Neo-Roman Freedom in Economic Life

  • Robert Donoghue

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Liberty, arguably more than any other political value, suffers from being incredibly popular yet elusively ambiguous. As U.S. President Abraham Lincoln aptly put it, “we all declare for liberty; but in using that word we do not all mean the same thing.” Political communities that prize individual liberty must confront the dilemma of deciding which interpretation of freedom to instantiate in social life. To aid in this effort, I comparatively evaluate two noteworthy ideals of freedom in the current political climate: the hard libertarian ideal of freedom as self-ownership (i.e. people are free when their property rights remain inviolate) and the neo-republican ideal of freedom as non-domination (i.e. people are free when their choices cannot be subjugated to an arbitrary will).

I frame my evaluation of these two ideals by asking: do we have good reasons for preferring the promotion of freedom understood as self-ownership or non- domination? Hitherto, political philosophers have primarily developed theoretical arguments when trying to answer this question, largely forgoing expressly empirical approaches. To fill this gap, I execute a comparative case study of self-employed and standard employed workplaces, locations where self-ownership and non-domination are approximately codified. The data collected from thirty in-depth interviews with self-employed and standard employed couriers, between October 2019 and July 2020, illuminates the lived realities associated with these principles of liberty.

To complete this empirical inquiry, I develop a theoretical framework that explains how the research question can be answered with the case study results. First, I argue that because the self-ownership and non-domination accounts of freedom are both grounded by the shared moral interest of ‘personhood’, this moral good offers a criterion for comparatively assessing these freedom ideals on an empirical basis. In short, if one of these principles better promotes personhood, that constitutes a strong reason for preferring that principle. Second, I draw on Gerald MacCallum’s triadic concept of freedom to construct an analytical framework for evaluating how well these principles engender personhood. Specifically, I conduct an accounting of the freedoms enjoyed by independent contractors and employees to produce a clear picture of the constraints (and opportunities) that characterize their experiences in the workplace. The accounting of freedoms completed for each case study reveals how the liberties claimed by each group vary in quantity (number of freedoms), quality (the types and sources of constraints), and substance (the significance or meaning of those constraints).

The testimony of self-employed couriers underscores that the freedoms guaranteed in a self-ownership environment are not highly generative of personhood. Such freedoms are characterized by a high degree of fragility, contingency, and narrowness, all of which are attributes that produce a highly vulnerable foundation for its realization. Couriers in a standard employment relationship, on the other hand, appear to benefit from a set of freedoms that constitutes the more robust foundation for the enjoyment of personhood. This, I argue, presents a compelling reason for preferring the codification of freedom understood as non-domination. However, the employee case study does expose structural and systemic constraints that problematically compromise employee freedoms and thereby jeopardise the greatest possible fulfillment of their personhood.
Date of Award29 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorGraham Room (Supervisor) & Emma Carmel (Supervisor)


  • liberty
  • freedom
  • non-domination
  • self-ownership
  • industrial relations
  • work

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