Freedom as a Political Good

Historically the Catholic Church has had, or has been perceived to have, a rocky relationship with “freedom” in the sense that the term has come to be used in a political and cultural sense since the Enlightenment.

Freedom in the modern sense is often taken to mean, “I’m free to do whatever I want without anyone telling me what to do.” The Church, on the other hand, generally takes freedom to mean, “Freedom to do that which is good.” The Church sees sin as enslaving and as reducing one’s capacity to choose freely in the future, and as such even where acting contrary to the good is in no way forbidden, doing wrong is not seen by the Church as exercising “freedom”.

So the in the moral sense, the Church does not hold “freedom” in the sense of simply doing whatever you want to be a good. Rather, the Church holds doing the good to be the good, and freedom to be the means of achieving that.

I speak above in the moral sense. However, let us look now at the political question of freedom.

There are several senses of “freedom” that one can speak about politically. Sometimes we talk about a country being “free” in that it is not a dictatorship or more specifically in that it has a free press and a moderately democratic form of government. However the sense that I’d like to examine is “freedom” in the sense of “not legislating morality” or more generally erring on the side of not restricting personal action even in cases where one is sure that the action in question is wrong.

The argument for using the state to restrict people from doing things that are wrong is pretty straight forward: Generally when we refer to something as being “wrong” we are talking about something which causes injury to others, or at least to the actor himself. For example, it is wrong to steal, and it is illegal to steal because stealing causes injury both to the person who is stolen from and also (though this is of more interest to the moralist than the lawmaker) because stealing causes damage to the person who steals as well.

Generally, when people argue against making something destructive illegal, they do so on one of two bases:

1) Outlawing the activity would cause social destruction greater than the activity itself.

2) Outlawing the activity would set a dangerous precedent because of disagreements in society as to the definition of what is destructive.

A good example of the first of these is the debate over whether the ban on drugs causes more damage than simply having drugs legally available would. This is an interesting prudential debate, but what I’m interested in looking into more deeply is the second reason.

One of the classic examples that occurs to me in this regard is the sort of case that comes up every so often in which parents with religious beliefs against some particular medical procedure are in conflict with doctors who want to save the life of their child by means of the forbidden procedure. Now, from my position as someone confident that the parent’s beliefs about blood transfusion or chemo therapy or heart surgery or what have you, my initial thought would be that the parents should be prevent from inflicting the damages resulting from incorrect beliefs upon their child.

However, given that our society has an ever decreasing degree of consensus as to which beliefs are erroneous and which are correct, this strikes me as a dangerous precedent to set. If today I support the strong arm of the government being used to overrule the beliefs of another set of parents because I am certain their beliefs are erroneous, it’s not inconceivable that at some point in the future the majority of the population will decide that my beliefs are erroneous and take away my ability to make decisions about my children.

The Church learned this the hard way in regards to religious freedom. For much the Church’s history in Europe, it had strongly supported governments providing their backing to enforce tithing, stamp out heresy, etc. This seems a right and obvious thing to do when the societal consensus was that the Church represented theological truth — and thus only erring sects suffered pressure from the state. However, when the Reformation and Enlightenment brought other religious groups and anti-religious groups into power, the Church found the tradition of using the state to stamp out error turned against it.

Given that modern society has seen the increased breakdown of social consensus on a wide variety of moral and religious topics (or a vast increase in diversity, depending on how you want to spin it) and at the same time an ever increasing ability of the central state to regulate everyday life, it seems necessary to ask: Should we consider political freedom (defined as the refusal to use the power of the state to regulate behavior) to be a positive good, or should we simply consider it a temporary compromise to be used in those areas where we are concerned that the societal tide is shifting away from us?

To take the latter position is to open ourselves up for accusations of hypocrisy, though the difference between pragmatism and hypocrisy is sometimes narrow. To take the former is admit to ourselves more bluntly than we are often willing to do that we as a state and a society are unable to “stamp out evil” in our midst — because we are unable to agree on what evil is.

For now, I think my own conclusion is perhaps closer to the latter, though with deference to the former: If the state is at all to be seen as a protector of the common good, it must at times restrict the freedom of people to do what they want, based on a social consensus that what they want is bad for them and for others. However, we must be hesitant to use that power too much, and principledly so, because it is a weapon that can at any time be turned back upon us on our dearest beliefs. And so we must always be seeking the correct balance between combating the most socially destructive wrongs, while being hesitant enough to restrict others’ freedom that we can avoid being oppressed overmuch when we find ourselves in the minority.