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Rights and Wrongs PtI: Traditional Frameworks for Novel Institutions

19 May 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist.
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This is part one of a three part series.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw the rise of both the modern language of what would come to be known as ‘human rights’ and large-scale human rights violations in the form of racialised slavery. Though popular history remembers the intellectual conflict over slavery as one between evil, racist slavers and righteous abolitionists, in the early days of colonial slavery the primary conflict over slavery was not over whether it was right but how it was right, though, truth be told, the popular narrative is not true of any period of mainstream slavery in the Americas. The conditions under which slavery was morally justifiable was a hot topic and one that frequently conflicted with received and developing understandings of right(s). The birth of ‘modern’ theories of natural rights is usually pegged at the writing of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, to whom we will return later, but Grotius also marks the last major field in the battle between those ‘modern’ rights theories and the institutions of colonial slavery. His major successors in the descent of modern rights theories would pioneer, and eventually simply assume, the intellectual mainstreaming of an exclusively racialised conception of slavery: where slavery and blackness were all but one and the same. In order to truly understand the complicated and problematising relationship modern theories of rights have with slavery, it’s necessary to examine Grotius in the light of some of his immediate predecessors on the Iberian peninsula.

Continued at The Molinist.

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