Freedom Without Sovereignty

Talk about freedom tends to be terribly ambiguous. Do we mean freedom from compulsion, or freedom from determination, or freedom resulting from some positive power? Do we mean anything other than complete unfreedom, or a super-strong total freedom, or something in between?

As to the last question, we ought at least to avoid claiming we are subject to an overly strong unfreedom, without claiming we possess an overly strong freedom. There is an Aristotelian mean here waiting to be clarified.

A first step toward such a clarification is to recognize that freedom ought not to be understood as implying something like sovereignty. Sovereignty is a kind of unconditional, total, exclusive authority or power over a domain. I want to say that nothing in the real world really does or ought to work like that. True freedom involves freedom from this kind of false freedom.

Historically, theories of sovereignty trace back to the absolute and arbitrary power attributed to the Roman emperors. The modern concept of sovereignty originated in arguments for absolute monarchy, e.g., by Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. In later political thought, the notion of sovereignty was transferred to the state as an institution, or in Rousseau’s case to a supposed general will of the people. To the extent that sovereignty of nations really just implies a kind of respect, it is unobjectionable, but to the extent that it is taken to imply a right to do arbitrary things, it is harmful.

Modern notions of individual unilateral rights, while in many cases referring to things that ought to be protected and respected more than they are, are a bad theoretical basis for good ethical concern. The notion of unilateral rights is implicitly grounded in a notion of sovereignty of each individual over a certain domain. At best, rights are a safeguard against failures of mutual recognition and Kantian respect for people, which ought to come first.

We need to think about responsibility in ways that do not presuppose that we must have some kind of sovereignty in order to be responsible. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Rationality; Choice, Deliberation; Brandomian Choice; Kantian Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Free Will and Determinism; Freedom and Free Will; Desire of the Master; Independence, Freedom; Ego; Euthyphro; Strong Omnipotence; Tyranny.)


Rights are an important legal concept, and in the interest of justice in an imperfect world sometimes need to be defended, but ethics should guide law, not the other way around. Mutual recognition makes the blunter instrument of unilateral “rights” superfluous for ethical purposes. Kantian respect for others and the Aristotelian spirit of friendship already do so. If we respect others in our actions and treat them in a friendly way, they need not worry about enforcing any putative rights in relation to us. (See also Leibniz.)

If we examine what Hegel called “positive” (actually existing) law, it is often not guided by good ethics as it should be. All too much law is devoted to institutionalizing unilateral privilege (etymologically, “private law”) of one sort or another. We are supposed to be consoled that by the fact that everyone is assigned at least a few privileges, but the whole model of unilateral privilege is ethically deeply wrong.

It is an unsavory fact that the unilateral, unconditional privileges associated with modern ownership and sovereignty historically descend from medieval European libertas or “liberty”, or the arbitrary “right” claimed by the Master to rape the peasant’s daughter and generally do as he pleases, with no regard for others. This kind of “liberty” is an ugly voluntarist fantasy associated with what Plato called the worst sort of character, that of a tyrant. Just such ugliness is recalled by, e.g., the old British Tory slogan “liberty and property”. It is the liberty of the privileged to walk over the rest of us.

Years ago, I was shocked to learn that the classic modern development of the notion of rights explicitly models all rights on unilateral property rights, making reciprocal rights of people a derivative afterthought. (See, e.g., C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.) Hobbes and Locke did this, and specifically on the question of rights Kant and Hegel unfortunately followed suit, even though their views provide resources for a much better, people-first account, based on respect or mutual recognition.

All rights deserving of legal recognition should be grounded in respect. If we respect property, it should be rationally related to respect for people. No one has a “right” to be a billionaire. (See also Freedom from False Freedom.)