What is Freedom? (15): Non-Domination?

The so-called republican notion of freedom, championed by people such as Philip Pettit, defines freedom as non-domination, as the absence of a master wielding arbitrary power over you.

It’s a kind of freedom that appeals to me, in part because it helps to justify democracy: individual freedom from domination can be aggregated to political self-mastery and self-determination. However, I suspect that this framing of freedom collapses into a more common notion of freedom, namely freedom from coercion or freedom from interference. After all, being dominated is bad because you master can coerce you. A master is synonymous with a coercer.

Pettit then replies to this by giving the example of A Doll’s House, the play by Ibsen. Nora and Torvald have a traditional marriage in which the husband is the master of the house and has all the legal and cultural prerogatives that this entails. However, Torvald (in the beginning at least) is well-meaning. Although he has every right to treat Nora as he pleases, he allows her lots of freedom and doesn’t really intervene or coerce. Still, Nora isn’t really free according to the republican notion of freedom because she lives by the grace of Torvald’s good will. The day Torvald decides that it’s enough – and that day does come sure enough – her freedom, or imagined freedom in Pettit’s mind, comes to an end. Nora can only be free when she’s free from her master, however well her master treats her.

And yet, I still believe that this doesn’t make non-domination a separate kind of freedom: what makes Nora unfree, even though she is free from immediate coercion, is the risk of future coercion by her master, not simple the fact that she lives under a master and by the grace of this master. Freedom of coercion in any non-trivial sense must include freedom from the risk of coercion.

More posts in this series are here.

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