Is It True That Only Moral People Can Be Free?

People sometimes talk about freedom requiring morality and even religion. The famous quote along these lines is from John Adams, who wrote that the US constitution was made for “a moral and religious people,” going on to say that it’s unfit for any other kind.

Nothing against Mr. Adams, but that passage is a mere assertion. It says nothing about why it might be true that freedom requires a moral populace. Such assertions really ought to be supported, and so far as I’ve seen, they haven’t been.

And so today I’ll address that void.

Civilization, Costs And Sustainability

Any group of people living together must maintain certain norms. If a civilization or society doesn’t suppress theft, murder, rape and so on, all the decent people will walk away from it, leaving a carnival of the damned behind.

And so the question is how to keep bad conduct out of any given civilization. And there are fundamentally two ways to do this:

  1. Produce a populace that is safe and beneficial on the inside.
  2. Force people who are not internally reformed to behave well anyway.

And here’s the big difference between these two options:

    • The first is cheap, requiring a minimal level of enforcement. It is a high-trust culture, featuring people with civilization inside themselves as its fundamental units.
    • The second is immensely expensive, requiring massive enforcement. These are low-trust cultures. And since enforcement is its basic operation, enforcement will expand into one new area after another, until it chokes the society to death.

Civilizations of the first type may be overcome by violent neighbors, but aside from that, they are sustainable. Civilizations of the second type are not. They become predator-prey cultures, where armies of regulators overfeed, until the operation collapses.

(Examples of the first type are the Minoans, Phoenicians, Hebrews, the Roman republic and Christian Europe. Examples of the second are the Roman Empire, the Athenian empire and the USSR.)

You can see the same thing at the family level: Healthy families treat each member as a distinct and valuable individual. Come what may, we know that we can trust members of our family. Despite our sometimes legitimate gripes, most families interact with consideration, or at least loyalty, and with no external enforcement required.

We know, for example, that we can trust an older sibling (or aunt or grandparent) to take care of our infant. Because of such things, we can enjoy the benefits of high-trust living, where norms are held for internal reasons. Again, this embodies having civilization inside ourselves.

The alternative would be the enforcement of everything, which happens in unhealthy families, just as it does in troops of primates: Do what the leader says or be slapped down.

You can also bear in mind that when we can’t trust others, we are forced into hyper-vigilance, with its debilitating mental overload. That’s not sustainable either.

So, we can either build civilization into ourselves and our children, or else we can attempt to enforce it, which leads inevitably to tyranny. While there can be any number of variations on these themes, and time-lags between one and the other, once you accept the model of paid enforcers making everyone obey rules created by a superior class, liberty becomes a non-starter.

Mr. Adams, then, was correct in his implication that liberty requires morality, and the “cost of civilization” noted above is precisely why.

Okay, But Religion?

Nothing we’ve said above establishes the necessity of religion. And religion is not a fundamental necessity. We’ve established that having civilization inside of us is necessary, but that’s all.

That said, religion is a far more potent force in human affairs than enforcement. To make that clear, please consider this:

People don’t commit suicide over breaking petty laws or stiffing the IRS. But they do commit suicide over their sins.

Enforcements, then, threaten and affect the outer man. Religion affects the inner man, which is a far more powerful thing.

None of this is to say that religion is a pure and pristine thing. (Which is something religious people understand all too well.) But it is a powerful thing: It organizes and improves human interiors in ways that “do what we say or we’ll hurt you” never has and never will.

And it’s of some interest that the religions of the West, Judaism and Christianity, differentiate themselves from the enforcement model quite overtly. This is often muddied in the present day, as religious leaders suck up to power, but as these religions formed it was quite otherwise.

Consider that Judaism was very clear that justice stood above the ruler (any ruler) and that God spoke to the humble, not to the mighty. Compare that to the assumptions of the enforcement model.

And Christianity, in its early days, was fully committed to internal improvement and opposed to the enforcement of norms. Not only does St. Paul rage against people “going to law” with one another, but in another place he notes that “The law was not made for the righteous, but for the unrighteous.” In other words (and as he labors long to explain), those with goodness inside themselves are free from the law… are apart from the enforcement model.

More could be said here, but we’re straying from our primary point, which is this:

When it comes to creating and sustaining a moral civilization, no one has found a better way than religion.

Bear in mind that I’m not authorizing any specific religion, or even religion per se. I’m merely saying that to keep millions of people focused on morality, over generations and centuries, the only viable method we see in the historical record is religion.

Could something better be found? Perhaps so, but we haven’t yet seen it in action.

A religious populace is a group of people who focus on the most fundamental issues, directly, and usually at least once per week. On top of that, the religions of the West, Judaism and Christianity, are centered around the emulation of, and approach to, a purely good deity.

Whatever quibbles we may have with these religions (doctrine, implementation or whatever), the fact that they focus millions of people on virtues, and with great regularity, cannot be seriously challenged.

Note also that enforcement-based civilizations inevitably oppose religions centered on internal improvement; or else they swallow them and turn them toward their own ends.

And So…

In fairness, it must be said that the people who go about proclaiming the need of religion very often do it for self-serving reasons. That, however, is just a human problem: most of the people who proclaim the sanctity of enforcement do it for equally bad or worse reasons.

Still, we’re left with two facts:

  1. Without pervasive morality, freedom cannot be built or sustained. (There can be a period of riding the coattails of previous generations.)
  2. Religion, while not essentially necessary, is the only long-term solution to the cost of civilization problem that we find in the historical record.

So again Mr Adams was correct, even if he didn’t explain it: Consistent moral focus is what creates a moral populace. These will be more-moral or mostly-moral people, of course (not purely moral), but that’s enough to make freedom a practical arrangement.

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As it turns out, history was never too hard to understand; they just told you the wrong story.

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