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Freedom and Virtue: Friends or Enemies?

Freedom and Virtue: Friends or Enemies?


There’s an elephant in the room, the speaker declared. He was right. I was at a gathering, as I often am, of people who aspire to rescue their countries from descending into woke, collectivist hell. But the attendees were not of one mind. Instead, there were two kinds of people in attendance. The elephant in the room was the tension between them.

Across the West, Virtue People, and Freedom People have been working together. At conferences, in think tanks, at school boards, on email lists, in living rooms, on X, and sometimes marching in the streets, they coalesce. These two groups constitute the rebel alliance against authoritarian woke globalism. But their political philosophies conflict.

Virtue People believe that virtue is the most important thing. Tradition, faith, family, responsibility, dignity, patriotism, community, and spiritual or religious conviction are the pillars upon which the West must be built. Virtue People are often, but not always, people of faith, especially of the Christian variety. Laws, governments, and society, they believe, should promote the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.  

Freedom People don’t share this view. They believe that freedom is the most important thing. Virtues, they believe, are for individuals to work out for themselves. The primary accomplishment of the West, they would say, is individual autonomy. The purpose of government is to secure individual rights to liberty. Freedom means the absence of coercion. You may decide your values, actions, and groups for yourself. Freedom means “freedom from.” 

Virtue People believe in freedom too, especially in this era of illiberal progressivism. But freedom means a different thing to them. Freedom is essential, they would say, but the decline of the West is due to an excessive emphasis on individuality. (If that makes perfect sense to you, you may be a Virtue Person. If it sounds like a contradiction, you are probably a Freedom Person.)

Freedom, they would say, means the disciplining of desire, which requires limits. Freedom is the liberation to act responsibly, to be transcendent, and to flourish virtuously. We become free, they would say, to the extent that our will becomes coherent with objective Good. Freedom means “freedom to.”   

In the political sphere, these two kinds of freedom are incompatible. Freedom People expect their governments to keep the peace and protect the individual – and otherwise to not interfere. Virtue People expect their governments to promote the Good with laws and policies. Virtue People support laws that prohibit behavior that is, in their view, immoral, damaging to human flourishing, or inconsistent with common good. Assisted suicide, prostitution, divorce, pornography, even heresy, just to start, shall not be permitted. 

To achieve their ends, Virtue People rely on force. At least, that’s what Freedom People would say. Virtue People use laws to achieve their ends, and laws depend on force. Every legal rule identifies a circumstance in which the state will bend the will of its citizens. Without the monopolistic violence of the state, laws cannot be enforced. Virtue People are willing to use that force to achieve their virtuous ends. Therefore, allege the Freedom People, they are willing to use force to have their way.  

Freedom People are decadent. At least, that’s what Virtue People would say. If morality crimes do not exist and individuals are free to decide their own values, depravity ensues. Libertarians and libertines are cousins, Virtue People would declare. Excessive individualism causes indulgence, narcissism, and social decay.  

But Freedom People can be virtuous too. They can embrace faith, family, and community. They can disapprove of behavior, such as prostitution, that Virtue People would ban. However, Freedom People make a distinction that Virtue People are unable or unwilling to make.

Freedom People see two different questions where Virtue People see only one. How should people behave? How must they behave? For Freedom People, the first is philosophical and personal. The second is legal and coercive. The answer to the first does not answer the second. Freedom People do not impose their moral judgments on others. They will not have others impose upon them. 

Paradoxically, Freedom People have faith that Virtue People lack. They have faith in spontaneous order. If we leave people alone, they say, things will turn out fine. Individual decisions will coalesce into peace and prosperity. Virtue People do not believe in spontaneous order. They want their hands on the wheel, so that they can manage people to virtuous ends. 

Freedom People will not be managed. They believe that the West’s problem is too little liberty. Virtue People believe that the problem is too much. Freedom People oppose the administrative state. Virtue People embrace it if it directs people to proper ends. Neither will sign on to the other’s project. Although they cooperate to resist the tyranny of the woke, they are not likely to succeed unless they reconcile. 

At the gathering, most people were Virtue People. The few Freedom People present slowly realized that they had attended a kind of church to which they did not belong. The Virtue People who filled the room, steadfast in their conviction that they knew best what is Right and Good, did not seem to be aware of them. Or for that matter, that they existed at all.

Near the end, I spoke with an earnest, soft-spoken gentleman in horn-rimmed glasses. In his ideal world, the law would prohibit behavior that conflicted with the Good, as he perceived it. When I pointed out that some people in the room would oppose that enterprise with all their might, his mouth fell open and his eyes grew wide behind his thick lenses. That possibility had not occurred to him. 

Not everyone sees the elephant in the room.

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