Moral Liberty

What is the difference between natural and moral liberty according to John Winthrop?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In what is known as John Winthrop's "Little Speech on Liberty" (1645), Winthrop, a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, outlined in a court proceeding his views on liberty.  Specifically, he argued that

There is a two-fold liberty, natural (I mean as our nature is now corrupt) and civil or federal [moral liberty].  The first is common to man with beasts and other creatures.

Natural liberty, according to Winthrop and his Puritan belief system, simply meant that man, like beasts, has liberty to do whatever he wants to do--good or evil.  In the Puritan belief system, mankind is inherently evil and corrupt, the result of the doctrine of Original Sin.  That is, all men are descendants of Adam, the original sinner, and as such, are destined to go to Hell unless they are saved by God's grace.  Winthrop said that natural liberty "makes men grow more evil, and in time to be worse than brute beasts."  In other words, the exercise of natural liberty results in increasingly evil behavior.

Civil (or moral) liberty, however, is the

. . . proper end and object of authority. . . and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest.

In other words, moral liberty, because it is imposed by the government and church, replaces natural liberty with rules that foster proper behavior.  One could argue, of course, that "liberty" imposed by government and the church is not freedom but restriction, but if we keep in mind that the Puritans believed that man was naturally evil, we can see the logic in replacing that natural and evil liberty with civil or moral liberty (meaning, Puritan authority) that leads men to do good rather than evil.  Moral liberty is assumed to be good because it is the result of an adherence to Christian (Puritan) principles.

In sum, then, natural liberty leads to evil because men are inherently evil; moral liberty fights natural evil because it is founded on a pure Christian belief system and the authority of the church and government, which are, for practical purposes, inseparable.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his 1645 speech "On Liberty," Winthrop distinguishes between natural liberty and moral liberty (which he also refers to as civil or federal liberty). He describes natural liberty as the type of liberty that beasts and humans have. It is the freedom to do as one wishes. It always leads to evil, as this type of liberty is not governed by any moral authority.

Moral liberty, on the other hand, is choice within the constraints of an authority, such as a religious organization or a society. This is the type of liberty a person enjoys when part of a covenant, such as a society, a government, a religious organization, or a marriage. A person, for example, can choose a spouse, but once he or she does so, the person is subject to following the rules of the marriage covenant. Winthrop wrote this speech to justify the power of the magistrates in Puritan-ruled Massachusetts; Winthrop stated that as the people had chosen the magistrates, the public was bound to abide by the magistrates' decisions.