Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Important Reason for Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

In a seminar I took part in a few weeks ago in Yundola, Bulgaria, I was asked about the best reason for supporting a fully free society. There are many reasons, of course, and the most popular one tends to focus on the economic benefits of freedom. When people are free, they tend to produce much better than if someone holds a gun to their heads, or even just bullies them, like bureaucrats tend to do in welfare states. Also, there is more creativity and innovation in a free society than in one that’s
planned or even just heavily regulated. The arts, too, tend to benefit since there is a far greater dissemination of what artists create in a free country than in one that’s run by some elite group.

But in the end the most important benefit of freedom is really something quite distinct. This is that it is the precondition of living a morally good life. Of course, what such a life is needs to be discussed and certainly has been the focus of debate from some of the best mind throughout human history. Yet, whatever is the full story on just what is the morally right way to live, one thing is for sure. If one isn’t free to make choices in one’s life, if one has no sphere of personal authority to decide on how one is going to conduct oneself, such a life is going to be outside of one’s reach. Morality requires liberty for one--when someone isn't free to choose to act as one will, is it even possible to think of whether the person has acted rightly or wrongly? People ruled and regulated by others aren’t their own masters but involuntary servants, subjects and not sovereign citizens. So what they do isn’t up to them, at least not to the degree that others control their behaviour.

It is also clear enough that what is most important for everyone is whether he or she is a morally good person. Whatever the specifics, it is not much in dispute that whether someone is good at some profession, sport, hobby, or any special activity, what counts for most is whether one is being a morally good human being. This is easily confirmed—nearly everyone can testify that above everything else, it is whether someone is
morally decent that counts in the end. Sure, we like it when folks are handsome or beautiful or rich or talented or skilled—all of this matters to us a great deal. But if one has met all these standards swimmingly but is, in the end, a scoundrel, that pretty much as a deal breaker.

There are some apparent exceptions to this—say if someone who is basically a cad does, nonetheless, contribute something vital to the world, in science, medicine, athletics, the arts or scholarship. And there are a few such people who seem to get a pass as far as their rotten character is concerned. Still, they aren’t fully embraced as worthy human souls, that’s also for sure.

So, if it is true that human liberty is a prerequisite of human morality, it is difficult to dispute that a free country is better than various more or less coercive alternatives to it. In a free country the rights everyone has--to be respected by others and protected in the legal system--are supposed to secure for one what the late Robert Nozick called one’s moral space, a sphere of exclusive jurisdiction that’s inviolate, wherein one is in full control. With everyone in possession of such a sphere, regardless
of its exact size or range, everyone is then in charge of how one will comport oneself within this sphere and will carry full responsibility for his or her conduct.

Those who will freely join with others and cooperatively carry out various projects, for better or for worse, will also have the chance to prove their moral worth. In a free country dumping one’s ill doings on other people is prohibited and cannot be done with impunity, which is likely to encourage more decent behavior than will be done in societies in which one can lose oneself in the crowd and routinely dodge personal responsibility.

Of course, freedom has many other benefits besides encouraging ethically or morally responsible conduct and the possibility of giving credit as well as blame where these are properly due. Freedom does encourage more prosperity and the growth of knowledge and expansion of culture, encouraging the purging of the useless and unwanted from our midst. Still, what is most important about freedom is that free men and women can more
fully than in other types of societies aspire to live morally good lives, to flourish as human individuals, however exactly that’s to be understood.

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