Liberty and Pity-Charity
March 15, 2012

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? (more…)

Our Founding Fathers’ Fathers
July 4, 2010

U.S. Declaration of Independence ratified by t...
Image via Wikipedia

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Today is, of course, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a remarkable document in many ways, but of particular interest to me because it confirms, in its most famous line, one of the central theses I keep hammering on this blog: that philosophy is alive, vital, and very much a concern for each and every one of us.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As most of you who have taken a high school civics course likely already know, that bolded section is a paraphrase of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued for a natural right to “life, liberty and property.” It’s a crucial, high-profile nod in the direction of the towering philosophers who laid the groundwork for the framers’ grand project.

This isn’t to downplay the genius of the founding fathers; their ranks included some of the greatest thinkers in American history. But all brilliant men are scholars first and foremost, and if Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others had not been political philosophy students of the first order, then whatever form the government of the post-revolution states took would be but a shadow of the vibrant, resilient American Republic.

They were giants, yes—but they stood on the shoulders of other giants. I refer not just to Locke, but also Hobbes, Voltaire, and even the ancients. The evidence lies not just in the shout-out I cited above, but in the collected writings of our greatest founders. The Federalist Papers, to name one particularly good example, were a relatively sophisticated work of political philosophy in their own right.

We’re living the result.

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