Liberty, Duty, and Prudence

This was a paper for a political philosophy course. It will probably not receive a good grade in that course.

In our democratic age, when the principles of liberalism have won out in every field against the presumed forces of darkness, yet across the world are called into question, it becomes the duty of a free people to examine themselves, their institutions, and their heritage, and discern what it is that they value. In America, rather than answering “Justice” or “Order” or “Equality,” we tend to answer “Liberty” without truly understanding what that word means.

John Stuart Mill’s definition is about the best of any. Mill argues that Happiness is the absolute moral good, the one thing which all people strive for on their own volition, and that Liberty was the removal of constraints to each individual’s pursuit of happiness (provided that in their pursuits of happiness they did not intrude upon the happiness of others, within reason.) Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”

Furthermore, this emphasis on happiness- or pleasure, as other Utilitarians have tended to call it- is sufficiently broad to include essentially any sort of activity or quality that brings pleasure to the soul. It is not a base and hedonistic doctrine, focusing solely on the pursuit of physical pleasure; it makes allowance for all those refinements of mind and spirit that most individuals would argue are the true keys to happiness. It even allows for happiness to include the indirect happiness individuals find when in service of the welfare and happiness of others.

Thus, all institutions that impede upon happiness and its pursuit ought to be reformed so as to make that pursuit easier and more viable, according to Mill. If individuals are to be free to do what makes them happy- to use Father Michael Kelly’s favorite phrase “to become the best possible versions of themselves;” then it is necessary that restraints upon their freedom to do so be minimized, and thus that Liberty be institutionalized. All of this in the name of happiness.

The political implications of this assertion are fairly clear- an enlightened government and society is one which reduces so far as possible the barriers to individuals pursuing happiness as they see fit, while making such investments as to promote the general happiness and welfare of all people. This includes general education and a promotion of wide material prosperity, while including reforms that relax stiff and rigid social institutions which would otherwise impede upon individual liberty.

This notion of Liberty, or something similar to it, is what most Americans would argue is the defining contribution of their country to the world. And most Americans would argue that their forefathers fought to preserve this Liberty in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the First and Second World Wars. And most will generally laud the sacrifices of those who fought and died in those wars.

But this reveals a certain paradox. The sacrifices of those who fought and died for Liberty did nothing to enhance the happiness of those individuals doing the fighting and dying; in fact it took away their Liberty, if anything. Yet their sacrifices are lauded as a moral good, for they were willing to forsake Happiness and die for their countrymen. We can safely assume that those lauding the sacrifice of patriots are not merely endorsing Benthamite Utilitarianism, which suggests that costs and benefits ought to be calculated nearly mathematically and which wholly disregards the rights of the individual, subverting them to the well-being of the collective. No, those who laud the sacrifice of patriots seem to think that there is something intrinsically good and noble about those patriots choosing to forsake their own happiness for the good of others, even if it extinguishes their own happiness and rights. If these individuals were forced to make such sacrifices, rather than doing so on their own volition, it would be seen as tyrannical rather than as noble. So, in the American conscience, it would seem that there is an intrinsic appreciation and reverence for individuals who make the choice to forsake their own happiness in service of a cause greater than themselves.

Of course, this is problematic because it directly counteracts Mill’s notion, and Americans’ notion, that the pursuit of Happiness under Liberty is the greatest social good and the only ultimate and absolute good. If this is so, why is the sacrifice of everything for it, so that others may enjoy it, at all considered a noble endeavor? Clearly there must be another moral imperative, superior or at least equal to Happiness, that stands above or beside that Utilitarian virtue in the souls of all human beings.

I would posit, then, that a corresponding virtue of self-sacrifice- Duty- holds all the moral weight that Liberty holds. And in fact, Duty is perhaps more necessary than Liberty, for it lies at the foundation of all social order. If social contract theory is true, or at least is a true parable, individuals trade some of their liberties and rights to governments and take on duties and responsibilities of obedience to certain laws and norms of the polity. If a far more likely scenario is true- Machiavelli’s dictum that every reasonably just and peaceful order is founded upon past injustices- then in the struggles to establish and preserve that peace, there clearly must have been individuals willing to sacrifice their liberties, lives, and consciences for a cause greater than themselves. Virgil does an excellent job depicting this in the Aeneid, and the lessons remain relevant to this day, echoing in every speech to combat veterans ever made in America.

Duty is a troublesome thing to define, but basically can be defined as this- the commitment an individual takes on their own free will to a cause greater than themselves, which diminishes their liberty and may or may not contribute to or diminish from their happiness, but contributes to some broader social good. Duty includes a wide array of practices, from obedience to traditions and social norms to martial valor and sacrifice to familial love and paternal and maternal care for offspring. It is the foundation of the phenomenon of social capital, those social bonds which contribute to the smoother functioning of society and the general happiness of all its members brought about by the cultivation of a climate of unity. And, as mentioned before, Duty- and the traditions and institutions it supposes- is often antithetical to the Liberty and Happiness of the individual so valued by Mill and the earlier thinkers of the Enlightenment.

What to make of this paradox, then? Here we have two antithetical principles- Liberty and Duty- that both do measurable good for society and for individuals, yet exist in constant tension and cannot be neatly reconciled. How, then, to value both in society?

The only answer is Prudence. Prudence is that political wisdom, articulated and preserved over the ages in Burkean fashion, that seeks the best ends rather than the best intentions, understanding the limits of reason and the fallibility of human nature. Through Prudence and through Prudence alone can the contradictory demands of Liberty and Duty be balanced out in tension with each other, and indeed, when they are, it is seen that they do much to complement each other.

Liberty cannot exist without Duty. As discussed earlier, Duty provides the foundations for an orderly society, either through social obligation or through actual sacrifice, which set the terms and norms of a civilization; without such norms there can be no true Liberty, as the unabashed pursuit of self-interest and allowance of personal judgment to reign devolves quickly into a Hobbesian nightmare in which the life and liberty of all individuals is stolen away by means of force. There must be some common ground, some common obligations and set standards, which will provide a certain amount of order and a shared conception of justice; and obedience to, or at least deference to, these norms is sustained by dutifulness on the part of all members of a society. Individuals with no sense of Duty or responsibility are rightly seen as misfits.

Duty cannot exist without Liberty. As institutions are inherently conservative, resisting change, they first grow corrupt, then tyrannical; then they decay. And should all individuals completely subvert their own self-interest to broader social goals, there would be no innovation, no dialogue, no healthy dissent, no progressive betterment and improvement of those things in society which can most use improving. Moreover, if Duty is enforced, it becomes slavery- it only retains its noble sheen when arrived upon by choice. For when Duty is chosen it is more an act of love than an act of coercion or mere stupidity. Individuals must have Liberty if they are to choose Duty.

We see, then, the necessity of Prudence to balance these two out and keep them in complementary tension together. Duty without Liberty becomes the slave religion of the Spartans; Liberty without Duty produces a nation of hedonists and a Hobbesian nightmare of sorts.

Broader social goals must be articulated- I would suggest the National Greatness of the Republic, and the Individual Greatness of Individuals. These two goals, those of Aeneas and Odysseus, respectively, respectively can be attained by Duty and Liberty, and must be striven for at the same time. A nation that did not pursue Duty would be decadent; a nation that did not pursue Liberty would be despotic. The pursuit of these broader social goals and the keen balancing of the citizens’ virtues of Liberty and Duty are the task of Prudence to advance, that sublime political wisdom that seeks the best results. Duty and sacrifice are the fuel of Liberty, and Liberty provides the planting grounds from which Duty springs forth.

Liberty, Duty, and Prudence- these are the three great virtues that must be mastered by citizen and statesman alike to secure the success of any republican experiment, particularly our own. Liberty provides the stuff of innovation, preserves the hard-won rights of individuals, and allows all citizens to pursue their own happiness as they see fit, and become the best possible versions of themselves. Duty maintains the bonds of social capital which are the tendons in the organism of society, preserves those traditions and customs which define any society, and ennobles the common citizen to pursue heroic valor, and the chance to give themselves to a cause far greater than self. Prudence balances these two conflicting virtues and helps them to complement each other, without letting either destroy the other. It works to harness the productive energy they generate in the name of worthy social goals.

Walter Russell Mead has argued that the intellectual and political genius of the English-speaking peoples has been their failure to institutionalize a single commanding principle of thought from which all would flow down, instead tolerating an intellectual and political climate where competing centers of power and ideas balanced each other out and engendered a creative tension which didn’t proclaim to solve all problems or answer all questions, but did provide a pragmatic progressive social evolution that best secured the rights of individuals and the greatness of nations. This mixed and uncertain thought appears unsophisticated when compared with the perfectionist tracts of Continental political thought, from the supremacy of God of the Catholic states to the supremacy of Reason of the French Revolution to the supremacy of Blood and Soil among the various German empires to the supremacy of the state of Soviet Russia. These perfectionisms all became absolutisms which intended to make the world over again in a rational image wrought by God or Reason or the Volk or the Objective Laws of History. And they grew tyrannical, then corrupt, then decadent; and then they fell.

The comparative stability of the Anglosphere is something of a paradox in itself- for American and British societies have been changing at the same quick rates of Continental and other societies, but they have experienced relative regime continuity in comparison. They have not been racked by nearly so many bloody revolutions and civil wars as the other powers have.

Mead attributes this combined stability and innovativeness to the penchant of the English-speaking peoples to hold multiple seemingly contradictory views simultaneously and spread the power and authority of institutions around, paying total fealty to no church, state, or party. This bias for dividing power and creating and conserving a diversity of institutions, so evident in the thought of Hamilton and Madison and Burke, and some of their non-Anglo influences like Hume and Montesquieu, has been the real mark of the Anglo-American political tradition- not liberty alone.

The ideal of a tense three-way balance between Liberty, Duty, and Prudence as the core political virtues of any Republic fits nicely with this narrative of Anglo-American success through the balancing and conserving and reforming of institutions, to make for a constant state of reforming timeless principles. It is decentralized, immune to the decadence and corruption that comes with hegemony, while still dominant enough to endure across the ages.

The American people would be wise to consider again the values that make their Republic tick. But rather than the traditional dichotomies of freedom and equality or tradition and progress, it would be well worth Americans’ time to ponder the dichotomy of Liberty and Duty as republican virtues, linked and led by Prudence. Such moral thinking is crucial for the endurance of a civil society.


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