Liberty & Virtue

James Otteson,

Release Date
June 29, 2011


Civil Liberties

Does a free society encourage immoral behavior? Prof. James Otteson of Yeshiva University argues that moral or virtuous behavior can only grow in a climate of individual liberty. The decisions individuals make can only be called virtuous if they are made freely, without compulsion by someone else. Individuals will make mistakes and may sometimes act viciously, but they can only develop good judgment about moral matters by practicing and making some mistakes, which will only happen in a free society.

  • Liberty and Virtue: Invaluable and Inseparable  [Article]: Doug Bandow holds that it is a mistake to assume either liberty or virtue must be sacrificed for the other.
  • Virtue versus Legal Obligation  [Article]: Sheldon Richman makes the point that forced generosity is no longer generosity.
  • Bourgeois Virtues?  [Article]: Deirdre McCloskey argues that a market system encourages certain kinds of virtues.
  • Freedom and Virtue  [Article]: Leonard P. Liggio reviews the collected volume Freedom and Virtue and affirms that the distinction between the two concepts is fallacious.

Liberty & Virtue
Some people think that liberty and virtue are in tension, meaning the more liberty you give to people, the more likely they are to engage in behaviors that are not virtuous, that are vicious. Virtue requires liberty, but of course they’re not the same thing, because just having freedom allows you to have all sorts of choices, good and bad, and engage in all sorts of behaviors, good and bad behaviors, and so of course vicious and virtuous behavior.
So we don’t define virtue in terms of liberty. But liberty becomes a prerequisite for virtue. Virtuous activity requires having the ability, the capacity to choose. If you give people complete liberty, you might have a kind of moral anarchy, people making all sorts of mistakes. Now, of course, you’ll have virtue as well, but you might have lots of bad mistakes that people make, moral and otherwise.
So some people argue on the basis of that, that if you want to encourage citizens, people to be virtuous, the government’s job is to structure their choices in certain ways such that there are some bad choices it’s much more difficult, and maybe impossible, for them to choose. Think of recent arguments about how we should deal with the growing epidemic of obesity, for example. If we give people absolute freedom to choose to eat what they want to eat, to drink what they want to drink, some of them are going to get obese. It’s going to happen. It’s happening. So some people will argue and do argue that what we should do about that is encourage them to make better choices. And by encouraging them, that might actually mean forbidding certain kinds of choices or adding costs onto certain choices.
So the question is if people begin to behave in the way that we would like them to behave, so suppose that people begin to make the right choices, what we think are the right choices, about eating or about many other behaviors as a result of our pushing them ever so slightly, maybe just nudging them, to use a word from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. The question is, are the choices that they’re then making, are they virtuous? Well my argument is that, no. If a person makes a choice because he or she is being pushed in that direction, that’s not a virtuous choice, because virtue requires having freely chosen the behavior. Coerced behavior or even just nudged behavior, to the extent that the person is not completely free in choosing, to that same extent the person is no longer capable of acting virtuously.
So take a step back for a second. Where do we get virtuous behavior? Virtuous behavior is the result, as I think, of freely made choices. How do we make those freely made choices? Not all freely made choices, after all, are good. Some of them are bad. So what’s the distinction? The distinction, I think—and I’m going to draw on Aristotle—is when we employ the concept of good judgment, the person of good judgment is the one who makes wise, virtuous choices.
So take another step back. How do you get to be a person of good judgment? Well, there are two things that are necessary. First of all, as Aristotle said, you have to practice it. You can’t have good judgment if you don’t practice. Judgment is a skill. It’s like other skills. Think of playing a piano or driving a car in traffic. You’re never going to get good at those things unless you practice over and over and over again. Same thing with judgment. You have to practice it, you need experience.
But that’s only one half of the coin. The other half of the coin is you have to get feedback. Think if you were practicing your piano lessons and your piano teacher said you were fantastic, were great no matter what you did. Or think if when you were driving you didn’t have anybody who told you no, that wasn’t a good move. This was the way to do it. You have to have the proper feedback. So the development of any goods, any skill in good directions, and this holds for judgment as well, is getting proper accountability, that’s the feedback. But you have to be able to practice; that’s the freedom. So in order to act virtuously, you have to have that chain of things. Virtuous activity results from making good decisions using one’s judgment well. And using one’s judgment well requires having developed it. And that means you had to have the freedom to choose and you were held accountable for it.
So in my view, liberty and virtue are not in tension. They’re absolutely necessary partners. You cannot act virtuously if you did not have the freedom to develop the judgment and the responsibility to be held accountable for the decisions you make. Liberty and virtue are partners. You can’t have one without the other.