Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World by Philip Pettit

| September 4, 2014
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9780393063974_p0_v1_s260x420Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, Philip Pettit (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), 288 pp., $26.95 paper.

In Just Freedom, Philip Pettit undertakes significant revisions of some of his republican commitments. The book has many new and innovative ideas, but most of all this work sharpens Pettit’s thinking on the role of democracy in republicanism, and on the often positive interaction between the two. Above all, it seems to me that Pettit’s own account of basic freedoms has become broader and wider, and now includes a cosmopolitan conception of what we owe other human beings, whoever they are.

An innovative and resonate work, Just Freedom explores new ground in Pettit’s ongoing attempt to articulate the importance of republicanism in the modern age. His interests here are much more directly political than in his previous work. Pettit celebrates our political capacities, seeing our willingness to form and exchange judgments on public issues as “the bright side of our political life and culture.” At the same time, complexity and the array of possible options make it manifest that even with these capacities we may “lack a moral compass to determine which ways are best.”

True to his commitments to republicanism, Pettit argues that our moral compass is freedom itself, which he sees as providing a unified and revealing perspective on many of the important issues raised in our complex contemporary world. This perspective in turn leads him to develop a distinctive “international form” of justice and democracy.

For Pettit, “Freedom in a range of choices requires avoiding any form of control by others” (p. 3). Thus, one’s capacity to choose this or that option is going to depend on the state of one’s will. You are a free person or citizen only to the extent that you are your own master. A free person, a liber, is a person who in virtue of her standing has freedom from domination. This is a core part of republican thought, expressed by many republican writers. As Chaim Wirszubski puts it, “Full libertas is coterminous with civitas.” Pettit’s goal in Just Freedom is to retrieve and rework this more capacious form of republicanism, reviving important insights that have been eclipsed in the last few decades.

The book also updates and extends Pettit’s previous analysis of nondomination. Freedom on Pettit’s current view requires something more robust: “independence upon the will of another,” and with it an exemption from dominion. “You must be able to exercise such basic or fundamental liberties . . . without having to answer to any other master or dominus in your life” (p. xv). Liberty is not just the capacity of choice but, as Pettit now insists, is also “the presence of required resources” that are publically delivered (p. 54).

As Pettit argues, “the freedom targeted in republican justice is . . . a freedom that presupposes the resources that make it effective.” But the ideal of freedom as nondomination is also based on a life in the company of others. Injustice is caused by the perpetuation of forms of social life based on inimical dependence on others, with the structural sources of domination giving rise to deeper sources of subjection. The task here is to support what Pettit calls “publically delivered resources and protections” that entrench people’s freedom (p. 62). Thus the provision of social welfare is not only a laudable political goal, it is also fundamental to liberty, including cosmopolitan liberty. Pettit also argues that republicanism includes both objective and subjective requirements that are necessary for a freedom that possesses both depth and breadth. Breadth means that all citizens are alike in things such as power, dignity, and authority in a free commonwealth, where people, in Milton’s terms, “may be spoken to freely, familiarly, friendly [and] without adoration.”

Depth, on the other hand, requires that republicans are able to address the aforementioned “deeper forms of subjection,” so that “structural domination can be negated” (p. 53), with structural domination often including domination by institutions. To have depth, then, is to have the freedoms and protections associated with freedom as nondomination.

Just as individuals must have the means to guard against domination, so must democratic states. Thus, for Pettit, international bodies are needed to establish and entrench political authority. However, such international bodies must be contestable and controllable by states. On this basis states have, first of all, obligations of assistance to other states. But the idealized states that Pettit describes as nondominating do not yet exist. The United States, for example, does not fulfill its obligations to many of its own impoverished citizens (let alone to citizens of other states), just as the European Union has permitted many citizens of member states (such as in Greece) to go without adequate health care. In any case, it is reasonable to assume that the depth of freedom in this sort of treatment of fellow citizens is at times rather shallow.

The role of nondomination in Pettit’s account also requires republicans to address the current deficits in international society. In this account, the norm of nondomination helps establish justice as the normative statuses and powers of citizens that reach across borders. This means, as Pettit argues, that we should extend republican institutions beyond the state in a much richer way. Ultimately, this requires working toward an international system of institutions that makes states more rather than less democratic, with an open space for the exercise of common liberty in the form of democracy. It is in this discussion of democracy and of sovereignty that Pettit breaks new ground about the necessary conditions of freedom, arguing that democracy and sovereignty are both fundamentally compatible with republicanism.

The most novel proposal in Just Freedom is thus Pettit’s attempt to construct an cosmopolitan ideal suitable for all the peoples of the earth, an ideal of globalized sovereignty that belongs “wholly in the international sphere,” where the value of freedom is such that if “individuals in other states may not fare well, then other states will have certain obligations of assistance toward them” (p. 154). Cooperation is the basis for establishing “an enduring system of liberties and the creation of public goods,” but also for mobilizing against global bads of various sorts, climate change being foremost among them.

Some of the tensions in Pettit’s cosmopolitanism are not yet completely resolved, and thus there are still gaps in his account. However, Just Freedom points us closer to a new and more robust position for Pettit. By introducing new conceptions of democracy and justice, he has now developed a more capacious and inclusive form of republicanism that is distinctly modern. On this conception, international bodies are needed to establish and entrench the basic liberties of citizens and serve to regularize contestation in the existing global framework.

Indeed, under Pettit’s system no oppressive state will enjoy the effective protection and empowerment that representative states gain under a regime of global sovereignty. Most of all, for Pettit global arrangements ought to play a greater role in political life, such as through international forums, tribunals, networks, and other ways in which these arrangements require mutual participation without domination. This conception of global cooperation breaks new ground for Pettit’s explicit republican embrace of cosmopolitanism as a way to entrench global cooperation.


The author is Danforth Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. He is currently working on a book on the idea of mass publics.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 28.3

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