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  • Matthew Perry

How much freedom can we demand?

Review of "Just Freedom" (2014) by Philip Pettit, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Freedom is a value which, at least in occidental spheres, is deeply revered. In the name of freedom, the French stormed the Bastille. That all men are born free is enshrined in the American constitution. Debate rages over the extent of our civil liberties, not whether we should have them.


Pettit life's work, however, has been to argue that the way we understand this notion is, at least partially, misled. Berlin's diametric identification of two "types" of freedom,[i] positive and negative, is thrown on its head in the work of Pettit and his colleagues. As a reminder, note that negative freedom targets those definitions which seek to ensure an absence of interference while positive freedom targets increasing the range of things which people are “free” to do. MacCallum's formula for understanding freedom in these ways - that X (an agent) is free from Y (an obstacle) to do or become Z[ii] - is normally useful. In the case of Pettit’s version of freedom, even this seems difficult to apply, though.


So what is the claim he is making? To see it, observe the following illustration of compelling intuitions:


Imagine you are standing in a square, the borders of which have been painted by a certain person who is holding a gun to your head. You may either step out of the square, at which point this person will fire a bullet into your brain, or you may remain within it.


The question we ask ourselves at this critical point is: are you truly free to step outside of the square you are currently standing in? This problem, and its related consequences, is not new. Locke asks a similar question with the analogy of unknowingly residing in a locked room we supposedly choose to stay in.[iii] Yet the response that proponents of negative liberty make is that one is free to leave the square. They claim you are free insofar as you are not interfered with by others.


In contrast, Pettit's response to the above, matching the intuitions we immediately have about this case, is that we clearly aren't free. This is not because we are being interfered with directly as of yet, but because there is the potential for us to be interfered with arbitrarily. In such a state, we are dominated by the person holding a gun to our head.


Just Freedom marks a distillation of a lifetime's work on the idea of liberty and ambitiously aims to reshape discourse in the area. Pettit shows the way in which this notion is grounded in the history of republican freedom since the time of the ancient Greeks. Directly, citizens are dominated by their state if they have not democratically elected the head. Pettit's neo-republicanism extends this idea to the potential for domination by any and all existing persons. The depth of freedom shows that 'you should be able to choose as you wish regardless of the preferences of others as to how you should choose',[iv] while the breadth of freedom emphasises the 'co-exercisable, co-satisfying choices that can and ought to be entrenched as basic liberties in any society.'[v]


When a scholar makes a bold claim that a single idea can solve all of society's ills, alarm bells should immediately start ringing. In the first few pages of Just Freedom, Pettit does just that, though. His belief is that freedom as non-domination can act as a 'moral compass for a complex world.' He even dedicates a significant portion of this book to the relevant policy recommendations in a thoroughly insightful analysis of freedom with regards to justice, democracy and sovereignty.


Pettit certainly creates cause for new debate. Assuming that the numerous arguments against his idea that proponents of negative liberty could make are resolved, significant areas on which this debate should surround are the universal applicability of this idea and the sources of domination themselves.


In the first instance it must be asked whether freedom as non-domination is an inherently moral ideal or whether it is merely a normative account of justice. Can those who have their freedom violated, despite no direct interference, seriously make a moral complaint or can they simply make a claim against unfair treatment? In the case of slavery, if a slave is to have a benevolent master who never mistreats or directly dominates his slave, then to what extent, if at all, has the master actually committed a moral wrong against the slave? If no clear answer can be made affirming that the master has then an ensuing lack of clarity descends on whether the neo-republican concept of freedom can act as a "moral compass."


If the concept is limited to understandings of justice though, then the claim that it all solves these issues may still be maintained. Yet it is unclear whether solving issues of domination merely acts as a starting point for tackling issues of social justice, albeit perhaps an extremely good one, or whether it substantially resolves those issues. Take Simon, a hardworking sales assistant being underpaid by his employer. Theoretically, removing the dominating features and fully respecting Simon's freedom may allow him to better fulfil his preferences. However, complaint can be perpetuated from a range of other theoretical perspectives. To give but one example, how does Simon know that his preferences are right, or even if fulfilling his "higher order" preferences such as committing to going to the gym, will lead Simon to having a fulfilled life? Further, from the angle of equality, the relative standing of power that Simon has in society may not even indirectly dominate him, but it may give Simon reason to have a diminished self-respect. That non-domination reduces the complaints Simon can make is evident, but that it resolves all complaints is clearly contested.


Certainly, it seems that the ways in which Simon can be dominated do not need to even come directly from other people themselves but from the social norms and institutions present within the society. If Simon were homosexual, then it might be the case that no one within his community dominates him due to this, but Simon might still feel that social norms prevent him from a full expression of his identity, or that stereotypes are such that Simon is persuaded to work in particular fields. If non-domination is to be lauded, why does domination have to come directly from persons themselves?


Just Freedom presents a sorely needed new perspective on the debate surrounding freedom, but it also creates more questions than it can answer. How can we tell that Pettit's case is not just another instance of scholars talking past each other? Does defining freedom in a different way truly add anything to our understanding of the concept? Stepping out of the square and receiving a bullet to the head creates an intuition helping to motivate Pettit's account. But is it contradictory to claim we are both free to remain and not free to leave? What if freedom is not the restricted concept we perceive it to be?


[i] Berlin, Isaiah, (2002) “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Hardy, Henry, (ed.) Liberty, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Gerald C. MacCallum, Jr., (1967) “Negative and Positive Freedom”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 312-334.

[iii] Locke, John, (1690), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p.238

[iv] Pettit, Philip,(2014) Just Freedom, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p.49.

[v] Ibid., p.69.