Volume 48, Issue 2, Fall 2020
The Political Philosophy of Socialism
Alienation, Freedom, and Dignity
The topic of alienation has fallen out of fashion in social and political philosophy. It used to be salient, especially in socialist thought and in debates about labor practices in capitalism. Although the lack of identification of people with their working lives—their alienation as workers—remains practically important, normative engagement with it has been set back by at least four objections. They concern the problems of essentialist views, a mishandling of the distinction between the good and the right, the danger of paternalistic impositions, and the significance of democratic authorization. This paper recasts the critique of alienation in a way that vindicates its importance for social and political philosophy and rebuts these objections. First, it provides an analytic framework to understand alienation—distinguishing its various conceptual, explanatory, and normative dimensions. Second, it accounts for the normative aspect of the critique of alienation by articulating it in terms of prudential and moral ideas of positive freedom regarding human flourishing and Solidaristic Empowerment. Finally, the normative account is developed further, and sharpened to respond to the four objections, through the introduction of the Dignitarian Approach—the view that we have reason to organize social life in such a way that we respond appropriately to the valuable features of individual human beings that give rise to their dignity.