We are pleased to present the next installment of PEA Soup's collaboration with Ethics, in which we host a discussion of one article from an issue of the journal. The article selected from Volume 121, Issue 4 is Philip Pettit's "The Instability of Freedom as Noninterference: The Case of Isaiah Berlin" (open access here). We are also extremely grateful that David Schmidtz has agreed to provide the critical precis of the article. His commentary begins below the fold and is followed by several replies from Professor Pettit.
When you sit down with Philip Pettit’s work, you may not be convinced, but when you rise you will see things more clearly than you did when you sat down. In print and especially in person, Philip Pettit is an uncommonly stimulating philosopher. And I will pay a further complement: Philip practices what he preaches. He does not aim to dominate. One goes to him as free and equal—to engage rather than be tutored. He makes the world more interesting. In the following note, I will sketch a few thoughts about his most recent article.
What is (political) freedom? In Hobbes, freedom requires non-frustration: the option you prefer must be accessible. This is obviously true so far as it goes. But to Berlin, what Hobbes says is inadequate. A sufficient condition for freedom requires more. To Hobbes, Berlin adds that freedom requires non-interference: every door must be open. It takes work to make that “open door” idea precise, but Berlin’s idea is political rather than metaphysical: there must not be options that you would have but for the fact that someone took them away.
Pettit accepts Berlin’s point, then offers a parallel argument that freedom requires something stronger still. The stronger condition required is non-domination: that each option be accessible and that no one be able to block access at will.
Pettit speaks of the adequacy of conceptions of freedom, but there are whiffs of another issue. Pettit mentions Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, who patently was concerned not with how we should articulate a concept but with what we should settle for as citizens. And Pettit at various points seems likewise concerned. “The woman who lives under the will of a husband may rely on mincing steps and beguiling smiles to keep her husband sweet and to get her way in a variety of choice. But she doesn’t succeed thereby in getting out from under his will, escaping the constraint that it represents. She may delude herself that she is free in those choices, as the adaptive prisoner may delude himself about his freedom, but no one should be deceived.”
Here, then, are some questions. I intend these as inviting Pettit and interested readers to elaborate, and clarify in passing what is at stake—why it matters how we characterize freedom. I’ll put my questions in the form of questions because they are in fact questions, not criticisms.
1. Pettit says, “To the extent that I have a power of interfering without cost in your choice I count as dominating you.” Suppose we said instead “To the extent that I am at liberty to interfere…” Or it might be even more to the point—albeit narrower—to say, “To the extent that you need my permission…”
The essential idea, I take it, is that to be non-dominated within a given range of discretion, one’s exercising discretion within that range must be a right rather than a revocable privilege. If Bob is a teen-ager wanting to borrow the family car, Bob is frustrated and thus unfree in Hobbes’s sense if he is denied permission. If Bob is granted permission to borrow the car to attend football practice, but is not at liberty to use the car for any other purpose, then Bob is interfered with. He is free in Hobbes’s sense but not in Berlin’s. If Bob is given permission to borrow the car for any purpose he may have, Bob is free in Berlin’s sense as well as Hobbes’s, but not in Pettit’s sense, because Bob still needs permission. Am I getting this right?
Suppose we imagine a “rule of law” such that Bob cannot borrow the car during the week but can as a matter of course take the car on Saturdays, without needing to ask, provided that he has mowed the lawn as promised. Bob is not as free of responsibility as we could imagine him being. To get the kind of access to the car that he wanted he had to pay with his labor, on mutually agreeable terms. But neither is he subject to a parent’s arbitrary whim. I take it we should count him as undominated?
2. The ordinary meanings of words tend to have degrees of plasticity. We speak of freedom and sometimes listeners know that we are concerned about frustration. Other times they know we are concerned about interference. Other times they know we are concerned about domination. Does anything more need to be said? Is there any issue about whether we are, in some of those cases, using the word incorrectly?
3. Berlin seems to have been aware of and to have endorsed the idea of freedom as non-domination. But when it came to identifying the key element missing from Hobbes’s characterization of freedom, he arguably succeeded when he homed in on the idea that freedom requires non-interference. When the time came in turn for Pettit to identify the key element missing from Berlin’s alternative to Hobbes, Pettit arguably succeeds when he homes in on the idea that freedom requires non-domination. Have we gone as far as we can? Is the quest here to identify a “most muscular” freedom? If not, then what is the quest? If so, then why not go further still? Why not say freedom requires not only non-frustration, non-interference, and non-domination, but non-limitation: at its most extreme, being possessed of god-like ability to reshape the world at will, not limited in any way?
There are obvious answers, but explicitly stating them might help clarify what the essay is supposed to be accomplishing. Undoubtedly, for some purposes, being free as unlimited is beside the point, and the important question concerns the offensiveness of being dominated. Likewise, there are purposes for which the important question concerns the offensiveness of interference or frustration. So, why not acknowledge our several conceptions of freedom, along with the several contexts that motivated their development, and leave it at that?
4. Pettit says, “You cannot make yourself free just by accommodating yourself to my disposition to interfere.” Agreed. If you are excessively worried about getting tenure, you can change your views to accommodate those of your senior colleagues. You can be ingratiating too. I would agree that those hardly sound like ways of being more free. But those are not the only forms that accommodation can take. Suppose you accommodate by learning to be happy with your next best option. If you fail to do this, telling yourself you cannot live with your next best option, you intuitively are making yourself less free. By contrast, suppose you resolve to make up your own mind, speak your own mind, and embrace the truth that being denied tenure is no big deal in the grand scheme of things. That kind of accommodation (declining to exaggerate what is at stake) intuitively renders you more free, no?
5. Pettit says, “Most theories of what makes people free in relation to the external world treat the obstacles that derive from the ill will of others as the primary restrictions on freedom.”
Agreed, but people being in the way without ill will is also a problem, right? If you need a job but our overworked search committee deems you unqualified, you are thwarted regardless of whether our committee bears you ill will. There is a difference between being a target versus having a dossier that fell through the cracks, to be sure, but either way you are frustrated, right?
6. Consider a country like Singapore. The conditions of non-domination are not satisfied, so far as I understand the situation there. And that is not just a theoretical point. Freedom is in a sense fragile there and citizens know it, yet the government is not in fact abusive, and people there are among the freest citizens in the world in important ways.
Pettit says that if your options are A and B, the probability o
f interference has to remain low regardless of which you choose. Pettit adds that, given options A and B and letting F = friendly and H = hostile, “there are four possible ways the world may be and in each scenario the probability of interference has to be low. It must be low in the presence of A & F: that is, when you choose A and others are friendly. And it must also be low in the presence of A & H, B & F and B & H. You must enjoy such protection or empowerment in the actual world that interference is unlikely under each of those scenarios.”
Agreed. However, there is more to say. Let A stand for writing articles about non-domination. In Singapore, interference given A & H is likely, yet H itself is rare. There is a lot of freedom but it is in a way a lesser freedom—noninterference rather than non-domination. Given enough variation in the probability of H, the scope and value of a freedom that fits Berlin’s model can exceed the scope and value of a freedom that fits Pettit’s. Imagine a businesswoman, not subject to the arbitrary will of any bureaucrat, yet just about everything she wants to do with her life is illegal. She wonders whether she would be more free in a country where everything requires permission in theory but where permission goes without saying in practice. I take it we should allow that her question cannot be settled by definition.
Again, I say this without denying that Pettit’s discussion of non-domination adds something missing from Berlin’s critique of Hobbes.