Choice and Obligation


Chapter 4 of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (2013) is “Choice and Obligation”. Where is the line between the moral clothing that we choose to wear and the moral clothing that we are compelled to wear?  The radical liberal position focuses on choice – natural rights, which are an entitlement for all.  Paine and other hardcore individualists believe that everyone is a proprietor in society and draws on the common capital as a right.  Equality is central and the right to choose is the end goal.  Any duty owed is an obligation to make room for everyone else’s choice.  “The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me.”  Wear whatever you want!


Edmund Burke and others understand that absolute, unrestrained democracy is a problem. Choice is part of a free society but it’s not the end goal.  Placing choice at the center is both impractical and conceptually erroneous.  In majority mob rule, anything can be justified as an “act of the people”.  If the only authority is the moment’s popular will, there would be debilitating uncertainty and it’s also just plain wrong – it makes no difference if a majority chooses it “as no one of us men can dispense with public or private faith, or with any other tie of moral obligation, so neither can any number of us”.  Sometimes choice is not an option – we have profound, unchosen moral obligations.


We enter society not by choice but by birth, the facts of which are inescapable. Every human enters the world that already exists – a world in which we belong to a particular family and community that are responsible for us and toward which we in turn have obligations.  There is a long standing bitter disagreement over whether it is possible or even desirable to be liberated from these basic facts.  The Burke conservative worldview accepts reality and views society and the predisposed order of things as beginning with the family – not the individual.


The fabric of law and morality is obligation – moral duties – which are a sheltering bulwark between civilization and barbarism.  Our strongest moral obligations are never the result of choice.  Parents and children may not be consenting to their moral relations but they are bound to essential duties.  Radical liberals take the concept of liberty too far.  Burke writes “what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?  It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.”  True, virtuous liberty is not solitary, individual selfish liberty, it is restraint; “men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites”.  It’s a lazy, uncivilized, undisciplined philosophy to idealize freedom without considering restraint, duty and honor; “to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in a consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind”.   Our estate planning war chest is a wardrobe of moral imagination containing obligatory garments, which are our privilege and honor to wear.


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