Small-R Republicanism and Capital-F Freedom

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

For me, it all comes down to freedom. That — not, say, equality or aggregate hedonic pleasure* — is the basic unit of measurement I use for moral goodness. I don’t have a logical proof for why moral goodness equals total aggregate freedom, but then, I don’t think this is strictly a logical question. “Freedom = good” is a fact about my moral attitudes and intuitions, not a fact about the universe. Ask me to justify those intuitions, and I’ll probably mumble some hodgepodge about Simone de Beauvoir and Nietzsche. But that’s another post, or several.

(Aside: My veneration of freedom might seem like it directly conflicts my deterministic view of human behavior. And yeah, it’s true that I suspect at least 99.9999% of all actions committed by all persons everywhere, no matter how unpredictable those actions may have appeared, and no matter how thoroughly those persons were able to rationalize those actions to themselves, were in fact directly causally linked to biological and environmental factors such that a sufficiently advanced computer might be able to plot out the entire history of every person ever. But that leaves 0.0001% of our behavior to account for, and no way to tell whether that behavior is also predetermined, totally random, or in fact the product of a free, unrestrained will, whatever that looks like. I choose to err on the side of the latter. And besides, regardless of the external facts, each of us experiences our own choices as freely determined. Even if our intuitions about our own behavior are incorrect, the fact that we have those intuitions is not irrelevant.)

If you take “freedom = good” as a given, then you might well decide (as I have) that an ideal state does the best it can to promote freedom. So far so good. But then you’re stuck with another question as difficult as the first one: What the hell is freedom?

The libertarian theory of freedom is the one you’re most likely to hear espoused in modern American politics. Libertarians posit that you are free only when the state doesn’t interfere in your affairs. I’ve never been a big fan of this theory of freedom, which has always struck me as rather anemic and arbitrary. Anemic because the movement’s single-minded focus on government interference neglects the ways in which unrestrained private industry can also constrict the self-determination of persons. And arbitrary because I have yet to hear a persuasive argument for why negative liberties (that is, those by which one is protected from certain kinds of interference) should be accorded so much more moral weight than positive liberties (that is, those by which one is entitled to certain benefits). I remain skeptical that a thick, black line can even be drawn between the two genuses.

So when it came time to hone my own theory of freedom, I ditched libertarianism’s conceptual framework entirely. Instead I went for a simple, though perhaps obtusely literal-minded, version inspired in equal measure by existentialist thought and G.A. Cohen’s paper “Freedom and Money (PDF).” The result went something like this: how free you are in any given context is determined by the aggregate number of discrete options available in that context. So for example, someone who can choose between drinking Budweiser and Heineken is less free than someone who can choose between drinking Budweiser, Heineken and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Sounds simple enough, right? But I’ve started to notice some holes. For one, there’s an obvious rebuttal ad absurdum. If you go to the supermarket to buy shampoo and can choose between fifteen different brands, then that’s all fine and dandy. But what about 500? 1,000? Imagine an infinite shampoo aisle stocked with every conceivable variation of hair cleaning product known to man. At some point, adding more options does nothing to improve your state of affairs. In fact, all that choice can start to feel pretty oppressive.

And then there’s the conflict with determinism. If we’re not really all that free and promoting “freedom” mostly involves cultivating the phenomenological sensation of freedom, then it would seem that the proper role of government is to act as a sort of false choice factory. A government that buys both determinism and the above theory of freedom would simply strive to create the illusion of choice, while in fact manipulating the populace with invisible strings. I’ll admit that I’m fond of Nudge-style libertarian paternalism, but the theory of government I just outlined goes waaaaay beyond that.

So I’ve been shopping around for a different theory of freedom. And that brings us to republicanism. Small-r republicans espouse a gently (but significantly) tweaked version of libertarian freedom: rather than conceiving of freedom as the absence of state interference, republicans view freedom as the absence of arbitrary domination by any state or non-state actor. You can read more about the argument for that view of freedom, and its implications, over at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Based on what I’ve picked up there, republicanism sounds pretty intuitively attractive.

It’s on the strength of the case laid out in the SEP that I went out and bought Philip Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. I’m cracking it open tonight. Once I really dig into the meat of the book, I’ll probably jost down some impressions in this space.


*Though if you want to read a really good defense of the latter view, see “The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism” by Neil Sinhababu.


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