Why Liberty is Necessary for Morality*
Tibor R. Machan
It is often taken to be a feature of a free society that it rests on the
belief that no one can tell what is morally right or wrong. That is
supposed to be why people are not imposed upon with strictures the
government forces them to follow. If, however, we could determine what is
right and wrong, then, the idea follows, government could just proceed to
force everyone to behave right.
A sad result of so explaining the merits of a free society is that it
begins to look like liberty is the enemy of morality. And it is just this
way that a good many people have understood the Western tradition of
liberalism. They have come to believe that if you accept the Western idea
of a free society, you must not care about morality at all. Indeed,
arguably a great many enemies of the West hold such a view. Love the
West, reject morality; love morality, reject the West.
Yet this is completely wrong. In point of fact precisely the opposite is
true. The reason the Western idea of a free society makes a great deal of
sense is that unless people make their moral choices and act on them
freely, there cannot be anything morally praiseworthy in what they do.
A person who does the right thing because it is commanded, forced upon
him, isn?t acting morally. Such a person is acting from fear, not the
conviction that what he is doing is morally right. Indeed, it is only in
substantially free societies that men and women can be morally good. If
one is regimented to praise Allah or God or give to the poor or defend
one?s country, there is absolutely nothing praiseworthy about that. One
is then being a mere puppet, certainly not a morally responsible human
Of course, there have been some who have defended the individual?s right
to liberty on the ground that no one can tell what is right or wrong.
Some very famous people have done this. Yet their defense of human
liberty is a weak, ineffectual one. That?s because if one cannot tell
what is right or wrong, one cannot tell whether violating someone?s right
to liberty is right or wrong. So, a moral skeptic simply has no
consistent reason to complain if the right to liberty is violated.
Those, however, who insist that they do know right from wrong have no
justification for opposing the free society. For adult men and women to
be morally praiseworthy ? or, alternatively, blameworthy ? for something
they do, they have to do it freely, of their own initiative, not because
they are coerced to do it.
No one is morally improved by being forced to be generous, just, kind,
courageous, prudent, honest, charitable, moderate, humble or the like.
The paternalistic motivations behind many governmental measures that
ostensibly aim to make people good are hopelessly misguided.
I would even question the motivation of those who promote coercive
governmental measures aimed to reduce vice and increase virtue ? since
coercion kills personal responsibility, and does this very obviously, it
is more likely that advocates of coercively getting people to be good are
power seekers, not promoters of morality at all. They merely use morality
as an excuse to rule other people. In the name of such allegedly good
intentions, they perpetrate the most dehumanizing deed toward people;
namely, they promote robbing them of their liberty to choose.
Of course, the laws of a free society cannot guaranteed that the
citizenry will choose the right way to act. That is something in the
hands of the citizens themselves and their fellow citizens, friends,
community leaders, teachers, writers, and others who urge us all to do
what?s right, not officers of the law whose task is to keep the peace, not
to make people good! But in a free society, where no one is authorized to
dump the results of his or her misdeeds on others' lives, people are more
encouraged to do the right thing than in societies where personal
responsibility is missing because of the lack of individual liberty. So,
critics of the free society who want more emphasis on morality than on
liberty would do better if they first stood up to defend liberty. From
that the prospects for genuine, freely chosen morality are far greater
than they are wherever men and women aren?t free.
*This essay appeared in the Royal Institute of Philosophy publication
Think (Spring 2005).