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Freedom Isn’t Free

Steve Chapman has a nice piece at Reason dissecting the flagrant and transparent hypocrisy of Mitt Romney’s call to religious voters to put aside their misgivings about his creed in order to unite behind him in a popular front against … Read More

By / December 11, 2007

Steve Chapman has a nice piece at Reason dissecting the flagrant and transparent hypocrisy of Mitt Romney’s call to religious voters to put aside their misgivings about his creed in order to unite behind him in a popular front against godless heathens. Chapman devotes some space to debunking Romney’s preposterous claim that “[f]reedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” writing

Romney's theory that faith is essential to liberty suggests he has yet to visit the modern world. He doesn't try to explain countries like Germany, France and Norway—free democracies where most people no longer believe in God. Religion is not exactly synonymous with personal freedom in, say, the Muslim world. Organized Christianity once coexisted comfortably with, and often sponsored, oppression in Europe and elsewhere.

Which is all quite right, and explodes Romney’s assertion in the context in which almost everybody has interpreted it. I want to make a small analytic point, though, that there is a tradition of deploying, with terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, a concept or concepts that very few of us would associate with freedom or liberty, but which makes the “freedom requires religion” claim a conceptual truth. For example, you can see in Kant’s claim that “we assume that we are free so that we may think of ourselves as subject to moral laws," and that we "think of ourselves as subject to moral laws because we have attributed to ourselves freedom of the will,” the potential move to a position that action predicated on rejecting the concept of morality Kant proffers (which is a deduction from the nature of practical reason) also rejects the concept of freedom, “an idea of reason whose objective reality is in itself questionable.”

The upshot would be that an irrational actor cannot be said to be free — so it is only by accepting the dictates of morality, which may include God on some pictures of morality, that one can be free. (Not that this is necessarily Kant’s position, but it is a direction one could go, and some people have gone; I read Hegel as advancing a view very close to that one, for example.) This treatment of freedom becomes a bit easier to grasp, and looks all the more idiosyncratic, when viewed on a global and political, rather than individual scale. Kant possibly, and Rousseau definitely, promise a republic of free citizens — whose freedom consists in assenting to a “general will,” which only reflects their preferences if their preferences reflect the structures of rationality, as construed by Kant and Rousseau. As Julian Sanchez puts it:

What this means in practice, of course, is that the legislator can simply do whatever he thinks is best, and still claim to be following "the will of the people" in some suitably abstract, hypothetical sense. Recall this the next time some pol or flack confidently declares what "the American People" want, demand, value, or won't stand for. There's a fair chance they're referring to the ideal Platonic "American People" in their head—a population that, miraculously, seems always to hold the same views as the speaker.

The parallel to this line of thinking, which incorporates religion explicitly, and therefore touches on the contents of Romney’s speech directly, is the quasi-tradition within Catholic philosophy — which is essentially a Talmudic approach to reading Aquinas, who in turn was recapitulating Aristotle for a Christian audience, and several other church fathers — according to which human freedom is parasitic on man’s telos, such that action deviating from that telos cannot be said to be free. And what is man’s telos? Well, medieval philosophy isn’t my specialty, but from what I know it involves being a sincere and devout member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church.

You can see this view reflected in the premium placed on a religious concept of free will in Catholic teaching, juxtaposed with denunciations of liberal freedom and freedom of choice as we understand them, from Cardinal Ratzinger inveighing against the “liberal-radical ideology of individualistic rationalistic hedonistic character,” to Daniel P. Moloney’s suggestion that “the consumerism and relativism of the West can be just as dangerous as the totalitarianism of the East: It’s just as easy to forget about God while dancing to an iPod as while marching in a Hitler Youth rally.” [Ed note: Moloney should give Ratzinger an iPod and ask him which venue is more congenial to forgetting about God --- but I digress.] The basic idea is that God gives people free will in order to glory in His commands, so that turning away from God means turning away from freedom too. Deviating from one’s telos can be freely chosen, but in some idiosyncratic sense, by so deviating one ceases to act freely. Adapting the Ratzinger-Moloney line to Romney’s everybody-but-the-atheists ecumenicism, it’s easy to see what Romney might have been asserting (though he probably wasn’t): Freedom is conceptually contained within religious belief — any religious belief at all, it doesn’t matter which — so those who do not submit to God lack a concept of freedom, and therefore can’t experience it. Or as someone else once said, freedom is slavery.

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