence but not limited to it. Define liberty as the individual’s faculty of governing himself — and include political liberty, the capacity of people to govern themselves as a whole.
Virtue, then, depends upon freedom; no virtuous act can be fully virtuous unless it is freely chosen by the person acting.
And while our virtues often owe their formation and their exercise to others — to our parents or others who taught us right from wrong and instilled in us good habits, to our friends who counsel us in making hard decisions and help to guide us on the right path — in the end action is only truly human when it is chosen thoughtfully and conscientiously.
We can improve ourselves by repeated good choices and in fact probably have to continuously aim at self-improvement to keep from growing inattentive and corrupt.
Besides, there are many forms of human excellence and many virtues, and no one can cultivate all of these, even if there are some, like justice, that all of us need to possess to a certain extent. Part of what makes us social and political beings is that we rely upon and even take pleasure in one another’s excellences, enjoying an outstanding musical or athletic performance by another even if it is far beyond our own capacities, or appreciating a great act of statesmanship or a courageous stand for justice even if it is something we didn’t have the opportunity or perhaps the courage and ability to do ourselves.
We rely upon and even take pleasure in one another’s excellences.
In a free society, we choose what excellences to cultivate, whether technical or artistic or political or commercial or intellectual. Some basic moral virtues might be expected of everyone, but even these are developed and perfected in different ways according to the life we choose.
Virtue Is A Necessity
But a free society also depends upon virtue. Partly this is a matter of individuals’ making good use of their own freedom, which is rarely done without some measure of self-discipline and prudence. Partly it is a matter of learning the basic justice and civility that is needed for living together with others in civil society.
Partly it is a matter of developing the political virtues needed for republican government: a willingness to get involved and speak up; to step back, take turns, and try to understand political opponents who are nevertheless fellow citizens; to obey just laws and use prudence to correct those one finds unjust; to contribute according to one’s capacity for the common defense when necessary; to learn how self-government operates and encourage others to do the same.
A free society probably cannot thrive if every citizen is absorbed in politics all the time — that’s one reason we have a representative system, not direct democracy — but it surely cannot thrive if most citizens are ignorant or indifferent about politics, that is, if they lack the basic virtues that make political freedom work.
A free society probably cannot thrive if every citizen is absorbed in politics all the time.
Harmony between virtue and freedom is the ideal, but usually in political life one has to settle for a balance between them. Some people think — looking at our epidemics of drug addiction and family breakdown in recent decades — that the balance has shifted too much in the direction of individual license, neglecting both the virtues of private life and the virtues of political life. Many have thought the decline of the virtues of political life was on ample display in our recent elections — on the part of the voters, the parties, and many of the candidates. I am a little more optimistic, because the election seems to have energized citizens of every partisan description to recognize the importance of political choice and the need to be politically engaged.
Such awareness is not by itself evidence of political virtue, but it is the necessary condition for people to make the effort to learn about our form of government, to listen to their friends and their opponents, to deliberate and act and thereby gain political experience in the process, and finally to appreciate the value of our liberties. Gratitude, too, is a political virtue, at least in a republic like our own which has been shaped both by freedom and by virtue. Indeed, I think gratitude ought to be widely shared, for ours is a democratic republic, where the rights, if not always the opportunities, for the exercise of political liberty are equal, and the opportunities themselves can be created with a little effort and ingenuity, that is, with a little virtue.