By: Arjun Verma
Philip Pettit is an Irish political and ethical philosopher who reframed how to view freedom as a form of non-domination. This contextualizes freedom from an abstract concept to a real world theory with explanatory power.
What did he believe?
Philip Pettit reinvigorated an old strain of the philosophy of freedom in comparison to the conventional model of freedom. Traditionally, freedom was defined by non-interference, or the idea that people were morally prohibited from interfering in other people’s lives. Pettit instead proposed a model of freedom defined as non-domination, or the belief that people and institutions should not have the capacity to arbitrarily interfere in other people’s lives.
Pettit isolates two main problems with the conception of freedom as non-interference, but he then explains how non-domination resolved these problems.
First, he believed that justifying a state on any other conception of freedom would inevitably fail because the state necessarily must involve some level of coercion. For example, it has to tax citizens and enforce laws, which certainly interfere with people’s lives. However, the view of non-domination permits these forms of interference insofar as people have control over the state via democratic institutions.
Second, Pettit argued that the non-interference model was unintuitive and could not explain examples of unfreedom. For instance, Pettit gives the example of a slave with a master who did not interfere with them and let the slave act as they pleased. While the slave certainly does not suffer interference, no one would reasonably say they were free. However, because the master could arbitrarily interfere in the slave’s life, the non-domination view can explain the unfreedom that occurs.
How can his ideas be applied today?
Philip Pettit is a contemporary philosopher who has worked on applying his theory to democratic governance, economic freedom, and the rule of law.
First, republicanism is deeply concerned with a nation’s political engagement. In order for the state to be legitimate, people have to be able to exercise control over it; however, if people are not participating politically, then that legitimacy may be undermined. As a result, it’s important for us to consider not only how democratic engagement is important for us to voice our opinions but also how it influences the legitimacy of the state itself. This can include measures like protests, voting, and petitions.
Second, Pettit’s republicanism also analyzes the nature of economic relationships. Because workers have no other alternative to acquiring the necessary goods to survive, like food, water, and shelter, they are forced to work for an employer. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation as they lack any real bargaining power. Thus, Pettit proposes a universal basic income to allow everyone to have a fallback mechanism as an alternative. This means workers have real bargaining power to improve wages, working conditions, and hours.
Third, Pettit is a strong believer in the importance of institutions and the rule of law. These are the mechanism by which republicanism can be maintained. Without them, people are vulnerable to arbitrary power. Through them, people can be assured that they will not be arbitrarily interfered with, enabling them to chart the course of their own lives without outside interference.
Overall, Philip Pettit’s view of freedom is able to take into account social and power dynamics that make it better suited for the modern world.
Arjun is a high school senior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.