Freedom as Non-domination: An Appraisal

If you enjoy non-domination, there is a protection for you from any form of arbitrary interference, whereas enjoying non-interference does not provide any such security. In short, freedom as non-domination ensures immunity to arbitrary control.


The concept of freedom occupies a significant position in almost any intellectual discourse concerning human beings whether as individuals at personal level or as individuals at group level. The most recent and widely influential contribution to the discussion of the concept of freedom has been that of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated article, Two Concepts of Liberty, where he made the famous distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty, for Berlin, means the absence of constraint or interference whereas positive liberty means “self-mastery”.

As a matter of fact, the conception of freedom as non-interference has been dominating the political discourse since the late eighteenth century. This notion of freedom as non-interference is associated with the liberal tradition or liberal conception of freedom-classical as well as modern liberalism. However, there are prominent thinkers and philosophers who insist that the discussion of the conception of freedom cannot be completed by Berlin’s distinction of negative liberty and positive liberty alone. They also have serious doubts regarding the general conviction that freedom as non-interference or freedom as the absence of interference is the only sensible ideal. They see an alternative which they think is superior to the notion of freedom as non-interference. They call this “freedom as non-domination” and is associated with the republican tradition or notion of freedom.

Freedom as Non-interference versus Freedom as Non-domination

Domination and interference are not similar. The two have different meanings and different implications. We can say that both are ways to limit the exercise of freedom or liberty. But the kind of limitation that the two provides is very different from one another.

Philip Pettit. Image: Source

According to Philip Pettit, it is possible to have domination without interference and interference without domination. A person may be dominated by another without actually being interfered with in any of his or her choices. Consider, for example, a relationship between a master and a slave or a servant. It may just happen that the master is kind-hearted and non-interfering. Or, it may also happen that the servant is clever enough to be able to escape with whatever he or she likes. What Pettit argues is that the servant in this case suffers domination to the extent that he or she has a master; the servant enjoys non-interference to the extent that the master fails to interfere.

Pettit also argues that as a person may suffer domination without interference, so he or she may undergo interference without being dominated, without relating to anyone in the fashion of slave or subject. In this case, an interference may be allowed but only on the condition that the interference promises to further the interests of the one who is being interfered, and promises to do so according to opinions of a kind that he or she shares, the one who is being interfered. There is a condition to that interference: interference without satisfying the provided conditions are subjected to penalty. According to Pettit, such a case of interference is not an exercise of domination; there is no arbitrary basis of that interference.

To quote Pettit,

“Domination can occur without interference, because it requires only that someone have the capacity to interfere arbitrarily in your affairs; no one need actually interfere. Interference can occur without domination, because interference need not involve the exercise of a capacity for arbitrary interference, only the exercise of a much more constrained ability.”

Interference and domination are two different evils, Pettit says, and non-interference and non-domination are two different ideals. These two ideals of freedom have significant differences.

The most significant difference between the notion of freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination is this: according to the notion of freedom as non-interference, as the name suggests, freedom consists in the absence of interference by others without caring that others have the dominating power as long as they do not exercise that power or are not likely to exercise it; according to the notion of freedom as non-domination, freedom consists not in the absence of interference by others but the absence of interference on an arbitrary basis. Any possibility of domination, according to the notion of freedom as non-domination, is amount to unfreedom.

Another important difference is that the notion of freedom as non-interference sees any form of interference as evil. It sees that the best way of exercising freedom is in the absence of any interference.  However, the notion of freedom as non domination does not see all forms of interference as evil as long as those interferences are non-arbitrary and non-intentional, as long as that interference tracks the ideas and opinions of the person affected.

Further, in a related argument, what the supporters of the notion of freedom as non-domination can say is that the mere absence of interference is not enough to remain a free person. One needs more than that. One may enjoy non-interference from others, those who are powerful (in every society, there are always some dominating powers), simply out of one’s sheer luck or due to one’s ability to ingratiate oneself with them. But the exercise of freedom under such circumstances is certainly insecure; there is always a possibility of interference on an arbitrary basis or at the will of the dominating power. In short, freedom as non-interference cannot give any security from interference and coercion if one is being dominated by another. In other words, the person P living under the situation of domination by D may enjoy non-interference or freedom as long as D does not interfere with P because D happens to like P or P is cunning enough to avoid D. However, D can interfere with P anytime at will and on an arbitrary basis.

Contrary to this, if P enjoys non-domination by D, P will be able to enjoy non-interference. This is due to the reason that P is no longer subject to a capacity for arbitrary interference by D since P is no longer dominated by D. Even if there is any interference by D with P, that interference would be under certain conditions, such that that interference would bring good to P and that the kind of interference is in accordance with the interests, ideas and opinions of P. If that interference goes beyond the accepted conditions or does harm P, then P can seek penalty or punishment for D in a properly constituted law.

The most crucial difference here between enjoying non-domination and enjoying mere non-interference is precisely that: if you enjoy non-domination, there is a protection for you from any form of arbitrary interference, whereas enjoying non-interference does not provide any such security. In short, freedom as non-domination ensures immunity to arbitrary control.

Finally, another major difference between freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination is the fact that “those who are attached to the ideal of freedom as non-interference value the fact of having choice- the fact of non-interference- whether the choice is dominated or not”. More the choice more is there freedom. On the contrary, “those who embrace freedom as non-domination value the fact of having undominated choice, but not necessarily the fact of having choice as such. They do not mind the lack of choice that results from non-arbitrary interference and they may despise the sort of choice that you enjoy by grace of your own cunning or charms or ingratiation, seeing it as a demeaning and despicable bequest”. “The first group focus on the quantity of choice available, no matter what kind of choice is involved; the second are interested only in choice of the right, undominated quality”.

Here, it is desirable to assert an argument against the inadequacy of the liberal notion of the freedom of choice. The argument is very much in line with the argument of freedom as non-domination though it is slightly different from its claim of the importance of having undominated choice. Liberals who espouse the notion of freedom as non-interference are contented with having choices as much as possible. Pettit also points out that contemporary liberal thinkers such as Ian Carter and Matthew Kramer also recently proposed “a new version of liberty as non-interference, according to which liberty is inversely related….to the removal of options from the space of choice”.

The liberals while thinking of maximizing choices have forgotten the fact that those choices that they so dearly treat would become meaningless if the person who is going to pick the choices is ill informed or ignorant about the choices, or if there are potential constraints in the process. Liberals want to maximise the area of freedom of choices but the existence of ill-informed choices is in itself a dilemma. All the choices we see are not all the time the worst and the best so that we can pick up the best choice we want. Choices are more or less similar in most cases in most of the time. Thus, most of the time individuals are in confusion as to what choice they should make, which one of the options to choose, which would be better, what would happen if that particular option is chosen, would that option benefit me or not, and so on. The questions that come up in our mind while trying to make a particular choice are innumerable and make us uneasy. Sometimes, we think, after making a particular choice, that it was the wrong choice. For example, Mr. X goes to buy a bicycle in the market where there are various designs of bicycles by various companies. Mr. X finds most of the bicycles within the budget and wants to choose one. Suppose that Mr. X does not know much about bicycles before, have not ridden one yet and goes alone to buy the bicycle, and there is no return policy once it is bought. It is very much possible that Mr. X would be thinking a lot about the questions mentioned earlier while making a choice among the bicycles. Well, which bicycle by which company Mr. X bought or chose is not my attention. But we know that Mr. X is not alone here: such a situation is very much common in our daily lives such as buying clothes, choosing a particular course, choosing a particular career or profession, even while choosing our life partners. And, there is little attention that liberal notion of freedom gives to this intrinsic problem. Individuals are left to themselves and this, instead of ensuring freedom, limits our exercise of freedom, harassing psychologically and physically.

The significant difference between freedom as non-domination and freedom as non-interference here is the fact that the first tries to address this issue of uninformed choice while the later is silent about this. The need for non-arbitrary interference to ensure that the individuals make the right choice is ruled out in the liberal notion of freedom as non-interference because all interference is evil. The republican notion of freedom as non-domination allows such interference to enable the individual to make the right choice. Moreover, freedom as non-interference is not immune to arbitrary interference as in the case of freedom as non-domination.

Finally, there are differences between freedom as non-interference and freedom as non-domination regarding their perspectives of the state and its relationship with the individuals. Naturally, the supporters of freedom as non-interference, particularly the libertarians, perceive the state as a necessary evil. Since their notion of freedom consists in the absence of interference, they want little or no interference by the state and thus propose for a minimal state. Besides, they see people as atomized individuals and the state as an apparatus for accommodating individuals in the pursuit of their atomized concerns. On the contrary, the notion of freedom as non-domination does not regard all interference as evil if the interference is non-arbitrary and non-intentional. Thus, its advocates find no wrong in state intervention if the state tracts the interests, ideas and opinions of those affected. That intervention is carried on a non-arbitrary basis. Besides, they see the people as trustor, both individually and collectively, and see the state as trustee: the people as trusting the state to ensure a dispensation of non-arbitrary rule.

The Reasonableness of Freedom as Non-domination

The conception of freedom as non-domination is more subtle and expansive than that of freedom as non-interference. There are very good reasons to support the statement.

A new range of scholars today see the conception of freedom as non-domination as an intermediate, an alternative to the generally known negative and positive conceptions of liberty. And, this conception of freedom as non-domination is inherently different from the negative and positive notions of liberty.

Now, let’s concentrate on the very question of plausibility of the conception of freedom as non-domination. We know that there are variations in the condition of non-interference: there are questions of mere absence of interference as in the case of freedom as non-interference and the absence of arbitrary interference or incapacitating others to exercise arbitrary power as in the case of freedom as non-domination. This gives us an alternative conception of liberty that is also plausible to describe as an ideal of liberty. It is indeed reasonable to say that there is a way of speaking of political and social freedom such as non-domination, which is both necessary and sufficient on its own.

“The necessity claim is that if a person is dominated in certain activities, if he or she performs those activities in a position where there are others who can interfere at their pleasure, then there is a sense in which that person is not free.” On the other hand, “The sufficient claim is that if a person is not dominated in certain activities- if they are not subject to arbitrary interference- then however much non-arbitrary interference or however much non-intentional obstruction they suffer, there is a sense in which they retain their freedom.” Such non-arbitrary interference is saliently different from the interference that someone can perpetrate at their own pleasure.

Pettit argues that interference may occur without any loss of liberty if the interference is non-arbitrary and does not represent a form of domination. This can occur “when it is controlled by the interests and opinions of those affected, being required to serve those interests in a way that conforms to those opinions”. For instance, the interference by a properly constituted law does not compromise people’s liberty, instead, it strengthens them.

According to the conception of freedom as non-domination, there is little or no suggestion that law is anti-thesis to liberty; on the contrary, the right sort of law is seen as the source of liberty because it talks of an “empire of laws”, not an “empire of men”.

The superior attraction of freedom as non-domination comes out in the fact that its maximization has certain benefits over the maximisation of freedom as non-interference: the absence of uncertainty, the absence of a need to defer strategically to the powerful, and the absence of a social subordination to others.

The connection between freedom as non-domination and these benefits is such that freedom is a primary good, in John Rawls’ sense; it is something that people have reason to want for themselves, no matter what else they want. But, this good has to be pursued through the state.

Freedom as non-domination is considered as an egalitarian good. People are equally proof against domination, even though that is not similar to the notion of material equality.

Freedom as non-domination is also communitarian in character in so far as it considers that the freedom of a community is as basic a notion as the freedom of individuals, and that there is every reason why people should be able to identify with a state that promotes such freedom.

We should know that non-domination is a goal, not a constraint.

Towards Conclusion

Freedom as non-interference bears the notion of selfish atomized individuals who find freedom consisting in having more choices and minimum restraints by others. This notion of freedom is opposed to the kind of belief that freedom can be realized on community basis as well.

We also find that there remains something wanting in the notion of freedom as non-interference. Having choices and absence of interference are not found to be enough to exercise freedom freely, without any uncertainty and insecurity.

Such missing gaps are filled up in the notion of freedom as non-domination. The uncertainty problem and the insecurity issue are no longer there if one enjoys non-domination. It is, unlike freedom as non-interference, immune to arbitrary control. Thus, we find a kind of expanding liberty in freedom as non-domination.

Let’s examine a range of relationships that are familiar to us to ascertain whether freedom as non-domination holds the plausibility of being as an alternative ideal of freedom.

Let’s examine the relationship between a husband and a wife. In this relationship, the husband has a dominating power over the wife; the wife is being dominated. The wife may enjoy non-interference as long as the husband does not interfere with her. But it is not known that when and how he would interfere with her. The husband can interfere with his wife at his pleasure on an arbitrary basis. The wife does not have enough security against the husband’s arbitrary interference though she may have non-interference as long as she is able to manage to do so.

There are many other forms of relationships we can examine. The relationship between employer and employee, majority and minority, state and subjects and so on. In all these relationships one has dominating power over the other.

In the absence of a culture of equal rights that is supportive of battered wives, husbands will enjoy such power over their spouses; in the absence of other employment opportunities and appropriate controls, employers and managers will enjoy subjugating power over their workers; in the absence of certain properly constituted laws, government officials will enjoy arbitrary power over the citizens; in the absence of certain mechanisms to address minority grievances, the majority will well dominate the minority community.

Interestingly, only the freedom as non-domination assures us against such dominant powers: it gives us security against arbitrary rule and free from uncertainties in the exercise of our freedom.

It is not to say that freedom as non-domination has no limitations. There are many arguments by many liberal thinkers beginning from Thomas Hobbes till most recently Ian Carter, John Christman, Richard Dagger etc. saying that the notion of freedom as non-domination is too idealistic, too demanding and it is not value free. Yes, there are limitations. But, the conception of freedom as non-domination is far more reasonable than freedom as non-interference. Freedom as non-interference seeks a society not of freedom but of subjugation though that subjugation is hidden until its appearance. But freedom as non-domination is free from such uncertainties. Freedom as non-domination gives you the security against arbitrary power that freedom as non-interference cannot. Freedom as non-domination assures us that an egalitarian society and a collective living are possible. Freedom as non-domination genuinely guarantees us to live freely in a free environment. All these make freedom as non-domination a better and reasonable ideal of freedom.


NOTE: This article is shortened and modified version of my masters paper in political philosophy that I wrote during my masters studies at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Referred Works

Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty

Matthew H. Kramer, Liberty and Domination

Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, 1999 (OUP)

Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, 2012 (CUP)

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