It goes without saying that morality has not been invented in one day. It took a lot of time to generate the most significant principles of how one should act, what should be done and what should not be done to live in the society together. Thus, apart from religion, morality has become a tool of regulating social relationships and a kind of social agreement in a common sense. To come up with moral restrictions, people had to make a great deal of mistakes on their own. However, the attitude to these restrictions has always been different in different corners of the world and naturally in different epochs. Today it is probably the global trend that moral obligations get reduced and moral restrictions get loose. Humanity strives to a new value which is moral freedom.
Like many other abstract concepts, the concept of moral freedom is not that easy to determine. It is highly disputed among philosophers and sociologists and it is approached differently within various theories. First of all it is associated with the term of free will which is generally understood as the ability of a human being to act according to his inner impulse free from the outer constraints. Hard determinists, for example, claim that the actions of people are determined by the laws of the eternal universe and thus there can be no free will. At the same time, compatibilists make a stress on one’s own abilities, necessities and choices. In any way, free will as well as moral freedom cannot be absolute, it is always relative, because a lot of circumstances determine the way a person acts, or makes a choice, or produces judgments. “Everything within our universe is moulded by conditions of time, space and causality. … To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here,” Swami Vivekananda (Bok 1998, p. 77) argued. The question is whether it is reasonable to fight for more moral freedom in the society.
It goes without saying that moral freedom is a way to respect human dignity and to satisfy some other needs of a civilized world. We are now not at the stage of primitive beings, and diversity is one of the most important criteria of peaceful coexistence today. Due to the globalization effects, we now need to interact with the representatives of different cultures and religions, and it is inevitable to look for compromises. There are too many questions that cannot be answered unambiguously (the appropriateness of abortions, divorces, and death penalty, to name only few).
Still, it does not mean that moral freedom should turn into moral chaos. Basic norms should be probably instilled within families and education institutions, as total freedom can never lead to anything good: anyone would be able to justify his evil actions by his individual moral preferences, and that is of course not a way out. Personal intentions and desires should be respected, but not put in the head of the value systems of the entire society. The research shows that people who do not believe in the priority of free will tend to be less moral, tend to cheat more and be more aggressive and less helpful. At the same time, when the responsibility is totally on a person, better job performance is traced. It means that everyone should feel his own responsibility for the evil and contribution to the good.
Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, provides a profound view into the state of morality in modern America. Today society of the United States is mostly regarded for consumerism and dissolution of morals. The American society is known for conformism and individualism at the same time. In fact, these definitions are not contradicting, as individualism is revealed in the fact that each citizen first of all cares about his own welfare and does not always share the values of the community. Meanwhile, conformism means that no one likes to stand out of the crowd and walk against the mass. Exploring collective character of the nation, Alan Wolfe turned to the 2000 poll by the New York Times Magazine and found out that most of the nation looks for traditional solution “to reconcile individual freedom with the demands of a common morality” (Wolfe 2001, p. 12). He has come to the solution that despite the stereotypes about the morals of the Americans they still have high standards of virtuous behavior, but do not want these standards to be mandated. As for the evil, it once used to have specific forms in the conscience of the nation (Richard Nixon was once a personification), but now it is mostly comprehended abstractly. Moral freedom is now the revolutionary ideal which coexists with the need for a measure of moral choices.
On the whole, according to the observations of Alan Wolfe, the American’s moderate approach to virtue provides the opportunity for moral freedom without anarchy.
Bok, H. (1998). Freedom and Responsibility. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fischer, J.M. (1983). Incompatibilism. Philosophical Studies, 43, 121–37.
Fischer, John Martin (1989). God, Foreknowledge and Freedom. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Holton, Richard. (2011). Response to ‘Free Will as Advanced Action Control for Human Social Life and Culture’ by Roy F. Baumeister, A. William Crescioni and Jessica L. Alquist. Neuroethics, 4, 13–16.
Wolfe, Alan (2001). Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.