The May issue of Prospect contains my short review of Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, the new book by the political philosopher Philip Pettit. Since the publication of Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government in 1997, Pettit has been building on the work done by intellectual historians such as Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock in excavating the so-called “neo-Roman” theory of civil liberty, which came to prominence during the English revolution of the 17th century. What Pettit does is to connect the neo-Roman theory saved from the condescension of posterity by Skinner and others to debates in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy about the nature of freedom, the legitimacy of the state and the obligations of citizenship.
Pettit’s analysis of the neo-Roman or “republican” idea of freedom offers a compelling alternative to liberalism, in its various guises (Skinner’s best known work in this area is entitled Liberty Before Liberalism). To get a sense of the kind of challenge Pettit’s republicanism poses to certain familiar liberal construals of freedom or liberty (Pettit uses the terms interchangeably), consider a distinction made by Isaiah Berlin in one of his most celebrated essays. Berlin distinguishes between two concepts of liberty: the “negative” concept, according to which liberty consists in being left to one’s own devices, and the “positive” one, in which liberty is construed as a kind of self-realisation. It is the former, Berlin thinks, that is “the truer and more humane ideal.”
What follows if we assume, with Berlin, that to be free is just to be left alone? Philip Pettit invites us to consider the case of Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Nora’s husband Torvald exerts tremendous power over, yet denies her nothing nor interferes with her choices. Would we, therefore, say that Nora is free? Pettit suggests, plausibly, that we would not. Nora lives under Torvald’s thumb.
Pettit thinks that our intuitions about Nora’s case are best captured, not by a liberal view like Berlin’s, but by the republican notion of freedom as “non-domination”. To be free, in this conception, is to enjoy not merely the absence of interference but also the absence of domination—by other individuals and, crucially, by the state.
Now, unlike those philosophers who follow John Rawls in trying to figure out, almost as a matter of logic, the shape…