Lecture 12: Liberty and Theology

Classical Liberalism

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

            Supporters of liberty have sometimes viewed theology as an enemy, not always without reason. And supporters of theology have sometimes returned the compliment—again not always without reason. But whether their reasons for these stances have been as fully conclusive as they seemed may be doubted. Historically they have had more to do with politics than with philosophy. In this lecture I wish to explore the philosophical relationship between the two viewpoints. Is there a necessary and inevitable opposition between liberty and theology? Do the claims of theology endanger liberty? Does the ideal of liberty undermine theology?

In these lectures we have focused our argument from the beginning on the freedom of the will. We have argued that that interior freedom alone makes our actions truly ours, makes us personally responsible for their consequences and accountable for them to others, and  is therefore the foundation of the moral order, and so of the moral demand for exterior liberty. Our argument for liberty depends centrally on the freedom of the will.

Kant, however, has argued that if the will is to be genuinely free, it must be self-governing or autonomous. Not only must it not be causally predetermined, but it must not recognize any authority outside itself. This is a question of our motive. The moral worth of an action depends on the nature of the action, but it also and more fundamentally depends on the motive for which the action is done. Not only must we do the right thing, but we must do it for the right reason. The right reason for doing the right thing, Kant argues, is just because it is the right thing. We must obey the moral law out of respect for the moral law. No other reason has moral merit. If we do an action only because of some effect the action is intended to achieve for ourselves we miss the mark. For example, if our only motive in helping an elderly lady cross a busy road is because we hope she will remember us in her will, or even merely because it gives us a good feeling to help her, while that does not necessarily make the action wrong, it deprives it of moral merit. The action remains merely a natural action and does not rise to the level of having moral worth. The same result occurs if we do an action out of fear of punishment or out of a desire for reward. We make the action dependent on an ulterior consideration. Our will is no longer self-governing or autonomous. The true moral imperative is always unconditional, but now we are making our action conditional on an extraneous factor and our motivation is no longer pure. The same holds true, Kant argues, if we do an action for the sole reason that God has commanded it. A command of God comes to us from outside ourselves. It does not arise from within the will itself. It is not, as it should be, a command that the will gives to itself.  It makes the action dependent on an ulterior consideration. Theology, then, is in this sense an enemy of ethics, including the ethics of liberty.

Although Kant believed in God and was not an atheist, this argument of his has fed into the current defense of atheism and secularism. The view is now held by many people that in order to lead a morally good life it is not necessary to believe in God; perhaps it is not even desirable.

Considered simply as an abstract argument, Kant’s basic reasoning seems right. A moral action must have a moral motive. Yet if we view it in the broader context of real life and our experience of how people behave, the argument seems deficient. Looking at the rampaging mobs on London’s streets recently on our television screens, it does not seem tremendously likely that they consisted of people who go to church every Sunday.  Our experience is that people who go to church on Sunday generally lead better lives on average than those who do not. They commit notably fewer crimes; they are more reliable and trustworthy; they are more faithful to their marriage partners; they are more likely to pay their debts; they are more generous to the poor. Not only do they behave externally that way, but they also desire more to have a good personal character: they wish to be morally good, just and kind people.  By almost any measure, practicing Christians are more, not less, ethical. It is the fashion to cast doubt on this, and to qualify any such statement by observing that there are exceptions to it, as indeed sadly there are. But in fact everybody knows that in general it is true, even if they refrain from saying it, and it becomes a prominent news item and a public scandal when a person devoted to religion behaves immorally.  How are we to explain this fact if obedience to the will of God is contrary to good ethics?


The Kantian account miscontrues the Christian understanding of the relationship between God and his creatures. In that understanding God is not like any other ordinary authority. He is not “outside” creatures. It is true he is not thought of as part of them or identical with them. Mainstream Christianity is not pantheistic. But in the Christian view God’s will creates creatures and sustains them in existence, and his will is identical with himself. They exist only because he is present to them. Apart from the will of God, nothing would exist. Morality itself comes into existence only through the fact of free will, and the free and autonomous will so important to Kant is a gift we have received from God. Even Kant remarks that the will of God is holy. If it is a fact that God commands us to perform a certain action, for a believing Christian that is a complete guarantee that the action is morally good and right. Of course there must be no doubt about that “if.”

A distinction is to be made, then, between two “wills of God.”  On the one hand there is what we may call his natural will, which is embodied in his creatures, in their existence and in the laws of their natures, including the universal natural moral law, by the fact of his creating them. This will of God is to be found out by the use of our reason. On the other hand, there is the positive will of God reflected in particular commands attributed to him in the religious tradition and addressed to particular peoples. The Ten Commandments contain examples of both. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is part of the universal natural moral law which is written in our hearts. The commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day is a positive command addressed to a particular people. When Kant speaks of the conflict between freedom of the will and theology, what he means by “theology” is not the former, the will of God expressed in the natural law, but the latter, the additional commandments that can be learnt only from the organized religious community, the church. Kant feared to give political power to the officials of the church. For us, however, it is the will of God represented by the universal natural moral law that is most significant.

The force of the natural law which is written in our hearts is not compromised by the reflection that it represents the will of God. On the contrary, it is strengthened. What God contributes to our ethical life and conscience is not the knowledge of right and wrong, which we must obtain by the use of our own reason, but authority. Left to itself, the authority of the natural law is just the authority of reason. For it is a basic tenet of all natural law theory that the terms of the natural law can be discovered by the power of reason. In itself the authority of reason is great. But it is also abstract. For a person who finds himself in a moral crisis, in which powerful forces urge him to act against his conscience, the testimony of experience is that the authority of God is more powerful than the authority of mere abstract reason. The voice of God enlists our feelings, it ties us into the cosmic web of our relations with others and with the objective universe of reality. It helps us to understand the magnitude of our decisions. It assures us that moral values which demand sacrifice are not merely human fancies but are truly good, actual and authentic. This is so even if we leave out of account considerations of reward and punishment. But of course considerations of reward and punishment are not irrelevant to the natural law.  For as Shakespeare says, “Who would grunt and sweat under a weary life… but that the dread of something after death…puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?”  (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1).

For some three hundred years the nations of the Western world have been building a secular culture in which the voice of God has been ever more reduced to silence. Even to mention God is felt in some circles to be anti-social. The roots of this have been to a large degree political rather than strictly scientific. It began in 18th century France with the Rousseauian gospel of equality, a reaction against the political power of the clergy, and came to an initial head in the French Revolution. The socialist movement, which followed in the 19th century, from its beginning was opposed to religion as the “opium of the people,” because it reconciled people too easily, the socialists felt, to the wretched conditions of their material existence. God, for Marx, was “an alien being, above nature and man,” so that to believe in God meant believing in  “the unreality of nature and of man.” He concluded that “criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” The criticism of Heaven was necessary in order to criticise Earth, the criticism of religion was necessary in order to criticise law, and the criticism of theology was necessary in order to criticise politics.[2]  This has always been the real point of atheism, the criticism of politics.

But if we put politics aside for the moment and look at the question in its own right basically and philosophically, this is a bizarre state of affairs. Centuries before Christianity, Plato and Aristotle arrived at what is still in some ways the best description of God: he is the perfect or most excellent being. Kant himself went on to add that he is also the necessary being, who cannot not exist.  It cannot possibly be a gain for human beings to be disassociated from the perfect being. On the contrary, nothing could be more a matter of common sense than to wish to be associated with him. If politics needs to be criticized, that is better done in association with God than against him.

The idea that God’s absence has been a gain for either ethics or politics is an illusion. The truth is exactly the opposite. The savage inhumanities of communism, fascism and nazism have been the consequence, not of belief in God but of socialism’s political criticism of God. The same is true of the recent riots on the streets of London and Philadelphia. But true liberty cannot be threatened by belief in the perfect and most excellent being. Rather, belief in that being and in the natural moral law he has written into our hearts is a powerful force of resistance and liberation against human tyranny.

The idea of liberty has its ultimate foundation in God. For it is he who has given us our nature as human beings, and an essential part of that nature is the freedom of our will. It is this freedom, more than anything else, that makes us human and gives us human dignity. And it is this dignity, founded on the unique freedom of our will, that makes it inherently wrong for us to use coercion on one another, except in the very special circumstances which we have already discussed in a previous lecture.

It is true that belief in God does not of itself, without further qualification,  necessarily produce a demand for liberty. It is necessary to have a conception of God that is compatible with reason. It is up to us to discover by the use of our powers of reason that liberty is right and good. But once we discover it, belief in God means realizing that the voice of reason is the voice of God.

Without belief in God, the only foundation left for liberty is the philosophy of utility or utilitarianism. That philosophy was founded initially by Bentham and Mill in order to avoid God. But utility is a weak reed to lean on. In the short term utility is no doubt attractive. It is the reason why so many people want economic improvement. But in the long term it is empty, and is not a philosophy worthy of human beings. For usefulness is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. According to the classic analysis given by Bentham and Mill, utility consists ultimately in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But such a philosophy cannot provide a foundation for human dignity.

If the highest goal of human life and society is only to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, where will the courage be found to fight and die for liberty? Liberty does not come free of charge. There is a price to pay for it, and that price has often been suffering and death.

Belief in God has a number of practical advantages over secularism as a school of ethics, including the ethics of liberty. While secularism may not rule an ethical life out as a possibility, it does little directly to promote it. But belief in God does very much to promote it. For example, it confronts us constantly in our own mind with an impartial observer. This can help us to view our own actions impartially, acknowledging more readily what we have done both right and wrong. The awareness of being always in the presence of a witness who is friendly and compassionate but undeceived about us can be an immense aid to that interior honesty with ourselves that is an important feature of the ethical life.

A special advantage of belief in God for ethics is the fact of the religious community, the church.  The person who regularly attends a church service is not left isolated and alone in his striving to lead an ethical life, but has around him a community of like-minded people who share in his struggles and provide him with encouragement and example. From childhood to adulthood he hears exhortations to think about ethical problems and amid the hurly-burly of life to be sensitive to ethical values.  From the others in his parish he has active examples of good works and charitable concern, people who make sacrifices of their time and money to help others. The religious community can provide him with a rich symbolic life in literature, art and music that enlists his better feelings in the often arduous task of doing the right thing. The secularist usually has little or none of this communal support in his attempts to lead an ethical life.

Belief in God naturally supports the ethical life in general. But this applies also and especially to the ethics of liberty.  It is noteworthy that a very large proportion of those who support the cause of genuine liberty are religious people. The segments of society at the present time who are most likely to support socialist or left-wing values, such as the academic and journalistic worlds, are also those that typically are least religious. Religion by contrast is naturally a conservative force in people’s personal lives and in society. Properly understood, theology, or belief in God, far from being a threat to liberty, is an indispensable support of it, both in theory and in practice.

[1] There are two senses of both “ethical” and “unethical.”  An action can be ethical either in the sense that it is merely not morally wrong, without being morally virtuous, or in the sense that it it is morally virtuous. An action can be “unethical” by being wrong, or by being merely not morally virtuous. Obedience to the will of God is not wrong. It is surely positively good. But in Kant’s view it is not morally virtuous.

[2] See: Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and the Manuscripts of 1844.