Axel Honneth

Liberal democratic societies pride themselves on the importance they place on individual freedoms. Increasingly, however, there are debates about the extent to which such freedoms should be curtailed in the name of security. And in the light of growing inequality, questions are being raised about the compatibility between economic freedom, social justice and democratic self-determination.

Given these tensions, it is more important than ever to clarify the nature of freedom in democratic societies. This is the task Axel Honneth, a leading social philosopher, undertakes in his book Freedom’s Right. Honneth presents a wide-ranging and complex argument which I can’t discuss in its entirety here. Nevertheless, the claims he makes all revolve around three distinct ideas of freedom and their practical applications in modern societies.

  • The first idea is negative freedom, which is the simple absence of restraints on the behaviour of individuals. At least since the work of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th C., the problem of securing negative freedom within a just and harmonious social order has played a central role in the Western political imagination. In modern societies, negative freedom takes the form of legal freedom, embodied in a system of individual rights. These rights allow people to make their own choices about how to live their lives, without having to justify these choices to anyone else — assuming, of course, that they obey the law and respect the rights of others.
  • The second idea is that of reflexive freedom which is not about external restraints, but rather is an inward looking (reflexive) concern for how one’s decisions and actions accord with one’s moral sense of self. Although this notion has always found a place in ethical thought, its social influence in the form of moral freedom can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in the 18th C. Moral freedom is embodied in the cultural expectation that people ought to exercise fairness and impartiality when deciding between conflicting social demands not regulated by the law. Exercising this kind of moral autonomy permits individuals to criticise existing social arrangements on the basis of moral arguments.
  • The third, and conceptually the most difficult to grasp, is the idea of social freedom. At its simplest, the idea of social freedom refers to the social conditions in which individuals are able to formulate and realise their intentions. This might include, for example, institutions which are able to guarantee the basic necessities of life or a safe and stable social existence. But Honneth has something more in mind. It is not just that individuals ought to be able to pursue and realise their intentions; social freedom also means that these intentions are recognised and affirmed as valuable by others. Realising one’s intentions, on this picture, becomes a cooperative enterprise in which individuals voluntarily support and complement one another’s desires and interests. Why should this kind of mutual dependence be thought of as a case of freedom at all? The idea gains plausibility once we accept that human beings are essentially social creatures, whose happiness and well-being is to a great extent determined by our relationships with others. Love, esteem and respect are not just nice things to have, but the very foundations upon which we are able to fashion a meaningful life for ourselves. If our intentions and life aims are not recognised as important by others, then we are in a very real sense not free because we lack that social affirmation which gives our thoughts and actions value. This idea has it roots in G. W. Hegel’s political writings in the early 19th C., and was particularly influential among later socialist thinkers. In tracing the impact of this idea on modern social institutions, Honneth considers (among other things) the evolution of the family from a patriarchal union to one in which (ideally) all members love one another as complete individuals; the development (and misdevelopment) of the market economy as one in which consumers and producers recognise their mutual dependence on one another; and the emergence of a democratic ‘public sphere’ in which citizens are able to offer pragmatic solutions to social and political issues through collective deliberation.

One of the key claims of Honneth’s book is that the possibility of exercising negative and reflexive freedom in a society depends on the prior existence of social freedom. For the purposes of this summary, we can break his argument down into two steps.

First, both negative freedom in the form of legal rights, and reflexive freedom in the form of moral deliberation, are ways of interrupting or detaching oneself from an existing social reality. Only as a response to the obligations, attachments and circumstances that one is already entangled in does invoking rights or moral arguments make sense as instances of individual autonomy.

In the case of legal freedom, the point of an individual invoking their rights is to temporarily unburden themselves of certain (non-legal) commitments or attachments which would otherwise have the effect of making them answerable to others for their actions. This makes it possible for an individual to retreat to a purely private sphere of decision making, from which they can experiment with and evaluate alternative ways of living their life. For example, the right to divorce allows one to abandon the responsibilities of being a spouse in order to become single again (although any legally binding commitments remain). But this possibility only makes sense insofar as the institution of marriage exercises a certain pull on people’s behaviours and expectations. To take another example, the right to free speech would have no purpose if there didn’t also exist norms of discourse which discouraged certain opinions in everyday social situations.

The case of moral freedom is similar, in that one is permitted to adopt a reflexive distance from existing social arrangements in order to examine them from a position of impartiality. Unlike legal freedom, the position one retreats to is not a purely self-interested one; the fact that it takes other viewpoints into consideration gives moral freedom a transformative power which legal freedom lacks. Nevertheless, the exercise of moral autonomy depends on a social reality with its own ethical demands already in place; demands which sometimes come into conflict with one another. It is only when social reality appears divided in this way that one feels the need to step back from it in order to make moral judgments about what the ‘right’ course of action is.

Second, precisely because legal and moral freedom each represent a retreat from social reality, the freedoms they grant the individual cannot by themselves lead to the satisfaction of aims which depend on social reality. In this sense, both legal and moral freedom are merely potential rather than actual cases of freedom: it is only by re-engaging social reality to pursue their interests or bring about moral outcomes that individuals are able to exercise any real autonomy at all. And the conditions for achieving these things lie in social freedom, that is, in those social arrangements where the individual’s aims and desires are recognised and facilitated by others.

The failure to appreciate the fundamental role that social freedom plays in securing the reality of both legal and moral freedom can be seen today in the form of what Honneth calls social pathologies. They involve the misguided attempt by individuals to pursue life aims solely from within the spheres of either legal or moral freedom, undermining the conditions of social freedom through which their aims can be properly realized.

With regard to legal freedom, the risks are that either legal rights become substitutes for everyday social relationships, or that interpersonal obligations are so weakened that they no longer form the foundation for determining life goals.

  • In the first case, individuals attempt to regulate their relationships primarily through strategic appeals to their legal rights. A recent (extreme?) real-life case is students who invoke their contractual rights to make demands on their teacher. Honneth himself refers to the film Kramer vs Kramer, about a man whose life becomes consumed by a custody battle to the point where all his choices are designed to improve his chances in court, even at the cost of his personal relationships.
  • In the second case, Honneth argues that the neglect of social reality in favour of a purely private form of decision making may encourage the development of personalities who are incapable of undertaking life-long commitments. These people just drift along without any direction in life; the refusal of obligations have for them become a permanent state of mind. The literary example Honneth offers is the main character from Benjamin Kunkel’s book Indecision. (An example from cinema that springs to mind here is the characters in Ghost World.)

In relation to moral freedom, the danger lies in thinking that adopting an impartial perspective involves devaluing existing social obligations and attachments. As Honneth points out, exercising moral autonomy does not mean forgetting about one’s actual relationships to others. His example to illustrate this point is that of a professor who discovers a harmless case of plagiarism on the part of a colleague. It is true that, in order to decide on a moral course of action, he ought to consider the perspective of all the parties involved. But it does not follow that the professor must also act as if the norms of collegiality or friendship did not apply. Moral freedom means deliberating impartially and then acting within a world in which one is already committed to certain roles and responsibilities. Failure to properly appreciate this point can have different pathological consequences, depending on how one relates to the world of one’s already existing relationships:

  • The individual might adopt an attitude of rigid moralism, in which a single-minded understanding of what they consider to be right devalues existing social relationships and leaves them socially isolated and unable to communicate with others. For Honneth, the destructive consequences of such moral absolutism are explored in the novels of Henry James, particularly Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.
  • Another possibility is that individuals might be motivated to transform a world that does not meet their moral vision by engaging in terrorist acts of violence. Honneth thinks that Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed illustrates something of this sort. He also considers the case of Ulrike Meinhof, one of the leaders of the Red Army Faction which operated in West Germany in the 1970s. In Meinhof’s writings as a journalist until 1968, Honneth thinks that she is clearly exercising her moral judgment by arguing that certain political developments in West Germany violated its Constitution. Soon after, however, her attitude shifts from that of a morally situated individual invoking principles with universal relevance (i.e. the Constitution), to that of a socially detached legislator seeking to violently establish an imaginary world of purely moral purpose against a corrupt society. With this pathological embrace of the moral standpoint as a utopian goal, existing Constitutional norms as well as relationships to family and friends lose all their meaning.

The above pathologies arise because individuals fail to appreciate that their legal or moral freedom depends on a pre-existing social freedom which cannot be undermined without negatively impacting on their individual autonomy. Most of Honneth’s book is in fact concerned with detailing the historical development and institutionalization of this social freedom, something which I cannot do here. The crucial point, though, is that without taking seriously our mutual dependence on others as an essential condition of human freedom, we misunderstand and thereby diminish the potential for negative and reflexive freedom inherit in modern societies.