Freedom, morality, and the human dignity of the individual consists precisely in this; that he does good not because he is forced to do so, but because he freely conceives it, wants it, and loves it. - Mikhail Bakunin
Though most modern people consider the duality of good and evil to be a universal concept, nothing could be farther from the truth. Since time immemorial there have been concepts of right and wrong, but the idea that there exists a morality untied to the pronouncements of leaders or deities is a comparatively new one (and indeed, one that still appears to lie beyond the understanding of most humans). In ancient times (and for a majority of modern people) “right” or “good” behavior is that which obeys the dicta of some authority figure, however arbitrary or contradictory; for example, in the Old Testament Yahweh often orders the Hebrews to break his own commandments, yet that obedience is viewed as virtuous (consider also the story of Abraham, who would’ve obediently sacrificed his son had Yahweh not countermanded the order at the last second). But during the 2nd millennium BCE, some philosophers began to recognize that there are universal principles of morality which do not depend on laws, and that moral decision is a matter of higher judgment rather than mere mechanistic obedience.
But when personal ethics conflict with laws enforced by violence, something has to give; what is a moral person to do when the right action is prohibited by law or immoral behavior demanded by it? Even if a person is so dedicated to Good that he is willing to accept state-inflicted violence as the price of being a moral person in a deeply-flawed world, state-sponsored malefactors will inevitably prevent or undo his good actions as soon as they are discovered, possibly at great cost to those he cares about. Consider the classic villain trick of compelling the hero to evil actions via threat of grievous harm to someone he cares deeply about; the state uses this monstrous form of compulsion every day by threatening to abduct the children of those it wishes to intimidate and subjecting them to life-destroying abuse and neglect. Such forms of compulsion are by their very nature evil because they remove the capacity for free moral choice, thereby making good impossible. A computer, a lower animal which functions purely by instinct, or an inanimate object under the influence of natural laws is capable of neither good nor evil; morality requires free choice, and a sentient being robbed of that choice is reduced to the level of a mechanism or a vegetable. The act of compelling action therefore exists in the same moral realm as imprisonment, lobotomization or mutilation; it forcibly removes an intrinsic capacity of the sentient being without its consent.
In Gnostic theology, God created the universe in order to make a space where the angels could be away from Him so that they could have free will; the Divine Presence is so overwhelming that no creature can choose to do anything but obey when confronted by it. And even though that action resulted in the creation of evil, it also brought goodness into existence because without choice there can be neither. An example of the inverse appears in the novel and film A Clockwork Orange: when the Ludovico Technique conditions the sadistic young criminal Alex against sex and violence, he becomes unable to defend himself from murderous attacks or sexually contact a consenting woman. He “ceases…to be a creature capable of moral choice”; he is neither good or evil, but merely a sort of organic robot (hence the title). All the government cares about is that he refrain from prohibited types of evil; the fact that he can’t actually be good is immaterial (thus proving that politicians are far less wise than 1st-century philosophers).
Modern tyrannies pretend that paternalistic laws coupled with harsh punishments make people “good”, but this is nothing but a low-level, society-wide application of the Ludovico Technique and those oppressed by it are robbed of moral choice. As Sheldon Richman wrote in a recent Reason article, “social engineers think they need to deprive us of freedom in order to make us moral or in some way better…so they use the law to keep us from discriminating, gambling, eating allegedly fattening foods, taking drugs, smoking in restaurants, abstaining from helping others, leaving our seat belts unbuckled, you name it.” The article discusses “On Doing the Right Thing”, a 1924 essay by anarchist philosopher Albert Nock, who was nevertheless thoroughly Victorian in his ideas about sex; he clearly held extramarital activity (including sex work) in the same low esteem he afforded to habitual drunkenness. But despite his personal aversion to “loose living”, he specifically rejects the notion that morality can or should be compelled by law:
…I remember seeing recently a calculation that the poor American is staggering along under a burden of some two million laws; and obviously, where there are so many laws, it is hardly possible to conceive of any items of conduct escaping contact with one or more of them. Thus, the region where conduct is controlled by law so far encroaches upon the region of free choice and the region where conduct is controlled by a sense of the Right Thing, that there is precious little left of either…living in America is like serving in the army; ninety per cent of conduct is prescribed by law and the remaining ten per cent by the esprit du corps, with the consequence that opportunity for free choice in conduct is practically abolished…a civilisation organised upon this absence of responsibility is pulpy and unsound.
…freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed…we have tried law, compulsion and authoritarianism of various kinds, and the result is nothing to be proud of…in suggesting that we try freedom, therefore, the anarchist and individualist has a strictly practical aim…the production of a race of responsible beings…our legalists and authoritarians…keep insisting…[that] freedom [allows one] to drink oneself to death. The anarchist grants this at once; but at the same time he points out that it also means freedom to say…”I never drink.” It unquestionably means freedom to go on without any code of morals at all; but it also means freedom to rationalise, construct and adhere to a code of one’s own. The anarchist presses the point invariably overlooked, that freedom to do the one without correlative freedom to do the other is impossible; and that just here comes in the moral education which legalism and authoritarianism, with their denial of freedom, can never furnish…
Even if it were true that an authoritarian nanny-state was a “safer” society (an assertion with which anyone to whom a cop or prosecutor takes a dislike would disagree), that still would not make it a better society. Moral progress does not begin with authorities bringing stone tablets down from mountains, but with individuals who are free to act openly on their personal principles, thus providing a good example to others. The more freedom a society allows, the more new ethical concepts enter the marketplace of ideas; the less freedom, the fewer. People learn by doing, not by being done for; unexercised muscles do not grow, but rather atrophy. And it is impossible to develop a moral sense without the opportunity to make free moral judgments whose consequences are those which result from the decision itself instead of those arbitrarily inflicted by the state.
One Year Ago Tomorrow
“June Miscellanea (Part One)” reports on the beginning of the Canadian prostitution law appeal, CNN’s bizarre definition of “expert”, more nanny-state cheerleading from Kristof and Mother Russia’s attempt to prove she can be just as pigheaded as Uncle Sam.