We live in times more uncertain than any our species have faced over the hundred thousand or so years of our existence, claims Philip Pettit in Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World. He seeks to respond to these immense challenges by bringing to a wider audience the ‘neo-Roman’ theory of civil liberty that Quentin Skinner has built his prestigious academic career on reviving.
Pettit revisits Skinner’s observation that the slave who congratulates themselves on how free their good fortune or sharp wit supposedly makes them is a figure of fun in Roman comedies. No matter how good or gullible their master, Romans understood that no slave could be free and slaves were laughably self-deceived if they thought otherwise.
Yet, with a benevolent or malleable master, slaves might secure the non-interference that in modern times we have tended to associate with freedom. Liberty before liberalism, as in the title of Skinner’s most famous work, was more demanding than this. Pettit’s ideal is a free citizenry, who enjoy equal status with one another, as they are individually protected by a law that they together control. No citizen is dominated by another or by the state.
Republicanism fell into abeyance during the Middle Ages, before being revivified during the Renaissance. In an arresting historical narrative, Pettit discusses its relation to the American and French revolutions. He attributes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau the distinctive form that republicanism took in the French case, while seeing the American War of Independence as a high point for the tradition more faithful to its Roman republic origins.
Jeremy Bentham emerges from Pettit’s account as a significant contributor to the republican decline that followed the formation of the US. As well as famously seeking ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, Bentham defined freedom as consisting in nothing more than ‘the absence of restraint’. Pettit suspects that Bentham ‘began to think about what freedom as non-domination for all would require (and) the traditional conception began to seem too radical’.
Republicanism now languishes as a historical artefact, as it did in the Middle Ages. Pettit, obviously, is eager for us to dust it down and renew it, as occurred during the Renaissance. Like Bentham, however, we might wonder whether this asks too much of us. Pettit acknowledges that for us all to be active citizens, sufficiently engaged in the formation of law and public policy for none of us to dominated, is challenging. Democracy, as he puts it, is hard work and, as Oscar Wilde said of socialism, it may even take up too many evenings.
Few of us aspire to be citizens of a contemporary variant of the Roman republic. Nonetheless, as Pettit argues that freedom as non-domination is a gateway to justice, the prize that he holds out is too dazzling to be hastily dismissed. It maintains that we shouldn’t, as is usually the case, both in philosophical enquiry and practical endeavour, pursue freedom and justice by distinct routes but secure freedom as non-domination and justice will follow.
It is in this sense that Pettit argues that freedom as non-domination provides a moral compass. The book is titled Just Freedom, as in justice just requires freedom understood on republican terms, and freedom and justice should be seen as synonymous. The philosophy of John Rawls, for example, might lead to similar policy conclusions as Pettit. But, unlike Pettit, Rawls sees freedom and justice as distinct projects.
Somewhat more prosaically, we might also wonder whether an understanding of freedom as non-interference lies beneath contemporary social pathologies (such as stress) and if so, perhaps freedom as non-domination may also unlock solutions to these problems. Pushpin was as good as poetry, according to Bentham. More recently, Robert Putnam has bemoaning our ‘bowling alone’ societies.
John Stuart Mill began as a protégé of Bentham and ended up deriding activities such as pushpin and bowling as ‘lower pleasures’ next to more elevated pursuits, like poetry. The republican ideal involves no such hierarchy of pleasure. But it does require that we are more civically engaged than lonely bowlers. Maybe Mill’s aspiration to make poets of us all is no more unrealistic than the shift from atomisation to a much richer civic citizenship that this would entail.
As starry eyed as this may be, Pettit furnishes us with a robust understanding of the incapability between alienation and freedom, which the more limited way we’ve come to understand freedom doesn’t. In this and other senses, Pettit chimes with powerful intuitions that, as he illustrates, have deep historical roots. This power and depth are enough to merit a continued engagement with his republican project, in spite of its vast, potentially unrealisable ambition.
Jonathan Todd is Chief Economist at Demos