I want to share an interesting framework for thinking about negative freedom. Negative freedom is a central concept in liberal political theory. One of the primary duties of the state, according to liberal political theory, is to protect negative freedom.
But what does negative freedom consist in? Broadly speaking, negative freedom is the absence of external constraint on action. If I sign my name to the bottom of a document, I do not do so freely if you grabbed my hand and forced me to sign. You are an external constraint. You undermine my negative freedom.
This example is, however, relatively trivial. There are many external constraints on action. Which ones actually undermine my negative freedom? In some sense, I am constrained by my biology. I am not free to stop breathing. I am constrained from breathing anything other than oxygen. But does that mean that the necessity for oxygen-breathing is a freedom-undermining external constraint?
Or take a more contentious example. Suppose I work in an office. My office manager suggests that if I want to get a promotion I should wash his car every weekend. Suppose I duly go and wash his car every weekend. Am I doing so freely? Or does his not-so-subtle hint constitute a freedom-undermining interference? These are the kinds of the questions that fill the pages of political philosophy journals.
In their article, ‘Freedom as Independence’, Christian List and Laura Valentini do two things that help us to answer some of these questions. First, they map out the ‘logical space’ of negative freedom. And second, they use this map to identify and make the case for a new theory of negative freedom — one that has been overlooked by liberal theorists to date.
I want to describe these two features of List and Valentini’s article in this post. I do so because I think their methodology for mapping out the logical space of freedom can be useful in other contexts, and also because I think the idea of ‘freedom as independence’ is worth considering.
[Note: I covered some of this ground already in my post ‘The Logical Space of Algocracy (Redux)’. This is a slightly longer explanation of the discussion of List and Valentini’s framework that occurred in that post.]
1. The Logical Space of Freedom
Two theories of negative freedom predominate in contemporary political theory. The first is the classic liberal theory of freedom as non-interference:
Freedom as Non-Interference: An agent’s freedom to do X is the actual absence of relevant constraints on the agent’s doing X.
I am free to walk down the street provided that no one or no external force is actually constraining me from walking down the street. This is a simple, clean but ultimately problematic way to define negative freedom. There are a couple of features of the definition that are worth calling out. Notice first how it includes the phrase ‘relevant’ constraints. This is a sop to the fact that there is disagreement about what counts as a freedom-undermining constraint. To get a sense of the scope of the disagreement, I would suggest reading my earlier post on Quentin Skinner’s genealogy of freedom. There, I distinguished between external force, coercion, and self-sabotage as potentially relevant types of interference.
Notice second the use of the term ‘actual’ in the definition. This tells us that freedom as non-interference is a non-modal definition of negative freedom. It is only concerned with what happens in the actual world, not with what happens in other possible worlds. This is thought to be a problem by so-called neo-republican theorists of freedom. They think that limiting the focus to the actual world means that liberals cannot account for the absence of freedom in the case of the happy slave. The ‘happy slave’ is a thought experiment in which we are asked to imagine a slave who conforms his/her will to that of his/her master. In other words, they act in a way that always pleases their master. As a result, the slave master never interferes with or imposes constraints on their actions. This means that, according to the definition given above, the slave is free: there are no relevant constraints on their ability to act in this world.
This seems unsatisfactory to the republicans. If you look beyond this actual world to other possible worlds, it seems clear that the slave’s freedom is being undermined. If the slave happens to act in a way that does not please their master, their master stands ready to intervene and prevent them from doing so. They live under the dominion of the slave master. This suggests to the republicans that negative freedom requires more than the absence of constraint in this world. It requires the absence of relevant constraints across a number of possible worlds. They use this to form their own preferred conception of freedom, something called freedom as non-domination.
Freedom as Non-Domination: An agent’s freedom to do X is the robust absence of arbitrary relevant constraints on the agent’s doing X.
We have added two terms to the definition. The ‘robust’ descriptor is supposed to capture the modal nature of freedom as non-domination (i.e. the absence of constraint across a number of possible worlds). The ‘arbitrary’ descriptor requires more explanation. On top of thinking that there is modal dimension to freedom, many republicans think that there is a moral dimension to it too. In other words, not all constraints are morally equal. Some are justified. If I commit a crime and am imprisoned as a result, my freedom to act is constrained, but we might view this as a morally justified constraint. And so, we might be inclined not to include that within the scope of freedom-undermining constraints. This is why we might focus on the absence of arbitrary constraints. (This isn’t quite right but I’ll say more about it in a moment).
Up to this point, we have just been describing the two major theories of negative freedom. When List and Valentini do this in their paper, they note something interesting. They note that the two theories vary along two dimensions: the modal dimension (are they robust or not?) and the moral (do they limit themselves to arbitrary interferences or not?). This suggests that it is possible to arrange theories of freedom into a two-by-two matrix, illustrating the variance along both dimensions. And when you do this, you see something that you might otherwise miss: freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination only represent two out of four possible conceptualisations of negative freedom.
Now, as it happens, there are some liberal theories of freedom that belong in the upper right quadrant (i.e. that are moral but non-robust). List and Valentini mention the theories of freedom defended by Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin as specific examples. These theories say that in order to have negative freedom you must be free from arbitrary constraint in the actual world. But the lower left quadrant is almost completely neglected. The purpose of List and Valentini article is to describe and defend the theory of freedom that belongs in this quadrant.
2. Defending Freedom as Independence
They call this theory of freedom ‘freedom as independence’. It can defined like this:
Freedom as Independence: An agent’s freedom to do X is the robust absence of relevant constraints on the agent’s ability to do X.
The theory is non-moral and modal. It says that you must be free from constraints across a range of possible worlds — it shares this requirement with freedom as non-domination. But it also says that any relevant constraint (even if it is morally justified) counts against your freedom.
List and Valentini present a detailed argument in defence of freedom as independence. I can’t hope to do justice to the nuances of that argument in this post. I’ll just give you a sense of how it works. It starts with two desiderata that plausible theories of freedom ought to meet: (i) they ought to ‘pick out as sources of unfreedom those modal constraints on action that stand in need of justification’ (List and Valentini 2016, 1049); and (ii) they ought to ‘display an adequate level of fidelity to ordinary-language use’ (List and Valentini 2016, 1051). The argument then works like this:
- (1) There are four logically possible theories of negative freedom: (i) freedom as non-interference; (ii) moralised freedom as non-interference; (iii) freedom as independence; and (iv) freedom as non-domination. The theories vary depending on whether they have a robustness requirement (or not) and a moralised exemption clause (or not).
- (2) A plausible theory of freedom should have a robustness requirement (therefore theories (i) and (ii) are ruled out).
- (3) A plausible theory of freedom should not have a moralised exemption clause (therefore theory (iv) is ruled out).
- (4) Therefore, of the four logical possible theories of negative freedom, freedom as independence is the most plausible.
The bulk of the argumentation comes in the defence of premises (2) and (3). List and Valentini defend premise (2) on fairly standard grounds: by appealing to the happy slave thought experiment. They think it is a major defect of all liberal theories of freedom as non-interference that they cannot account for the unfreedom of the slave. The slave’s situation, even if they are happy, stands in need of moral justification and so the first desideratum is not met. Also, in most ordinary language analyses, we would be inclined to say that a slave is unfree (indeed, the slave’s situation may be the paradigm of unfreedom) and so the second desideratum is not met.
That’s the basic argument anyway. The details are a little bit more complicated. As they point in the paper, there are a few different approaches to freedom as non-interference that attempt to account for the slave’s predicament, e.g. by including something like a robustness requirement that focuses on the probability of interference. List and Valentini dismiss solutions of this sort on the grounds that even if the interference from a slave master was improbable it would stand in need of justification and would not conform with our ordinary language usage. Other modifications are discussed and dismissed in the paper. This leaves premise (2) in reasonably good health.
List and Valentini’s argument for premise (3) is more complex. The initial case in its favour is straightforward. Suppose we accept a moral exemption clause. In that case, we would say that someone who was justly imprisoned was not unfree. But this would fail to satisfy our two desiderata. Imprisoning someone definitely requires moral justification and ordinary language usage would similarly insist that an imprisoned person was not free.
The argument becomes complex when List and Valentini try to use it to make the case against freedom as non-domination. The problem is that although they categorise that theory as having a moral exemption clause, some of its most famous proponents insist that it does not. It all comes down to how we interpret the word ‘arbitrary’ in the definition. Philip Pettit — probably the most famous neo-republican — has argued that it does not have a moral connotation. All he means when he says that you must be robustly free from arbitrary constraint is that you are free from constraints that do not match your own avowed interests. So if I have an interest in not paying tax, but the government insists upon taking tax monies from me (or stands ready to do so in some nearby possible world) then my freedom as non-domination is compromised. This is true even if taking tax money is morally legitimate.
List and Valentini argue against Pettit on a couple of grounds. They think a non-moralised theory of arbitrary constraints creates problems when you turn to politics. Pettit has expended considerable energies in recent years trying to square his neo-republican view with democracy. He tries to argue that neo-republicanism supports democratic decision-making on the grounds that democratic decision procedures are the way to work out the citizens’ avowed interests. But List and Valentini say that this only works if the conception of ‘interests’ that is at play in this argument is moral.
The problem is that virtually every democratic decision — barring one involving complete unanimity — will involve the creation of coercive policies that go against at least one citizen’s avowed interests. That much is clear from the tax example I just gave. Democratic decision-making requires compromise: some avowed interests will have to give way to others. The only way to resolve this is to take onboard a moralised theory of avowed interests, i.e. to insist that some interests are morally legitimate and others are not. But if you make that move you resign yourself to the lower right-hand quadrant of the logical space of freedom.
A neo-republican could hang tough and insist on the non-moralised account of arbitrary interferences. But List and Valentini think that this will be unpalatable because the neo-republican theory also purports to provide some account of political justice.
That’s roughly the argument anyway. As I say, there is more detail in the paper than I can hope to cover here. To summarise, by noticing how freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination vary along two distinct dimensions, List and Valentini help to construct a logical space of possible theories of negative freedom. Doing so enables them to spot a neglected theory of freedom, namely freedom as independence. This theory has been ignored in the literature to date but is arguably more plausible than the existing contenders.