Right Conduct

Posted on June 13, 2012 by

…precondition to, or result of, freedom?

Whereas statists and busybodies would point to the former, early twentieth century libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock, quoted in this article over at Reason, claims the latter:

The point is that any enlargement [of government], good or bad, reduces the scope of individual responsibility, and thus retards and cripples the education which can be a product of nothing but the free exercise of moral judgment. Like the discipline of the army, again, any such enlargement, good or bad, depraves this education into a mere routine of mechanical assent. The profound instinct against being “done for our own good” . . . is wholly sound. Men are aware of the need of this moral experience as a condition of growth, and they are aware, too, that anything tending to ease it off from them, even for their own good, is to be profoundly distrusted. The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed.

Let us assume for this post that ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are interchangeable, even though Classical Liberal theorists would distinguish between the two concepts.  Nock asserts that it is freedom that best educates a man in moral behavior, and that the guiding hand of those in authority, however well-intentioned, invariably stunts a fellow’s moral development.

At first blush, it seems that at least one of the Founders would agree with Nock

The laws of man may bind him in chains or may put him to death, but they never can make him wise, virtuous, or happy — John Adams

But that is not the entire story, for a great many of them also hold that virtue is a precursor to freedom:

To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea — James Madison

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters — Benjamin Franklin

[M]en will be free no longer then while they remain virtuous — Samuel Adams

On this point, the Founders seem to be in wide agreement. Virtue, right thought and conduct, predicates freedom.

So, then, having established that (a) government is powerless to instill virtue in men and (b) virtue is a necessary condition for freedom, from where does a man obtain moral training?  I have my biases, but I turn instead to the thoughts of our first president

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles — George Washington

Washington is correct here.  Virtue is instilled and shaped by Faith and the practice of it.  It does not spring up ex nihilo, it is not the product of  reason alone which, famously being the Devil’s whore, has demonstrably failed to restrain man’s more lethal passions, let alone engender systemic freedom.

But this is not to say that Nock does not have some claim on the truth here. For while we have established that moral fiber is accessed into man through Faith, if not into each person individually then into the body politic as a whole, it seems sensible to conceive that it may then be subsequently sharpened and enhanced through the practice of freedom.  Put another way, Faith equips men with the basic tools of moral behavior, which are then further refined through practical application in an environment that tests each man’s fiber.