Freedom without Virtue is Slavery
Jan 1st, 2012
For most people, being a slave means being under the complete control of a taskmaster who’s able to force us to do whatever he wants, except for what we think, feel, or desire. And yet as powerful a control as that is, there is an even more powerful form of slavery that many of us freely choose to submit to. It’s a slavery that not only controls our actions, but also our thoughts, feelings, and desires. It’s a slavery that is by, and of, ourselves and we willingly submit to it when we put ourselves first and others second.
Overtly, no one wants to be a slave, yet we choose to do just that when we choose to do what we want to do rather than choose to do what we ought to do. When we choose to do what we want to do, we put our own needs and desires ahead of the needs and desires of others. And each time we do that, we act outside of virtue and reaffirm our desire to become a slave to ourselves, that is, to our passions.
Examples of how we put ourselves first can range from being a dictator, to hoarding food, to always being the first in line, to simply being ungrateful. Certainly, everyone understands how being a dictator could lead to self-absorption, but how can something as minor as being ungrateful cause us to become a slave to ourselves?
First, as with all examples of putting ourselves first, even a lack of gratitude can lead us to self-absorption by first giving us a moment of feeling good and then a desire to feel that good again. With respect to ingratitude, we can feel good when we withhold our appreciation because we reinforce within ourselves the idea that we deserved the “good” that we received and that it’s not necessary for us to show our appreciation.
Secondly, because of our nature, each time we satisfy one of our desires, the happiness we receive from it is slightly diminished. That means that in order to receive the same level of happiness from our passion the next time, the stimulus needs to be slightly stronger. Specifically, with respect to withholding our appreciation, the next time we receive a “good”, we have to either show less gratitude than we did before, or the good that we receive needs to be greater than it was before.
The instant gratification gets us started and our desire to enjoy the same happiness again keeps us going. Thus we begin to focus more and more of our efforts on pleasing ourselves. With similar reasoning, we can show that all paths to happiness, which go through our passions, end the same way.
It’s interesting to note that once we begin saying “yes” to our passions and desires, it becomes more and more difficult to say “no” to them because we would be, in fact, saying “no” to our own happiness. Therefore, we become more and more willing to say “yes” to our desires even if it means that we have to work harder to satisfy them. Thus our passions slowly become our taskmaster and we begin an inward spiral that leads only to a greater desire to please ourselves. Even though we do it willingly, our pursuit of physical happiness slowly becomes our taskmaster and we become its slave.
When we pursue happiness through our passions, we purse happiness outside of virtue and bind ourselves more tightly to our passions. However, when we pursue happiness with virtue, we keep ourselves free from the web of our passions because virtue leads us to seek happiness from outside of our passions. Virtue points us away from instant gratification and towards a happiness that is dependent on the happiness of others. In essence, virtue keeps us from being dominated and controlled by our passions.
Specifically, with respect to gratitude, when we express our appreciation for something, we acknowledge that something good has happened to us. That not only undermines our own self-love, but also confirms in someone else that they have done something good. That appreciation gives someone else a personal reward for doing something good. When they acknowledge our appreciation (with a smile or a kind word), we can know that they were given a little happiness and that brings us happiness. In that way, the satisfaction of our passions is dependent on the happiness of others. Our reward is a result of their reward.
Virtues guide us away from ourselves and toward others. They help us choose to do what we ought to do rather than what we want to do. Virtues prevent us from becoming slaves to ourselves. They help us avoid the inward spiral that leads us only back to ourselves.
The good news is that the inward spiral isn’t permanent; it will last only as long as we want it to last. Once we decide that we no longer want to be a slave to our passions, we simply replace our vices with the appropriate virtues. While it may take a while and it may be difficult, the inward spiral can be broken.
Therefore, pursuing what we want to do is, by definition, not a freedom but the path to the most controlling form of slavery. When we act outside of virtue, we invite our passions to be our taskmaster, but when we act with virtue, we are truly free.