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Freedom and license must not be confused: freedom embraces responsibility and is guided by reason and virtue; license is choice without restraint.

Acceptance of a wide range of behavior

platoFreedom is taking responsibility for our own life. Insofar as it is compatible with the common good, people should be allowed to choose freely how they want to live.

Freedom, within the context of mutual respect, leads to independent and energetic action. This is certainly preferable to forced conformity. It is good for individuals and the community. If I can choose to become a teacher or a doctor or an entreprenur rather than being forced into some job, I will be happier in my work and more likely to succeed. This certainly benefits me, but it also benefits the community. Of course, freedom is not an absolute: if my free action seriously violates the common good, it should not be permitted.

Freedom is a positive force in many areas. In writing a paper for history class, a certain independence in choosing the topic and method aids the learning process. A coach has to give her athletes a degree of freedom to make decisions in a game, for new situations will arise that demand creative solutions. In government, the freedom to vote gives people a stake in their future. In all of these examples, self-discipline and responsibility are required if the freedom is to be fruitful.

"Freedom refers to self-determination....
To the extent that we can determine
for ourselves who we shall be,
we are responsible for our lives."

Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw
Beyond the New Morality
, Ch. 1


License is the throwing off of all responsibility. It is a carte blanche to do as we feel. As such, it is incompatible with virtue and destroys community.

License, as the throwing off of all responsibility, leads to absurd and dangerous action. On the personal level, license leads to moral chaos. If my actions are based merely on whim or the impulse of the moment, they are completely unpredictable, even to me. On the social level, license leads to anarchy — the lack of all dedication to the common good. This is obviously bad for the community, but license is also bad for those who exercise it. I strive to be free from responsibility rather than to be free to take charge of my life.

License can cause damage in the very places where freedom enriches. If license rules in choosing topic and method, a history paper might not even remotely relate to history. Athletes cannot succeed in a sport by acting on mere whim, for each sport requires discipline, and team sports demand a high degree of cooperation. If the members of a society ignore all restrictions of law, that society will not survive. License abandons personal responsibility and so loses the creative energy and fruitfulness of freedom.

"None can love freedom heartily
but good men; the rest love
not freedom but license."

John Milton
Tenure of kings and Magistrates

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brownMontague Brown. "Freedom/License." In The One-Minute Philosopher (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001) 50-51.

Reprinted with permission of Montague Brown and Sophia Institute Press.

The Author

brown1brownMontague Brown began a lifelong love affair with philosophy by reading the Dialogues of Plato. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College and now holds the The Richard L. Bready Chair of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. The author of The One-Minute Philosopher, Half Truths: What's Right (and What's Wrong) With the Cliché's You and I Live With, Restoration of Reason: The Eclipse And Recovery Of Truth, Goodness And Beauty, The Quest for Moral Foundations, The Romance of Reason: An Adventure in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

When he's not in the classroom, the professor spends time writing, skiing on the local cross-country trails, or providing the rock-steady beat of the bass in a faculty jazz quartet. In the summer, this philosopher might be hiking in his home state of Maine or presenting a paper in Rome.

Copyright © 2008 Montague Brown

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