5th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Van der Rijt

Jan-Willem Van der Rijt

Dignity and Domination

The notion of republican freedom put forward by Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner (e.g. Skinner 1998, 2006, Pettit 1997, 2001, 2002) has inspired much debate. This notion of freedom is so interesting as it cannot easily be classified within the standard dichotomy of positive and negative concepts of liberty. The republican concept of freedom holds a person to be free if he is immune to the arbitrary interference of another. It differs from the negative concept of freedom in two ways. If a person is negatively free (no-one is interfering with him), he can still be unfree in the republican sense of freedom, as this not merely requires the absence of interference, but the immunity to it. One is unfree in the republican sense of freedom even if no-one actually interferes with him, but someone could do so at her choosing. Alternatively, as republican freedom requires only immunity to the absence of arbitrary interference, a person who is interfered with in a non-arbitrary way is not free under the negative concept of freedom, but can remain free under the republican notion. Republican freedom is not a positive notion of freedom either as it does not require any actual ability or possibility to do something. To Pettit and Skinner, these differences are fundamental. However, a number of authors dispute their claim that they are referring to a fundamentally different notion of freedom, claiming that the republican notion of freedom is reducible to the standard negative one of absence of interference (e.g. Carter 1999, Kramer 2003, Goodin 2003). This debate is for a large part conceptual. Is the notion of freedom used by the republicans the same as the notion used by their opponents or not? In this paper, however, I will not be directly concerned with this question. Whether the neo-republicans ultimately use the same or a different notion of freedom or not, they do seem to emphasise an important value in their accounts that is not identical to the value of pure negative liberty. What the republicans point to in their criticism of the advocates of pure negative freedom, is the importance of not being at the mercy of someone else’s arbitrary will – or as Pettit formulates it, the value of not being dominated – rather than merely not being interfered with at a specific moment. The neo-republicans offer a number of arguments to show the importance of non-domination. Most are purely consequentialist. If one is dominated, so they argue, the need to maintain the good graces of one’s dominator will lead to self censorship. Some options that are open to one, one will not engage in if they may frowned upon by one’s dominator, as one’s future possibilities depend on her continued good graces. Apart from self censorship, one can go one step further. Not only will dominated people refrain from doing things that may offend their dominator, they will also be inclined to actively seek her favour by rather nauseating feats of currying and toadying. These arguments are, however, open to criticism by their opponents, as such self censorship or debasement can be argued not to be a necessary consequence of domination at all, but rather a result of an actual, though perhaps implicit, threat of interference, not merely of the possibility thereof (see also Carter 1999). However, apart from these consequentialist arguments there is another argument open to the neo-republicans, which is often left implicit in their accounts. I believe this is the strongest argument, as it shows that their account is relevant independently of the question whether it constitutes a different concept of freedom or not. Quite apart from the consequences of domination on the behaviour of the dominated, non-domination is important simply because being dominated means to be at someone else’s mercy, and that fact in itself is highly humiliating to one’s person. Whatever I can, have to, or can’t do when I am dominated is only of secondary importance; the mere fact that it is someone else who gets to determine this is what is first and foremost problematic about domination. In this paper I analyse Pettit’s definition of domination (Pettit, 2002) from the viewpoint of dignity. Pettit’s definition contains a number elements that leave room for interpretation. I will discuss these elements to develop a reformulation of the dominance relation that explicitly captures this notion of dignity and discuss some of its implications.