That great ideal, liberated from its capture: Just Freedom
Review: Philip Pettit’s challenge to conservative ideas of freedom can invigorate democracy and the republic
Philip Pettit: the absence of deference is almost as important as the absence of fear. Photograph: Frank Wojciechowski/Princeton University
Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Irish politics is short on ideas, with almost all the major parties clustering around a narrow range of assumptions about policy and public life.
Yet the current President is perhaps the most unapologetically intellectual head of state on the planet and internationally distinguished thinkers like Garret FitzGerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have been elected to high office in recent decades, suggesting that Irish people may not be as anti-intellectual as they are often painted.
The machinery of clientilist politics is entirely indifferent to ideas, but this does not indicate a lack of hunger for grown-up conversation about the values and principles that should shape our democracy. This tension between the system of politics on the one hand and the desires of citizens on the other is best summed up in the confusion that surrounds a single word: republic.
It is woefully abused – put “republican” into the search engine of this paper’s archive and you will get references either to Irish people connected to conspiratorial violence or to Americans connected to a party that is ever more nakedly the voice of an aggressive oligarchy. Yet the word retains a deep emotional significance for much of the Irish public. A reasonable project for the “decade of centenaries”, indeed, might be to take back the word “republic” for Irish democracy and to arrive at some common understanding of what it means. This is indeed the project President Michael D Higgins has both proposed and provoked.
In this there could be no better guide than Philip Pettit.
Born in Ballygar, Co Galway, Pettit began his career in University College Dublin but has long since been an international figure, currently holding chairs of politics and philosophy at both Princeton and the Australian National University. His thought is not specific to Ireland – his new book, Just Freedom, presents itself (ambitiously but not unreasonably) as an approach to political philosophy that is relevant to the entire “complex world”. But it is not utterly parochial to place him in the tradition of the United Irishmen, republicans whose intellectual roots lay in a long line of thinking stretching back through the English and Scottish enlightenments to the Italian city states of the Renaissance and thence to the Roman republic.
In this sense, and in this sense only, Pettit is a conservative: like so many 18th-century revolutionaries, he argues for the contemporary power of classical ideas, albeit ones he has thoroughly reimagined. In every other sense, Pettit is a formidable critic of what passes for conservatism in contemporary politics. Just Freedom is a highly accessible and readable summation of what might be regarded as Pettit’s core philosophical project: liberating the idea of freedom itself from its capture by the political right.