Interference, Coercion, Domination, & Powerlessness

[What follows is some dissertation-writing that I think is accessible to my blog readers. I had begun to amend it for SPEP before I gave up on the dual-submission idea, but it was close enough to the blog format that I thought I’d keep going and see what happens. Though I acknowledge this is a longer and drier than my usual fare, I’d really appreciate comments. I’m going to start doing this more regularly unless there are howls of protest or, worse, complete silence.]

 In the 20th Century we saw several definitions of freedom arise, all of which focus on the deprivation of some fundamental or inherent right for their definition. The most important privative accounts were Isaiah Berlin’s conception of liberty as non-interference, Robert Nozick’s conception of freedom as non-coercion, and Philip Pettit’s of freedom as non-domination or antipower. Yet as I shall argue, the best accounts of freedom are positive, active accounts of liberty that mix the work of Hannah Arendt with that of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

As I understand it, most of the contending concepts of freedom draw in some way on the Christian notion of psychological freedom: the untrammeled individual will or volition that chooses between salvation and damnation. That decision is already stacked heavily against the choice of non-belief (a la Pascal’s wager) but we must continue to imagine it as free for theological reasons that have long since ceased to trouble most modern believers and non-believers alike. Yet we continue to fight it out on this ground: was his conversion free? Do I deserve damnation? Etc Since the sovereign stands in for the Judeo-Christian God, we’re seeking an account of political freedom between sovereing and subject that preserves the hierarchical relationship between creator and creature.

Q: Can you play the piano?

A: I don’t know, I’ve never tried.

One compaint about positive conceptions of freedom is that they cannot appropriately distinguish between an un-exercised option (being free to speak but choosing to remain silent) and a deprecated option (remaining silent because the social, political, or economic costs of speech are too high.) Privative definitions of freedom benefit from allowing us to avoid the problem of potentiality: they seek constraints and limits and declare freedom where none are present. Yet the major theorists of privative theories of freedom were ultimately just as interested in the acts of subjects unencumbered by state intervention as they were by the avoidance of that interference or coercion itself. As we shall see, skepticism of the state plays a much larger role in motivating these privative theorists than their basic theories might lead us to believe.

For Isaiah Berlin, all laws are ‘fetters’ even when they protect us from ‘heavier chains’ such as chaos or despotism. Negative liberty as non-interference or non-coercion locates zones in which we are free to do what we are able, and does not inquire too far into what makes us able to do them.  In order to violate my freedom understood as negative liberty, an interference must come from a third party who is conscious of and responsible for her act of interference. As most of my readers probably know, Berlin moves from his celebration of negative liberty to consider the case for ‘positive’ liberty which supplies the means of accomplishing what many are unable to do for stuctural reasons. Because of the Cold War context in which he was writing, Berlin’s primary concerns were political freedoms and contraints imposed by the state, and he argues that positive liberties usually conceal authoritarian or totalitarian impulses, and have historically been justifications for curtailing the zones of negative liberty in which we can do what we are able without measurably improving positive liberties. Berlin tells us that positive conceptions of liberty that emphasize self-government tend to divide the human personality into two: one part that rules the other. Depending on how we divide that personality, we may find that the state has thrown its weight behind a part of ourselves that we do not even recognize. We ought to prefer the negative conception of liberty to the positive one, he says, because it reduces the state’s overall capacity to coerce us, it weakens the fetters it might otherwise put on the individual in the name of some principle we know not, and it avoids the risk that the state will suppress our plural and incommensurable prefernences through reference to some comprehensive theory of the human person that pretends to justify its interference.

For Robert Nozick, freedom from coercion requires not simply externality and agency, but also a certain kind of rebalancing of the options presented to the one coerced: unlike interference, coercion occurs whenever a choice is rendered more or less desirable through threats and incentives. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, since it proposes to render offers and promises coercive. Any change from the baseline desirability of an option counts as coercion:  for instance, though I do not currently want to work for Catholic University, I might agree to do so if they ‘sweeten the pot’ by offering me more money or fewer teaching duties.  Because of this we can speak of ‘justified’ and ‘unjustified’ coercion: it is justified to make some actions, such as drug use, less desirable, just as it is justified to make some options, like charity or wearing a helmet, more desirable. In addition to acts and threats, deception can also be coercive, because it renders a choice more or less desirable even if it does not change the acutal benefit or detriment to be gained. (None of these examples are particularly Nozickian, however: we ought to concentrate on pollution and theft to preserve the tenor of the minimal state.)

Using Nozick’s account rather than Berlin’s, we can at least acknowledge the coerciveness of the choice between joblessness and labor, or between salvation and damnation, and we can then enter into democratic deliberations about state action (or theological deliberations about Church doctrine) with the understanding that these are coercive institutions with various techniques of rebalancing desires and preferences, and treat citizens (or souls) like rational choosers who (Nozick argues) ought not to be coerced to achieve public goods. We do so, according to Nozick, recognizing that while coercion is not inherently or indefeasibly wrong, it must meet the same standard of justification as interference because it is effectively the same activity: violation of a right. Thus, for instance, we should be just as cautious of taxation as criminalization.

One of the problems here is that Nozick seems to lack perspective, as evidenced by his claim that taxes are paramount to slavery: if I must pay one-third of my income to the government or else face imprisonment, this is allegedly akin to a slave who spends one-third of her time working for a master who will otherwise beat her.  Another problem is that Nozick’s view of coercion contains a success provision: I am not coerced if I choose the option that my coercer was attempting to make less desirable. Thus, I am not coerced when threatened if I do not heed the threat, even if the threatener carries out her threat, and I am not coerced by price-gouging or monopolistic market practices if my demand (for urgent life-saving medications, for instance) is not reduced by the change in price. These are counter-intuitive claims, to say the least, and they tend to bolster the state-oriented objections to coercion while weakening our objections to apparent coercion on the part of private parties, especially corporations. 

Using Philip Pettit’s signature brand of civic republicanism, we can better navigate the disjunct between negative liberty and coercion. For Pettit, freedom is specifically freedom from domination, and domination is understood to encompass force and the threat of force,  like coercion, and restraint and obstruction, like interference. In addition, it includes the (sometimes coercive, somtimes interfering) practices of manipulation and deception directed to alter or prevent choices and actions of the dominated subject.

Now Pettit differs from Nozick for several reasons. First, he argues that domination requires a substantive detriminent in the wefare of that subject, such that incentives, offers, and promises are not understood as domination or subjugation so long as they improve her standing or welfare. Catholic University’s hypothetical job offer can hardly be called subjugation, after all. In order to dominate someone, you must know what is good for her, and enforce the opposite. Second, Pettit argues that domination requires that interference be absolutely arbitrary, that it occur (1) with impunity, i.e. without punishment or accountability, and (2) at will, i.e. without the assistance, consent, or approval of a legitimating agency but rather at the dominator’s pleasure. Third, Pettit asserts that domination need not be total, as it would be for a slave, but might extend only to woman’s intimate life (an abusive husband) or an employee’s workplace (an asshole boss.) The spheres of domination are not then limited to one’s public life or one’s relationship to the state, though domination by agents of the state (as in the military or a prison) is certainly a very troubling and pervasive brand of un-freedom.

Pettit’s acount of domination is a marked improvement on Berlin and Nozick because of its emphasis on the arbitrary and detrimental exercise or non-exercise of power. Judicial review, institutional protections, the support of social movements, and any other situation in which a power to interfere is checked and balanced, will not count as domination for Pettit. Nor will the the dominator’s choice not to interfere in a particular decision render the choice free: to live under a benign or merciful master is still to live under domination. This locates domination in its proper place: the arbiter of arbitary interference, the one in whom the decision to interfere rests, is the one with whom we have a quarrel. This is particularly important because it allows us to better parse the relationship between the non-arbitrary imposition of prejudicial or discriminatory force.

In Pettit’s example, a police officer who enforces an unjust rule over which she has no discretion is not, herself, an agent of domination: rather, that domination inheres in the parliament or bureaucrat who actually did have the at-will and with-impunity power to author the unjust law or regulation. At the same time, these laws or rules may also facilitate the domination by said police officer insofar as she can arbitrarily decide to enforce the rule or not, doubling the subjugation of the person against whom the rule is targeted.

For Pettit, the best way to achieve non-domination is not through the reduction of the power to interfere, but rather through the multiplication and equitable distribution of opportunities for interference. In this way, the arbitrariness of interference is sapped because the ‘at-will’ and ‘with-impunity’ conditions are progressively eliminated. He calls this checking and balancing ‘anti-power.’ Thus, for instance, we do not eliminate spousal abuse by reducing the husband’s capacity to triumph physically over his partner, but by supplying the partner with countervailing legal or economic resources that allow his abused partner to retaliate. Similarly, we can reduce the dominating quality of state interference either by limiting its powers in a libertarian mode or subjecting them to oversight and regulation. We can also render interference non-dominating by subjecting it to the  deliberative approval or veto of those who will be hampered or constrained. Finally, we can render interference non-dominating when it benefits or increases the welfare and standing of the one with whom we interfere. In contrast with Berlin’s claim that all laws are ‘fetters,’ Pettit can argue that laws that reduce our total fetters are no fetter at all.

One of the things that troubles me most about contemporary definitions of freedom are that they usually speak of this deprivation in terms of deprivations that result from the decisions of other agents, and never of the deprivations that are built into the physical world. Arendt, however, would acknowledge that powerlessness can just as easily result from a natural disaster as from human action, and that we ought to mourn the acts that go undone because of earthquake or tsunami just as much as we do those that are lost to genocide or oppression. In this, she is joined by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, who take a kind of modified utilitarian approach to these questions, seeking institutions and policies that will maximise ‘human beings and doings’ instead of merely enhancing the balance of pleasure and pain. Freed of the burden of discovering a guilty party, they can move directly to amelioration and harm reduction. 

Where it is difficult to see what basis privative conceptions of freedom, even Pettit’s, would give us to prefer a constitutionally-checked democracy to an equitable anarcho-syndicalism, Arendt and her followers are able to adjudicate that choice by supplying a positive conception of freedom. This requires us to sign on to the double privative of freedom as non-powerlessness, i.e. freedom as power. For Arendt, it’s important that we actually engage in certain activities in order to flourish as human beings. Simply living an unfettered life will not suffice, no matter how joyous is may be, because there are certain activities that are required to make a life worth living. Specifically, for Arendt, we must appear to our community in public acts regarding the basic constitution of our political world if we are achieve the singularization that only public acts can supply. 

Many people, including Sen and Nussbaum, find this kind of phenomenological essentialism troubling. How can we sign on to the notion that a life lived without political engagement is less good or worthwhile than a political one? Doesn’t this seem presumptuous, even prejudicial? Valuing political life over family life has tended to feed patriarchal institutions justifications for their misogyny. Valuing work over play feeds into our protestant capitalist obsession with productivity. That is why Sen and Nussbaum retreat to capabilities: a truly full life is very difficult for most people to accomplish, so a better way to think about power and justice is to measure our various capabilities, both exercised and left fallow. To be capable is to have access to ‘beings and doings’ without necessarily having to accomplished each and every one of them. I am able to have children, for instance, but I am not less capable because I have chosen a life without offspring, even though that choice is made under constraints and so as to maximise my other capabilities. This also grants some leeway to individuals in their pursuit of personally fulfilling good lives rather than mandating one good life that most people will fail to achieve.

I think Sen and Nussbaum likely supply the best version of positive freedom for political philosophy because of the demands of reasonable pluralism. That said, I don’t find any of those falliblist and pluralist reasons for retreating from a substantive and demanding conception of the Good Life really sufficient, which is why I’m constantly drawn back to Arendt even though Nussbaum and Sen are (professionally) safer and more popular advocates of a very amenable positive concept of freedom.

8 thoughts on “Interference, Coercion, Domination, & Powerlessness”

  1. This is very good, AnPan. I'm wondering if you've ever thought about taking up good ol' Sartre on this topic? Although Sartre's conception of human freedom (from Being and Nothingness anyway) is often wrongly taken to claimn that human beings are "absolutely free [to make whatever choices and accomplish whatever actions they will]," his claim in fact is only that human beings are never completely "unfree." I used to struggle with this claim a lot, especially after I started reading Butler and Foucault and understood more about structural/institutional power, but I find myself less bothered by Sartre's claim everytime I re-read it. His example– one of many– is of a prisoner, who Sartre takes to be the model of "unfreedom" as we commonly understand it; that is, the prisoner cannot do anything that he wants or wills, his "freedom" is completely restricted. But, as Sartre points out, the most basic things that make the (human) prisoner uniquely "human" are not– and canno— be restricted. His guards may govern his movement and his actions, but they cannot govern how he thinks about them, how he makes (or fails to make) his situation meaningful. He can spend his days planning his escape, writing poetry or revolutionary ideology, or falling into a depression. And, of course, he can always take his own life. So, to use your language, I guess that means that Sartre has a privative definition of "unfreedom" (which I think we can take to mean all of the varieties of unfreedom that you mention herein: coercion, interference, domination, etc.). Ironically, this is the opposite of how most people read Sartre: instead of Sartre putting forth a concept of "absolute freedom" (which we all take to be impossible), he puts forth a concept of "absolute unfreedom" (and then shows us that that is what is impossible).

    I like this conception better than Sen and Nussbaum's positive conception of freedom as "access to 'beings and doings'", in part because it posits the *function* of human freedom as "meaning-making" rather than mere "being" or "doing." I worry that as long as we focus our questions about freedom on "beings" or "doings," we will always end up having to frame them in the following way: but why can't I be otherwise? why can't I do otherwise? And I think those questions inevitably draw us back into negative conceptions of freedom… without recognizing that the capacity to ask those questions at all is evidence of the freedom for which we seek.

    [This was a little fast and loose. More later. But I wanted to get the discussion going here so that you don't stop posting!]

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Dr. J. You're the second person to recommend Sartre to me this week, so I'm going to have to do more work on a response, but here's my first pass.

      I balk at the Sartrean notion of freedom because it doesn't admit of degrees. For Sartre I'm never completely constrained because of the gap between my self and the world, right? That's the negativity that he locates in subjectivity, in that distinction between self and presence. One issue that arises for me right off the bat is this: if I can never be fully constrained or coerced, if even the slave boy can choose to bash his own head in rather than follow a simple command, how can freedom admit of degrees? For Sartre (or for you) what room is there for arguments regarding the injustice of some or another unfreedom?

      It seems to me that when the state arrests and detains someone for five years, they've had their freedom restricted. But from the Sartrean perspective, that doesn't seem to be the case. Moreover, I think even that "onto-psychological" freedom he's championing can be taken away, for instance, through torture or deprivation. I'm not sure that Sartre would agree, but it's quite clear that this happens: Primo Levi talks about people who had been utterly destroyed by hunger, exhaustion, and despair in the concentration camps as Muselmann, from the literal meaning of Muslim, 'one who submits [to God].' In those moments of total domination, I suspect even Sartre's freedom is lost, and we can even answer the question 'why can't I be/do otherwise' with particular and material reasons: because of the lack of food, rest, and a responsive community of meaning-production and meaning-preservation. If we can recognize that freedom is foreclosed in this kind of extreme deprivation, where perhaps we'd say that a person has lost what makes them essentially human, then can't we build a more comprehensive understanding of freedom/humanity that encompasses some of the things that even non-prisoners are deprived of: respect and dignity, control of one's political environment, physical security and bodily inviolability, play, etc.?

  2. Good questions/objections.

    My initial reponse is to point out that I think you may be operating with the same caricature of Sartre that almost all of us get from our undergrad (and, too often, grad) profs– namely, that Sartre only offers us a choice between "absolute freedom" and "absolute unfreedom." That is precisely the sort of false dilemma that Sartre's work allows us to avoid, I contend, because he scknowledges that both "absolute freedom" and "absolute unfreedom" are not only philosophically unsustainable concepts, but also unverified in our expereince. So, there is nothing but the "degrees" of freedom for which you seek. This is what I take to be the point of Sartre's insistence that we always find ourselves in a "situation." That is, it makes no sense, really, to talk about human freedom as some ding-an-sich diengaged from a context in which it might be put to use or restricted, employed or coerced, realized or abrogated.

    To your direct question: "if I can never be fully constrained or coerced, if even the slave boy can choose to bash his own head in rather than follow a simple command, how can freedom admit of degrees?" I would say: it's only because you can never be "fully" constrained or coerced that you can admit of "degrees" of freedom. Admitting that coercion or constraint is never complete is not the same as admitting that it does not occur in greater or less degrees, nor does it prevent the (moral and political) evaluation of those degrees. We can certainly structure a moral or political philosophy around the minimization of coercion and constraint (as in liberalism), just in the same way that we can structure a moral or political philosophy around their maximization (as in totalitarianism). My contention (and Sartre's, I think) is only that the effort to maximize or minimize freedom and/or coercion is moot if you admit the possibility for one of their's utter triumph over the other.

    And that last point is one upon which I think we may actually disagree. I am disinclined to permit something like what Agamben calls human "bare life" (referencing, as he does, Levi's account of the Muselmann). This is not to say that I disagree with your (and Agamben's, and Levi's) contention that human beings are bodies, after all, and that they sometimes are so saddled with need or pain that they cease to appear "human" (in the Sartrean sense, by which I mean "not totally unfree"). But at the risk of over-stating my point here, I would say that at that point what we are considering is some person who is no longer a "person," someone who is already dead– no longer a "human being"– in the same way that I think brain-dead patients are no longer human beings, because they no longer have the capacity to exercise even the minimal options that Sartre allows for human freedom. I think you, too, indirectly allow for this interpretation, in your reference to the kind of "extreme deprivation" where "a person has lost what makes them essentially human." So, my question to you is this: why take that case (the Muselmann's case) as the paradigmatic case for defining human freedom if you are already willing to concede that such a case no longer involves a "human" as we are willing to understand it? Why not take that case as the paradigmatic case of the elimination of human life, in which "human life" is not reduced to mere biological functioning, but instead recognizes that we have already crossed an (irreversible) philosophical line when we permit the "utterly unfree" "bare life" into considerations of human freedom?

  3. I think you're right to locate our disagreement in the question of total domination. Strangely, I think we both agree that it is impossible, so we're disputing the paradigm of that impossibility. I'd love to see more of your thinking here: this is a weak humanism issue for you, I suspect.

    I'll agree that human freedom is never fully constrained nor fully unconstrained, and that we therefore engage in moral and political life in that space cleared between those extremes. As you say, there are always options that are given to us in a situation, a phenomenological 'world.' Though Sartre himself seems sometimes to deny this claim in his hyperbolic style, I think you've captured the insight that he's trying to convey: human experience always involves some degree of leeway or optionality. In Arendt's terms, human freedom has the character of 'natality,' it interrupts a given situation with unforeseeable novelty. Yet this capacity for natality is really, really fragile. If it is destroyed, as it can be by terror or isolation, we are only free insofar as we are reconstructing the preconditions of that unforeseeable novelty.

    In general I've been trying to argue that it's a mistake to approach the question of freedom purely in ontological or phenomenological terms, and especially in terms of only intersubjective interference/coercion/domination. Would you agree?

    You ask: Why not take that case as the paradigmatic case of the elimination of human life, in which “human life” is not reduced to mere biological functioning, but instead recognizes that we have already crossed an (irreversible) philosophical line when we permit the “utterly unfree” “bare life” into considerations of human freedom?

    One of my problems with the Agamben-style discussion of human beings and bare life is the way he is developing the ambiguity in the biological and philosophical conceptions of human. He lets that tension do a little too much work for him, and then gets very playful with the aporias entailed by 'survival' or 'life that does not deserve to be lived.' I have to really work hard to distinguish myself from Remnants of Auschwitz here, so let me just say that a non-ontologizing account of the Muselmann, in which an always-still-biologically-human loses and then sometimes regains the capability to act autonomously seems to show us some of the antecedent material and phenomenological preconditions of freedom are. Freedom is never totally constrained in that situation because Muselmanner could and did commit suicide or succumb to a kind of Bartleby-esque "I'd prefer not" of radical passivity, but this is definitely the asymptotic limit of unfreedom that never quite becomes total.

    So my paradigm isn't so much the Muselmann as it is the homeless folks I sometimes dealt with professionally in NYC. When a person is sufficiently deprived, they start to look an awful lot like those descriptions of the Muselmann… BUT we can and do bring them back from the brink by supplying them with the material and social goods that are the material antecedents of the capabilities you and I enjoy: food, a bed, a job, a community, a source of meaning, basic respect, etc. So we can answer your initial question "but why can’t I be otherwise? why can’t I do otherwise?" by reference to the material conditions that lead to privations and capabilities.

    Of course, when we focus our attention on political institutions and the basic structures of society we notice that capabilities have a tendency to cluster: physical security tends to go along with civil or political freedoms, literacy correlates highly with control over one's political environment, etc. That's the sense in which freedom should be understood in the positive way I discussed above. We perceive freedom deficits in those who are deprived of privileges or advantages granted to others. We find that the least-advantaged usually cannot access the mechanisms of legislation or enforcement. Liberal rights, entitlements, and offices usually go to those who have access to antecedent privileges like material wealth, education, or health, and those who are deprived of those privileges tend to experience the state (even the liberal state) as tyrannical violence and subjugation.

    Obviously class, like race and gender, figures heavily though in increasingly complicated ways, into one's various capabilities here in the US. As I like to point out, class and class-mobility in the US is now largely a matter of two factors: intergenerational wealth transfers and dual-earning households. However, I think it's useful to approach this in terms of the background institutions that reward the unearned attributes associated with membership in the middle and upper-classes, with whiteness, or with maleness rather than to treat privilege as (for instance) intersubjective domination. Together, the disadvantages of having poor or divorced parents tend to increase a person's likelihood to experience malnutrition, learning disabilities, inadequate health care, imprisonment, homelessness, infant mortality, excessive indebtedness, untreated or institutionalized mental illness, social isolation, alienation/anomie, and political exclusion. None of these things alone constitute unfreedom, but as a person collects them they come closer to that Muselmann-state. Like the capabilities, these deprivations tend to cluster, and we have an obligation, at the very least, to decouple them from the big three race/class/gender.

  4. Okay, I basically agree with everything in your response. Especially the last paragraph.

    I also agree with you that it's a mistake to approach the question of freedom "in terms of only intersubjective interference/coercion/domination"… BUT, I'm not sure that your "positive" conception of freedom isn't still (mostly) an "ontological or phenomenological" account.

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