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  • Hannah McHugh

Has our freedom really been restricted?

Most of us will never have lived through a time where there are so many restrictions on our ability to do as we please. We are calling our flatmates our cellmates, and our homes prisons. There’s a clear sense in which we are feeling unfree.

It seems then, this is a time when it is hard not to think about freedom, or the absence of it. With that in mind, I’d like to offer here some ideas about how we can approach these thoughts. I suggest that, by redefining our understanding of the concept, perhaps we may be able to feel in spite of current restrictions that we are still perfectly free. Perhaps this may allay our sense of imprisonment.

This piece gives an introduction to some of the foundational concepts in political philosophy, for those unfamiliar. It draws on the ideas of the neo-republican tradition, and mainly the work of Philip Pettit, who has done more than anyone else to make republicanism a living force within political philosophy.

Freedom – what do we think it is?

Well, the obvious first step to answer this is to Google the definition.





the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.


the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.

On first reading, these two suggestions do seem to be key features of how we experience having our liberty. However, the first definition can be pushed into a dilemma. If I have the power to act, speak or think in any way I want, then I must be able to choose to come to your house, barricade your door, and insist that you don’t leave for fear that you will spread COVID-19 in the community. Here though, this must conflict with your freedom, and you are now unfree to act in the way you would like. So, the question becomes: how can we all be free at once?

Liberals want as much freedom as possible, but they can’t always have it

Since the time of the Enlightenment, the claim to personal and equal freedom for all has dominated and gained continual momentum across the world. The liberal notion that we must be free to do as we please and pursue our own lives in the way we choose has meant that we have gained fundamental liberties that we are all grateful for. We are free to love who we choose, to say what we believe, and we are protected from intrusion by the state. It has, until recent weeks, also been a reason we are free to go to restaurants, bars, public spaces or even, say, the hairdresser, without interference.

This liberal notion of freedom is based upon the idea that we are free so long as our choices are not interfered with. The less other people or the state get in our way, the more we are left alone to do what we like, the more we are free.

So then, for liberals, these times of heavy restriction on our potential actions are troubling. There is a feeling that our realm of free choice is boxed in (as maybe we are all feeling at times these days). However, liberals accept that sometimes our freedom needs to have conditions attached in order to achieve some other good thing (here, the undeniably imperative goal of saving lives).

However, perhaps there is a way we can see ourselves not as boxed in, with reduced or restricted freedom, and instead as holding onto our right. Showing this begins with returning to Google’s second suggestion that freedom is a state of not being enslaved.

Freedom as non-domination; republicans can be perfectly free

Imagine this: you are taken and sold as a slave to a master who, in the end, turns out to be incredibly kind. She agrees readily to the idea that you can do whatever you please, at whatever time, and in your experience has never interfered with your choices. On the liberal conception, you are enjoying a pretty decent amount of freedom. So why then, do we have the intuition that we can’t meaningfully say this is a free slave? It is a conflicting idea at best.

Enter republicanism to offer an alternative explanation (note: please do not imagine Donald Trump entering anywhere at this point. Republican political theory and the US Republican Party would struggle to get further apart in my view). Republicans direct us to the idea that it is not in fact interference in our choices per se that intervenes in our freedom. Instead, they say that to be free is to live in a state of non-domination.

Domination occurs whenever another person or group of persons has the capacity to interfere arbitrarily in your choices. The very fact that your master could, at any time, change her mind and stop you from leaving your home based on her own preferences, suggests that you are unfree.

This may seem concerning. The government has just now done exactly this – they have decided you can’t leave your home unless under a list of specific circumstances. However, the difference between the government and the master is that the government does so non-arbitrarily. It cannot make such decisions based on pure preference. The decision has, as I’m confident is clear to every reader, been made based on necessary steps for saving lives, reducing strain on our frontline health workers and protecting the most vulnerable among us from suffering. It would be hard to argue this is in any way an arbitrary use of power. There has been a non-dominating intervention that has changed the choices available to us. 

If we accept then, this republican definition of freedom as being in a state of non-domination, perhaps we can allay some of our sense of being captive at home. Republicans can accept interference in our lives, provided we are not subject to it at the whim of someone else. Perhaps this different understanding lets us see that the measures we must follow right now do nothing to change the extent to which we are free. We solve the dilemma of how to enjoy our freedom without impacting the freedom of others.

These measures could ensure we all enjoy freedom equally rather than take our freedom away.

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