AUCKLAND — Freedom and democracy are not enough for a flourishing society — virtue is also essential, says American author and intellectual George Weigel, who spoke in New Zealand in early November.
Mr Weigel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, presented his ideas about the virtuous society on successive days in Christchurch, Dunedin and Auckland, from November 2 to 4.
Mr Weigel, a Catholic, became internationally known in 2001 after publishing a biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope.
On November 4, at the Maxim Institute in Hillsborough, Auckland, Mr Weigel told 80 people that it takes a certain kind of people who are living certain kind of virtues to make a democracy work. As just seen in Europe, a deficit of virtue can be a barrier to the resolution of economic problems.
“When we talk about free society in the 21st century, we are really talking about free and virtuous societies.”
Such societies are composed of three interlocking pieces, Mr Weigel suggested: political and democratic community; safe economy; and a vibrant, public moral culture.
Freedom on its own lets loose enormous forces that can be directed to either good or bad ends, he said. That means it is important that the cultural part of society forms people who can develop virtues that lead to human flourishing rather than to human decadence.
A consistent problem for some years, Mr Weigel said, has been the idea that all that is needed for a successful society is to set up the appropriate “machinery”, or institutions, and all will be well.
Weimar Germany is an example of the folly of that thinking, he said. “Set up . . . at the end of the First World War — brilliant constitution, balance of power, lower house, upper house, all the safeguards that you think necessary machinery-wise.”
Yet when the Great Depression came, and all the repressed “stuff” from the 1919 Treaty of Versailles came out, not only did Weimar Germany collapse, “it put in place the totalitarian system of Nazi Germany”.
“It’s a reminder that democracy is always something of an experiment. . . . It takes something to make it work, and that takes justice, freedom and compassion.”
A democratic society is not just composed of individuals and the state, Mr Weigel said. “Rather, there’s this thick network of voluntary associations, often called the institutions of soft society, that are a mediating base between the individual and the state.” These include families, opposition political parties, trade unions, churches, schools, boy scouts and more and it should be a basic role of the state to enable the flourishing of those institutions.
“They create a zone of human freedom between the human individual and the state.”
They are also what Pope John Paul II called “schools of freedom”, he said. They teach people to accept things like political difference, compromise, cultural results they don’t like and to move on, to make arguments, to encourage others, and so on.
Another idea Mr Weigel explored was the common misunderstanding of freedom as being able to choose whatever is desired, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. He described that as a “freedom of indifference” and contrasted it with the human capacity to choose what is good.
“We can call this second kind a ‘freedom of excellence’,” he said — although the mantra of choice has become so ingrained that it is not easy to sell the idea of a freedom of excellence in the Western world today.