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

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John Winthrop was the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600's. A skilled orator and philosopher, he coined the idea of moral liberty in contrast to natural liberty.

Winthrop believed there were two kinds of liberty in this world and that man was entitled to liberty. Natural liberty is the most straightforward of the concepts—it is the freedom to do as one chooses. Natural liberty is constrained by the laws of nature and nothing else. In that way, man is free to do anything he can physically accomplish, no matter the consequences. People have the natural liberty to jump off a cliff, but that doesn't mean they are free from the burden of the consequences.

Moral liberty was Winthrop's brainchild and the concept he championed for peace in his colony. He believed that the church and government overtook human decision making and superseded them, implementing moral liberty or civil liberty as a way to distinguish right from wrong. Moral liberty states that people are free to take actions so long as they are good and honorable. This would prevent actions that harm others or themselves and actions that are destructive in nature. Moral liberty is less a right than an obligation to do good.

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In his famous 1645 address, John Winthrop distinguished between two perceived types of liberty. Natural liberty refers to mankind's freedom to act on our more base and wicked purposes. This liberty is little different than the liberty that wild beasts have to do as they will. As a Puritan, Winthrop believed that all people are inherently wicked as a result of original sin. While natural liberty allows people to perform evil as well as good acts, it is the sinful nature of people that too often leads them to do wicked things.

Moral liberty—or civil or federal liberty, as Winthrop calls it—stems from the idea that civil and religious institutions can protect people from their savage and sinful natural liberties. As he says, "This [natural] liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority." Moral liberty involves people surrendering certain natural liberties to the authority of the institutions under which he or she lives. While this may not sound like liberty as we often understand it, Winthrop contends that people are more free in this state than when they are living as subjects of their own natural animalistic inclinations.

Interestingly, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes would expand on these ideas in his work Leviathan, which was first published about six years later. John Locke would later take this idea even further and claim it as an essential element of democratic government.

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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. 

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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.

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