Unit 5: Justice

Republican Freedom

David Campbell

David Campbell is a law lecturer at the University of Oxford where he teaches Jurisprudence – (philosophy of law). His research interests revolve around ascriptions of liability and culpability of practically reasoning agents. as part of this and more generally, he has an interest in notions of Republican freedom as they relate to legal assessments.


“A Republic ma’am, if you can keep it.” Such is how Benjamin Franklin is said to have answered Mrs. Powell when she asked what form of government the constitutional convention had decided upon for what has become the United States of America.[1] Not a democracy. Not a representative democracy. A republic. This was no trip of the tongue, or rough approximation, or proxy. What’s more it was recognized as requiring deliberate effort to maintain. Such an effort must surely first require identifying the philosophical demands and ideals of republicanism. Republicanism is an ancient form of constitutional governance but it has specific commitments not necessarily entailed in other forms of government. Much good could come from recognizing these commitments including the importance of civic virtue, the nature of corruption as factionalism or pursuit of one’s party’s interests over the common good; the evil of allowing monied interests to play a role in deliberations on the common good etc. This becomes all the more pertinent if the second part of Franklin’s reply is to be respected, in other words if we are to “keep it.” There are rich, half-forgotten veins of thought that those of us who live in republics could do well to remember and put into practice. The purpose of this paper however is to draw out one special philosophical conception entailed in republicanism; namely, freedom as non-domination. In particular it will use the foil of liberal freedom, or freedom as non-interference to hone in on the special characteristics of republican freedom.[2]

Historical Context

Republicanism has ancient roots; noted as being either of an Athenian or Roman variety.[3] Somewhat surprisingly (to the uninitiated at least) both streams of thought converge in that great and central republican theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli. Although most famous for his work, The Prince,[4] (which was more by way of a job application to the Medici family than an expression of any particular intellectual interest) his greater efforts by far were devoted to republican thought in his seminal work, Discourses on Livy.[5] Through Machiavelli and into the enlightenment era these ancient strains of thought heavily influenced the English commonwealth tradition and thereafter the American founding fathers. Modern republican thinkers have picked up these strands and have made interesting philosophical claims as to the nature of republican freedom (the purpose of our examination here). Most notable of the modern thinkers as relates to republican freedom is Prof. Philip Pettit.[6] It has been his enterprise to draw out the specific dimensions of republican freedom which he claims is well represented by the concept of freedom as non-domination. To understand this better we shall contrast freedom as non-domination with liberal freedom or freedom as non-interference.[7]

In the ancient Greco-Roman world – from whence republicanism sprang – slavery was commonplace and so it is little wonder that notions of liberty were elucidated via the distinction between master and slave. While thankfully no longer common place the philosophical scenario or thought experiment of a master/slave relationship will prove useful for drawing out the distinct forms of republican freedom versus liberal freedom.

Negative/Positive Freedom

No consideration of the concept of freedom could arise without reference to Isaiah Berlin’s rich contribution, Two Concepts of Liberty[8] (worthy of careful examination itself). For the purposes of this paper we might briefly describe the two concepts of liberty as follows; Negative freedom/negative liberty is a freedom from type of liberty i.e. an absence of constraints imposed from without. Positive freedom on the other hand can be understood as a freedom to kind of liberty, incorporating an aspect of self-mastery. For example a drug addict may be free from external interference but in many ways they are slaves to their addiction, in this way we might describe them as enjoying negative freedom but not positive freedom.

The liberal thinking on freedom begins in something of a fantasy; the state of nature. Under this model we begin with (hu)man in a state of nature enjoying full sovereignty. Such a state alas is “nasty, brutish and short”[9] and so as such they trade some sovereignty for security and other values in a social contract. Under this model the interference of others is by definition to be regretted. To be free is to be unencumbered by outside forces; in other words it is freedom as non-interference. This kind of freedom is sometimes referred to as the freedom of the countryside.[10] It is the freedom on the self-sufficient farmer.

Republican freedom by contrast can be thought of as the freedom of the city. The starting point of this model is not a theoretical state of nature but rather the reality of (hu)man-in-community. The reality of human existence is taken to be that we are social animals. Under this paradigm the law is needed for the protections necessary to prevent the domination of the weak by the strong.

Let us turn now to consider what exactly it is republicans mean by domination and what the notion of freedom as non-domination is intended to address.


Philip Pettit gives a clear exposition of the evil of domination which republican freedom seeks to counter in the following:

The grievance I have in mind is that of having to live at the mercy of (p.5) another, having to live in a manner that leaves you vulnerable to some ill that the other is in a position arbitrarily to impose; and this, in particular, when each of you is in a position to see that you are dominated by the other, in a position to see that you each see this, and so on. It is the grievance expressed by the wife who finds herself in a position where her husband can beat her at will, and without any possibility of redress; by the employee who dare not raise a complaint against an employer, and who is vulnerable to any of a range of abuses, some petty, some serious, that the employer may choose to perpetrate; by the debtor who has to depend on the grace of the moneylender, or the bank official, for avoiding utter destitution and ruin; and by the welfare dependant who finds that they are vulnerable to the caprice of a counter clerk for whether or not their children will receive meal vouchers.[11]

Pettit argues freedom understood as non-interference is incapable of properly accounting for this type of grievance. He proposes the above highlights the need for something more than just being left alone. Pettit considers such arbitrary power as detailed above an evil which republicanism and its associated equality of citizenship cannot abide.

He claims “freedom as non-domination requires us to reduce the capacities for arbitrary interference to which a person is exposed, while freedom as non-interference requires us to minimize the person’s expectation of interference as such.”[12] Which highlights neatly the distinction between liberal concern with reducing interference and the deeper Republican concern with the status and dignity of the citizen which precludes “talking in probabilistic terms”[13] As Skinner explains, such talk of reducing the probability of interference is to “misunderstand the existential condition of the slave.”[14]

However, both non-interference and non-domination are opportunity conceptions of freedom, so a problem arises; are they (relevantly) different?

Domination vs. Interference:

In order to put clear water between the Republican theory of freedom as non-domination and the liberal theory of freedom as non-interference Pettit has the burden of distinguishing domination from interference and thus devotes considerable effort in his writings to do this.

Concerns have been raised as to whether or not republican freedom as non-domination adds anything to the positive/negative dichotomy. The principal objection is that freedom as non-domination is indistinguishable from negative freedom with some noting:

This account is still closer to the negative than to the positive conception of liberty. It is an opportunity rather than an exercise conception of freedom. It is more concerned with consolidating non-interference than with establishing a fuller notion of freedom.[15]

Indeed Pettit himself recognizes this difficulty “But there may be a problem in seeing how it is distinguished from the negative ideal of non-interference by others, for it may not be obvious that mastery or domination really is different from interference.”[16] He focuses in on the distinction between non-interference (negative liberty) and non-domination (his proposed republican freedom). His contention is that “the difference between them comes out in the fact that it is possible to have domination without interference and interference without domination”.[17]

An example he draws upon to highlight this distinction is the benign master. Imagine a master who owns a slave. As it happens he is quite content to allow his slave pursue their own interests and desires without interference. He may at any time, and for any reason, or none, interfere in the slave’s choices and actions. It just so happens that he has no desire to do so. Under a negative liberty view of non-interference, once the master doesn’t actually interfere in his slave’s choices then the slave enjoys freedom. However, under the republican view while the slave may be described as fortunate not to be actively interfered with they can, in no substantive way, be deemed to enjoy freedom. This distinction between interference and domination is drawn out by Pettit when he opines:

This account is still closer to the negative than to the positive conception of liberty. It is an opportunity rather than an exercise conception of freedom. It is more concerned with consolidating non-interference than with establishing a fuller notion of freedom.[18]

There are – according to this analysis – the following permutations:

  1. Interference and Domination
  2. Interference but no Domination
  3. Domination but no Interference
  4. No Domination and No Interference

There is no disagreement between the theories regarding permutations 1 and 4. The differences arise from permutations 2 and 3. Number 3 has been discussed above regarding the concept of the benign master. Pettit proposes the concept of non-mastering interference as an example of number 2. For example, prospective and rule-of-law compliant human rights legislation may interfere with our choices in that the rights of others must now be respected but it does so in a way that cannot be described as arbitrary control or domination.

It is therefore through the above dissociation of interference from domination Pettit proposes we understand the added value and richness of the special character of republican freedom; freedom as non-domination.


This paper has introduced the republican conception of freedom as non-domination. Following a brief historical contextualization the paper considered the standard division of negative and positive liberty. The piece proceeded then to consider the evil of domination, leading therefrom to an examination of Pettit’s disassociation of interference from domination.

Liberty or freedom is a contested concept with reasonable disagreement available. It is important however to understand the contours of the debate. All the more so if we are citizens of, or actively pledge ourselves to, a republic. The special commitments of republicanism become all the more important for us to understand and debate.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Does Pettit successfully disassociate freedom as non-domination from freedom as non-interference?
  2. Does freedom as non-domination offer a useful challenge to the concept of non-interference?
  3. Does freedom as non-domination offer a ‘third way’ in the negative/positive liberty model?
  4. Ought we consider law to be an impingement on our liberty as citizens or creative of that liberty?
  5. Is there a difference between having no master and being one’s own master? If so, is this well accounted for by freedom as non-domination?


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  1. Cf also https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/10/29/what-we-get-wrong-about-ben-franklins-republic-if-you-can-keep-it/
  2. Needless to say terms such as republicanism and liberalism used here in the formal, theoretical, and philosophical sense rather than the modern everyday usage. Indeed it is interesting to note how committed many political ‘republicans’ are to liberal ideals of freedom and how attractive republicanism may be to political ‘liberals’.
  3. Cécile Laborde and John Maynor, ‘The Republican Contribution to Contemporary Political Theory’ in Cécile Laborde and John Maynor (eds), Republicanism and Political Theory (Blackwell Publishing 2008) 3
  4. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (George Bull tr, first published 1532, Penguin 1974)
  5. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, (Julia Conaway Bonadella and Peter E Bonadella trs, first published 1531, Oxford University Press 2009)
  6. https://www.princeton.edu/~ppettit/
  7. The contrast here will be of a central case variety. As with any concepts and ideological positions there are of course lots of shades and overlaps etc. For the purposes of this introduction however the central case approach is taken as apt.
  8. Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, (Oxford University Press 1969)
  9. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Crawford, Brough, Macpherson eds, Penguin 1968)
  10. Philip Pettit, Republicanism A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press 2002) 122
  11. Philip Pettit, Republicanism A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press 2002) 5
  12. Philip Pettit, Republicanism A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press 2002) 85
  13. Quentin Skinner, ‘Freedom as The Absence of Arbitrary Power’ in Cécile Laborde and John Maynor (eds), Republicanism and Political Theory (Blackwell Publishing 2008) 96
  14. Quentin Skinner, ‘Freedom as The Absence of Arbitrary Power’ in Cécile Laborde and John Maynor (eds), Republicanism and Political Theory (Blackwell Publishing 2008) 96
  15. Iseult Honohan, Civic Republicanism (Routledge 2002) 185
  16. Philip Pettit, Republicanism A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press 2002) 22
  17. Philip Pettit, Republicanism A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press 2002)
  18. Iseult Honohan, Civic Republicanism (Routledge 2002) 185


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