The Purpose of Freedom

The Purpose of Freedom

Recently, I gave my students a test in which a multiple-choice question asked for the purpose of free will.  The two choices most picked by students were: 1. To do good and evil; and 2. To do good.  During our review of the test, we arrived at this question and an argument broke out amongst my high-schoolers as to who held the correct answer.  Before we continue, why don’t you answer the question anonymously:

[poll id=”8″]

The argument for the first answer spoke to an ambiguity that rests within the idea of freedom: Humans were given free will so that they could choose between good and evil and because of this, freedom itself is a generic enough concept that it is not directed toward one goal or another.  Indeed, this is quite a libertarian conceptualization of free will.

The argument for the second answer appealed to free will as an intended creation rather than a natural consequence:  Humans were given free will by God so that they would have the ability to genuinely love Him, since it isn’t real love if a person has no choice in the matter.  While Adam and Eve were able to choose good or evil, the purpose of their freedom was specifically to love God and to avoid sin.

Photo by Darcie

Unfortunately, the students who made the first argument must have missed my class when we discussed the details of man’s first sin; letting trust in his Creator die in his heart, abusing his freedom, and disobeying God’s command (CCC #397).  If freedom is an amoral thing that is to be used for good or evil, then there would be no way to abuse it.  Only when freedom’s sole purpose is to do good can it be abused – abused by doing evil.  For example, the purpose of a car is to get from point A to point B, not to hit pedestrians – hitting pedestrians would be an abuse of the purpose of the car.  The idea that the purpose of a car is transportation and hitting pedestrians is ridiculous.

Since the purpose of freedom is to do good, what does that say about the concepts of Libertarianism, the legislation of morality, or moral relativism? We are charged by God not to abuse our freedoms, but rather to recall their purpose when evaluating our own ethical and moral decisions. 



  1. You know, the purpose of cars in some video games is transportation and hitting pedestrians…

  2. I consider myself libertarian, but consider libertarianism to be a political/economic philosophy, not a moral one. I don’t think personal morality is necessarily enhanced when morality is legislated. E.g., a guy refuses to steal because it’s wrong vs. a guy refuses to steal because he doesn’t want to go to jail. At a superficial level, the guy is behaving “morally” in both cases, but at a real level the first situation seems morally preferable. Society may only care that stealing is curbed for whatever reason, and may see fit to pass laws against theft, but that doesn’t make the dissuaded thief any more moral, IMHO. Seems similar to perfect vs. imperfect contrition as I’m writing this.
    I should have announced a spoiler alert for this, since I planned on doing a T&C post about this topic (can Catholics be libertarian)…

    • I knew that libertarian comment would get you…

      Personal morality isn’t necessarily enhanced through legislation, but it does, essentially, require virtue on the part of the unvirtuous. You don’t need a law regarding shoplifting because your virtue keeps you from doing it; however, there are people who do need that law and the threat of punishment in order to be virtuous. If everybody had your virtue in this respect, there would be no need for a law against shoplifting. As it is, there are those who would, unvirtuously, shoplift if the law was not there to deter and instruct them. If the whole purpose of law is to deter and instruct the unvirtuous, shouldn’t laws always point toward virtue/moral behavior?

      Of course, then comes the question: whose morality to we legislate? Mine!

      • Again, it seems the kind of “virtue” that is promoted through legislation is merely superficial. “[T]here are people who do need that law and the threat of punishment in order to be virtuous;” I would quibble that those people are in reality virtuous. Their external behavior may be, but their interior disposition is simply trying to avoid jail.

        • I agree that their external behavior reflects virtue while their interior disposition does not, but if virtue is a habit (exterior) and disposition (interior) of doing good, law forces the exterior while informing the interior.
          A small child gets punished for turning on the stove. He doesn’t understand/believe that the stove is dangerous (interior), but he obeys (exterior) out of threat of punishment. If the kid’s repeated actions of ‘not turning on the stove’ can, usually over time, help him to understand that turning on the stove is bad/dangerous.
          From the other end of the looking glass, we are commanded to keep holy the Sabbath day. Someone may not want to go to church, but because of the commandment, they do. In forming the external habit of attending mass, they begin to see the importance (interior) of going and then do so, weekly, because of their total virtue, which was learned from the enforcement of external virtue.

  3. One thing which illustrates to me the power of the government with regard to virtue is the following. Ron Paul gave a campaign speech last year in which he argued for drug legalization, claiming that if the government legalized drugs, people wouldn’t suddenly believe drugs were no longer bad for you. I disagree.

    Abortion was legalized in 1973, and a great many people believe that if the government made it legal, it must be safe and morally acceptable. Same for any of the numerous FDA-approved contraceptives and abortion pills (RU-486, etc.) The book “Lime 5” details dozens of real life accounts of women (not just the unborn ones) being injured or killed in botched abortions, but people believe it’s okay because “the government wouldn’t allow it if it wasn’t safe”.

    Is that a smart mindset? Absolutely not. Do many people believe it? Undoubtedly so.

    That being said, it seems the government pays a lot of money to protect evil (abortion, contraception mandates, porn in prisons and libraries, sex education in public schools, etc.), all of which would collapse if the government withdrew funding.

  4. I probably should say this more often, but a main reason I want limited government is not to allow immoral activities to become legal, and thus considered “moral” by some (as Matt was saying about abortion), but I think making certain things illegal usurps the role of morality formation that should be performed by churches, civic groups, etc. Government is to blame if people think abortion is not immoral because it’s legal, but churches are also to blame if people think abortion is not immoral because churches haven’t done an effective enough job of evangelization. I think when we make things illegal, the moral instructors in society feel like they can take a break. This may be subconcious, but I think it happens. And, of course, eventually the law can even persuade the churches rather than vice versa. How many denominations think contraception or even abortion are just fine?

    • Great point, Tim.


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