Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, April 03, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Moral Liberty)

Burke says he loves “manly, moral, regulated liberty.”  But what is moral liberty?  Is its opposite called immoral liberty or maybe moral servitude?  What exactly is the relationship between morality and freedom?  If moral laws increase (thou shalt not’s) does that mean my personal freedom decreases?  Or do positive laws actually give moral support to my liberty in the truest sense of the word?  These are thorny questions.  The basic political question concerning morality and freedom is this.  How much moral authority should the state have over individual citizens?  Different nations give different answers.  So it might help us clarify Burke’s position if we consider a fellow English philosopher: John Stuart Mill.  In his famous essay “On Liberty” (GB Series 3) Mill says “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”  This is an argument for minimal, if any, intrusion by the state over the personal morality of any individual citizen.  It makes no difference whether that political power is used for the good of the state or for the good of the citizen.  The principle is still the same.  Mill says “His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”  Only the individual knows his own best interest.  And what if he’s mistaken about his own best interest?  Then what?  For Mill “utility” (the greatest happiness for the greatest number) is the key.  He says “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”  Mill sees Man as a progressive being who will improve society if given enough freedom.

Is this what Burke means by moral liberty?  No.  Burke would agree with Mill on some points, such as when Mill says “…the same causes which make a man a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Peking.”  True says Burke.  But you (Mr. Mill) mistake the true nature of Man.  Man is not a progressive being who improves if everyone else just leaves him alone to do his own thing.  Man is a being who is constantly fighting a battle between right and wrong in his own soul.  He will not suddenly blossom into a saint on his own.  He needs the support of society to help him make the right decisions.  And the same causes which make a man a thief and murderer in London would have made him a thief and murderer in Peking.  Society not only needs to protect us from thieves and murderers, it needs to keep us from becoming thieves and murderers ourselves.  Mill wrote an interesting counter-argument in his essay.  This is not Mill’s own opinion but it is an opinion Burke would agree with: “Men and governments must act to the best of their ability.  There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.  We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.”  Burke would say it’s true we’re not perfect.  That’s why we need the built-in protections of a good and wholesome civil society.  Burke says “If civil society is made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right…”  We have a right to moral freedom but we do not have a right to immoral license.  Burke says “Men have a right to do justice…Men (also) have a right to…a sufficient restraint on their passions…the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights…Men have no right to what is not reasonable and to what is not for their benefit…”  This is Burke’s idea of moral liberty.


Post a Comment

<< Home