Book review: Just Freedom by Philip Pettit

April 23, 2014
In one of his best known essays, Isaiah Berlin distinguished 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 it is construed as a kind of self-realisation. It is the former, Berlin thought, 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 her, yet denies her nothing nor interferes with her choices. Would we say, therefore, that Nora is free? Pettit suggests 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.

Unlike those philosophers who follow John Rawls in trying to figure out, almost as a matter of logic, the shape of an ideally just society, Pettit is interested in the kind of concrete policy programme likely to best promote the republican idea of freedom. Although political theory and political practice belong to different realms, Pettit has always believed that “traffic across the divide” between them is possible. This book is splendid confirmation of that.

WW Norton, £16.99