Hierarchy and Domination, Cont.
April 1, 2012

Replying to my last post on liberalism and republicanism, Corey Robin writes:

Nice job, though you should point out that my main concerns are: 1) freedom as non-interference fits a commonsensical understanding in US, which the workplace compromises all the time, and thus provides us with a good standard to mobilize political argument; and 2) I’m not against notions of freedom as non-domination, I just don’t want to throw out freedom as non-interference as well. Also I’m not sure I’d include Milton in that camp; he seems okay with some hierarchies and other parts of republican tradition are very okay with social hierarchy, including slavery.

The final point about Milton and pre-modern republicanism is well taken. Early republicans desired non-domination, but only for a select class of people: usually land-owning white men. One of the crucial differences between modern and pre-modern republicanism is the modern republican’s conviction that non-domination is a global imperative.

But the principle of non-domination requires to distinguish between dominating and non-dominating hierarchies. Republicanism is not pure horizontalism. Instead, republicanism condemns certain existing hierarchies — in modern times, hierarchies predicated on gender, race or sexual orientation — on the basis that they are de facto dominating. We can imagine other hierarchies that are not inherently dominating, such as the social hierarchies that often exist between a student and a teacher, a governor and constituents, or a jury and a defendant. But note that these hierarchies have very clearly defined formal legal boundaries, and that they are not static; a constituent can run for office, a student can become a teacher, and a member of the jury may one day be put on trial. Republicanism is not inherently anti-hierarchy, but seeks to make necessary hierarchies transparent and dynamic.

This, I would argue, is a preferable alternative to abolishing hierarchy altogether. Informal hierarchies will always be with us in one way or another, but carefully constructed formal hierarchies can serve as a check on them. Without that formal element, informal hierarchies become opaque and impossible to contest through anything but brute force.

But to return to the conflict between non-interference and non-domination: I should have been clearer about the fact that Corey is not opposed to using the concept of non-domination in our understanding of liberty. Our disagreement is entirely over whether non-interference as liberty is also a necessary concept. I would argue that it is not, for two reasons: the first, which I presented in my last post, is that non-domination theory already adequately accounts for any conceivable instance of unjust interference.

The second objection is implied by the first: freedom as non-interference can’t adequately account for cases where interference is warranted or even desirable. As a result, contemporary liberal theorists have had to propose various side constraints on freedom from interference, and various other criteria for what constitutes justice. Those additional criteria — fairness and equality, for example — 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 exposed.)

In Justice For Hedgehogs — which I’ll be blogging more about in the near future — Ronald Dworkin repeatedly references the old aphorism about the fox who knows many little things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. He diagnoses most modern analytic moral theory as being rather foxy: a cumbersome patchwork of narrowly targeted principles that often conflict with one another. In place of the fox’s approach to ethics, he argues for hedgehog morality: one big mutually-reinforcing system of value. Freedom as non-domination is that system, and freedom from non-interference seems increasingly to be a millstone around the neck of the progressively-minded fox.

As to Corey’s first point, about non-interference’s usefulness as a rhetorical appeal to common sense: that may be so, in some cases. The art of political messaging is very different from the art of moral philosophy, thank christ. But I stand by non-domination as the appropriate test of what our political goals should be. When you take that case to the voters, you can call it whatever the hell you like.

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Hierarchy and Domination
March 31, 2012

Hierarchy, order, control, domination.

Hierarchy, order, control, domination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shawn Gude and I had an interesting Twitter debate the other day with Corey Robin, regarding the relative merits of classical liberalism and small-r republicanism’s differing conceptions 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 Pettit’s account, republicans want to maximize freedom from domination (carefully defined), whereas liberals want to maximize freedom from interference.

Corey’s understanding of the republican tradition differs from Pettit’s. Over Twitter, he criticized republicanism for abandoning liberalism’s conception of liberty without offering a sufficiently comprehensive alternative. Classic republicanism, he argued, is mainly concerned with the eradication of social hierarchy; as a result, it is defenseless against attacks on freedom that don’t exploit those hierarchies.

Here, with the breaks between tweets eliminated, is the thought experiment he used to demonstrate his point:

Imagine one co-worker, equally situated, pestering another co-worker. Just bothering them, preventing them from getting their work done, preventing from doing what they want to do. Not to dominate or create a hierarchical relationship, but to interfere and get in their way. Seems important to hold onto that as an abridgment of freedom.

It’s entirely possible that the republican tradition as embodied by Milton, Machiavelli, Skinner, etc., (but excluding Pettit) has no satisfactory response to Corey’s challenge. He’s the one with a Ph.D. in political theory, and my own dealings with those theorists is both scant and second-hand. But I will note that, under Pettit’s definition, the pestering employee is definitively dominating his co-worker, and therefore restricting his liberty. That is to say, the pestering employee is interfering in his co-workers affairs 1.) on an arbitrary basis (he’s just bugging this one guy, and seemingly without provocation), 2.) without reference to the interests of the co-worker (who would clearly be better off if he wasn’t being pestered), and 3.) without allowing the co-worker recourse to any means of contesting the pestering (we’re assuming that the co-worker already asked him to stop, and was ignored). Dominating interference is any form of interference that satisfies at least one of those conditions — the pest’s interference satisfies all three.

So at the very least, Pettit’s gloss of republicanism includes an adequate response to Corey’s challenge. It could be that Pettit is the only republican with an adequate response, but I can’t rule one way or another on that without learning more about how both Corey and non-Pettit republicans use the term “social hierarchy.” Corey would likely concede that some forms of workplace pestering and bullying (such as racist remarks and sexual harassment) are contingent on the presence of social hierarchy, but he also maintains that bullying can exist in the complete absence of hierarchy. I’m not so sure — I think we could construct an account of hierarchy that maps roughly onto Pettit’s “domination” framework, and also allows that any instance of bullying is an a priori example of a small-scale, informal hierarchy.

In the meantime, as it stands, I have yet to hear an adequate liberal response to the republican master-slave thought experiment.

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Small-R Republicanism and Capital-F Freedom
March 15, 2011

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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Idle Chatter
September 1, 2010

Jonathan Franzen on the online, info-saturated modern era:

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else. 


This is something I’ve written about before.

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