It seems that in the modern world, we are beginning to enjoy more and more liberty, and freedom from authority, while becoming more and more unhinged from a traditional sources of morality or systems of ethics. Is this sustainable? I recently read a book in which the author suggested that morality, or a certain degree of virtue, is necessary to ensure liberty.

Can someone expound on this further? Thanks.

  • 2
    Which book? Did the author present an argument?
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 31, 2013 at 15:55
  • It was a book called "The Book that Made Your World" by Vishal Mangalwadi.
    – Joebevo
    Jan 2, 2014 at 3:11
  • I posted this question a while back. Since then, I've come across the writings of John Locke, probably America's most influential philosopher, who argued that the presence of the law increases our liberty. That's a great insight, which is related to the question, although not directly addressing it.
    – Joebevo
    Jul 3, 2017 at 14:02

2 Answers 2


This seems to me to be related to Plato's core argument in the Republic: The most profound and damaging bondage is to be a slave to your own unchecked desires --which in turn implies that true liberty is obtained solely through allegiance to morality.

Compare also Matthew 11:30: "My yoke is easy...".


The question, as I interpret it, is in what direction morality (or virtue) and liberty should move: is morality necessary for liberty or is liberty necessary for morality? I will say the jury is still out as there are two competing paradigm principles on this matter.

One is the harm principle. J.S. Mill postulated the principle to answer the question, "When can the liberty of a person be limited by the coercive power of the law? To Mill the answer is that forceful interference is justified only when the interference is used to prevent harm to others. Force should never be applied to a person for the person's sake. That is, to make the person good or virtuous is never a legitimate reason to use forceful coercion, to Mill. Maximal liberty for individuals is a big deal for Mill because Mill thinks that men are progressive beings, that we can continue to improve and perfect capacities and values that are proper to human beings (cf. Brink's Mill's Progressive Principles) To Mill, morality imposed on and indoctrinated makes us hypocritical (untrue to selves). When we confront values as individuals (individuality) and test them out through our projects and social interactions (experiment in living), we can become authentic (true) selves: we can truly affirm truth and morality. Viewed in this light, liberty is necessary for morality (or virtue).

The other idea is the offense principle, postulated by Joel Feinberg. To Feinberg, the harm principle needs a revision since a society that adheres only the harm principle will not actually maximize liberty. To motivate this idea, Feinberg invites us to a bus ride. Sitting in a city bus, you suddenly realize that people are eating cooked dogs and engaging in sexual orgy with cats. you cannot get away from the sight. Being disgusted and humiliated is an under-statement of how you feel. You are profoundly offended: you are tormented by the image, Dogs and cats are never the way they were to you before the incident. You become un-free. Feinberg thus maintains that when morality is not in place in the society, and when the law is not in line with the going morality of the society, the society cannot secure liberty. That is, to a degree, laws should try to make people good and virtuous. Viewed in this light, morality is necessary for liberty.

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