There is no quicker means of raising a skeptical eye among many conservatives and libertarians alike than to endorse both liberty and virtue. Many people who consider freedom the preeminent political objective perceive support for virtue to be an implicit call for restrictive new laws. More than a few advocates of virtue treat a vigorous defense of liberty like the promotion of vice. This mutual hostility is evidenced by the growing strains between many economic libertarians and social conservatives, who once submerged their differences in the pursuit of common goals. Yet neither liberty nor virtue is likely to survive alone.
Both freedom and virtue are under serious assault today. Government takes and spends nearly half of the nation’s income. Regulation further extends the power of the state in virtually every area of people’s lives.
Increasing numbers of important, personal decisions are ultimately made by some public functionary somewhere. Virtue, too, seems to be losing ground daily. The legal and political systems are increasingly based on theft and irresponsibility. Families and communities increasingly break down, if they form at all. Popular culture celebrates many of humanity’s worst attributes.
At this critical time, some supporters of either liberty or virtue are setting one against the other, treating them as frequent antagonists, if not permanent opponents. At the very least, the competing advocates suggest, you cannot maximize both values, but instead have to choose which to expand and which to constrict.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that one must be sacrificed for the other. Rather, freedom and morality are complementary. That is, liberty — the right to exercise choice, free from coercive state regulation — is a necessary precondition for virtue. And virtue is ultimately necessary for the survival of liberty. Anyone interested in building a good society should desire to live in a community that cherishes both values. As Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute points out, “Common sense tells any sane person that a society that is both free and virtuous is the place he or she would most want to live.”
Virtue cannot exist without freedom, without the right to make moral choices. Coerced acts of conformity with some moral norm, however good, do not represent virtue; rather, the compliance with that moral norm must be voluntary. As Sirico explains, liberty should be seen “as the overarching context in which anything may be said to be virtuous.”
There are times, of course, when coercion is absolutely necessary — most importantly, to enforce an interpersonal moral code governing the relations of one to another. Sanctions against crimes such as murder, enforcement of contracts and property ownership, and prohibition of fraud are obvious examples. In these cases, law is necessary not to promote virtue, which depends on voluntary compliance based on internal conscience, but to defend the rights of people.
Very different, however, are attempts to mandate virtue, which reflects a standard of intrapersonal morality. As such, it is an area that lies largely beyond the reach of state power. Which makes the role of non-governmental institutions, particularly the family and church, so much more important.
The statist temptation nevertheless remains strong, and for obvious reasons. America today does not seem to be a particularly virtuous place. But then, the natural human condition, certainly in Christian theology, and in historical experience, too, is not one of virtue. “There is no one righteous, not even one,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman church, citing the Psalms (Rom. 3:10). This explains the necessity of a transcendent plan of redemption.
Societies can be more or less virtuous. Although one should be skeptical of the assumption that there ever was a “golden age,” symptoms of moral decline do surround us. The critical question, however, is: Did America (and other nations) become less virtuous because government no longer tries so hard to mold souls? Blaming moral shifts on legal changes mistakes correlation for causation.
In fact, America’s one-time cultural consensus eroded during an era of strict laws against homosexuality, pornography, adultery, and even fornication. Only the end of this consensus led to changes in the law. In short, as more people viewed sexual mores as a matter of taste rather than as a question of right and wrong, the moral underpinnings of the laws collapsed, followed by the laws themselves. The loss of virtue fatally undermined the laws supposedly promoting virtue, not the other way around.
This phenomenon should surprise no one. Government has proved that it is not a particularly good teacher of virtue. The state tends to be effective at simple, blunt tasks, such as killing and jailing people. It has been far less successful at the much more delicate task of reshaping individual consciences. Even if one could pass the laws without changing America’s current moral ethic, the result would not be a more virtuous nation. True, there might be fewer overt acts of immorality. But there would be no change in individual hearts: Forcibly preventing people from victimizing themselves does not automatically make them more righteous. It is, in short, one thing to improve appearances, but quite another to improve society’s moral core. And the latter is what virtue is all about.