Liberty is highly praised in the United States (and indeed all over the Free West.) In some reckonings, it is second only to life. In others, it is the most important…thing.
What is Liberty precisely? It is not an action that we undertake, like pursuing happiness/property, nor is it something given or done to us, like material or spiritual goods. Liberty is a potential. It is a state of suspension between what we can do and what we do. Our abilities define our liberty and our liberty allows us to act on those abilities.
The question on my mind is this: Do we have a “right” to liberty and what does that mean?
First of all, as I’ve said, liberty is not an action, it is a state of potential action. How we proceed with that potential is a different thing entirely. Our wills may be free, but when we’ve chosen an action, we are no longer free with respect to that action. We can not both do and not do that action simultaneously. Thus, if we believe we have a right to do what we will, that is not a right to liberty, that is a right to act on our abilities, whatever they may be. Frank Castle, in Daredevil, was mighty good at killing people, but a right to liberty does not mean Frank Castle has a right to act on his ability.
Secondly, then, not all of our abilities are good (whatever metric of good you subscribe to. If you don’t subscribe to a metric of good, please disregard what I’m saying.) Therefore, although we have the liberty to act according to these abilities, that is a liberty that should not be nourished and should certainly not be enshrined as a right. Every day, across the country and around the world, people who might otherwise have certain abilities are prevented from acting on them either by physical confinement, social pressure, or material coercion. These people are not “at liberty” with respect to these abilities. When people use their liberty (their abilities) to act against the good, either their ability to do those things must be taken away or they must learn to control that ability within the confines of good action. Without these principles, our whole system of justice would fail and we would be unable to protect people against evil actions.
Thus, liberty is not an absolute right, but is subservient to the good. We may have the ability to do many things, but we do not have to right to do all those things, nor must we preserve unfettered all those abilities. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. And maybe it’s even better not to be able to do some things. The risk may be too great.
These principles bring at least two questions to mind. The first is “what standard of good are we using? What is a virtuous action and what is not? Is there even such thing as a universal good?” As I said, no matter what metric of the good we are using, these principles still apply, but they are applied in different ways.
For an individualist, the highest good is the assertion of his or her will. This would seem to be liberty par excellence, being able and in fact encouraged to act on all of your abilities. To an individualist, however, a group does not have the authority to act against his abilities, although perhaps he might say that an individual does. In the former case, he believes that the group (which is really just a bunch of individuals agreeing to work together to him) should not be allowed to interfere with his liberty. But of course, all the other individuals have agreed to act in a certain way and are thus just fulfilling their own abilities (which of course can increase if they are working together.) This conflict of liberties (which is even more pointed when it is just two individuals in conflict) can only lead to violence as there is no common measure of resolution. The only way it can be resolved is by one convincing the other that his way is better or by one of them killing the other. Either way, it is an act against so-called liberty. In the former case, the one man agrees not to act on his ability because he has been convinced that it is bad. In the latter, he is dead.
Individualism, then, automatically leads to the strong acting on their abilities, and the weak agreeing to it out of fear of death. More often then not, individualism goes hand in hand with eugenics. It is better, it is said, to be rid of the weak who distract and weaken the strong from fulfilling their liberty.
Individualism, and what I might call creeping individualism does not properly understand liberty because it does not understand the good. However, it still inherently asserts that not all actions are equal and that not all abilities should be acted upon. Individualists just have a funny way of going about limiting liberty.
Which leads me to the second question about liberty: what is the proper way to limit liberty? In what circumstances should we take away people’s abilities and in what way? When should we use education to shape consciences and when should we use coercion and physical restraint? Once again, these questions are related to our metric of the good.
I am not here going to lay out an agenda or platform for a proper approach to criminal and moral justice here in the United States. I will say that in keeping with the Church’s insistence on subsidiarity and solidarity, the smallest competent social unit should be responsible for limiting and channeling liberty. It should ever take into consideration the emotional and spiritual situation of the person involved and should always start with the hope of the person achieving both earthly and heavenly happiness.