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Prior Knowledge

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Pettit's 'Freedom as Non-Domination'

Philip Pettit (see his book 'Republicanism') promotes a notion of republican freedom to contrast with the liberal one. The liberal notion of freedom is that of non-interference. Often, the literature distinguishes freedom as non-interference, sometimes called negative liberty, from positive liberty. Positive liberty is freedom in the sense of self-mastery. However, freedom as non-domination is distinct from both negative and positive liberty. Unlike those in the liberal tradition, Pettit makes domination, rather than interference, the antonym of freedom.

Someone has dominating power over another if
(1) they have the capacity to interfere
(2) on an arbitrary basis
(3) in certain choices that the other is in a position to make.

An act of interference is arbitrary if it is subject only to the judgment of the interfering agent. In such a case, the decision to interfere is made without reference to the interests of those who are interfered with. So, an interfering act is arbitrary because the procedure whereby the decision to interfere was taken was not subject to controls that forced the act of interference to track the interests of the person affected.

Further, we are concerned only with the relevant interests of the person affected rather than with all of her interests. For example, I may have an interest in the state punishing convicted offenders. However, once convicted of an offence, I may also have an interest in the state making an exception just this once by failing to punish me. In this case, the relevant interest is the one I share in common with others rather than the one that treats me as an exception. If the state punishes me, this act of interference is not conducted on an arbitrary basis and does not represent domination.

Consent to interference is not a sufficient check against arbitrariness and domination. A slave, for instance, is dominated by the owner even if the former voluntarily contracts into slavery. Entering into a voluntary contract is consistent with its consequences being objectionable on grounds of asymmetries of power.

Domination can occur without interference. A dominating agent – the power-bearer dominates the power-victim simply by having the capacity to interfere arbitrarily. Interference can occur without domination. A public official may interfere in a way that is forced to track the interests of citizens. Since such interference is not arbitrary, it does not translate into domination over the citizens.

Pettit wants to maximise non-domination through a constitutionally bound authority that ensures that citizens do not dominate one another while itself being bound by constitutional means to not dominate citizens.


  • Okay, that is Pettit's position, do you think he is right or not?

    I think he does has a genuine alternative conception of freedom to either the negative or positive liberal concepts of freedom.

    And to some degree I share his concern with non-domination.

    However I'm not convinced that non-domination ought to be the guiding principle of our society.

    What do you think?

    I also think (This idea is hopefully forthcoming in a paper in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, pending on their acceptance of the revised paper)that Pettit inapropriately limits the scope of of his concern with freedom and non-domination to humans with no justification.

    IE if domination = bad and animals can be dominated (Which seems psychologically plausible) then the non-domination of animals should also be sought...

    1/18/2006 01:55:00 AM  

  • I find freedom as non-domination a very helpful way of discussing political affairs.

    As partof my thesis, I'm currently working on appending a concern for a couple other types of political freedom to Pettit's. I intend to sketch the position in a future post that builds on an understanding of Pettit's view.

    I also wonder whether constitutional 'electoral and contestatory' democracy will suffice as the means to minimising domination.

    David, I am concerned about just how far non-domination can take us in an ecological direction and would be interested to find out your thoughts about extending non-domination to animals. Do you have a link to a relevant post of yours?

    1/19/2006 12:04:00 PM  

  • I think it is an interesting and important alternative to the mainstream liberal theories, but I'm afraid I'm still too attached to liberal neutrality (Though I think it is untenable, but thats another story) to absolutely buy into Pettit, plus I think his metaphysics of freedom is pretty weak. (A Theory of Freedom) There was a discussion I had about this with Neil Levy on the Garden of the Forking Paths website in their book review section which seems to have disappeared.

    That said I'm interested enough by the theory to write about it, both on the non-domination and animals topic, and I'd like to have a go at some point of translating the non-domination ideal into medical ethics and look at a paper exploring a notion of autonomy based on non-domination rather than positive or negative liberty

    Where are you based?
    I know a couple of people around and about the place (Mostly North Island) who are fairly up with the play in terms of Pettit, either because they studied his theories as part (1 third) of their honours degree which I taught, or because they did their PHD with Pettit, on his political theory.

    I haven't posted about Pettit's theory much online, though I have presented the paper a couple of times, if you would like I could email it to you, you can get my email address from:

    I look forward to your later post


    1/19/2006 10:24:00 PM  

  • i agree that non-domination is a useful third conception of freedom that is distinct from negative and positive. and i agree that it is a worthwhile ideal. some comments:

    first, Berlin never intended his negative-positive distinction to be exhaustive of notions of freedom so he too could accept non-domination.

    the claim that non-domination is necessary for freedom is plausible. but Pettit also claims that it is sufficient. i disagree. consider agovernment that restricts people's options to a great degree, but the decisions to do so are not the result of arbitrary will. maybe there are many checks and balances, procedures to go through, democratic voting, etc. but it still restricts freedom in the negative sense. are people living under such a government really free? surely not.
    i posed this question to someone the other say and they said that subsequent to the book, pettit now accepts this point and that non-domination is not an alternative but a complement to negative freedom. he says so in some article, not sure of the reference.

    finally, are non-dom and negative freedom so different? it seems possible to derive a concern for non-dom from a concern for negative freedom. that is, in a situation of domination its always possible that the dominator will restrict negative freedom. maybe out concerns in the non-interfering dominator case are not that there is an intrinsic unfreedom there but an instrumental worry: non-interfering dominators usually start to interfere.

    simon clarke

    3/10/2006 05:55:00 AM  

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