Liberty and Pity-Charity

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

John Locke, via Wikipedia

I’m working my way through Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy right now. It’s been slow going, but I’ve managed to claw my way all the way up to the Enlightenment, where I was struck by this quote from John Locke (emphasis mine):

I can as certainly no this proposition to be true as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones. Again: ‘No government allows absolute liberty:’ the idea of government being the establishment of society upon certain rules or laws, which require conformity to them; and the idea of absolute liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases: I am as capable of being certain of the truth of this proposition as of any in the mathematics.

In Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Philip Pettit defines the classical liberal position as being that liberty equals freedom from interference. That’s not exactly what Locke, the father of liberalism, says here. Instead, he offers up what would seem like a fairly commonsense definition of liberty as the freedom to do whatever you’d like. (Russell writes repeatedly that Locke championed common sense at the expense of a lot of other philosophical virtues.)

But as blandly intuitive as Locke’s definition might seem, the small-r republican must take exception. I think the classic republican master-slave thought experiment can help us understand why Locke’s definition is lacking. As an added bonus, contrasting the republican definition of liberty with the Lockean understanding might shed some light on the philosophical roots of certain modern policy disagreements.

Republicanism, as I’ve previously explained at length, takes liberty to mean freedom from domination, not interference. To illustrate what he means, he makes frequent reference to the case of the master and the slave (a recurrent theme in republican writings going all the way back to the days of Rome). The question we should be attending to is, what makes a slave unfree?

Both the Lockean and the republican would agree that the typical slave is unfree. The typical slave must serve every whim of his master, suffer horrific beatings, and leave his master’s property only when ordered to carry out a specific task. The republican would say that the slave is subject to both interference and domination; the Lockean would say that the slave is severely limited in his ability to satisfy his own preferences.

But what about the case of the slave and the relatively kind master? Say this particular master never asks his slave to do anything. In fact, he lets the slave come and go as he likes, and he even furnishes the slave with comfortable quarters and a generous allowance. If the slave wanted to live off-site, and even seek other work, the master would not object. Improbable as the question may seem, we’ve got to ask ourselves: is the slave then free? And if not, why not?

For the Lockean, this is where two different commonsensical truisms collide. If we take liberty to mean the freedom to do what one likes, then the slave has liberty in abundance — in fact, he would seem to possess at least as much liberty as the master. But common sense tells us that the idea of calling any slave “free” is at best ridiculous and at worst monstrous. So how do we reconcile the Lockean understanding of liberty with the common sense understanding of what it means to be enslaved?

The republican replies that the slave with the kindly master is not free, because a master-slave relationship is inherently dominating. No matter how comfortable and unsupervised the slave may be, he is still legally owned by another human being. Throughout all of this, the master reserves the right to take everything away from the slave and treat him as most slaves are treated. That is the definition of what it means to be a slave: not that you are treated poorly or gently, but that you have no say whatsoever in the conditions of your enslavement. That, conveniently enough, is also the definition of domination: not that you are subject to interference in your affairs, but that some other force has the capacity to interfere in your affairs on an arbitrary basis.

I wonder if some of the recent intra-left arguments over welfare might not be best understood as a conflict between republican liberty and Lockean liberty. A Lockean liberal might argue that any impoverished individual who receives a welfare check is more free, because he has more money with which he can realize basic goals. But a republican would respond that the conditions tied to the welfare check are just as important: is the welfare recipient at the mercy of a caseworker who could siphon off the money at any moment? Does the welfare recipient have to agree to accept any other work that comes along? Under those circumstances, welfare is an instrument of domination, not its remedy.

As a result, the republican would likely be far more hostile to means-testing and other neoliberal welfare policies than the Lockean. Instead, she would prefer policies like a guaranteed income, which provides the same basic guarantee of security to everyone, on a non-arbitrary basis, subject to no one’s veto.

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6 Responses

  1. What about if a person must choose between the life of the slave with the relatively kindly master and a life of abject poverty but total freedom from any master-slave relationship? A utilitarian liberal says the first choice would typically provide more opportunity to satisfy one’s preferences, although I admit that there will always be some people who will prefer non-domination to non-starvation.

    To apply this to the welfare debate, obviously a welfare check comes with its own form of domination. The question I would ask you is whether the unfreedom of poverty comes with less domination than the unfreedom of welfare. Given that policymaking is about making suboptimal choices in a non-ideal world, it’s really important to ask these questions. Maybe holding out for a guaranteed income rather than accepting the humiliation of “neoliberal welfare policies” really would maximize liberty in the long-term. I tend to think holding out is overrated for the people actually doing the suffering.

    • I’m not recommending holding out for anything. But it’s important to keep ideal goals in mind. There’s a clear republican case for lackluster welfare policy over no welfare policy.

      • So when you say there’s a recent intra-left argument over welfare, you’re referring to an argument over the ideal welfare policy? My impression is that the push for conditioning welfare on getting a job/drug tests etc. comes from the right, at least in the past few years. In any case, I think under your definition of a “Lockean liberal” there’s a clear Lockean case for guaranteed income over neoliberal welfare as well.

      • I’d encourage you to read the debate I’ve been having with Kevin Drum. It’s summarized in the essay I linked in the second-to-last paragraph.

  2. [...] of liberty. Before I get to my disagreement with Corey, here, by way of background, is my most recent gloss of the liberal/republican disagreement, using Philip Pettit’s framework for republicanism. In [...]

  3. [...] may plug the gaps created by freedom as non-interference, but the result is far from elegant. (And, as I have noted before, these additional criteria can still leave critical weaknesses [...]

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