Freedom And Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2

Introduction and Index To Posts In This Series


I began this series with a discussion of Freedom With Honor: A Republican Ideal by Philip Pettit, 64 Social Research, Vol. 1, P. 52. I want to emphasize the nature and importance of honor in this paper. Pettit says that decent societies

… do not deprive a person of honor. Specifically, they do not undermine or jeopardize a person’s reasons for self-respect. More specifically still, they do not signal the rejection of the person from the human commonwealth: they do not cast the person as less than fully adult or human.

… To be deprived of honor is to be cut out of conversation with your fellows. It is to be denied a voice or to be refused an ear: it is not to be allowed to talk or not to be treated as ever worth hearing. People differ, topic by topic, in how far they are thought worth listening to; they enjoy lower and higher grades of esteem. But to be deprived of honor is to be denied the possibility of ever figuring in the esteem stakes; it is to be refused the chance to play in the esteem-seking game.

Honor in this sense is perhaps the most important human need after our material needs are met. Pettit does not offer examples at first (his examples are discussed below), so I offer this one. Martin Luther King was instrumental in the strike of the Memphis sanitation workers; he was murdered while working on it. Here’s a Smithsonian article on the strike, which features this thrilling image.

I Am A Man

David Remnick of the New Yorker recently worte: “W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to enact policies to give freedmen land, a decent education, or voting rights resided, first and foremost, in “his inability to picture Negroes as men.”” I don’t know if Dr. King and the other organizers were consciously thinking of this quote, and I don’t know exactly what they meant by the words on the signs. But to me, the men in this picture demand recognition as a human beings. These men were willing to die rather than endure second class status. They insisted on being recognized as equal participants in society. Fair wages were an issue, but that’s not what the signs demand. They are not inferiors begging for fair treatment, or dependants asking for a higher allowance. They are each on of the Men in All Men Are Created Equal. They demand what Pettit would call honor.

Once you notice the demand for this kind of honor, you see it everywhere. This is from an op-ed by Moira Donegan in The Guardian on Jeffrey Epstein:

He was protected by the broad cultural antipathy toward treating sexual abuse as real harm, the often hostile reaction to the premise that teenage girls should matter as much as adult men.

This is from a piece on being a good customer at a restaurant, also in the Guardian:

There are strategies galore for dealing with rudeness, which mostly end with a waiter spitting in your food, but the main reason you should behave properly as a diner is that you are human and so are they.

Denial of honor in societies based on noninterference

Pettit says a society which prioritizes freedom as non-interference can permit institutional humiliation, domination, and denial of honor, even in a constitutional system supposedly based on equality. How? Imagine you are charged with making laws in such a society. You will recognize that all laws are interferences with the freedom of your members. They will have to observe laws, they will be penalized if they violate them.* You will recognize that some forms of interference are unlikely, and others unlikely to cause what you consider serious injury. You will not want to pass laws to limit the freedom of your members unless you are certain that the benefits will outweigh the costs of enforcement.

In that situation, some people will have the ability to interfere with the liberty of others. People will know that those others can interfere with their freedom, even to dominate them. That in turn leads to servility: the effort to avoid domination, and to ingratiate themselves with the dominator. He offers this example:

Think of the way Mary Wollstonecraft deplores the “littlensses” and “sly tricks” and “cunning” to which women are driven, in her view, because of their vulnerability in relation to their husbands.

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of man; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent of their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish.

Cites omitted.

This “cunning” is dramatized in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen**.

“Elizabeth Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.


1. In current usage, the word honor means formal respect, and we reserve it for special occasions: to honor the victorious US Women’s soccer team; to honor a dead war hero. In our usage, it is something we do woth respect to others, not something we seek or need for ourselves; it’s not as a personal matter. We occasionally use it to describe a goal for individuals: to live honorably. Pettit uses it more like a combination of political and social equality. In our political discourse, the word equality is contested, sadly. I’m going to use the term civic dignity, which is clumsy but at least not contested, and which seems to me to capture the essence of Pettit’s term honor. I will also use the words honor and dignity together to convey the idea.

2. It’s fascinating to read this material in the context of Trump and the Republicans. They flatly reject the premise that all humans are entitled to civic dignity. It reminds us that we have to fight, literally, for honor for all if we want to keep it for ourselves.


* Pettit also says that taxes are a violation of negative liberty, and that citizens will be taxed to pay for enforcing all laws. This is true at the state level, but not at the federal level. See, e.g. Beardsley Ruml, Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete.

** The context of this passage is that without quite saying so, Austen makes us understand that Caroline Bingley wants to attract the affections of Mr. Darcy. This isn’t the first time she has attacked Elizabeth, and it isn’t the last time she uses cunning to reach her goal. It’s passages like this one that make Pride and Prejudice worth multiple readings.

14 replies
  1. drouse says:

    Honor can be such a cop out. Seriously, while I was reading the post there was a Lynyrd Skynyrd sound track running through my mind.

  2. Democritus says:

    Ohhhh Ed I love this post. I was raised in a military household where discussions of honor abounded, and I believed them. In many ways I still do, I can be too idealistic at times but I try to take check of when I am failing to live up to them. I am very much an INTJ framework systems analysis type of brain, for all the faults they apparently found with MB.

    Imagine their horror when I demanded to be treated as an equal, or called them out on the constant hypocrisy. Further imagine their horror when I brought home some who looked too differently, but is a far better person.

    I have never been too good with cunning, but agree that women have been shoehorned into such methods by norms and mores. One thing I love about Warren is she instead will bluntly call out GOP BS even in interviews where they frame the question so it becomes “rude” of her to honestly answer. But she does anyway, with a little grin.

    I may finally go read Austen. For whatever reason I was handed three musketeers, and Robinson Crusoe. I did like to take my fathers sword and run around in the woods which may have had something to do with that. ;-)

    • P J Evans says:

      There are some Austens that i read frequently – P&P, “Sense and Sensibility”, “Persuasion”. (I have trouble with “Emma”.)

      • Democritus says:

        I’m up to Chapter 5 on pride and prejudice, but I downloaded a free pdf so I’m on my tablet and can still sneak over to news. I’m going to download the books later to my dreaded when the spousal units get home and plan on trying to quiet the brain and read.

        I’m very much enjoying Lizzie and the way the analyse each other, it’s fun!

        If I wasn’t worried about my country turning into a nazi hellhole I would be enjoying it much more! I’ve thought and warned, like most of us I think, that this escalation would happened for a year now, but seeing it is just… We need to keep our eye on the ball with Mueller, Epstein, and other criminal acts, and also hold the GOP to account for the hate and stochastic terrorism they are inciting.

        I’m usually someone who can lay down and read a thousand pages straight, as long as I’m interested, but not right now. My stubborn brain is spinning. Which is likely the point of all this chaos.

        Sigh, I’m also thinking about to need to maintain optimism, and hope to ensure the will to fight so to speak.

        From a Trump tracking sub, A Caution about Despair, which I think have posted here before but it’s still relevant for me at least.

        Here, they say it better than I could, plus less typing ;-)

    • Tom says:

      Speaking of “The Three Musketeers”—“All for one and one for all!” would be a good rallying cry for the Democratic party going into 2020.

  3. Rayne says:

    I wonder if Pettit really meant dignity and not honor in much of his text.

    In re Wollstonecraft and Austen on the necessary sub rosa machinations women resort(ed) to in order to survive their legal status as chattel owned by men: I can’t help think of the shift in attitude about women’s stature evident in Charlotte Bronte’s work, Jane Eyre.

    Published in 1847, Jane Eyre was published a full generation after Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (c. 1792), and half a generation after Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (c. 1813). Eyre was also published 10 years after Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne.

    In Eyre there are several passages which forcefully claim autonomy and agency for women through its main character, Jane:

    “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? And can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!”

    “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”

    There is a subtext to this insistence on her equality with the man who wanted to be her husband, Edward Rochester. His first wife, Bertha, a Creole woman, is locked in the attic. Rochester claimed he had been fraudulently induced to marrying her and nearly entered bigamy with Eyre before being called out during his second nuptials.

    Rochester may have been right in claiming the marriage was a fraud but he’d made no genuine effort to vacate the contract. He simply ignored it, denying Bertha her dignity as a human equal. It’s not entirely clear whether his denial is bound up solely in Bertha’s once-hidden insanity or if he also denies her dignity because she is both mixed race and born illegitimate.

    And in failing to vacate his original marriage contract, he denies Jane her own dignity as his equal. She’s fungible, merely a replacement or substitution to insert in the slot where a wife belongs, not accorded the full legitimacy of a marriage contract.

    Karma’s a determined bitch, though. Rochester eventually sees the light.

    “You are altogether a human being, Jane? You are certain of that?”

    “I conscientiously believe so, Mr. Rochester.”

    It would be another 81 years after Jane Eyre was published before women in Great Britain were fully enfranchised on equal terms with men. The Reform Act 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 had expressly denied women the right to vote, ensuring they remained unequal to men, particularly male landowners.

  4. jaango says:

    An excellent post, to say the least. And thanks Ed.

    The Second Flag that will be flying over the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and all federal buildings will occur in approximately 30 years.

    Thus, America’s Indigenous Flag consists of three components: First is…Honor Achieved, the Second is…Honor Acknowledged, and the Third is…Honor Reciprocated. Thus, any citizen walking into a ‘public’ building with the intent to lie, cheat and steal, will be called out and without any angry confrontation. Thus, “turning your back” toward the offender is more than sufficient.

    Welcome to our future!

  5. AitchD says:

    Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). From the final, long scene (a typical, fair and proper translation):

    HELMER. I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora — bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.

    NORA. It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done.
    The engineering and design artists who gave us automatic transmission and power steering contributed immeasurably to spreading and maintaining so-called honor and dignity.*

    *The complexities of an automobile’s automatic transmission and power steering systems are like nothing compared to the complexities of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

    • Rayne says:

      Oh that Ibsen excerpt…perfect. A differentiation between genders and their interpretation of honor and dignity. Honor is identity and social capital bestowed and recognized by patriarchy, without which a man’s power and authority may be diminished in a male-dominated world. Dignity is one’s intrinsic, inseparable value as a human. Women had little choice to retain either honor or dignity in a system which didn’t recognize them as equal let alone fully human — merely living dolls.

      (Ibsen doesn’t even acknowledge the the thrice-over mortal threat his character Nora faced bearing Helmer’s children, repeated acts of complete submission and subjugation particularly given the risk of maternal mortality. Helmer’s children are dolls within, a matryoshka of sacrifice.)

      • AitchD says:

        I don’t read Norwegian or eat herring, but I trust the translations when we learn that Nora’s children’s nurse, Anne, had also been Nora’s “only mother”, a dramatic way to mention how the well-off could cope with a mother’s death from childbirth. Besides, Nora is ready and willing to kill herself at this point in the drama, as she knows in her blood that Anne will be a beautiful mother to the children. That is something she has always known about Anne, and it allowed Nora to be raped by Helmer without that particular despairing fear. Anne, of course, came on board as a child-woman in trouble whose rapist had disappeared. As Frank Lloyd Wright says, There you have it.

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