Ecological Limits and the Meaning of Freedom: A Defense of Liberty as Non-Domination


  • Augustin Fragnière University of Washington, USA




It is now widely acknowledged that global environmental problems raise pressing social and political issues, but relatively little philosophical attention has been paid to their bearing on the concept of liberty. This must surprise us, because the question of whether environmental policies are at odds with individual liberty is bound to be controversial in the political arena. First, this article explains why a thorough philosophical debate about the relation between liberty and environmental constraints is needed. Second, based on Philip Pettit’s typology of liberty, it assesses how different conceptions of liberty fare in a context of stringent ecological limits. Indeed, a simple conceptual analysis shows that some conceptions of liberty are more compatible than others with such limits, and with the policies necessary to avoid overshooting them. The article concludes that Pettit’s conception of liberty as non-domination is more compatible with the existence of stringent ecological limits than the two alternatives considered.


Anderson, Elizabeth S. ‘What Is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109:2 (1999), pp. 287-337. DOI: 10.1086/233897

Arrow, Kenneth., Bert Bolin, Robert Costanza, Partha Dasgupta, Carl Folke, et al. ‘Economic Growth, Carrying Capacity, and the Environment’, Science 268: 5210 (1995), pp. 520-521. DOI: 10.1126/science.268.5210.520

Barnosky, Anthony. D., Elizabeth A. Hadly, Jordi Bascompte, Eric. L. Berlow, et al. ‘Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere’, Nature 486 (2012), pp. 52-58. DOI: 10.1038/nature11018

Barry, John. ‘Towards a Green Republicanism: Constitutionalism, Political Economy, and the Green State’, The Good Society 17:2 (2008), pp. 3–11. DOI: 10.1353/gso.0.0040

Berlin, Isaiah. ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 166–217. DOI: 10.1093/019924989x.003.0004

Carter, Ian. ‘Debate: The Myth of “Merely Formal Freedom”’, Journal of Political Philosophy 19:4 (2011), pp. 486-495. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2010.00371.x

Carter, Ian, Matthew H. Kramer, and Hillel Steiner (Eds.). Freedom: A Philosophical Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.

Dagger, Richard. ‘Freedom and Rights’, in Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, edited by Andrew Dobson and Robyn Eckersley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 200-215. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511617805.013

Feinberg, Joel. Harm to Others. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Gardiner, Stephen M. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. Environmental Ethics and Science Policy Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195379440.001.0001

Geus, Marius de. ‘The Environment versus Individual Freedom and Convenience’, in Liberal Democracy and Environmentalism, edited by Marcel L. J. Wissenburg and Yoram Levy. London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 87-99.

Hannis, Michael. Freedom and Environment. Autonomy, Human Flourishing and the Political Philosophy of Sustainability. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Hardin, Garrett. ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162:3859 (1968), pp. 1243-1248. DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Hediger, Werner. ‘Reconciling “weak” and “strong” Sustainability’, International Journal of Social Economics 26: 7/8/9 (1999), pp. 1120-1144.

Iyengar, Sheena. The Art of Choosing. Reprint edition. New York: Twelve, 2011.

Jackson, Tim. Prosperity Without Growth? Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan, 2011.

Kallis, Giorgios, Christian Kerschner, and Joan Martínez-Alier. ‘The Economics of Degrowth’, Ecological Economics 84 (2012), pp. 172-180. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.08.017

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Laborde, Cécile, and John Maynor (Eds.). Republicanism and Political Theory. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Lovett, Frank. ‘What Counts as Arbitrary Power?’, Journal of Political Power 5:1 (2012), pp. 137-152. DOI: 10.1080/2158379X.2012.660026

Maggio, G., and G. Cacciola. ‘When Will Oil, Natural Gas, and Coal Peak?’, Fuel 98 (2012), pp. 111–123. DOI: 10.1016/j.fuel.2012.03.021

Martínez-Alier, Joan, Unai Pascual, Franck-Dominique Vivien, and Edwin Zaccai.‘Sustainable de-Growth: Mapping the Context, Criticisms and Future Prospects of an Emergent Paradigm’, Ecological Economics 69:9 (2010), pp. 1741-1747. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2010.04.017

Martin, Jean-Louis, Virginie Maris, and Daniel S Simberloff. ‘The Need to Respect Nature and Its Limits Challenges Society and Conservation Science’, PNAS 113: 22 (2016), pp. 6105-6112. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113

Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows, and William W. Behrens. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd edition. New York: Universe Books, 1974.

Meadows, Donella, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.

Menzel, Susanne, and Tom L. Green. ‘Sovereign Citizens and Constrained Consumers: Why Sustainability Requires Limits on Choice’, Environmental Values 22:1 (2013), pp. 59-79. DOI: 10.3197/096327113X13528328798273

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Reprint edition. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011.

Peeters, Wouter, Jo Dirix, and Sigrid Sterckx. ‘The Capabilities Approach and Environmental Sustainability: The Case for Functioning Constraints’, Environmental Values 24: 3 (2015), pp. 367-389. DOI: 10.3197/096327115X14273714154575

Pettit, Philip. ‘Agency-Freedom and Option-Freedom’, Journal of Theoretical Politics 15:4 (2003), pp. 387-403. DOI: 10.1177/0951692803154003

Pettit, Philip. A Theory of Freedom: From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001.

Pettit, Philip. Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Ragnarsdottir, Kristin Vala. ‘Rare Metals Getting Rarer’, Nature Geoscience 1:11 (2008), pp. 720-721. DOI: 10.1038/ngeo302

Rockström, Johan, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, et al. ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Ecology and Society 14:2 (2009a), p. 32. DOI: 10.5751/ES-03180-140232

Rockström, Johan, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, et al. ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature 461:7263 (2009b), pp. 472-475. DOI: 10.1038/461472a

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Skinner, Quentin. ‘Rethinking Political Liberty’, History Workshop Journal 61:1 (2006), pp. 156-170. DOI: 10.1093/hwj/dbi054

Slaughter, Steven. ‘The Republican State: An Alternative Foundation for Global Environmental Governance’, in The State and the Global Ecological Crisis, edited by John Barry and Robyn Eckersley. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005, pp. 207-227.

Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah. E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, et al. ‘Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet’, Science 347: 6223 (2015), DOI: 10.1126/science.1259855.

Steiner, Hillel. An Essay on Rights. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Sudgen, Robert. ‘The Metric of Opportunity’, Economics and Philosophy 14:2 (1998), p. 307-337. DOI: 10.1017/S0266267100003874

UNEP. ‘GEO 5 - Global Environment Outlook’. Nairobi: UNEP, 2012. Online at: (accessed 2017-01-31).

Vallentyne, Peter. ‘Left-Libertarianism and Liberty’, in Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy, edited by Thomas Christiano and John Christman. Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 137-151. DOI: 10.1002/9781444310399.ch8

Viroli, Maurizio. Republicanism. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.




How to Cite

Fragnière, A. (2017) “Ecological Limits and the Meaning of Freedom: A Defense of Liberty as Non-Domination”, De Ethica, 3(3), pp. 33–49. doi: 10.3384/de-ethica.2001-8819.163333.