Modern politics is generally framed as a struggle between freedom and equality. But which is the greater end? Although both are important, in accepting either we’ve lowered our sights from the classical ideal of virtue.
The modern mindset can be demonstrated by two examples: taxes and the minimum wage. Opponents of tax hikes often appeal to the right of individuals to keep the fruits of their own labor, while advocates argue the wealthy must “pay their fair share.”
The same applies to the minimum wage. Critics decry government criminalizing arrangements the parties involved have freely agreed to simply because it may not seem “fair” to an outsider, while supporters counter that everyone is entitled to a “living wage.” To be sure, freedom and equality are indispensable to our republic (although equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcome), but both fall short of the ideal of virtue.
Classical philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle recognized the importance of freedom and equality, but regarded the ultimate aim of politics, or the “best regime,” to be the pursuit of the good, or “virtuous,” life. This meant living in accordance with human nature and its needs—which consisted of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice—and which stood as the highest ideal among political theorists for millennia.
Helping Us Do What Is Right
Affirming this outlook in the 1200s, for instance, Thomas Aquinas developed what his predecessors had merely implied: Within human nature is a code to the rules of life, or “natural law,” discoverable through conscience, reason, and philosophical reflection. Through natural law we know what constitutes virtue, but because human nature is often base and easily corrupted, political order must help us lead the virtuous life.
The framers of the United States embraced the notion that politics should promote virtue. Although they appealed to the individual-rights philosophy of John Locke, which presupposes freedom and equality, they believed (as did Locke) that commensurate with those rights were “duties”—or responsibilities of citizenship—that encouraged virtue. Indeed, our founders insisted that the public square was an appropriate place to champion moral rectitude, moderation, and civic responsibility, including values-based education.
Until recently, this idea continued to inform our politics. John F. Kennedy, for instance, made his famous aphorism with regard to civic virtue: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Similarly, arguing against segregation in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. appealed not primarily to its abuse of freedom, equality, or “human rights”—important though they were—but to segregation’s violation of the virtue of justice and natural law:
To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.
Stripping the Public Square of the Good
Regrettably, to the extent that “virtue” survives in our lexicon, it has been all but relegated to the private sphere, with scarcely a mention of it from our public figures. We now suffer from what Richard Neuhaus coined the “naked public square.” As we become increasingly “open” and “tolerant” in the name of “freedom” and “equality,” virtue is sacrificed on the altar of permissiveness. The result has been alienation from our nature as political animals.
Consider the move toward drug legalization. Advocates celebrate the trend as a victory for freedom. After all, smoking a blunt harms no one except the user. And who are we, as an open society, to tell another how to live his life? Opponents typically say the adverse health effects of marijuana are uniquely dangerous. As the debate reduces to freedom versus health, the appeal to virtue is ignored, the argument for freedom persuades, and we slide toward legalization.
But this is a colossal mistake. The problem with marijuana use is not its deleterious effects on health, but its power to dilute one’s rational faculties and detach the user from reality, diminishing his ability to be a responsible citizen and to work for the common good.
Similarly, consider the growing influence of government welfare. Inequality warriors frame welfare expansion as essential for the equality of the impoverished and downtrodden. Critics, meanwhile, rebuke attempts to redistribute the earnings of Peter to pay Paul. But as the dialogue unravels between equality and freedom, the argument for virtue goes unmentioned, the putative moral component of equality triumphs, and we trend toward welfare statism.
This is a tragedy. The swollen welfare state is problematic not primarily because of its redistributionism (bad as that may be), but because it corrupts the human spirit of recipients, encouraging them to indulge the slothful side of human nature. Understanding this reality, founder Nathaniel Chipman couched his disapproval of excessive welfare in terms of its violation of virtue and natural law:
To exclude the meritorious from riches and honors, and to perpetuate either to the undeserving, are equally injurious to the rights of man in society. In both it is to counteract the laws of nature, which have, by the connection of cause and effect, annexed the proper rewards and punishments to the actions of men. Wealth, or at least, a competency, is the reward, provided by the laws of nature, for prudent industry; want, the punishment of idleness and profligacy.
The ancients were the first to discover that man by nature is a political animal whose quest is for virtue. This idea was reiterated by Aquinas and reaffirmed by our Founding Fathers, and it survived into recent modern times. But blinded by our preoccupation with equality and freedom, today we have lost sight of the classical ideal. But we must rediscover it. Without it we have little hope of promoting the good life.