The New Republic

Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World (Norton Global Ethics) BY Philip Pettit. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

The cover of Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World (Norton Global Ethics)

As much as libertarians and liberals may now be at odds, they endorse the same foundational value. It’s right there in their names: Both political philosophies share the Latin root liber, or “free.” Liberty is a special sort of good that the two poles of American politics, and pretty much every position in between, embrace as fundamental.

What, then, to do about the many conflicts and contradictions that have flowed, with increasing rancor on all sides, from this core commitment to freedom? In Philip Pettit’s judgment, we should rehabilitate a neglected vital tributary of political philosophy: the civic republican ideal.

There is perhaps no living philosopher who has done more than Pettit for the understanding of freedom as a political good.

The major focus of Pettit’s career has been the revival of a traditional republican notion of freedom, originally conceived in the days of the Roman Republic, revived during the Italian Renaissance, and adopted by America’s founding fathers. The reclamation of republican virtue, which owes much to the pioneering work of intellectual historian J. G. A. Pocock, has shed considerable light on the distinctive concepts of liberty that shaped the American founding. As Pettit explains, the republican vision holds that one is free only insofar as one does not have a dominus, or master, over one’s life. Freedom, in short, is nondomination.

This idea is significantly more robust than other traditional liberal theories of freedom that construe it as, roughly speaking, the negative quality of noninterference. Freedom, Pettit argues, “requires more than just being let alone.” Suppose you’re free to do what you want, but only because someone else allows you to do whatever you want and even supports your goals. For instance, to apply an example Pettit cites from Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, suppose you are Nora Helmer, the wife of a devoted, doting husband who gives in to your whims, but in the context of a male-dominated society and thanks to your flattery. In Pettit’s view, even though you’re not interfered with, you’re not truly free. Your will can, at any moment, be restricted by other forces. The mere possibility of such restriction can also play a constraining influence on your choices and behavior.

In his latest book, Just Freedom, Pettit seeks to show how his theory of republican freedom can offer moral guidance on our age’s most pressing political and global issues. He also wants to advance republican political thought as the basis for a theory of justice for society, government, and global relations. But for all of the book’s genuine insights and ambitious designs, the argument of Just Freedom also highlights just how much more work has to be done before we arrive at a fully adequate theory of justice.

In his opening chapters, Pettit revisits the basic elements of the republican view of freedom, stressing that it seeks a deeper and broader affirmation of human agency than prevails in most liberal political theory. Republican freedom requires not only that one be able to pursue one’s preferences but also, among other criteria, that one be empowered to enact them—i.e., material deprivations can’t be permitted to obstruct the progress of a truly free citizen. As Pettit explains, the republican ideal of freedom is also far more wide-ranging in its applications than its liberal counterpart; it should encompass not only freedom of expression, thought, association, religion, and so forth, but also freedom of movement, freedom to change one’s occupation, and freedom of leisure.

Pettit argues cogently that republican freedom is the sort that we should all aspire to. Because it addresses the inequities of domination, it speaks more urgently to the largest conceptual gap in conventional liberal theory—how to integrate material questions of equality into the deeply hypothetical framework of the negative freedoms inscribed in the liberal social contract. Republican theory must, in Pettit’s account, proceed from “a level of protection and resourcing for people’s basic liberties—a level of entrenchment—that would enable them to count as equals in the enjoyment of freedom.”

This is an eminently sound critique of the blind spots of traditional liberal thought, and if Pettit had only stopped there, I would have little to object to. But he has larger ambitions for this book. He believes that his theory of freedom can provide a moral compass—a broad source of guidance about right and wrong in politics and public policy.

More specifically, he argues that his republicanism can serve as the basis for a fully adequate theory of justice. He contends that it can ground the development of republican theory in three key spheres: justice proper (which governs relations between citizens in a society), democracy (relations between citizens and their government), and sovereignty (relations between nations).


The book’s effort to articulate a new republican theory of justice is its most novel contribution—as well as its most unresolved argument. In Pettit’s view, the social realization of republican freedom is, ipso facto, the realization of a just society. And since his theory rests on one basic principle—freedom as nondomination—it provides a powerfully simple model of social justice.

Now, this view might strike one steeped in political theory as counterintuitive. Freedom, on the one hand, is a good. It is, in fact, a special good. As Pettit says, freedom is a “gateway good”—which is to say that it’s the precondition to gaining access to a host of other goods. But apart from a theory of goods, there is a question of how they ought to be distributed—and that’s where justice becomes the controlling concern.

To justify his theory of social justice, Pettit offers an intuitive measure of how to gauge its implementation: the “eyeball test.” He argues that under true republican conditions of justice “people will be adequately resourced and protected in the exercise of their basic liberties to the extent that, absent excessive timidity or the like, they are enabled by the most demanding local standards to look one another in the eye without reason for fear or deference.”

But this test seems hopelessly subjective. Consider, for example, Warren Buffett, the avuncular head of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s richest people. Buffett, to his credit, has made egalitarian-sounding pronouncements about the unfairness of his tax rate compared with that of his secretary and has used his wealth to promote just causes. He also strikes me as someone into whose eyes I could look and feel like an equal, in the fundamental republican sense. And yet the fact remains that he has $58 billion in assets and I will never be even a millionaire.

Is this an affront to my freedom? Perhaps it might seem that way to some. Pettit might compare Buffett to Torvad Helmer, the doting husband in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, who can restrict Nora’s freedom but chooses not to. But Buffett’s wealth need not raise that problem. Imagine a society whose laws, institutions, and distribution of resources protect my freedom against Buffett’s ability to infringe. Even in such an ideal republican society, another objection arises: The mere fact of the vast inequality of resources between us is enough, in itself, to generate a feeling not of powerlessness or subordination but of unfairness.

This distinction would seem to take us back to John Rawls’s celebrated A Theory of Justice (1971), and Rawls’s calculus for arriving at roughly egalitarian distributions of resources on an independent basis from the liberties secured in the social contract. Pettit’s inability to demonstrate that his theory of freedom is also a theory of justice suggests, in other words, that egalitarianism—the fundamental basis of a theory of justice—has a foundation that’s separate from our idea of freedom.

It’s true, as Pettit argues, that republican freedom is the sort of fundamental good that we all want equally—none of us wants to be dominated. And it’s likewise quite clear that such a good cannot be realized individually, but only in the context of a properly organized society, in which citizens ensure that one another’s freedom is equally protected and resourced. Historically, republican social organizations have shown how this is possible.

However, history has also shown in no uncertain terms that republics from Rome to America have always realized the freedom of citizens by means of and at the expense of subordinate classes: slaves, serfs, servants, women, et al. For even though we all want republican freedom, we also have the desire to dominate others for our own benefit, including for the sake of resourcing our own freedom. The eternal moral conundrum of freedom, power, and political justice comes down to not one but two questions: (1) How do we prevent others from dominating us? (2) How do we curb our desire to dominate others? However we answer the second question, the reply doesn’t come merely from our idea of freedom or our visceral desire for freedom. It comes from a separate, countervailing force: a sense of justice.

The only reason that Pettit’s claim that his republicanism is a theory of justice sounds remotely plausible is that he has the good fortune of working in the wake of Rawls. His Theory of Justice has so powerfully shaped our understanding of the subject that its underlying egalitarianism seems intuitive. But when we approach those who don’t share an egalitarian vision, such as libertarians and neoliberals, and argue for making society more just, we need better resources than Pettit’s theory of freedom.

David V. Johnson is online opinion editor at Al Jazeera America.