Just Freedom, by Philip Pettit

Freedom is basic to political thinking. But how should freedom be understood, and why is it important? In his book, philosopher Philip Pettit synthesizes decades of political thinking into a simple standard for complex moral judgments: Just Freedom.

Pettit defends a so-called republican understanding of freedom, as opposed to the otherwise common understanding of freedom as noninterference. He uses Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House to illustrate the difference between these competing notions (p. xiv):

The main figures in Ibsen’s play are Torvald, a relatively young and successful banker, and his wife, Nora. Under nineteenth-century law Torvald has enormous power over how his wife can act, but he dotes on her and denies her nothing—nothing, at least, within the accepted parameters of life as a banker’s wife. True, he bans the macaroons for which she has a particular taste. But even that denial is not much of a restriction, since she can hide the macaroons in her skirts. When it comes to the ordinary doings of everyday life, then, Nora has carte blanche. She has all the latitude that a woman in late nineteenth-century Europe could have wished for.

Nora enjoys many benefits that anyone might envy. But does she enjoy freedom? In particular, does she enjoy freedom in her relationship with Torvald? His hands-off treatment means that he does not interfere with her, as political philosophers say. He does not put any prohibitions or penalties in the way of her choices, nor does he manipulate or deceive her in her exercise of those choices. But is this enough to allow us to think of Nora as a free agent? If freedom consists in noninterference, as many philosophers hold, we must say that it is. But I suspect that like me, you will balk at this judgment. You will think that Nora lives under Torvald’s thumb. She is the doll in a doll’s house, not a free woman.

For a person to be free, Pettit argues, she must be non-dominated by others. Because Nora is dominated, she is unfree despite that she is not interfered with.

However, in order to count as a free person one needs more than free choice in ”this or that type of decision” (p. 55). Being free requires that one is protected from domination, but also that this condition in security is registered ”as a matter of common awareness” (p. 57). Your status as a protected person ”must be salient and manifest to all. Only then can you walk tall among your fellows…” (ibid). 

According to Pettit, republican freedom is immediately connected to justice: ”… you and your fellow citizens will live in a just society to the extent that you each have the resources to exercise the basic liberties and are not subject to one another’s domination in their exercise” (p. 77). To be equally free everyone should be assured of access to ”the basic capabilities for functioning in their society,” as described by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum (p. 87).

Pettit’s arguments amount to a theory of social, political, and international justice. It can be summarized in a slogan (p. xxv):

Let people enjoy freedom as non-domination in their relationships with one another and they will enjoy a genuine form of justice. Let people enjoy freedom as non-domination in their relationships with their state and they will enjoy a demanding variety of democracy. And let the different peoples of the world enjoy freedom as non-domination in their relationships with one another, and with other multinational and international bodies, and they will each enjoy a proper form of sovereignty.

Pettit offers a compelling defense of republican freedom as a moral compass in political thinking. Like Quentin Skinner, who is another well-known contemporary champion of republican freedom, Pettit emphasizes the historical roots of the notion of freedom in his defense of the republican understanding thereof. He dedicates the first chapter, titled ”The Past and Present of Freedom,” to a survey of the history of freedom in political thinking. Reading this chapter is worthwhile also for those who do not wish to read the whole book.

Just Freedom rests on a solid theoretical base, as Pettit has written numerous other books and research articles on republicanism, justice, and ethics. But regardless of its theoretical depth the book is pleasant to read, and the argument is easy to follow. I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in political philosophy.

Pettit, P. (2014). Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World. W. W. Norton & Company.

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  1. […] i.e., liber, liberalis, or liberalitas, did not only designate a state of non-domination, as in contemporary republican political theory. It was a moralized notion; Roman citizens were regulated by honor and a sense of public […]

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