Must the State Promote Virtue?

As I have mentioned, I help teach students at Christendom about creative writing. In the course of a conversation in the last week, I found out that some of those students, who enjoy attending the college’s Chester-Belloc Debate Society, will be debating the following resolution this weekend: “It is the responsibility of the state to promote virtue over liberty.”

This is an interesting question, because it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds even when you’re not Catholic. I’m going to attempt to show you why, and perhaps give my students a bit of debate-fodder. Strap in, warm up your Aristotelian ethics, engage your Thomistic logic, and try to navigate your way around Hobbes; it’s time to get philosophical. 

The first thing to notice about this question is that it is not asking whether the state should or should not promote virtue, but rather whether it should be promoted over liberty. That means that our first step is clear. It’s a step that my students understand, because I try very hard to drum it into them: When beginning a new subject, first define your terms.

What is virtue, and what is liberty? Neither is a simple topic, especially since we can’t always depend on a dictionary definition when defining philosophical terms. Philosophy, after all, is a discipline that depends on exact definitions. Fortunately, many of those terms have been set for thousands of years.

Aristotle defines a virtue as a mean between two extremes, successfully navigating a way between excess and privation; so the virtue of generosity is the mean between being wasteful and being miserly, and the virtue of friendliness is the mean between being a suck-up and being Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

Blogging Sherlock

But is that it? Isn’t it supposed to be a “good” thing, not just a moderate function between two extreme positions?

Yes, and yes. Yes, it’s good, and yes, it’s a moderate position. A virtue is an attitude of balance, rather than something extreme.

But wait . . . don’t we also talk about vices? Aren’t they the opposite of virtues? How can you have the opposite of a moderate position?

Excellent question, random person I made up!

Thank You

This is where we start getting into those tiny little distinctions that are the hallmark of philosophy. Properly speaking, a virtue is not simply a state of being, but the ability to maintain that state of being without effort. A virtue is the result of a habit that you no longer have to think about. It is only through the cultivation of virtues that you can truly “do good” in any moral sense.

A vice, on the other hand, is the result of a habit that leads you in the opposite direction. A vice is not something that is necessary for sin, and it’s not on the same level as sin. Rather, it is the unconsciously maintained habit of doing things that lead to the opposite of a virtue. In essence, they are things that you do that open yourself up to “doing wrong” in a moral context.

So what about liberty? In the context of philosophy, there is a subtle yet distinct difference between liberty and freedom. To be at liberty to do something is to have permission to do it; to have the freedom to do something is to have the right to do it. Properly speaking, freedom is what you have by virtue (pun totally intended) of being alive; liberty is what you have by virtue of a higher authority saying you can go out and play.

So here we have our definitions of virtue and liberty; yet neither seems to be quite what is colloquially intended by each word. So while I consider it necessary to go through the above, I’ll also point to something that St. Thomas Aquinas would frequently employ: rather than insisting on technical definitions, he would lean on commonplace ones as much as possible, to ensure that the greatest number of people would understand what he meant at the time.

Since this debate over virtue versus liberty is confined not to the words themselves but rather their relationship to the proper role of government, we can safely define the terms as the following proposed duties of government:

  • Virtue: That government should encourage habits in its citizens that will benefit the whole of society.
  • Liberty: That government should remove its influence from its citizens to benefit the individual.

Thus, we have a set of extremes; and while one extreme is called “virtue,” we can see that Aristotle’s definition of the word remains separate: we are attempting to find the happy medium between these two positions that brings about the greatest good.

But there is still a further term to define: government. Yes, we could leave it as a simple “authority,” but this is philosophy. If it were simple, we wouldn’t need degrees in the subject.


Besides, this is perhaps even more important than the previous two definitions. After all, we’re not seeking to define them per se; we’re defining them in the context of government. Therefore, we must figure out not only what the necessary functions of government are, but also how to determine its ability and authority to find what is “good.”

The latter is often defined as that which provides a benefit to the majority of citizens, yet therein lies a problem. If the citizenry is a constant, then there is a constant definition of what benefits them; but we know from practice that society changes from one generation to the next. Things we like today would not be what our ancestors liked, and no doubt our descendants will think us quaint at best. (“Oh, look, here’s a photo of someone using this antiquated piece of technology. It’s so silly! How did they ever live like that!?”)

This leads to a definition that amounts to morality by popular consent. If that is the case, then the debate is closed; the majority will always have the privilege of defining what is good for society, and we must leave it at that.

Yet that is clearly not the case. The debate presupposes a particular definition for both extremes, and one that is not dependent on majority rule. If a thing can be argued as being true independent of elections, then it is not subject to the whims of the electorate. If a thing is morally good, then it is as good today as it was yesterday, and as good as it will be tomorrow.

It was once said to me in a debate of my own on this very same subject that the existence of a canon of laws shows that the majority can, in fact, recognize the concept of what is right and wrong. It is then up to the individual to determine whether he or she will follow that path, or a separate one and accept the consequences. It cannot be determined whether one good is better than another good; the most that can be done is to establish a society which encourages one over the other in a way that provides the best result for the majority benefit.

My reply was to point out that the existence of such a canon did not prove the human capacity to understand what is good through human reason alone. In fact, even a cursory examination of stable societies throughout history finds that this very stability depends on something more than a human perception of right and wrong. The only ones that remain as functional societies for multiple generations are those that acknowledge a higher authority of some kind. This can be seen in both east and west, for several thousand years.

So yes, it is impossible to judge one good as being higher than another through simple human reason. He was quite correct on this point. The part that he missed was that if it is impossible to determine the objective greater good, then it is likewise impossible to find the best among the lesser goods — represented by laws of compromise between citizens that govern less weighty matters than life or death.

After all, if an intermediate law is always morally neutral, then the concept of reaching an ultimate good through compromise between citizens is meaningless. There can be no ultimate good discovered by this means. If all goods are equal, then no one person’s idea is better than another’s. If all morality is by majority vote, then the next majority can contradict the previous. We shall have no precedent, no continuation, and no stability. Aristotle mentioned this as well; in Ethics I 2, he covered the dangers of an infinite recursion with no ultimate source of morality.

Clearly, then, it is in the best interest of government to encourage virtue, but to do so in a way that reflects on something above majority rule.

In a purely secular, philosophical, anthropological point of view, the greatest benefit of religion for society is that it removes this mortal compromise by giving everyone a higher law to follow; a law that might be agreed to by the majority, but which cannot be changed by them.

Anthropologically making fun

This isn’t a Christian point of view; it’s a simple, practical, and logical examination of political philosophy throughout the millennia.

If, however, we examine Christian ideas of moral behavior (without necessarily getting into religious practices; that is, commandments of man-to-man behavior rather than man-to-God), we can also find the following three things.

  1. These ideas are universal. All stable religions, and all stable multi-generational social orders, agree with such aspects as “do no steal,” “do not lie,” “do not murder,” and so on. Christianity just happens to be the only one that has independently argued and codified these according to both pure faith and pure logic.
  2. They have been proven necessary. All societies that ignore such aspects fall apart into chaos.
  3. They are obtainable by rational investigation. Pagans have discovered these principles, sometimes in toto, without contact with either Judaism or Christianity. Nine out of the Ten Commandments were even argued by Aristotle, including two of the three man-to-God commandments. (The only one not obtainable by reason is the idea that God has ordained a day to be observed as a day of rest.)

The interesting thing that a lot of anti-Christian protesters forget (as I have said before, I have never, ever, encountered an atheist who has both studied logic and studied the Church) is that there is a difference between the man-to-man versus the man-to-God relationships. It is similar, but not identical, to the modern idea of a “separation of Church and State.” The Catholic Church learned that lesson long before anyone decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean: just as no one can serve two masters, so too can no one be two masters. One will always take precedence, and to the detriment of the other.

Man requires governance in his relationship with other men. This is an observable, self-evident fact. The difficulty, as I have said, lies in obtaining a universal law among men. Without an appeal to a higher authority for justification, it becomes uncertain as to how a society shall be run, which causes an undercurrent of social chaos by itself. Even when the laws noted above are rationally discernable through philosophy rather than solely through theology, you have no guarantee as to whether they are agreed-to without that appeal to the higher authority. Simply because they are justified does not grant a guarantee that they are followed; but it is guaranteed that if they are followed, we will have a stable society. Many atheists have lived according to these man-to-man rules and found them to be good; many have then found themselves accepting the man-to-God rules in turn, of course, such as (most famously) C. S. Lewis.

So we have determined that we need this higher law in order to govern. But how should we govern?

The Christian political idea is that God’s power of self-determination is given to each man in the form of free will, the ability to make choices for himself. In modern parlance, we usually refer to “giving up” that freedom for government. This is incorrect, or at least insufficiently correct for our discussion. The proper idea is that each of us will use our free will to invest that power of self-determination in a central authority. This is the origin of the idea of consent of the governed.

The shape of that central authority can take many forms, but we usually refer to monarchial and democratic or republican governments. The monarchial idea is that all of God’s power is vested in the sovereign; in the democratic/republican form, that power is vested in representatives of one type or another who exercise that authority using prescribed forms that bind the country. In the extreme, the first has all authority, and the people have none, while the latter is pure majority rule. In practice, each form winds up with limitations both stated and unwritten.

Either way, each of these two forms, and all others besides, are to be judged as acting virtuous when exercising its power within the bounds of the social commandments. Therefore, in this Christian idea of politics, the amount of personal or political freedom for each individual citizen is actually separate from the concept of virtuous action.

Yet we still haven’t answered the question. We are to determine whether it is “the responsibility of the state to promote” one over the other.  If they are separate, then we have gained nothing more than if we were unable to define the greater good for the society as a whole. The debate would be over either way.

Clearly, then, we must also define what the responsibilities of government are, according to this Christian theory of politics. Since this moral nature is, in and of itself, independent of the monarchical or republican forms, then we cannot simply stop at those forms; we must examine the matter, by which I mean the actions, of a virtuous government.

If a government is only virtuous in the context of the binding social commandments, then it follows that a virtuous expression of law must include enforcing those commandments in some way. Punishing theft and murder seem straightforward; but what about the command to avoid adultery? Surely that’s a personal decision.

Yes and no. As a sin, it is a personal decision; but so is the sin of murder. Yet like murder, it involves harm to another person, namely one’s spouse. It’s interesting to note that the commandment is not do not commit fornication, even though we know that this is a sin as well. Not all sins are part of this body of social commandments.

Let’s step back and take a look at the nature of marriage in a social context. In this limitation, it is an agreement between two parties, witnessed by at least two more, and officiated by a representative (if only for this purpose alone) of the central authority. It is the responsibility of that representative to ensure that all the proper forms are adhered to, and the responsibility of the witnesses to ensure that all parties are entering this agreement of their own free will.

If that sounds like any old contract, there’s a reason for that. The Catholic Church’s rules on what constitutes a valid marriage is the basis for all Western contract law. See, in pre-Christian Europe, it was customary for families to arrange marriages between two children. I don’t mean arrange marriages between teenagers, or betrothals between small children. I mean marrying babies to each other. This was done among the Romans to some degree, but it was chiefly a practice of the Germanic and Celtic tribes.

Well, this is of course a bad thing, since at least one, and in some cases both, parties could not give informed consent. This lead to the Church clarifying what is and is not a valid marriage; so, despite the fact that the ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony are the husband and wife themselves and not the priest, there must be a priest present to ensure that everything is correct. The best man and maid of honor are the individuals that the groom and bride trust the most, and who theoretically would do the most to ensure that they are not entering into something they are not prepared to do.

Marriage is the most ancient and primitive form of contract, binding families together. That’s why they were considered political matters for the powerful even up to the modern age in Europe. And that’s why I’ve spent the last few paragraphs detailing it, because this ancient and primitive form also serves as the best example of the primary responsibility of government: the guarantee of contracts.

You may hear much noise from certain quarters that the primary duty of nations is defense or diplomacy. Hogwash, as my grandfather used to say. (Note: I have no idea what either of my grandfathers would say, as I never met them.) That assumes that the primary duty of a nation is to interact with other nations, which is a circular definition.



Instead, government must find a way for groups to trust each other without depending on kin relations. And, in order for that trust to be there, you must have a way of enforcing both the freedom to enter into contracts and the necessity of fulfilling your obligations, and the protection of assets such as private property. Without this, society cannot function above the clan or village level.

It is only after this that the power to negotiate with other nations comes into play. If the central authority cannot protect its citizens against the undue influence of other competing authorities, then the citizens have placed their trust in the wrong government, and that government has failed in its first duty. There must be some way to ensure that another authority does not void the contracts the first government has guaranteed, and that includes the necessity of placing that power of guarantor above that of defense. A virtuous government cannot trade its own citizens for its continued existence.

It then logically follows that a government must, as a third level of importance, protect the well-being of the nation as a whole in ways that support the first two functions. This is where the authority to tax comes from, to build infrastructure to support the first two functions (such as, yes, roads and bridges), and to regulate behavior that might disrupt the first two functions (such as the preservation of natural resources or determining the signal strength and bandwidth of individual radio stations).

But just as a virtuous government cannot place the interaction between nations as more important than the first duty of enforcing contracts between citizens, so too is it wrong for a government to do anything of that third-rank importance that might disrupt the first two. And, since paramount in the first duty is to ensure that no one is forced to do anything against their will, we may at last be able to answer whether government must promote virtue over liberty.

As I stated (much, much earlier; my, this essay’s gotten long, hasn’t it?), no one “gives up” their free will in exchange for government. In practice, though, the distinction really only matters to philosophers; even political pundits don’t like frolicking in that particular section of weeds. As such, a good rule when creating laws is to ask yourself is this law worth killing someone over?

That might seem extreme, but it’s a logical progression. If someone resists the law, force must be used against them. If certain amounts of force are always off-limits, then the law is not strong enough to contain lawbreakers; after a certain point, the central authority will refuse to prosecute. That isn’t an argument in favor of brutality; it’s a clear-cut reason to only have necessary laws. An authority that cannot be enforced cannot be respected. An authority that cannot be respected cannot guarantee agreements between citizens.

So a virtuous authority must limit itself, and not infringe on the freedoms of its citizens. (Note that I said freedom, and not liberty; I’ll get to the latter in a moment.) This includes the freedom to make wrong choices, even if it goes against the morality of the majority or even of a divine authority.

And so now we can see why the definition of virtue in the context of this debate cannot be based in a theological reality, or else the answer must be a resounding NO. After all, even in the much-talked-about-yet-never-seen Christian theocracy, secular power comes from God; and if God will not force us to obey His will, how can any government that attempts to do so even pretend to be virtuous?

Since it is not theological virtue, and therefore limited to social commandments, and those commandments are enforced by a government that puts the agreements of its citizens ahead of the well-being of its own ruling body, the answer to this debate becomes clear.

Yes. Yes, it is resolved that it is the responsibility of government to promote virtue over liberty. Since a virtuous government is primarily a guarantor of contracts, property, and the exchange of ideas, it is more important to promote that class of virtues that ensures that function than it is to defend the ability of individuals to infringe upon others, up to the point where promoting that virtue interferes with the free exercise of that first responsibility.


Still, as I said, this discussion is only possible by first defining terms; and I suspect that the students who run the Chester-Belloc Debate Society did not pick the best terms for this debate. In fact, I was recently informed that few of the students bother defining their terms, and so talk about cross-purposes; a fact that makes me very glad I’ve been reminding the creative writing students of the necessity of such an action.

You’ll also notice, I’m sure, that I kept specifying that a virtuous government does these things. As might be obvious by now, I meant that in the Aristotelian term. After all, all governments must settle on a mean between the extremes of “what must be enforced” and “what must not be prohibited.”

In such a government, and when following a law higher than that of mortal men, majority rule enters the picture in the form of interpretation, rather than the creation, of the social commandments. In constitutional governments (as mine is, at least theoretically), these elements are then further enshrined in binding social contracts that provide another layer of protection for the innate rights and freedoms of the people that invest their authority in their government.

It is possible, and essentially inevitable, for there to be a danger of “too much liberty.” Not too much freedom, but rather the government giving license to too many things. When the government makes such a choice, the balance between social commandments and the individual’s choice becomes disrupted, and the result is normally that one group is favored inordinately over others.

This could be described as too much liberty, as I said; giving permission to one group to act in a way that is prohibited to others, and having nothing to do with freedom. Yet you could easily define this as the government promoting a virtue that benefits one group over others. This is why it is so important to define terms before continuing with debate.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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1 Response to Must the State Promote Virtue?

  1. Pingback: Superheroes, Vigilantism, and Morality | The Catholic Geeks

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