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Freedom to Pursue the Common Good

Individual freedom is not only compatible with, but necessary for the state’s pursuit of the common good. This statement, however, cannot go without qualification because unlimited individual freedom equates to lawlessness. A lawless state is chaotic, and will inevitably be torn apart by the conflicting desires of its citizens. Eventually, it would cease to be a state, because it would not be unified. The state becomes unified through what Aristotle calls the “common good.” Aristotle’s definition of the common good is the mutual desire of all citizens for their own good, along with the good of every other citizen. Although restriction on personal freedom is necessary for the state’s pursuit of the common good, some restrictions inhibit this pursuit by either annihilating certain virtues, or enlarging the opportunity for particular vices. To find out where the line is drawn between good and bad kinds of personal freedom, we must begin by establishing how legal restrictions help a state pursue the common good. Next, we will look to Aristotle’s Politics for theoretical examples of restrictions on personal freedom that detract from the state’s pursuit of the common good. In this way, we will establish the extent to which personal freedom is essential for the state’s unified pursuit of the common good.

In order to pursue the common good, citizens voluntarily relinquish the freedom to act against it. They do this by submitting themselves to the law. The function of the law is to bring order to a state by limiting the freedoms of its citizens. Laws have practical benefits insofar as they protect citizens from harm, and facilitate ease in day to day life. It is the law which enables citizens to live without constant fear of things like murder and theft. However, the law’s domain also includes the ability to instruct citizens in virtue. Laws force citizens to behave in a certain way, and if laws are good, then they force citizens to behave in good ways. In other words, good laws make people do the right thing and restrict people from doing the wrong thing. If the law consistently forces people to do the right thing, then over time, it will train them to do the right thing instinctively. By training or habituating citizens, the law plays a part in educating citizens about virtue. The law does not provide the reasons – the why behind right and wrong, only an intuitive knowledge. Such intuition is an important aspect of the virtuous education. To further illustrate the aspect of education provided by the law, it helps to think of virtue like language. Parents do not teach their children how to speak by presenting them with a list of grammatical rules and explanations. Instead, they speak to their child and over time the child picks it up. Though we may learn grammar later in life, most knowledge we have of our native language is intuitive. We know what is correct because it feels and sounds correct. Our instincts about language do not often lead us astray, and habituation through the law instills in us similar instincts about right and wrong. If laws are good, then citizens will develop proper moral instincts.

Since citizens’ proper moral instincts are of vital importance to a state, it should be the main purpose of the law to educate toward virtue. It is more important for the law to educate than to provide the practical benefits mentioned earlier, for when the law educates, it necessarily achieves its practical benefits. However, the converse is not true. When a state is full virtuous people, then people do not have to worry about their safety. Virtuous people will not steal from or assault one another. However, if the law was to serve only as a practical deterrent from things like theft and murder, people would still steal and harm others in any situation where it would profit them, as long as they could get away with it. The broader conclusion of this argument is that personal freedoms should be restricted to the extent that citizens become more virtuous for it. This is the manner in which laws should unify a state.

In the complete absence of legal restriction, it seems clear that chaos would reign. However, it is possible that too much restriction can also have negative effects a state. In Politics Book I, Aristotle critiques the city of Plato’s Republic, claiming that the type of unity therein is conceived by destroying individuality and not by educating toward virtue.[1] He writes, “There is a point at which a state may attain such a degree of unity as to…become an inferior state, like harmony passing into unison, or rhythm which has been reduced to a single foot”.[2] By destroying individuality, Plato’s city trades the unity found in harmony for an austere sort of unity which is better described as uniformity. Such uniformity limits personal freedom in a way that is ultimately unconducive to virtue. Aristotle gives two examples of such restrictions: the law against personal family relationships, and the law against owning private property. Regarding the law against families, Aristotle writes, “Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually, but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike.”[3] The restrictions on family ties in Plato’s city encourage parental neglect. Neglected children are thus deprived of the moral education provided by their parents Aristotle also critiques Plato’s hypothetical restriction on private property, saying that the virtue of generosity (what he calls “liberality”) would be annihilated. He writes, “No one, when men have all things in common, will any longer set an example of liberality or do any liberal action; for liberality consists in the use which is made of property.”[4] Generosity can only be exercised when someone has something to give. The virtuous man will be kind, so he will be generous. Speaking of kindness, Aristotle writes that “the special business of the legislator is to create in men this benevolent disposition.”[5] ( If citizens are kind, virtuous people, then property does not need to be in common because they will share with each other of their own accord. Laws which teach citizens to be virtuous while maintaining a certain degree of personal freedom produce unity more efficiently than Plato’s laws which eliminate personal freedom entirely.

In conclusion, by understanding the purpose of laws, we can understand the ways in which personal freedom is necessary for the state’s pursuit of the common good. Laws do indeed restrict personal freedom and to a certain extent, a state is unified by curtailing that freedom. However, the thing that ultimately unifies a state is virtue, because virtuous citizens have a mutual desire for their own good along with the good of every other citizen. Therefore, laws only unify a state to the extent that they instruct citizens in virtue. Aristotle provides us with two examples of restrictions on personal freedom that not only keep citizens from exercising certain virtues, but also create new opportunities for vice. From these examples, we conclude that since some individual freedom is necessary for virtue, some individual freedom must also be necessary to the state’s pursuit of the common good.

[1] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics.”  Unless otherwise mentioned, all subsequent references to Aristotle are to the translations in Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. and trans. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 2001).

[2] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” 1263b.
[3] Ibid., 1261b.
[4] Ibid., 1263b.
[5] Ibid, 1263a.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited and translated by Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. New York: Random House, 2001.