Hammer of Heretics Episode 2: Morality Limits Your Freedom!
Welcome back to Hammer of Heretics (it has been a while), where I look at arguments against Catholicism, and mistaken beliefs our society in general has – especially those that I think are logically indefensible, and/or just dumb. Then I take the good old malleus of logic to ’em (as you can see in the picture above (which is absolutely not shopped (very well)).
Last time, I took on a silly atheist argument against God’s existence, but this time I’m looking at one of the (very false) underlying assumptions that many, if not most people today seem to make about life.
Ever hear people talk about violating their moral standards in terms like “letting loose,” or “breaking free?” How about that ever-comical Freedom From Religion Foundation? We’ve all seen them. Everywhere today there seems to be the sense that religious people (or even non-religious people with strong moral convictions) are being oppressed by their beliefs. That they somehow need to be liberated from their own moral behavior in order to be truly free.
But is this actually the case?
The surface level examination of life leads us to think that if we restrict ourselves from doing certain things, our freedom becomes limited. But a deeper examination of the consequences of moral behavior will actually show that it enhances freedom.
There are a couple of key realizations that need to be made before this makes any sense. The first is that usually, doing good is hard, and doing evil is easy. This is because evil is almost always when the will gives in to some natural desire in an immoral way, whereas doing good is normally when the will is in firm control, which is difficult. This is actually pretty easy to see, if you think about it. Try to think of one saint who had an easy life. Now consider how easy it is in our society to live a life of sin. Consider how easy it is to simply stay in bed all day, and waste your life, and how hard it sometimes is to get up, work, and develop your talents. Consider how easy it is to overeat, and how hard it is to give up our favorite foods, or even eat a lesser portion. Consider how easy it is to stare at that attractive person on the street, or on TV, or on the internet, and how hard it can be to grasp their worth, their profound human dignity.
The second realization is that our ability to make future decisions is largely based on the decisions we make now, and have made in the past. Every decision we make changes us as a person. Every time I lie, I become more of a liar. It becomes harder for me to be truthful in the future. My immoral acts get me stuck in a rut, and in this way, they take away my freedom. Think about what St. Paul says in Romans 7:19, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” Sound familiar? It sure does to me. And it does not sound even remotely like freedom.
Doing good does the opposite. Each small act of good, in which my will triumphs over my instincts, makes it that much easier to do that heroically good act which I might not yet be capable of. Every time I choose to do what’s right, even when it’s hard, I become capable of doing better, and therefore more free. This is why Blessed Pope John Paul II characterised freedom as the ability to do what is right.
I think the best metaphor to use to understand this is to think of a person playing a piano. Our society believes that the person who bangs on whatever keys they wish, without bothering to learn or to care about what sounds good, is more free. But is this true freedom? In reality, there is only one option available, and that is to play keys randomly. That is no free choice at all! The modern “free man” is similar. He refuses to learn or to care about what is good, and so is left with only one option: to follow his instinct, or the trends of a society, or whatever other influences he encounters. He is tossed on the chaotic waves of his circumstances like a ship without an anchor.
In contrast to this, we have the image of the man who sits down, and restrains his urge to play random notes on the piano. Perhaps he does play randomly for a while, perhaps for a long time, but at some point he stops, and begins to devote himself to learning to truly play the piano. Eventually, we will see the vision of true freedom: the master pianist. It is he who truly has the freedom to play anything. He could still choose to bang discordantly on the piano, but he could also play any of an endless array of beautiful pieces of music. And with each new thing he learns, his freedom grows.
What we’re really talking about here is the concept of virtue. Virtue is a philosophical way of expressing that ‘practice makes perfect’ also applies to moral behavior. What we practice, we get better at. Therefore, the more we do good, the more we are free to do more and greater good things. There’s an expression I heard once, “if you want to be a saint, just act like one.”
The reality is, most people in our society strongly believe that morality will only hinder them. And there is another deception that goes along with this modern disdain for morality – the idea that a person’s actions are separate from who they are. It sounds absurd when stated clearly (and it is absurd), but this is how many people think. How many times have you heard lines like, “Sure I like to watch porn, but I’m still a good person,” or “I don’t really believe all the teachings of the Church, but as long as I’m a decent person God won’t send me to hell.” This is a delusion; we are what we do. And many of us (myself included) need to stand up and take responsibility for our own free choices.