Conditioned Freedom
April 19, 2011

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

Cover via Amazon

I finished Republicanism last night, so now I feel fully qualified to sing its praises like I’ve been itching to. Liberty as non-domination (which I explain a bit here) makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, and the theory of government which philosopher Philip Pettit builds off of that appeals not only to my squishy leftism, but also to my fondness for republican Rome and the American founders.

If you can get your hands on a copy of the book but you’re not the sort of person who reads 300-page analytic philosophical treatises for fun, I recommend at least skimming the afterword, called Republicanism: Once More With Hindsight. It includes a pretty good quick rundown of the rest of the book, including a couple revealing passages which underscore some of the more radical implications of Pettit’s argument. In particular I wanted to highlight this paragraph:

I argue that not only should the republic seek to remove domination from people’s lives — not only should it try to reduce such compromises of people’s freedom — it should also seek to increase the range and ease with which people enjoy undominated choice. It should seek to reduce the influence of factors like handicap and poverty and ignorance that condition people’s freedom as non-domination, even if they don’t actually compromise it. Otherwise put, it should promote people’s effective freedom as non-domination, not just their formal freedom as non-domination.

That argument is one of the major points where Pettit breaks from classical republicanism, and the argument he makes for that break is as complicated and esoteric as it is persuasive. I won’t get into it here — I’ll just note that this is another reason why I think the contemporary left could benefit from borrowing some of Pettit’s concepts. Liberals endorse a lot of the policy ends implied by what Pettit says above, but justified by the need for equality instead of unconditioned non-domination. “Equality” is sort of a mushier concept from a philosophical standpoint, and from a rhetorical standpoint it’s a term the right has gotten pretty good at demonizing. And anyway, I suggest that when most on the left talk about equality, freedom is what they’re really talking about. Skimming Pettit can help clarify those terms.

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