I've decided that, as a kind of revision exercise, I'm going to write a post a day on some of the wierd and wonderful things that one might need to know - or at least have thought about - in order to obtain an MPhil in political theory for the next week or so. Since I've linked to Elizabeth Anderson's piece on freedom as non-domination, I thought I might begin by talking a little about this civic republican ideal of freedom, in particular some of Quentin Skinner's work on it, and perhaps freedom more generally.
As Anderson makes clear, the idea at the heart of the idea of freedom as non-domination is that living under the arbitrary will of another diminishes liberty even if that arbitrary will currently does not consciously interfere in or constrain the actions of the agent concerned. Skinner has argued, for example, that the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War utilised this understanding of freedom in their propaganda against the Royalists, claiming that the King's claiming and exercise of the Royal Prerogative against Parliament meant that free-born Englishmen had had their rights usurped and had, effectively, become slaves. I am not versed enough in the history of the period to know whether this is in fact true, although it is interesting, especially in conjunction with another claim which Skinner makes, that Hobbes is, in his 'Leviathan', engaged in arguing against these "Democratical Gentlemen". Skinner substantiates this claim about Hobbes by pointing to his discussion of freedom, which Hobbes argues is the absence of physical impediment, as humans, like everything else in the world, are mere physical objects, and all that can make a physical object unfree is an inability to move in one way or another. Skinner also makes a number of claims, which I am skeptical of, about the way that the Hobbesian definition has squeezed out this Republican definition in subsequent discourse, but these are not so much my concern immediately.
What is, is the way that Hobbes argues for his conclusion. Hobbes is a staunch materialist - the only things which exist at all are physical objects in motion - and his account of freedom follows quite directly from that: it is because the only kind of freedom that physical objects in motion could have is freedom from impediment that freedom means freedom from impediment. I think the view is fairly obviously false: it contains a paradox - if there were no other physical objects, then I would be perfectly free, since nothing could impede me, but there would be nothing I could do, because there would be nothing for me to act on, thus I would be perfectly free, but could not do anything - and fails to capture the sense in which we regard freedom as morally important, because it is basically descriptive - nothing other than sheer physical impossibility could be a limit on our freedom, yet usually not only do we regard things other than physical impossibility as a limit on our freedom (laws, most obviously) but we do not regard all physical impossibilities as (important) limits on our freedom (I am not troubled by the fact that as I am not tens of thousands of feet tall, I cannot step from sea-level to the top of mount Everest, yet Hobbes must think that is as much of a lack of freedom as being imprisoned, if not more, depending on how physical impossibility is construed).
Still, though, the view is instructive, because just as for Hobbes, its truth follows from his view of what a human is, we show its falsity by appealing to considerations which show that his view of what a human is is bizarre: humans are, morally at least, much more than mere physical objects, and the reason that Hobbes's view is wrong is precisely that. The reason that the paradox I gave above is a paradox is because freedom is usually thought of as freedom to act, and action requires things to be acted on and acted with, and the reason that I am more troubled by the restriction that being imprisoned places on me than I am by the restriction that not being tens of thousands of feet tall is that it is more important to have the freedom to do the kinds of acts, the kinds of projects, which we regard as important, as good for humans, and what being tens of thousands of feet tall would allow a person to do isn't particularly pressing. The moral to be drawn from this, I think, is that, in terms of Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction, all forms of freedom are in fact positive.
This is because the positive-negative liberty distinction is usually interpreted in terms of a distinction between a version of liberty which implies nothing about the ends to which it might best be used - negative - and a version of liberty which is explicitly directed at some, morally desirable, ends - positive. The grounds on which I have criticised the Hobbesian account of freedom are obviously positive, since I'm arguing that there are some kinds of purposes it doesn't matter whether we are unimpeded in our pursuit of them or not, and so it's wrong to call being unimpeded in that way a kind of freedom (in any morally important sense), but even the Hobbesian account of liberty is in a way positive: it is the kinds of not-being-constrained that would matter if humans were simply physical objects in motion. It aims at an end - a bizarre end, no doubt - but a kind of end nonetheless.
To return to the idea of freedom as non-domination, it seems that the kind of end that such an idea of freedom would be aiming at is the end of being self-governing, of being an autonomous agent: if we are dominated, then we have not played any part in setting the social and political conditions under which we live out our lives, and we cannot be fully autonomous, because those social and political conditions will shape the way we live out our lives. To put it another way, we live under the will of another, and thus our will is restricted, since living under the will of another shapes our will: we are not autonomous. One of the reasons that I am skeptical of Skinner's claim that the civic republican idea disappeared in post-Civil War thought is the popularity of this kind of idea in such thought.
Rousseau's thought is clearly civic republican: the (social) good of man can only be realised in a society which is governed by the General Will because only the General Will eliminates domination by virtue of dependence, both through vanity or sheer material lack, which would exist in a society of men with competing private wills. I think one could perhaps make a similar case for Kant, since it is not wholly implausible to claim that the Categorical Imperative, in its various forms, is the General Will abstracted from a particular set of social forms. Equally, the nineteenth century liberal concern with the tyranny of the majority, found in Mill and De Tocqueville, was a concern that in fully democratic societies the arbitrary (here meaning something like 'uneducated', quite explicitly) will of the crowd would warp the character of potentially great individuals.
I think that in fact, any half-decent justification of democracy - which is not of the Churchillian 'the worst form of government, apart from all the others' form, which I assume is appealing to the contingent effects of democracy, rather than to the intrinsic features of it - is going to involve an appeal to the idea of freedom as non-domination. The most obvious justification of democracy - in the intrinsic sense, not the 'what other values will democracy protect' sense - is that people should not have to live under laws which they do not consent to: indeed, I think it's probably the only decent justification of democracy, since I'm quite skeptical about the empirical defence (I would be, being a sort of philosopher, and therefore thinking that philosopher-kings would be a rather good idea) and because any other principled defence is going to have explain why the people, rather than philosopher-kings, should have to decide the rules under which they live. Yet, if we're going to appeal to the value of people consenting to the rules under which they live as a defence of democracy, surely, in a broad sense, the idea that we should not live under the arbitrary will of another must be doing at least some of the work, that having someone else decide what rules we live under is somehow wrong.
Exactly what this might entail is undoubtedly complicated. G. A. Cohen has argued that one prominent - at least amongst political philosophers - interpretation of democracy, that of deliberative democracy - which takes the process of democratic will-formation, following Rousseau, amongst others, as key to the fulfillment of the requirement not to be living under the arbitrary will of others - actually removes its own point, since setting up a genuinely free deliberation would require resolving most of the issues that such a deliberation would decide on (removing unfreedom and dependence following from material deprivation, for example). It is unclear whether he thinks this is actually a criticism or not, and I rather suspect that in fact it may not be, necessarily. However, this is enough for the time being. I will take up the idea of democracy and what constraints we might want to impose on politics in the next post, which will either be tomorrow, or later this evening, depending on what I decide to do this evening.