Advocating for Human Trafficking Victims


Field philosophy endorses developing relationships between philosophers and non-academic communities, and, specifically, it raises opportunities for connecting academic interests with civic responsibilities. Academic training does not typically address questions about how to engage with ethical decisionmaking outside of the university, and yet our skills and knowledge are relevant to many civic issues. My philosophical education did not prepare me to address the practical implications of ethical decisions or to answer fundamental questions about identity and agency in contexts that real people face every day. This is contrary to what we read in every introductory philosophy textbook that addresses questions of the good life, morality, obligations to others, and the individual’s role in society. If these are the most important issues to teach students in an introductory course—which is likely to be the only formal interaction they’ll ever have with philosophy—we should take them seriously throughout our academic practice.

Either the “real-world questions” are not important issues to explore, or philosophy should work its way back to the field of real-life decision-making. If the latter is the case, then we are doing our students a disservice by not introducing them to field philosophy. For we do believe these questions are essential. But we are not given the training, tools, or incentives to take our expertise out into the world. These uncharted territories are unpredictable, but we didn’t choose philosophy because it was predictable: “Field philosophers emphasize the messiness and open-endedness of philosophic work, where thinking gropes in the dark. We must be ready to turn this way or that on encountering unexpected obstacles and opportunities” (Frodeman et al. 2012, p. 324).

This has been my experience working in the field of human trafficking. My path to advocating for human trafficking victims involved a significant learning curve. In the early 2000s, I came across Kevin Bales’ Disposable People (2004) and learned about what Bales refers to as “modem day slavery.” His book presents a challenge: if you have ever asked yourself what you would have done during the intercontinental slave trade, you can answer that now by considering what you are doing to eradicate current day human trafficking. I asked myself that question and felt obligated to take action. I found that in spite of my professional training in ethics, I didn’t know where to start. I began to educate myself about the issues and made connections in the community with people who worked in the field of human trafficking. I didn’t exactly know what my goal was, but I knew that, given my privileged place in the community, I had a civic and professional duty to act.

In this chapter, I discuss my experiences working in the area of human trafficking as an academically trained philosopher. I trace how engaging with the human trafficking crisis has affected my research and how philosophical training allows me to make a unique contribution. Although empirical social research may seem the standard form of knowledge needed to solve social problems, philosophers can contribute by analyzing, discussing, and engaging. These are things we are good at doing professionally, and we can use those skills to engage with issues outside academia. We have the ability to address contemporary social problems, both through research in applied ethics and by means of engagement that is more direct than applied philosophy.

Applied philosophy involves applying disciplinary frameworks and distinctions to evaluate solutions to practical problems. Field philosophy diverges further from established disciplinary frameworks; it starts with a problem, and works with non-philosophy practitioners to achieve the desired goal (Frodeman et al. 2012, p. 325). It involves a significant amount of learning, commitment, and patience. The duty falls on us to demand that our professional norms make meeting our civic obligations possible.

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