Morality of Freedom

Do all people desire freedom? If we look at the history of human civilization and at popular political movements of today and the past century, argues Onkar Ghate, the answer is definitely no. The fact that freedom is not a self-evident value underscores the importance of understanding its actual nature and value, especially for those interested in living free.

Toward this end, this lecture provides an overview of the philosophical foundations of freedom as a moral and political ideal as well as a philosophical analysis of the rise and decline of liberty as an ideal in the West.

Specifically, this lecture examines the Age of Enlightenment, arguing that the essence of Enlightenment philosophy inspired its leading figures to define and embrace political liberty. Along the way, Dr. Ghate discusses why the Enlightenment is best understood as a championing of reason and a rejection of obedience to authority; what the basic Enlightenment argument is for liberty; and why this argument couldn’t withstand the increasing attacks from nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers. The lecture concludes with a brief discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and how it can be seen as providing a new case for the ideals of the Enlightenment.

This lecture should be of interest to students of all levels, especially students interested in advocating liberty.


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Part 1: Liberty and Enlightenment

a. Introduction
b. Many people don’t desire liberty
c. So why did they desire liberty in the Age of Enlightenment?

Part 2: The Essence of the Enlightenment

a. The Enlightenment as a rebellion against obedience to authority
b. How to live without authorities? The Enlightenment’s answer

Part 3: Coercion vs. Reason

a. Reason is in conflict with obedience to authority
b. The Enlightenment’s argument against coercion

Part 4: The Enlightenment’s View of How Man Should Live

a. America as the political achievement of the Enlightenment
b. “An Enlightened Life”: What is it?
c. The connection to the rights of man

Part 5: The Decline of Liberty as an Ideal

a. Why did liberty as an ideal decline since the American Revolution?
b. The widely accepted attacks on Enlightenment ideals

Part 6: Ayn Rand and the Enlightenment

a. Wrapping up: Attacks on reason/selfishness are attacks on liberty
b. Ayn Rand’s philosophy as striving to revive the Enlightenment

Essays for Further Reading

“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness

This essay contains a detailed presentation of Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism, which is the moral foundation for her political views. This is crucial reading for understanding her arguments for individual rights and liberty.

Read “The Objectivist Ethics”

“What Is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

Students interested in understanding Ayn Rand’s view of productiveness, and of the need of productive individuals to be free, are encouraged to study this essay.

Read “What Is Capitalism?”

“Man’s Rights” in Virtue of Selfishness

To understand why Ayn Rand advocated liberty, it is crucial to understand her views on man’s rights. This is the best essay to read on the topic

Read “Man’s Rights”

“The Nature of Government” in Virtue of Selfishness

To understand Ayn Rand’s views on liberty, it is crucial to understand her views on the nature and purpose of government. This is the best essay to read on the topic.

Read “The Nature of Government”

“For the New Intellectual” in For the New Intellectual

An extensive survey of the role philosophy has played throughout the history of Western civilization. This is a must-read for those interested in the impact of ideas on human history.

Read more about “For the New Intellectual”

Course FAQ

What is the Age of Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment was a period in Western culture which began near the end of the seventeenth century and ended by 1800. The culture of the Enlightenment was marked by a radical new worldview which was a break from the faith and authoritarianism of previous centuries. Enlightenment philosophers and scientists—such as Isaac Newton—regarded the universe as an orderly, predictable, natural world which operated by cause and effect and could be understood by man’s rational mind. By following reason one could replace ignorance with knowledge, and poverty and misery with progress and prosperity. Another name for this period is the Age of Reason.

Read the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry for Age of Enlightenment

Who is Isaac Newton?

Isaac Newton was an English physicist who lived from 1642 to 1727. His scientific discoveries were unprecedented in scope and power. By means of careful observation, experimentation and reasoning, he discovered the universal laws of motion, which explained a vast range of phenomena previously regarded as unconnected: the regularity of the tides, the motion of falling bodies on Earth, the orbits of the moons of Jupiter, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Galileo’s laws of motion. In his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (published in 1687), Newton described these laws in clear, exact mathematical formulations. Newton also made breakthrough discoveries about the nature of light and in optics: by means of experiments with prisms, he discovered that white light is made up of all the colors of the visible spectrum, and he invented an improved version of the telescope. Newton’s discoveries were an unprecedented demonstration of the power of human reason which astonished the Western world and helped inspire an optimism about the efficacy of the human mind.

Who is Galileo?

Galileo Galilei was an Italian scientist who lived from 1564 to 1642. He was the first person to develop the telescope into a powerful instrument, and the first to use it to make important discoveries in astronomy. Among these discoveries was Galileo’s observation that Jupiter had moons. His discoveries supported the heliocentric Copernican theory that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun, as opposed to the geocentric view that the Sun and planets orbit the Earth. By using careful observation, experimentation, and reasoning, Galileo also discovered and mathematically described laws about the motion of bodies, which laid the groundwork for Isaac Newton’s discoveries. Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church because of his support for Copernican theory, which contradicted the Church’s doctrine that the Earth was the center of the universe and did not move. He was brought before the Inquisition, forced to recant his support for the Copernican theory, silenced and placed under house arrest.

Who is Socrates?

Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived from approximately 469 to 399 BC. Socrates asked such questions as “What is justice?” and “What is virtue?” and attempted to discover the answers by means of reason. Socrates shifted the focus of philosophy to moral issues and to questions of how to properly understand and define moral concepts. His method of critically examining people’s widely held beliefs soon made him enemies among the moral and religious authorities of the time, who wished to silence him. Socrates was charged by the Athenian democracy with “impiety” and “corrupting the youth.” He was tried, sentenced to death and executed.

What are minimum wage laws?

Minimum wage laws prohibit employers from hiring employees for less than a specified minimum wage per hour. These laws were first introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century. The stated intention of these laws was to protect workers by providing them with a minimum standard of living. As of 2014, the federally mandated minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Who is John Locke?

John Locke was an English philosopher who lived from 1632 to 1704. He is a leading thinker of the Enlightenment. Locke developed an influential theory of knowledge in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1690). In this work Locke tries to argue that all of human knowledge is founded in experience—primarily, observation of the world through sensory perception. Locke also did very influential work in political philosophy. In his Two Treatises of Government (published in 1689), Locke argues that the function of government is to protect man’s rights and that government should be a servant of its citizens, rather than their master. His political views had a profound influence on the founders of the United States.

Who is Immanuel Kant?

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who lived from 1724 to 1804. In his major work, Critique of Pure Reason (first published in 1781), he argues that the human mind is cut off from reality and can only know a “world” it itself creates. Kant also developed a moral philosophy of duty to universal moral imperatives, or commands. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant argued that there are universal moral imperatives that one must follow, no matter what the consequences to one’s life or well-being. In the two centuries since his death, Kant’s philosophy has been profoundly influential.

Read the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry for Immanuel Kant

Who is Ayn Rand?

Ayn Rand was a novelist-philosopher who lived from 1905 to 1982. She authored several fiction and nonfiction works over her lifetime, including the best-selling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and developed her own philosophy, Objectivism. She wrote, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” According to Objectivism, man’s mind is fully competent to know the nature of reality by using reason, which is man’s only means of knowledge. She developed her new theory of knowledge in her work Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1966), in the course of which she analyzes and rejects Kant’s fundamental argument for skepticism and subjectivism. In ethics, Ayn Rand developed a radical new theory of rational egoism, arguing that one’s own life and happiness are the proper purpose of one’s life and that the task of ethics is to provide rational principles for defining and achieving these. Her ethical theory is expounded in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964).

Watch the course Ayn Rand: A Writer's Life

Watch the course Introducing Objectivism

Watch the course Philosophy: Who Needs It

Watch the course Ayn Rand, the Radical Thinker

Watch the course The Ayn Rand Bookshelf