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The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy, University of San Francisco

Part Two | Part One


American democracy has its foundation in natural law, as is clear from the Declaration of Independence. Since the monistic theory of virtue ethics maintains that the standard of moral conduct is human nature properly ordered, and that that nature is universal, it follows that it presupposes natural law theory. For, if there is a single human nature, it follows that all humans will have the same exigencies, display the same drives, and hence be bound by the same essential principles. Nominalists deny that there is such a thing as a real human nature or essence, but besides courting nonsense, nominalism is inconsistent with a universal declaration of human rights or any rational defense of civil rights. Only if all humans are essentially the same (this excludes morally irrelevant characteristics such as race, state of health, economic condition) are they all entitled in justice to the moral and legal considerations called "rights." That is why an epistemological nominalist like Rorty can only propose pragmatic social policies. Since he maintains that our philosophical claims are culturally and historically bound, there is no "God's eye view" from which we can view reality (Rorty 1991: 202). Our picture of ourselves and nature is irredeemably ethnocentric.

Moreover, public discourse is the lifeblood of democracy, but no constructive discourse is possible without commonly accepted principles, many of which originate in natural law theory. Equally important is that because the natural law is knowable by unaided reason, religious pluralism is compatible with public discourse to the extent that reason transcends all ethnocentric and religious boundaries. It is the coin of the (world) realm (Murray 1960: 30-33).

To grasp the precise connection between natural law and moral virtue, it is necessary to avoid confusion over terms. In common parlance, "natural" is a synonym for spontaneous occurrences, such as the sprouting of sapling trees, dogs growling over a bone, or reflexively throwing one's hands up to one's head to fend off a thrown object. This use of the word juxtaposes the natural to the artificial, which embraces all products of human artifice. Since aspirin and eyeglasses are artificial, instead of natural, the use of "natural" to express moral approval and "unnatural" to express moral condemnation may seem comical.

But in the natural law tradition, "natural" is intended in the sense of the Greek word for nature, physis: "The conception underlying that term sees nature itself as teleological: a striving for fulfillment (horme) is attributed to all natural entities, including human beings. What allows an entity to actualize the potentials of its determinate nature, its essence, and thereby to attain its perfection (telos) is natural and therefore good or desirable; what frustrates its actualization is evil or undesirable" (Dennehy 1993: 630). With this understanding of "natural," the products of human artifice are not necessarily unnatural, since they may contribute to the positive actualization of human nature: aspirin alleviates pain; eye glasses facilitate the aim of the eye, which is to see; the formation of political society is necessary for human flourishing. The telos of each living thing is determined by its essence or nature. Thus, the theory of natural law derives from the human understanding that "there is, by the very virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the essential and necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law, or natural law, is nothing more than that" (Maritain 1966: 86).

An objection frequently raised against natural law is that if it is indeed natural, how come all peoples do not follow the same set of moral laws? The answer is epistemological and ethical. Regarding the epistemological, one can, following Maritain, distinguish between the ontological and gnoseological aspects of natural law. The former term refers to human nature or essence as it really is; the latter refers to one's understanding of that nature. Historical and social forces have much to do with how a people understand moral behavior. The more clearly they grasp human nature and its exigencies, the more closely their moral behavior conforms to natural law. Thus, natural law does not change because human nature does not change (Maritain 1966: 85-89). What changes is knowledge of human nature--for better or for worse.

The moral virtues, chief among them prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, play an indispensable part in the fulfillment of natural law. However, establishing that connection requires several preliminary steps. First, there is a preamble to natural law: "Do good and avoid evil" (Aquinas 1945: 774). This is implied in all action, for no one acts except to obtain what is good or avoid what is evil. The mugger forcibly takes the woman's purse, since acquiring money in that way appears to him to be good, that is, desirable; the child tries to avoid eating the vegetables on his plate, because eating them appears to him to be undesirable. These are examples of viewer-relative perceptions insofar as they refer to actions that are objectively morally evil, although appearing to be good. One might understandably suppose that, as such, they are hardly salutary examples of natural law whose principles are supposedly universally and objectively correct. The bridge between subjective, viewer-relative perception and objective moral law is found in spontaneous human strivings, which Aquinas calls "primary principles: the inclination to preserve one's life is the natural law ground for the prohibition of murder; the attraction between the sexes is the natural law ground for marriage and family; the inclination of humans to live together in society is the natural law ground for justice since to live in society requires respect for people" (Aquinas 1945: 775).

The problem with abstract principles is that applying them in concrete situations generates variables, the more concrete the situation, the more variables. For example, it is one thing to get agreement on the statement, "Murder is wrong," but quite another to find agreement on whether a particular act of homicide counts as murder. It is one thing to get agreement on the statement, "Stealing is wrong," but quite another to get agreement when someone sneaks food from a grocery market to feed a starving family. The moral virtues provide the bridge between the principles of natural law ethics and proper action. The virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance give the agent the right ends to pursue, while the virtue of prudence tells him what means to choose, in the particular situation, to realize those ends (Aristotle 1941: 1026). Knowing the proper means to a desired end is not the only thing needed for virtuous action; one must also desire the end. Most important of all, since ethics has its fulfillment not in thinking, but in acting, the virtue of prudence does not simply show what means will lead to the virtuous goal, it commands that they be used. It does not say, "It is wrong to steal that person's wallet"; rather, it issues a command, "Do not steal that wallet." Thus, virtuous behavior demands more than a theoretical knowledge of which actions are to be done and which avoided; one must possess the practical virtues to execute the decisions that a virtuous person would make.

"President Clinton's so smart, how could he get himself involved with Monica Lewinsky, when he knew they were investigating him in the Paula Jones case?" So exclaimed an obviously intelligent and educated panelist on a CNN talk show at the beginning of the Clinton impeachment process. A common error in ethical deliberation is the assumption that the criterion for judging whether actions are moral or immoral is the same for judging whether statements are true or false. The above question is a case in point. Its author failed to understand that morality is not in the intellect, but in the will. People frequently act contrary to what they know they ought and ought not to do. The respective criteria for truth and action are importantly different. The criterion for truth is conformity between thought and thing. The statement, "It is raining out," is true, if it is raining out. Its truth depends on actual meteorological conditions, which is to say that those conditions, whatever they may be, exist independently of whatever may be said about them.

The opposite obtains in ethics. The criterion for truth in moral action is the conformity of the will to right desire (Simon 2002: 10). Unlike the criterion for a true statement, the conformity is not between the agent and a preexisting reality. On the contrary, the agent's choice creates the reality, first, by altering the external state of affairs and affecting others, and second, by either strengthening or weakening his or her character. Thus, matching one's will to right desire requires more than merely knowing how one ought to behave. To reiterate, one must desire to behave according to right desire, and also possess the integration of intellect, will, passion, and appetite to translate the desire to behave according to right desire into acting according to right desire. It is not surprising, therefore, that Plato's educational regimen for children chosen to become philosopher-kings was to last a full thirty-five years, consisting as much of character formation as intellectual acumen. Moral virtue required the integration of all one's faculties--intellect, will, passion, and appetite.

Plato's student, Aristotle, gave fuller articulation to the nature and requirements of moral virtue by separating practical wisdom (phronesis) from theoretical wisdom (sophia), thereby rejecting the Socratic principle that no one deliberately does evil (1941: 1028-29). On the contrary, Aristotle observed, just as one can know what medicine to take and yet not take it, so one can know how one ought to act and yet fail to act that way (1941: 956). As if to anticipate a criticism of Kantian ethics, he insisted that one who has to struggle to resist the urge to overindulge does not have the virtue of temperance, since the very struggle betrays a lack of integration among his faculties (Aristotle 1941: 1050). One starts on the path of acquiring moral virtue by first acting as a virtuous person would act until one can perform virtuous actions easily and pleasurably. To avoid mistaking the mimicry of virtuous action for the real thing, Aristotle held that the latter must have the following three characteristics: (1) the agent must know what he is doing; (2) he must choose the action for its own sake; (3) the act must proceed from a fixed and permanent state of character (1941: 956).

The popular conception of the penalty for immoral behavior is some sort of physical, mental, or socio-economic harm to oneself: excessive drinking causes liver damage or loss of employment; lying leads to the loss of trust among one's family and associates, etc. While no one would deny that those are undesirable outcomes, classical moral theorists insisted that the price to be paid for immoral behavior is worse: the loss of rational control. Some challenge the view that a chosen immoral act is an expression of irrational behavior. Candace Vogler, for example, sees no reason why one who successfully plans and performs immoral acts on a regular basis in order to attain his or her goals cannot be said to be acting rationally (2002: 40-41). But, she is clearly using the word "rational" analogously. The agent's behavior is "rational" in the sense that it is the result of sound deliberation and efficient execution.

But, in the sense of rational entertained by classical moral theorists, his or her behavior is irrational because it cannot lead to the goal that everyone seeks. From the subjective standpoint, the goal is happiness; from the objective standpoint, the goal, according to Aquinas, say, is eternity in the presence of God (Vogler 2002: 34). Socrates zeroed in on what makes the actions of even the most successful of immoral people, the tyrant, irrational. Having made his way to the top by lying, cheating, betraying, and murdering, he can only associate with his own kind--liars, cheaters, betrayers, and murderers. His own untrustworthiness condemns him to be surrounded by deputies whom he cannot trust. More relevant, having failed to integrate his appetites and passions with reason, the tyrant is now held in thrall by his own unruly and self-destructive urges (Plato 1992: 249-51).

So, there are at least two reasons why Vogler's immoral agent does not act rationally. First, by a career of immoral scheming and choosing, he has sold himself into slavery, riveting his will to the evil rather than the good. Admittedly, his choices may be called "rational" in the sense that his planning and acting are logically derived from, and consistent with, his immoral attachments. But, that is a different sense of "rational" from the sense of the word when applied to moral behavior. Second, immoral choices have blinded him to the true state of his life and circumstances. He may feel free, and believe he is acting freely, but this is a merely subjective freedom, based on his belief that his choices and actions are unrestrained. Like members of Huxley's Brave New World, they are slaves living delusions of freedom.

Consider, for example, the virtue of chastity, which is the cardinal virtue of temperance as the latter pertains to sexual appetite. The term "chastity" is badly misunderstood. The modern world identifies it with the prudish view that regards sexuality with disdain and even fear; thus, one is chaste to the extent that one is not sullied by sexual behavior. But, rather than pertaining to a Gnostic or Manichean prudishness toward bodily functions, the etymological roots of "chastity" refer to purity or clarity of vision in matters of sexual behavior. The chaste person is one who sees the other person for what he or she is, a being of dignity for whom appropriate respect and justice are due. In contrast, one who has become enslaved by the vice of lust no longer sees the other in a true light. Just as the lion cannot appreciate the stag for its grace and beauty, but only as food, so the lustful person can only see another person as a source of sexual gratification (Pieper 1975: 166-67). Or, if the vice is greed, the other is perceived as a source of monetary enrichment, and the like. Of course, references to sight are meant to be analogical. The state of vice does not blind one to the truth that the other is a human being, a person for whom justice demands respect. But, to the extent that vice corrupts reason, the focus on the other person is distorted by the desire for gratification.

The libertarian argument for the legalization of drugs pinpoints the problem of freedom. The argument has two prongs. The first is that attempts by federal and local authorities to stanch the flow of drugs into America have been a spectacular failure (Nadelman 2004: 1). The second is that a mentally competent adult has the right to ingest whatever substance he or she chooses, as long as that behavior does not violate the rights of others. But, would a permissive government policy pertaining to the sale and use of narcotics produce a better, or at least no worse, set of conditions for human flourishing? A population lacking the virtue of temperance so that the majority of its members make sensual gratification their criterion of valorization, can be counted on to conclude, when voting for a political candidate or law, that what guarantees that gratification is what is good for democracy.


The illusion reveals itself in the inconsistency between the criticism of objective moral norms as the fulfillment of personal freedom and the fact that living and acting without moral virtue inevitably yokes one's will to one and the same object of desire. The standard criticism of positive freedom is that the demand that one act according to putative objective standards in order to be free is to confuse freedom with things, which, however laudable--truth, justice, beauty, goodness, or the law--are not what freedom is. The criticism goes on to say that the confusion is dangerous, since it can delude a population into believing that their adherence to those kinds of lofty standards makes them free when it fact it allows an oppressive regime to control their lives (Berlin 1961: 9-10).

But a characteristic of the lack of virtue, and surely of the state of vice, is the will's enslavement to a specific object of desire. So, despite insisting that to be free, the individual must have before him a range of options, the lack of virtue produces the opposite: prospective choices are inevitably evaluated in terms of their relation to the principal object of one's vice. Kant's heteronomous man looks as though he chooses on the basis of a consideration of options, but his will is necessitated to only one of them--the object of his vice (1993: 45-48). From the viewpoint of a formal consideration, the structure of the choice is like that of one who guides his choices by moral virtue insofar as those choices are guided by a standard external to his subjective self. But from the viewpoint of a material consideration, the two could not be farther apart. The virtuous agent chooses according to a rule of reason (orthos logos; recta ratio) the locus of which is the organization of passions and appetites according to reason.

The emergence of liberal democracy signals a deepened understanding of the dignity and freedom of the human person, the integrity of conscience, and the equality of all human beings. But in a finite existence, to fill a hole, one must dig a hole. For all its glories, liberal democratic theory has lost sight of the individual's connection with the political community. Granting the dangers inherent in Rousseau's theory that each individual is a manifestation of the General will or Hegel's view that individuals are microcosms of the State, or other totalitarian theories in which the individual has no meaning or value apart from the state, liberal theory seems to have traveled in the opposite direction, construing the individual's relation to the political community primarily in utilitarian terms. This has blinded liberal democracy to the meaning of Plato's observation that "the State is man writ large": the moral condition of the political community expresses the moral condition of its members. It would be well to remember that Hitler and his Nazi Party gained control of Germany following free elections.

If positive freedom, especially the metaphysical version, poses threats to a people's freedom to choose their own ends by imposing the state or a higher self as one's true self, so that one is deluded into believing that by obeying the law, one is really obeying oneself, negative freedom hardly offers a better prospect. The possibility of a nation enslaved in their respective and collective actions by their vices, but believing they act freely because they do what they wish, is as disturbing as it is plausible.

Virtue ethics offers the solution to the extent that it furnishes the standard for action based on understanding and choice unhampered by un-disciplined passions and appetites. For the virtuous person, freedom is negative in the truest sense insofar as he or she enjoys a freedom from both external restraints and the inner restraints of vice. That is the route to human flourishing, both for self-fulfillment and preparation for citizenship. The argument for a virtuous society must not be allowed to go begging. Thomas Aquinas observed that after one loses the virtue of chastity, thereby succumbing to the vice of lust, the next virtue to be lost is justice, the obligation to pay each his due. That is because vice, being a malignancy, metastasizes. First, there was the sexual revolution, accompanied by the mainstream acceptance of pornography; then legalization of abortion on request; and now the movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide and infanticide (Verhagen & Sauer 2005: 960). The objectification of women as sexual objects has led to the creation of a new social category: a class of disposable people, to wit the unborn, the sickly and deformed, and the elderly. Hardly a desirable policy for democratic societies, regardless of whether they are procedural or formative polities. For if, indeed, what the American people want most is the freedom to choose their own goals, why do they not acknowledge that the freedom to kill the innocent and defense-less contradicts any democratic freedom, for it is the freedom of the strong against the weak who have no choice but to submit (Pope John Paul II 1995: 28-29).

The enduring ideal is a democracy that confers the widest latitude for personal freedom on its members, the vast majority of whom, including elected officials and judges, have characters shaped by a monistic virtue ethics. The crucial question is, who has the responsibility of inculcating ethics in society? The cackling of the sacred geese warned ancient Rome of impending danger. Where are our geese?


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Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Raymond L. Dennehy is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.

After serving from 1954-58 as a radarman in the U.S. Navy aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Rochester in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he attended the University of San Fransisco, obtaining a B.A. in philosophy. He studied philosophy in the graduate school of the University of California, Berkeley, finally getting his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto.

He is the author of Anti-Abortionist at Large: How to Argue Intelligently about Abortion and Live to Tell About It. (Go here for reviews and excerpts.) His previous books are Reason and Dignity and an anthology he edited, Christian Married Love. He is frequently invited on radio and television programs, as well as university campuses, to speak and debate on topics such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and cloning.

He is married to Maryann Dennehy, has four children and eleven grandchildren.

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