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Liberty and Virtue

David Cowles

Jun 25, 2024

“How do Liberty, Justice, and Virtue fit together?”

In an earlier TWS, we spoke about Barry Goldwater and we quoted from his iconic acceptance speech to the 1964 Republican Convention:

Extremism in the defense of Liberty is no vice…

Moderation is the pursuit of Justice is no virtue!

Which raises an interesting question: how do Liberty, Justice, and Virtue fit together? We define Virtue as the pursuit of Good, manifested as Value (e.g. Beauty, Truth, Justice).  But according to Jean-Paul Sartre, there is only one Value and that’s Freedom! For Sartre, virtue is what protects and extends freedom; vice is what erodes or restricts it. 

Is it possible that Goldwater and Sartre disagreed about something? Only everything! Sartre was an atheist, a Marxist, a self-proclaimed Communist, while Goldwater…was not. They disagreed about almost everything…but not this. 

Virtue is the intentional pursuit of Value (e.g. Beauty, Truth, Justice) and Liberty is a prerequisite for all intentionality and therefore for Virtue. Without freedom of choice, none of our exertions, by themselves, rise to the level of Virtue. In the public forum we are most often concerned with the value of Justice. An actor freely choosing to promote Justice is virtuous. 

Values are the lures (Whitehead) that motivate events. They are responsible for what we call intentionality.  Every ‘novel event’ (all events are novel) seeks what is Good by applying a unique constellation of values to the Actual World. Every event selects, combines, and applies values differently, but there are no events without values motivating them.

Goldwater’s proclamation was interpreted as an eye-poke by the party’s so-called ‘liberal wing’. Nelson Rockefeller led a delegate walk-out which effectively doomed Goldwater’s candidacy. He would never fully recover from Rocky’s ‘Cow Palace Putsch’. But what’s interesting here is not so much the vagaries of presidential politics, but the unstated, yet clearly implied, message sent by the peripatetic delegates:

Liberty should be defended, and Justice should be pursued - but with moderation. 

Other values may take precedence. 

For example, Order, Civility, and Machiavellian Pragmatics.

According to this ethic, ‘Liberty and Justice’ are not absolute imperatives; they are merely goals which, all things being equal, we ought to pursue. But in targeting these values, we must balance them against competing values like security, stability, and tranquility.

So what’s wrong with that? In the ‘normal course of events’, a free actor compares the Ideal (Value) to the Actual (World). If that actor responds by working to bring the Actual closer to the Ideal, we call that Virtue. To whatever extent Liberty is restricted, Value is camouflaged, and Virtue undermined.

Virtue, and the triumph of Value, can only occur in the context of Liberty! In 1964, there were no Patrick Henry’s (“Give me Liberty or give me Death”) in Rocky’s corner. 

But what’s important here, IMHO, is that important public figures in the US signed off on Rockefeller’s platform. It followed closely on the heels of Better Red than Dead, a European movement advocating unilateral disarmament in lieu of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. For a significant percentage of Americans, ‘domestic tranquility’ now trumped liberty and justice in their hierarchy of values. Scary! 

Liberty and Justice, along with Beauty and Truth, are Divine Values. They constitute God’s essence. They’re what it’s like to be God. While these values are often compromised in our everyday lives, such compromises can never be ‘justified’.  Call them what they are: ‘accommodations contravening the interests of God and humanity’.   

1964 saw the public proclamation of a new American anti-ethic. Post WWII, Liberty and Justice were ‘reclassified’ as preferred states rather than absolute imperatives. They are two factors, along with many others, to be considered in the formation of public policy. ‘Liberty & Justice’ (Goldwater ’64) is fine and dandy, but not at the expense of ‘Peace & Prosperity’ (Eisenhower ‘52).

Is this ringing any bells? Does it call to mind any other times in the life of the nation when demands for Liberty were considered ‘too extreme’ and true Justice could only be pursued ‘incrementally’? How about the Abolitionist movement of the 1850’s? Or the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s?

Today, we are so obsessed with the vilification of all things ante-bellum that we miss some key points. Pro-slavery politicians weren’t necessarily against either Liberty or Justice per se – far from it! They simply believed that these Values needed to be ‘understood in context’ and that any reform of the status quo should take place ‘gradually’ and ‘organically’…and we need to be sure it’s ‘sustainable’. Where have you heard all this before? 

True, we cannot reasonably expect total Liberty or perfect Justice prior to the Eschaton. However, that does not relieve us of our responsibility to advocate for those values and to defend them without waiver. There is no Scriptural or Constitutional sanction for compromise. Some band-aids just have to be ripped off!


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