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A person steps from a dark forest into a sunlit clearing, symbolizing how moral law leads to freedom.

The Cost of Ignorance: How Truth Leads to Freedom

Does freedom mean doing what we want? Real freedom and autonomy comes from knowing and living higher moral truths.

In Paradise Lost, Satan famously says that it would be “better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heav’n.” If we’re honest, many of us have had a similar thought. No one wants to have to do something simply because someone else says so. Blind obedience hardly seems like a virtue—why allow someone else’s judgment or priorities to substitute for our own? 

This way of thinking reduces the question of freedom to a zero-sum game: either we do what we want, or we blindly follow what someone else wants. You can be an autonomous individual, or you can offload moral responsibility to someone. You can be a disciple or a free thinker, but you can’t be both. 

If these really are the options, many people will (obviously) choose freedom over servitude. Why be a servant when you could be your own master? But this is a false dilemma. True freedom is possible only when we acknowledge something higher than our wants or desires. Rather than being a threat to our freedom, following the truth makes true freedom possible. 

Though this has been a common view in Western thought, it has fallen out of favor. We believe it depends upon three claims. The first is that true freedom requires knowledge. Elder D. Todd Christofferson makes the point well

I have heard a few parents state that they don’t want to impose the gospel on their children but want them to make up their own minds about what they will believe and follow. They think that, in this way, they are allowing children to exercise their agency. What they forget is that the intelligent use of agency requires knowledge of the truth, of things as they really are (see D&C 93:24). Without that, young people can hardly be expected to understand and evaluate the alternatives that come before them. 

Humans are endowed with the gift of intelligence—the ability to perceive truth and act on the basis of our understanding. When we act intelligently, we do not merely respond to external stimuli in the way that a sea anemone retracts its tentacles when touched. Instead, we can gain personal insight into the way the world is ordered and act on the basis of that understanding. The order of the world is sometimes referred to as “law,” and our freedom grows as we understand and follow progressively higher laws (see D&C 88).

When we come to our own independent understanding, we are not slavishly following what someone else thinks, even if they achieved understanding before we did. Rather, our understanding allows us to see the truth for ourselves. John Crosby writes that “my acting as person is not an undergoing, or an enduring, or a transmitting of what originates outside of myself; it is I, I myself who act when I act as person, and no one else.”

Following the truth makes true freedom possible.

That obedience to law enhances our freedom can be seen in simple cases. For example, it is because scientists understand the principles of gravity and aerodynamic force that airplanes can fly. Without this understanding, humans would not be free to fly. Similarly, scientists’ understanding of microbiology led to enhancements in sanitation, which has allowed many people to be free from food- and water-borne diseases. It is through following law that our freedom is enhanced.

Now, many people might agree with the idea that an understanding of physical laws can enhance our freedom because it increases our power. But what about moral laws? Can our understanding of moral laws increase our freedom? 

This brings us to the second step of the argument: there is moral truth, and respecting it is good (fulfilling, edifying) for us as human persons. Just as there is a physical order, there is also a moral order. But—and this is a crucial point—what it means to understand moral law is fundamentally different from what it means to understand physical laws. 

With physical laws, understanding basically means being able to predict and control nature. We say that a scientific theory is good because it can account for the relevant data and predict how things will happen. For example, Newton’s theories of motion were good because they could account for much of what we observe in the universe, but Einstein’s were even better because they could predict things that Newton’s could not. 

But knowledge of moral truth is not (fundamentally) about prediction and control. Rather, it is about recognizing the inherent value that certain things or beings have and then responding appropriately to that value. When we have a moral insight, we recognize that something matters or has importance that is independent of our individual wants or desires. We sense our obligation to treat things with value a certain way. Even if we might want to (say) spitefully harm another person, if we are alive to moral truth, we will recognize that it would be wrong to do this. This should not be done.

A person stands before a closed door with light seeping from underneath, symbolizing moral law and truth leading to freedom.
Moral truth enhances our ability to pursue what truly matters.

But morality is not simply in the business of saying “no.” Perhaps more importantly, morality also helps us know what we should say “yes” to. This is because some choices are truly uplifting and edifying for us, while others are debasing and corrupting. When we help someone in need, tell the truth, show courage in the face of danger, demonstrate kindness, show respect for God and God’s commandments, and so on, we live in harmony with our highest capacities and possibilities. On the other hand, when we indulge petty grievances, betray a friend, ignore the suffering of others, lie to enhance our self-image, wallow in resentment and bitterness, fritter away our time and abilities, and so on, we reject the most important parts of who we are. Responding appropriately to moral truth is enriching, illuminating, edifying, and elevating; through it, we become who we truly are. 

But doesn’t the recognition of moral truth still restrict our possibilities, thus making us less free? This leads us to the third step of the argument: if we do not choose goodness, we eventually become slaves to the worst parts of ourselves

This will seem like a stretch to many modern readers. Freedom is often simply understood as the ability to do what you want without restrictions or limitations. But freedom understood this way conceals a crucial question: what if our desires are foolish, immature, or self-destructive? Are we really free if we are driven by base desires, even if nothing stops us from achieving them?

The greatest threats to our freedom come from inside our own souls.

This is arguably the question that drives the greatest work of political theory ever written, Plato’s Republic. In Book II, we read a dialogue in which Glaucon challenges Socrates with the story of the ring of Gyges. In this myth, a lowly shepherd in the service of the king finds a ring that allows him to become invisible whenever he wants. The shepherd uses the ring to seduce the queen and kill the king, becoming king himself. Glaucon argues that anyone who can commit injustice and get away with it will do so and that if they didn’t, they would be thought foolish: “If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”

The rest of the Republic can be read as Plato’s answer to this challenge. Simplifying dramatically, Socrates argues that the soul is composed of different parts and that these are often in tension with one another. Reason is the “highest” part of the soul and allows us to see and judge correctly. The passions are the “lowest” part and often deflect us from seeing things as they really are. Though necessary and important, the passions represent a dangerous part of the soul—not evil per se, but capable of corrupting us if they are not guided and checked by reason. Even if one is not persuaded by the particulars of Plato’s philosophical psychology, the basic idea—that we are a composite of tendencies that can be uplifting or degrading—seems correct.

Towards the end of the work, Socrates describes the plight of the tyrant or someone who has great power but no virtue and, therefore, no self-control. From one angle, the tyrant has great “freedom” because he can do whatever he wants. But because the tyrant is corrupt and unwise, all his choices reinforce his limitations and deficiencies: “And mustn’t his soul be full of slavery and unfreedom, with the most decent parts enslaved and with a small part, the maddest and most vicious, as their master?” Continuing down a corrupt path, the tyrant sinks further and further into depravity, becoming “envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless, impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice.” Like a tyrannical city, the tyrannical ruler “is as enslaved as it is possible to be.” 

In other words, whatever threats to our freedom that can come from other people (and there are many), the greatest threats to our freedom come from inside our own souls. Our own greed, vanity, pride, contempt, and selfishness threaten our freedom in a way that no external tyrant ever could. A soul that is not oriented to truth and goodness will become corrupt and ultimately enslaved to base tendencies and desires. 

Many of us would like to believe that we do not have to face this choice—that we can ignore the question of good and evil and remain free. But this is a false hope and only serves to entrench our limitations. As in all things, Jesus had it right: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

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