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Analyzing Freedom from the Shadows of Slavery

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Philosophical treatments of core value concepts often abstract from the troubled history and fractured present of the societies to which those concepts are meant to apply. In the case of the political tradition of liberal democratic thought, stretching from the social contract theories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries up through contemporary writers, the notion of individual freedom or liberty is central. However, often that idea, and the assumption of its foundational value for persons, is specified from the perspective of those who enjoy it rather than those struggling to attain it. Moreover, the social spaces that theories of justice that locate freedom as a central value have continue to bracket out of existence the patterns of enslavement, oppression and domination that mark all social spaces. This article attempts a reappraisal of certain dominant understandings of the idea of freedom in both historical and contemporary philosophical discourse in light of this alteration of perspective. Specifically, the current practices of coercive labor, trafficking, irregular labor migration, and other forms of “marginal” social lives are brought into focus in order to guide this reappraisal. The article argues that if we assess these conditions as modes of unfreedom then we must utilize an account of freedom that diverges significantly from those dominant notions. A sketch of this alternative, positive, conception of freedom is then offered.

Affiliations: 1: Pennsylvania State University


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