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If only a virtuous people can be free, then amoral nations are incapable of freedom. When the moral fabric of society begins to unravel, the leaders we appointed must reign us in and restore virtuous paradigms. Nevertheless, if government attempts to restore virtue by implementing regulations, they invariably encroach upon other lawful freedoms. In this manner, an interesting anomaly forms. What may appear to be the most obvious solution is utterly counter-productive.
Though the legal systems and religious ideologies of men can attempt to create and uphold virtuous standards, there is no assurance their doctrines are virtuous or will be so indefinitely. The myriad instances of abuse by political and religious authority illustrate the fact that human beings create laws and canonand humans are fallible. To incorporate any argument for legality or religion as the defining premise for virtuosity would directly imply that virtues can contradict.
Societal leaders have a responsibility to make people see their wrongs and take pains to mend the cloth of communal virtue. This change, however radical or minute, must begin on an individual level and spread throughout, all the while preserving our innate liberties. In this essay I explore the nature of virtues as they relate to society.
What Constitutes Virtue?
Virtue is a very subjective concept. One might define virtue using any number of sources, many of which, upon closer inspection, are contradictory. Since the definition of virtue can vary depending on the source, I will use Benjamin Franklins interpretation of core virtues in this essay.
In Benjamin Franklins autobiography, he lists thirteen virtues that he strove to abide by his entire life. At age twenty (1726), Dr. Franklin had completely developed his lifelong definition of virtuous behavior to include the following:
I. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
II. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
III. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
IV. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
V. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
VI. Industry: Lose no time; be always employd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
VII. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
VIII. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
IX. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
X. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
XI. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
XII. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or anothers peace or reputation.
XIII. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
The order in which these are listed is quite intentional, as Franklin believed that by accomplishing one, the remaining virtues could be practiced in a more prudent fashion. Additionally, it was not Franklins intent to master each of these practices at once. He resolved to emphasize one each week, while still practicing the others in their ordinary proportion. Although Franklin owned fallibility in his practices, he claimed that any attempt one makes to improve himself is well worth the while.
Virtuous behavior is not always instinctive. Instead, a virtuous life is a conditioned and disciplined one. Oftentimes, it seems that we are driven to less-than-virtuous behavior by the consequences of the immoral choices of others. The indignation that particular conditions may arouse can cause one to feel entitled to instant gratification, which often leads to consideration or commitment of unscrupulous acts. On other occasions one may encounter an instance in which they could benefit from ignoring virtue. There is no clear resolution to these circumstances, except to realize that by engaging in the same behavior you are either passing your misfortune along, or are directly working against your own long term interests.
How is Freedom Defined?
Just as virtue is a subjective concept, so too is freedom. Of the many definitions, I find that of the Declaration of the Rights of Man quite fitting. The following was composed by the Marquis de Lafayette with help from Thomas Jefferson, and was formally adopted by the National Assembly of France in August of 1789.
Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law. 
This definition infers that, provided citizens abide by the law, the bounds of a nation are dictated by the governing body. So long as the interests of the majority are represented, this definition is consistent with Franklins thirteen virtues. Therefore we can conclude that only a nation which practices temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility are capable of enjoying all of the natural rights allowed by the limits of law.
This point is eloquently argued by James Otteson when he elaborates on the classical concept of freedom of consciencethat is, the freedom to hold and act upon ones convictions. Otteson notes It can then be argued that the beliefs themselves should be protected because a person cannot live a truly human or truly happy lifehowever one ultimately fleshes out the details of such a lifeunless he is allowed to hold and act on his own beliefs.  Within the confines of protecting this inalienable freedom, the only avenue by which to create a lasting positive change is to teach a population the long-term benefits of making virtuous decisions.
Neither Law Nor Religious Doctrine Can Be Relied Upon To Define Virtue Or Justice
Ideally a body appoints moral, experienced, compassionate representation from individuals who are free from bias. By determining the outlines within which the most people can have their needs met and freedoms protected, that governing body constructs laws. Sadly, the occasions of religion and government betraying the power vested in them are too plentiful for society to rely upon these dogmas as truth. A principle seldom observed is that leaders must ensure the approach taken to maintain or restore virtue is not clouded by a stake they may have in the outcome, or any related affair other than the progress of their constituents.
Unfortunately, even the most well-intentioned leaders can either completely misconstrue the nature of virtues or err in identifying the proper lanes by which to restore them. The Spanish Inquisition was not Catholicism intentionally inspiring a cataclysm, but a genuine attempt to bring society back to what they deemed to be moral principles. The prejudiced approach of the Spanish Inquisition is not likely to occur again because most political leaders are now appointed.
If society appoints or supports a leader capable of unspeakable acts, and the society is not intrinsically affected by that leader, then the society can still remain moral. However, under a tyrant, the citizenry that remains virtuous is executed. The others are led astray by their masters.
Colin Calloway, Professor of History at Dartmouth College, argues that the treatment of Native Americans in the late 18th century is a prime example of civil institutions intended to promote virtuous behavior. As westward expansion into North America began, Britain stationed troops to mark territorial boundaries that were to be kept strictly segregated. In 1764, the English Board of Trade published their Plan for the Future Management of Indian Affairs, which was aimed at restoring the customs of gift-giving and trade regulation. In a letter to John Stuart, the Commissioners of Trade commented that The most superficial view of the nature and disposition of the Indians and of the manner in which they regulate their civil concerns, will suffice to show that a steady and uniform attachment to, and Love of Justice and Equity, as one of their first principles of Government.  Despite the number who shared this attitude, Native Americans were deemed barbaric, and the sentiment that they needed to be domesticated was widely prevalent. Of course, few now deny that moral grounds were a guise in justifying the annexation of land tracts in North America and any collateral damage associated with that end.
After the Revolutionary War, Americans were as guilty of this pale view of freedom as the institutions of their imperial predecessors. Joyce Appleby writes, In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase set a landmark in pressuring others to become more civilized and conform to the European way of life. Jefferson and others justified their actions by claiming that the government was supplying Native Americans with the instruments to maintain their place in existence.
Although these could be construed as consistent with Franklins values of industry and order, they are certainly opposed to humility, temperance, justice, and sincerity. It is pertinent to note that the motives of this U.S. leader were not especially nefarious; he was simply not considering the freedom of Native Americans. Jefferson believed that he could coerce Native Americans into relinquishing their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of the agrarian way, thereby becoming landowners and contributors to American ideals. When they did not, he saw their eradication as inevitable. 
The slavery which persisted during this period is another example of how virtue can be tested by material gratification. Since the primary strife of the revolutionary conflict was the extent to which each man could exercise inherent liberties, the hypocrisy in keeping slaves was cited long before the First Continental Congress. Slavery fundamentally compromised the morality of those who kept slaves and stripped those bound of choice. Liberty is not selective.
Due to the fact that many of the instances of arbitrary government in the United States have involved the accumulation or preservation of wealth, one may ask is economic prosperity possible within the parameters of virtue? John Nash affirmed that contrary to Adam Smiths theories, collaboration can create a symbiosis that is more effective than the selfish techniques of individual enterprise. As Kenneth Lux points out, this amendment integrates neatly since it is according to Smith himself that justice is necessary for the good to be attained . . . Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interests in his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.
Each of the aforementioned examples could have been avoided had moderation or temperance been exercised. The fact that each governing body in these examples thought they were implementing justice simply exemplifies how partial the jurisprudence of institutions can be. Regrettably, the population can be as culpable as officials in a democracy.
Societal Custodians Are Sworn to Maintain an Environment of Virtuous Conduct
I reiterate that since leaders are capable of unjust behavior, whether intentional or otherwise, the legal environment of a nation is not always the epitome of morality. There are considerable technical loopholes a politician can employ in order to satisfy personal objectives. It is the responsibility of all voters to remain informed in order to hold these men/women accountable.
The legal facets of jury and senate theoretically preserve law from the manipulation of one or a few powerful individuals. However, this cannot be trusted. Although representative, an immoral senate could favor an impious cause. While a decision may be the consensus, it is not always just. Similarly, failure to properly allot blame for distress in society by way of blaming the current administration allows ample opportunities for radicals to impeach officials or topple entire governments. This eventually results in the new regime falling, and can ultimately result in the ruling of a despot, under whom a society cannot be free. 
Irresponsible leadership will both exploit the morality or corruption of the system for personal gain and allow what ethics remain to further decay. The morality of leaders and the circumstances by which they are elected warrants the dedication of an entire essay. As to not understate the multiple facets of those arguments, I will only discuss this issue where it is directly relevant. For our purposes, the most pertinent concept is how to reclaim virtue when government ideals have strayed.
If the members of a society neglect their erstwhile virtue, that societys heads are responsible for restoring virtue to the people. If those executives do not attempt to re-establish virtue, they have failed in the most sacred duty they are sworn with. Furthermore, due to the fact that an immoral society will be appointing a replacement for that official, that representative has potentially set the stage for consecutive terms of corruptible governance.
It is written of James Madison that his revulsion from popular misrule was every bit as deep as any other members, but so were his convictions that the people still possessed sufficient virtue to sustain a totally elective system and that a peoples government demands abiding vigilance against the irrepressible ambitions of even democratic rulers.  The voices of constituents, not officials, form the heart of democracy.
Supposing the values of a democratic society have deteriorated, the only way for a just official to take office is to feign impurity until elected, at which point he/she can attempt to restore virtue. Although the end result is theoretically good, the means violate Franklins sixth virtue, sincerity, in an attempt to promote a number of the others. While some might still argue that this course of action is necessary, none can deny that once you have violated the rules, it becomes much more tempting to justify breaking them again. Due to the political nature of officials in a democracy, and those in a monarchy, dictatorship, or oligarchy, it would be much easier for a pious leader to reform an immoral society as an autocrat than it would be to instill virtues in an unruly system of immoral constituents.
By Franklins definition, one virtue cannot oppose the fundamentals of another, though they can conflict. This segment briefly elaborates on the crux of every law abiding mans dilemma: is it permissible to favor virtue when laws restrict freedom? Rules were engineered in order to guide society to a free existence and objectively maintain the standard by which that is accomplished. This prompts the question, is it virtuous to depose an immoral leader?
Franklin and the other members of the Continental Congress demonstrated their moral independence in response to the actions taken by King George III, which resulted in the Declaration of July 1776. This had long been the colonial sentiment, however, as demonstrated by John Winthrop in 1664. He writes, Arbitrary Government is where a people have men set over them, without their choice or allowance; who have power to govern them, and judge their causes without rule. God only hath this prerogative; whose sovereignty is absolute and whose will is a perfect rule, and reason itself; so as for man to usurp such authority, is tyranny, and impiety. Where the people have liberty to admit or reject their governors, and to require the rule by which they shall be governed and judged, this is not an arbitrary government. 
Referring to my earlier example, a candidate would not need to imitate immorality if they were able to first educate their constituency. That candidate would win based solely on the ideals they advocated. This approach is fairly unique in that it not only preserves freedom, but supports the individual in exploring other aspects of their rights.
No Ruling Body is Entitled to Require That Others Follow Their Concept of Virtue
If only virtuous people are capable of freedom, then a nation that had become corrupt and vicious would no longer be able to achieve freedom, and would need guidance. If Franklins words are interpreted to suggest that societal leaders are charged with restoring the virtue of society, than representatives of the people would be responsible for changing the behavior of that constituency. Due to the various ways in which government can impede upon the rights of the citizenry, this must be handled with utmost tact. The sentinel fighting to impose virtues will only further constrict them.
The most practiced manner in which government attempts to modify the behavior of the population is by creating laws to discourage particular actions. However, since virtue is subjective, it is very difficult to properly quantify virtue as either appropriate or improper. This thought is ineffectual, because in forcing the change of a society the population is stripped of their freedom.
Democracy is the only arrangement in which the virtue, and therefore freedom, that Franklin extolled is possible. Monarchies and dictatorships make freedom impossible. In communism nobody is free, and liberties are confined in the hope that collective objectives will be realized.
Marxists argue that communism is the only avenue by which freedom can be achieved for all members of the society without restricting one persons rights more than another. This collective sacrifice requires contributions from all participants in exchange for maintaining one fluid set of virtues. To the credit of socialists, unequal distribution of wealth and attitudes of inherited supremacy are not components of a sustainable moral system. Wilhelm Röpke firmly believed that communism could not support freedom in that the system gives too little back to the individuals involved whilst robbing them of so much. 
Friedrich Hayek confirms Röpkes surmise, emphasizing that liberty cannot be obtained without choice of occupation and creed. Hayek goes on to observe that those who support communism may see this inconsistency, but its defense is more or less of the nature of a rear-guard action where all that is attempted is to prove that in principle a solution is conceivable. Little or no claim is made that such a solution is practicable. 
The cardinal objective of a democracy is preserving the right to participate in the decisions of society. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn declares, Where government was such an accurate mirror of the people, sensitively reflecting their desires and feelings, consent was a continuous, everyday process. In effect the people were present through their representatives, and were themselves, step by step and point by point, acting in the conduct of public affairs. No longer merely an ultimate check on government, they were in some sense the government. This concept is crucial in grasping the relationship between an electing people and those they appoint. Moreover, there is an overt suggestion that authorities in a democracy are not superior to the people. Because leaders do not possess the ability to dictate the direction of society, they are not our masters.
The Masters of Society
The conscience and discipline within the breast of each citizen is the master society needs most. An efficient democracy will never vote an erratic person into office, nor will a general constituency ever favor a leader with a definition of virtue that is inconsistent with theirs. We elect officials based on the characteristics that we find most desirable and most altruistic. In essence, we seek to appoint people who can consistently act with the morals we believe in, but for whatever reason do not always practice.
There is no precedent the high court of any land can set that will permanently redefine social paradigms. The duty of leaders is not to construct rules, but to verse the population in the positive repercussions of virtuous behavior. A sense of local community must be established in order for collective progress to occur. The precursors to both of these are individual accountability.
Generally speaking, solitude does not breed virtue. London, Stegner, and Tolstoy argue that true merit can only be found in solitude, and I concur in the respect that one must spend years looking inward for manifestation of change. Nonetheless, human beings are social creatures by nature. Interaction with other humans is vital to our health, so it would not suffice to live as ronin. Furthermore, the subjective nature of virtue allows one to manipulate the definition to suit self-serving behavior. The only way to circumvent this tendency is to instate a great degree of external accountability coupled with constant examination of ones internal state.
Accountability must not be thought of exclusively as applicable to representatives. We are more obligated to keep ourselves liable to the ideals we endorse than we are bound to keep leaders accountable. The bureaucrats of society are, however, our vanguards against external and internal turmoil. When intra-societal strife arises, it is the responsibility of these individuals to publicize our mistakes, and spur us to remedy them.
How Can Institutions of Civil Society Promote the Exercise of Virtue?
I posit that the first and final step to a virtuous and free society is education. I say the final step because omnipotence can never be attained. Elucidation allows for comparison of past and current convictions to those of other peoples. This process not only puts things in perspective, but it also opens up new possibilities for future behavior. If a power wishes to encourage the exercise of virtue without infringing upon the peoples rights, it must demonstrate to the general population that practice of those values result in a better standard of living for them. After you have appealed to people on an individual basis, you must prove that collective behavior will be beneficial to the society and subsequent generations.
Examples of virtuous societies are difficult to identify. Many claim that Hebrews first established an enduring moral order in Jerusalem. Classicalists might argue that Athens marks the advent of morality, logic, and reason, the latter two encouraging the re-evaluation necessary to maintain morality. Others could argue for Rome, or the Han Dynasty, as the epitome of the first virtuous society, in that virtue cannot exist without enforced, unified governing principles.
The success of these societies was the result of long-term commitment to a specific set of actions. The knowledge that patience and sacrifice of short-term diligence will ultimately reap enormous dividends needs to be learned. Unfortunately, the concept of unconditional devotion to particular idealsindependent of short-term consequencesis very difficult to establish initially, and even harder to adhere to. Each of the historical cases hitherto illustrate that this can prove to be a recurring challenge.
There must be sustained incentive for humans to conduct themselves in a moral manner. If the demeanor of society has diminished to the degree that altruistic behavior is met with social injustice, none will see a reason to contribute to the collective. The presence of an entire union will deteriorate as the population becomes more reclusive and segregated.
Populations must also realize that it is not enough to maintain yourself and your family. In a democratic society, the ignorance of a few can jeopardize the freedom of the entire population. Therefore, it is important to teach that improving the collective will reap enormous dividends on an individual level. The manner in which to achieve this initially is not as a collective, however, but as individuals. Without the self-sufficiency to distinguish virtuous behavior, the entire collective soon strays. This intrepid autonomy forms the spine of both personal and societal liberty.
Education is the only way to effectively reform a society without impeding upon inherent rights. Government instigated curriculums are dangerous because leaders can indoctrinate a population with biased information. However, an indoctrinated person is still free because they have the opportunity to question the beliefs of their laws and society, but choose not to. The crux is not simply in education, but the desire to make moral and proactive decisions.
Samuel Gregg suggests that civil institutions can preserve our rights and move toward virtue by supporting independent entities. In addition to conventional schooling, he notes that Educational, religious, cultural, and charitable associations have the capacity to assist people to look towards those higher ends of truth, beauty, and the good that many conservatives believe reflect the Divine within a man. Drawing people out of their immediate family without subsuming them into the state, these little platoons have long been defended and promoted by conservatives.  An inter-woven and productive community forms the cornerstone of order in any healthy system.
Aristotle best unifies my theory that education and discipline are the key components of exercising virtue. The Athenian states, Thus, the virtues are implanted in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature: we are by nature equipped with the ability to receive them, and habit brings this ability to completion and fulfillment.  There could be no better use of Franklins third virtue, resolution.
Some believe that the best way for leaders to establish lasting virtuous behavior is to implement a strict set of regulations. While this may seem to be a feasible solution, robbing an individual of choice is immoral on several fronts, and is precisely the oppressive ideology Franklin and his contemporaries struggled against. From without, a moral reconstruction is impossible. Even if those driving the movement are well-intentioned, this socialist government will ultimately deny citizens their rights in pursuit of the common good.
Laws are meant to preserve freedom, not construct it. A nation with stringent laws sans virtue will simply be a lawful nation, not a free one. There is no written mandate that cannot be broken behind closed doors or in the silence of ones heart. Benjamin Franklin realized this, and the sentiment formed the substance of his pamphlet Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pensilvania, advocating the development of critical thinking skills as opposed to education for the clergy. Since Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale were all dedicated to educating clergymen; Franklin saw the development of other academic areas as imperative.
This school, which we know today as the University of Pennsylvania, adopted a motto that embodies a host of Franklins beliefs. Although it is not verbatim, the axiom is based on an excerpt from Horaces Third Ode, and reads Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, or Laws without morals are useless. I maintain that each of Dr. Franklins virtues are essential to freedom. Each have their place, and operate best in different contexts.
Of those Franklin listed, order is one of the more broadly applicable virtues. Order encompasses each other virtue, and is as much for the good of society as individual improvement. However, abiding by laws cannot make one feel truly content or fulfilled; laws are meant simply to protect the freedom of each citizen. As political theorist Russell Kirk noted, to live within a just order is to live within a pattern that has beauty. The individual finds purpose within an order, and securitywhether it is the order of the soul or order of the community. Without order, indeed the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. 
Principals must approach change in an informative manner, demonstrating the positive objectives at which the reform is aimed. The instrument of government must never be one of ultimatums and threats. Excessive ambition violates the virtues moderation and humility.
Introspection is infinitely more valuable than any external administrative approach. When a democratic society strays from the preserving ideals of liberty it must be prompted to consider fundamentals. This principled independence allows for comparison of current behavior to long-term intentions. Humans are notorious for pushing limits within a breath of destruction and undertaking radical change on the precipice of extinction.
The individual resolve to act in a civil and virtuous manner epitomizes the pith and marrow of independence. Societal institutions can do comparatively little to encourage the exercise of virtue. Each of us must be allowed to self-govern when society becomes corrupt and vicious. Despite the multitude of antagonists, the individual must make virtuous decisions. Assuming that the decisions of our masters represent society, the political environment will become an accurate reflection of the people.
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 Gregg, Samuel. Markets, Morality, and Civil Society. The Intercollegiate Review. Fall 2003/Spring 2004. Pp. 29.
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|Jordan Paul Smith is an undergraduate majoring in Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He won second prize in the student division of the 2009 Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest.|