What Does It Mean to be Free?

Freedom’s just freedom right?  Well no actually.  Joe Gelonesi, presenter of ABC Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone, spoke recently with political philosopher, Philip Pettit, and it appears the meaning of freedom has shifted over time and depending on your outlook this may not be a good thing.

According to Pettit, Professor of Philosophy at ANU and author of Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, freedom is not what it once was back in the day….and we are talking right back in the day of Republican Rome.  Since the rise of liberalism, freedom has come to represent an attitude of non-interference.  If a person can navigate his or her life with as little interference from the powers that be as possible, that person can be seen as free.  However, Pettit says this is not how the concept of freedom was envisaged in Republican Rome.  Back then, freedom was established by an absence of domination.

Philip Pettit’s Eyeball Test

To borrow the Roman Republican view of freedom, it isn’t good enough to be free from interference.  You need to pass Pettit’s Eyeball Test.  Pettit argues if a person cannot look another in the eye without fear or favour, they are not free.  Even if those who hold dominion over us are benevolent and leave us to our own devices, the fact that they can interfere does not constitute freedom in the eyes of Republican Rome or Philip Pettit.

Non-interference or Non-domination

Both visions of freedom have ramifications.  Pettit points out that a supporter of freedom by non-interference would demand less laws, seeing them as the very kind of interference they seek to avoid.  Meanwhile, a supporter of non-domination would require many laws to protect the rights of the individual.  These different conceptions of freedom have far-reaching consequences and each may involve trade-offs.  On one hand, there is a lack of intervention with an ‘anything goes’ mentality and, on the other hand, a profusion of laws with a stronger sense of social justice.  Still, even with an increasing number of hoops to jump through and the possibility of frustration from time to time, I think this homo sapien prefers the latter.

A Writer’s Concern

Philip Pettit’s use of Ibsen’s, A Doll’s House, as an example of a lack of freedom even in the face of non-interference brings the differences home.  If you have an interest in this question of freedom, do read it when you can.  It’s an eye-opener.  Freedom is not a kind father/husband figure on whose future kindness we must continue to depend.  The feminist within recoils in horror at the thought.  In fact, I think I have itchy fingers over this one and would like to write a short story, which, like Ibsen’s play, shows how the two conceptions of freedom can and often do come to blows.  In the meantime though, I am interested in what you think.  Please feel free to fill out the poll below or leave a comment.