Liberty v. license

The following is excerpted from Professor Robert George’s 2003 commencement address at Hillsdale. Hillsdale is a classical liberal arts college in Michigan which George noted experienced its “founding during the struggle over slavery in the mid-nineteenth century” and has since then sought independence through self-reliance, benefactors’ generosity, and a refusal to accept federal funding that could influence its mission. George’s address hits on similar themes in the personal realm:

True freedom consists in the liberation of the human person from the shackles of ignorance, oppression, and vice. Thus it was that one hundred and fifty years ago Edmund B. Fairfield, President of Hillsdale, speaking at a ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the new college building, declared that education, by lifting a man out of ignorance, “disqualifies him from being a slave.” What overcomes ignorance, is knowledge; and the object of knowledge is truth—empirical, moral, spiritual. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” True freedom, the freedom that liberates, is grounded in truth and ordered to truth and, therefore, to virtue. A free person is enslaved neither to the sheer will of another nor to his own appetites and passions. A free person lives uprightly, fulfilling his obligations to family, community, nation, and God. By contrast, a person given over to his appetites and passions, a person who scoffs at truth and chooses to live, whether openly or secretly, in defiance of the moral law, is not free. He is simply a different kind of slave.

The counterfeit of freedom consists in the idea of personal and communal liberation from morality, responsibility, and truth. It is what our nation’s founders expressly distinguished from liberty and condemned as “license.” The so-called freedom celebrated today by so-many of our opinion-shaping elites in education, entertainment, and the media is simply the license to do whatever one pleases. This false conception of freedom—false because disordered; disordered because detached from moral truth and civic responsibility—shackles those in its grip no less powerfully than did the chattel slavery of old. Enslavement to one’s own appetites and passions is no less brutal a form of bondage for being a slavery of the soul. It is no less tragic, indeed, it is in certain respects immeasurably more tragic, for being self-imposed. It is ironic, is it not, that people who celebrate slavery to appetite and passion call this bondage “freedom”?

Counterfeit freedom is worse than fraudulent. It is the mortal enemy of the real thing. Counterfeit freedom can provide no rational account or defense of its own normative claims. It speaks the language of rights, but in abandoning the ground of moral duty it provides no rational basis for anyone to respect the rights of others or to demand of others respect for one’s own rights.

In its essence, this is a Hillsdale-inspired restatement of Franklin’s belief that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

If liberty is understood as “the power to act,” the natural question is: “In service of what?”

“Virtue” maybe sounds prudish. It’s still a less exhausting way of life than “Ego.”