10th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Kirby

Nikolas Kirby

Defending Republican Liberty: What is the Difference Between a Disinterested Gentle Giant and Deterred Criminal?

This paper defends the republican conception of liberty expounded by Phillip Pettit and Quentin Skinner against recent attacks by Ian Carter and Matthew Kramer. The latter pair armed with a reformulated conception of negative liberty argue that the republican conception of liberty, qua ‘the absence of alien control’ fails to be a genuinely distinct conception of liberty because it is fully analysable within the framework of negative liberty qua ‘the absence of interference’. Pettit and Skinner can only defend their position against Carter and Kramer by showing that the mere existence of alien control, that is, the power of an agent to interfere with another, always decreases republican liberty irrespective of its probability of being exercised. This means that they must win the philosophical battle over a particular limit case: the gentle giant, who has unlimited power to interfere with the lives of her local villagers, but in fact has no other desire but to live in a faraway cave and leave them completely alone. Pettit and Skinner must establish that, contrary to Kramer and Carter, the existence of the gentle giant’s unexercised power still undermines their republican liberty. I argue that the defence which Pettit and Skinner mount to win this battle, however, leaves them open to a prima facie inconsistency within their own work. This is because they both argue at other points that republican liberty is in fact promoted where the probability of an agent exercising alien control is diminished, that is, in the case of deterrence such as criminal punishments. I shall conclude, however, by proposing away of resolving this inconsistency, and thus preserving the republican conception.