Freedom as Non-domination, Robustness, and Distant Threats

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 24 (4):889-900 (2021)
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It is a core feature of the conception of freedom as non-domination that freedom requires the absence of exposure to arbitrary power across a range of relevant possible worlds. While this modal robustness is critical to the analysis of paradigm cases of unfreedom such as slavery, critics such as Gerald Gaus have argued that it leads to absurd conclusions, with barely-felt constraints appearing as sources of unfreedom. I aim to clarify the demands of the modal robustness requirement, and offer a reinterpretation of its place in the conceptual framework of freedom as non-domination. I illustrate this point through a discussion of low-probability threats of interference which are central to Gaus’s critique, which I term ‘distant threats’. I argue that those committed to robust conceptions of freedom should still be concerned by these kinds of threats, which will sometimes constitute genuine sources of unfreedom. But rather than leading to absurd conclusions, we should instead view them as diagnostic of deficiencies within existing regimes of non-domination. The challenge posed by distant threats of domination to the republican conception of freedom does not prove it implausible, but illustrates some of its most important insights about the social and economic conditions of free status, and the fragility of that freedom.

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Alexander Bryan
Cambridge University


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