On being vulnerable

NB: In this post, I’m using the words “liberal” and “republican,” both with lower case first letters. I am NOT referring to any political parties which use these terms in their names. I am using them in their original sense, as the names of particular modes of organising political life.

In a standard liberal account of freedom, freedom is construed as non-interference; you are free to the extent that no one interferes with you. At its most extreme, you end up with something like Hobbes’ account of freedom:

Fear and liberty are consistent: as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will; it is therefore the action of one that was free:

As long as you can choose to do something else, like say, die, then you are free. It’s a very thin account of freedom, and I find it unsatisfying. Of course, liberal theorists have other, thicker accounts of freedom, but they are still accounts of freedom as non-interference. I’m rather more taken with the account of freedom found in republican political theory, that is, the mode of governance of the Roman republican and the 16th century Italian city states, as well as for example, Australian and New Zealand, which are republics in all but name.

As I have written before, in republican political theory, freedom is freedom from domination.

Think about a slave with a kindly master. The slave gets to live where she likes, eat what she likes, do whatever work she likes, just because the master happens to be kindly. Under the standard liberal accounts of freedom, this slave would be free, because she was not subject to interference.

The master however, can at any time reassert his power. If he so wishes, he can tell the slave where to live, what to eat, what work to do. He is even able to physically assault the slave, and she has no recourse against him. So in order to keep him happy, to avoid incurring his displeasure and losing the chance to direct her own life, she must keep a weather eye out for him, ingratiate herself with him, make sure that she doesn’t offend him, kowtow, and doff her cap. Even though he does not interfere with her choices, he nevertheless dominates her, and she constrains her choices because of that domination. She cannot stand tall, and look him in the eye. Under the republican account of freedom, this slave is not free.

I find this account of freedom compelling, because it taps into a sense of standing. A free person is one with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. It is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social setting. It is the freedom of the hearth, not the freedom of the heath (Philip Pettit’s phrase, not mine). And it is an institutional sense of freedom. In the liberal account of freedom, the slave with the kindly master is free, but that is just a contingent state of affairs. It is just because the world happens to be that way, rather than because anything guarantees that the slave is free. However the republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.

The republican account of freedom is an intensely social account of freedom. It’s not just about one person being free, or being dominated, but about groups of people being free, or being subject to domination. If one person is dominated, and thus is not free, then other people who are sufficiently similar to him or her, can similarly be dominated, and so not be free standing citizens.

For example, think about the case of rape. If a woman is raped, perhaps walking home in the evening, then other women who are walking through the same area, or out walking at the same time, may feel similarly threatened. They may choose not to walk home, or to go by a different route, or to walk at a different time. So their choices are constrained, and they change their behaviour, for fear of rape. Their freedom is reduced, in this area of their life at least. (Freedom is not an all or nothing game: you can be more free in some areas of your life than in others. For example, you may own your own home and have a lovely family, so your personal life is ‘free’, but have a bully boss, so your work life is less ‘free’.)

In technical terms, this can be referred to as a vulnerability group. A vulnerability group is a group where in virtue of the similarities between all the members of the group, each of the members can be dominated qua member of the group.

And that’s why Melissa McEwan’s post resonated with me. When I hear a sexist put-down of a woman, I see that woman being dominated in virtue of being a woman, and I know that as a woman, I am vulnerable to those types of put-downs too. That’s why I get the little sinking feeling in my stomach, the sense of unease, the worry that other put-downs will follow. Each little bit of misogyny reinforces my vulnerability to being dominated, whether the misogyny is directed straight at me, or at another woman. And if it happens to me once, then it can happen again, and again, and again.

As it turns out, I live in a good space, with a loving and thoughtful partner, and for the most part, I don’t have to deal with misogyny in my own life, and what there is has not come my way through my partner’s actions (of course we both make missteps from time to time, but we’re human beings, not saints). But the moment I step out of my house, I am confronted by it, and it seeps into our home via newspapers and TV and the irritating pop-up ads on websites and the like. It’s ever present, even with something as banal as the sausages and strippers banner I saw last year (it’s still there). When the environment I live in so unfailing reminds me that women are of little worth, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable, and hard not to feel a sense of unease.


14 responses to “On being vulnerable

  1. This is very thoughtfully done, thank you. I still think McEwan’s conclusions don’t follow at all from your premises, though (nor from her own, for that matter).

    We are all vulnerable in different ways and to different attitudes that exist in society – racism and sexism are but two of the most visible and virulent. We can translate those feelings of vulnerability into the blanket mistrust of whites, or men, or women, or given ethnic groups, perhaps it’s even a human response we should accept as the unfortunate by-product of the particular ill we struggle to eradicate. I’ll venture to suggest that it’s how you see it, perhaps? I don’t think it’s how McEwan sees it – she’s constructed an intellectual edifice that allows her to wallow in it, and buttresses her self-image and her social and professional standing. That’s why I don’t have any problems whatsoever with your take on it, as you’ve expressed it here, and all sorts of problems with hers.

  2. We can translate those feelings of vulnerability into the blanket mistrust of whites, or men, or women, or given ethnic groups, perhaps it’s even a human response we should accept as the unfortunate by-product of the particular ill we struggle to eradicate. I’ll venture to suggest that it’s how you see it, perhaps?

    The latter? Yes. It’s an “is” claim, not an “ought” claim i.e. as a matter of descriptive fact, this is the epistemological position I find myself in (unease through to mistrust), not how I think people ought to interact with each other. The question then becomes how to fix the problem, or more grandly, how a society can work towards freedom as non-domination for every citizen. I started to write about that, but the post was getting long, and it was getting late, so maybe some other day.

    This understanding of freedom, and the structure of vulnerability groups and so on, was something I used in my thesis. It comes from Philip Pettit’s work on republicanism.

  3. What Giovanni said about this being a very thoughtful and well-argued post. Thank you.
    I guess we’ll have to agree to differ – when I hear a sexist put-down, I tend to assume that the person making it is a jerk (or temporarily acting like one) rather than taking it personally and making it all about me, or all women or all men. I just don’t get how all men can be implicated in jerkish behaviour of a few. And as Adele said, they should be called on this behaviour. But it just seems wrong to me to let it dominate your life as it seems to dominate Melissa McEwan’s.

    I also think -though this is a different argument – that there is an issue of proportion here. Considering the appalling lack of human rights of women in countries like Afghanistan (thinking here of the marital rape bill) it just seems kind of self-absorbed to lament how terrible one’s life is in the Western world.

  4. And in one Quaker account of freedom which I have heard, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.

    I have always found that a very useful concept.

  5. What would Hayek say

    I find your argument for what liberal freedom is completely unsatisfying. A Slave by any liberal freedom definition (except yours) is not free. You appear to have set up a particular strawman to knock down with your version of republican freedom. I suspect Cato let alone Socrates and Aristotle would have some strong disagreement with what you consider to be republican freedom.

    Regardless of the point your trying to make, you end up making a subjective (personal) argument, that whilst well intentioned establishes a utilitarian argument – wherein the needs of the many (freedom of fear) outweighs the freedom of hoodie wearing youths.

  6. A Slave by any liberal freedom definition (except yours) is not free.

    It’s a thought experiment designed to draw out the distinction between interference and domination.

    Cato, Socrates and Aristotle are not usually thought to be part of the republican tradition, although Aristotle’s conception as the good life being found in community is important. Think Polybius, Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, the 17century Commonwealthmen, Montesquieu, the founders of the American republic. In contemporary writing, the people to look at are Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit, Frank Lovett, maybe Cass Sunstein. The highly reputable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an informative, peer-reviewed article about republicanism.

  7. That sounds a bit harsh to me, Hayek.
    Having said that, I must say that I find a discussion about freedom kind of .. incomplete, as surely with freedom comes responsibility. Children are less free than adults and have less responsibility. So are prisoners, and people living in rest homes, and probably a whole lot more. Just seems to me you can’t – or shouldn’t discuss one without the other.

  8. Hayetka,

    The liberal freedom of the heath doesn’t translate very well to world of 7 billion. We cannot exist without interacting with, and compromising with, society. There just ain’t that much heath left to freely and independently ramble around in.

  9. But I thought Deborah was advocating enthusiastically for freedom as being a Good Thing- to which I’d say, yes but only if accompanied by responsibility. Freedom to vote in free and fair democratic elections? Fine, get out and vote.
    And what you said, Vibenna, about the 7 billion. I just have problems with unfettered freedom. Sounds like the ACT party to me.

  10. What would Hayek say

    Under libertarian philosophy personal freedom does come with responsibility, even under anarchist philosophy.

    The debate seems more to want to evolve to being about liberty and ethics – otherwise you will end up having either a huntingdons “clash of civilisation” position vs a fukuyama “last man”. That is life as a constant contest of master/slave or evolution to a final state. Hence the original comment that the original argument by our good host is essentially utilitarian, I note though that this may not be the path that our host intended to reflect in the original posting.

  11. I’m not seeing what’s utilitarian about the republican account of freedom, WWHS, unless you are conflating positive liberty, in any version, with consequentialism, and from there getting to utilitarianism. I agree that the account is teleological rather than deontic, but that doesn’t in itself make it utilitarian.

  12. Ah! I think I see what you’re getting at, WWHS, but let me know if I’m not getting the point. Is your worry something to do with the republican story about liberty having an account of the good at its heart, whereas under standard liberal / libertarian stories about liberty, there is not account of the good, and the idea is to go for as much freedom as possible in order to ensure that people can choose their own version of the good?

    (NB: many liberal accounts also concern themselves with autonomy as a value, and if you put negative liberty plus autonomy together, you may get something like the republican story about freedom. But I want to step away from the autonomy issue for the time being, and just focus on the stories about liberty.)

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  14. What would Hayek say

    Hi Deborah – your comment is 8.11 is where is heading to. The positive and negative liberty perspectives seems to underlie this discussion (good to know some debates can continue over several centuries). This is somewhat at the heart of the US federalist debates of the 18th century – so I can see where your republican liberterian position is coming from.

    On the one hand there is the negative liberty path which is that you need an authority to curb mans intrinisically wild, savage and corrupt impulses. Or that you need the power and resources to act to fulfill ones own potential. Lurking inside these arguments is utilitarianism (whether by an authority to control impulses or to distribute resources in each case – any authority will have to make a value judgement of what is good).

    Now hopefully on similar ground – I think the relevant part of the debate is really ethics (and the ethicial treatment of people) rather than liberty, if you subscribe to liberty as being as much freedom as possible. Because whilst this logical approach to liberty is one component – the emotional aspect of life (ethics) is crucial for living life.