Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, by Philip Pettit

John Shand on a philosopher’s idea of freedom as non-domination

June 26, 2014

This book contains a beautiful idea: freedom as non-domination. This is not freedom understood as just merely letting someone alone; it is not enough that someone is able to do what he or she wants, without interference. The origin of the idea is the Roman dominatio – non-domination is freedom from subjection to the will of another. A horse in free rein may go where it likes, but it still has a rider on its back who may at any moment choose to take up the reins once again. Freedom is not real freedom, but only de facto accidental freedom, if enjoying it depends on someone else’s grace and favour. Splendidly, this idea applies as a regulatory moral compass as well to private life, such as marriage, as it does to public political life, such as the relation of people to the state. It involves a deep respect for freedom as a practical right.

Philip Pettit illustrates dominated “freedom” through the predicament in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. The argument that freedom as non-domination informatively straddles both private and public life is summed up in a joke retold by Laura Kipnis in her book Against Love: A Polemic. Does a Chinese bachelor or a married American man have more freedom? Well, unlike the American man, the Chinese bachelor may obtain a passport to leave the country only with difficulty, if at all; but the American cannot leave his own house when he wants to. In both cases, putative freedom is at the whim of another no matter whatever in fact happens, and is not freedom as non-domination. Freedom should not be a matter of luck or goodwill or involve having to answer to anyone; there should be no dominus or master. Non-allowance involves a whole range of uses of power from psychological pressure, explicitly voiced disapproval or defiance not being worth the price to force majeure or downright physical constraint.

However, freedom as non-domination is a matter of degree and is not the only good. Pettit calls it a “gateway good”: a simplifying good through whose consideration we may judge how well other goods are being implemented, in particular, the goods of justice, democracy and sovereignty. The extent of the presence of freedom as non-domination can be shown by three tests: the “eyeball test”, the “tough luck test” and the “straight talking test”. Respectively, these describe being able to look someone in the eye honestly and without fear; the sense that when decisions go against one they are not unjust but the result of bad luck; and a state of respect as equals between different peoples. For the want of these, many people become habitually resigned and feel hopeless.

Freedom as non-domination is a terrifically powerful idea. However, Pettit is overly optimistic that it is a core moral value that all of us recognise as having sufficient weight to be directive of other values. Many people in both private and public spheres hate and fear true freedom, wanting instead to control or retain the capacity for control, and see it as the very thing they would like to eliminate.

Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World

By Philip Pettit
W. W. Norton, 160pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780393063974
Published 22 April 2014

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