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Political philosophy Essay

Among the many substantial contributions to the field of modern philosophy made by John Rawls, there is one particular aspect of his most memorable work that has been a subject of notable controversy among feminists and other critics of gender-based injustices. Rawls is widely regarded as having revolutionized the modern field of political philosophy by “breaking the intuitionism-utilitarianism deadlock” (Kymlicka, 2002, p. 55).

However, according to critics like Susan Moller Okin, while Rawls has accounted for most institutions of society when elaborating his theory of justice, his categorization of family as a basic institution has led to an exclusion of those not qualifying as a “head of household” from the original position, creating the potential for significant gender-based injustices within his theory. This discrepancy has been extended by other critics including Eva Kittay, who demonstrates Rawls’ lack of attention to the issue of dependency.

Throughout the course of this essay, we will examine these criticisms and others in determining the susceptibility to gender-based injustices present in John Rawls’ theory and principles of justice. An outstanding explanation and brief overview of certain key aspects of a philosophical perspective advocated by Rawls comes from Samuel Sheffler (2001, p. 20), stating: In summary, then, Rawls agrees with utilitarianism about the desirability of providing a systematic account of justice that reduces the scope for intuitionistic balancing and offers a clear and constructive solution to the priority problem; about the need to subordinate common?

sense precepts of justice to a higher criterion; and about the holistic character of distributive justice. Rawls’ views may be regarded as revolutionary in that he was among the first to present a systematic alternative to utilitarianism that would account for intuitions that might be held as a necessity, and one of the first to attempt developing a systematic political theory to structure our different intuitions. Because of this, Rawls’ work has become a philosophical standard that has served as a basis for comparison of justice theory throughout recent generations (Kymlicka, 2002, p.54).

It is for this reason that the theory of justice presented by Rawls has apparently drawn so much criticism. While containing a number of uncertainties, particularly pertaining to gender-based injustices and dependency, the intellectual contributions of Rawls have been invaluable to the development of the field of political philosophy, in general. Issues of justice pertaining to gender in Rawls’ theory would, upon reading most of his work, appear to be favorable toward equality for all classes of citizens. For example (Rawls, 1971, p.11):

My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. The issue to be examined is whether or not Rawls’ social contract theory applies a superior standard of justice to all members and classes within a given society. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explains that “laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust” (1971, p. 3).

He devises a method, a thought experiment, to evaluate the conditions that might exist under a “veil of ignorance” where “parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities” (p. 11). These circumstances are what define the original position, as defined by Rawls, who then develops his theory on two principles that he believes would be agreed upon by those parties in the original position. The first principle suggests that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others”.

The second principle states: “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (p. 53). It is the ambiguity of the phrases “to everyone’s advantage” and “open to all” that has received the most scrutiny from feminists and other critics of gender based inadequacies in Rawls’ theory of justice. A feminism advocate and noteworthy critic of Rawls has been Susan Moller Okin, who has said, “[a]n ambiguity runs throughout John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, continually noticeable to anyone reading it from a feminist perspective” (Okin, 1987, p. 44).

While Okin concedes that Rawls’ “liberal principles can lead us to challenge fundamentally the gender system of our society”, she goes on to say that “this challenge is barely hinted at, much less developed”, referring to the evident lack of material presented by Rawls that might clarify, among other things, the outcome of wives and other women who are regarded as subordinates in the social institution of family.

Okin criticises the predominantly-masculine terms of references used by Rawls to describe any individuals or persons mentioned in his theory, suggesting that the equal inclusion of women may not have been a foremost concern when Rawls developed the foundations for these principles of justice (p. 45). While it remains true, in A Theory of Justice, that Rawls uses masculine terms most frequently, it is unclear whether or not he does so in order to more effectively communicate his ideas to a contemporary philosophical audience, in which these predominantly masculine terms of references had been applied, almost exclusively, for generations.

Okin’s next concern is with regard to Rawls’ assumption that family is a just institution. Based on the most relevant context in A Theory of Justice, pertaining to family as the first school of moral development, Rawls inadequately asserts that “family institutions are just” (Rawls cited by Okin, 1987, p. 48). Since it is Rawls’ intent and burden to demonstrate that both principles of justice as fairness are hypothetically agreeable between individuals in the original position, Okin makes a valid point with the following statement (p.49): …

[S]ince those in the original position are the heads or representatives of families, they are not in a position to determine questions of justice within families. This argument is sustained and further clarified by Kittay (1997, p. 229): If parties to the OP already have a determined social position relative to the family, they will not choose the principles of justice in ignorance of their social position.

And in the framework of Rawlsian constructivism, only principles that we choose in ignorance of our social position will issue in fair principles with respect to the basic institutions. Since Rawls does want to say that the family is a basic institution, and since justice should then pertain to the family, the parties cannot be heads of households. With this in mind, it would appear Okin is correct when outlining this apparent flaw in the “veil of ignorance” envisioned by Rawls.

Despite noting that Rawls does, on at least two occasions, seem to acknowledge that women may be equally likely to be regarded as a “head of family” or to be included in the original position, Okin challenges the ongoing assumptions present throughout Part II of A Theory of Justice and contends again that Rawls’ consistent employment of supposedly male terms of reference “has the effect of banishing a large sphere of human life — and a particularly large sphere of most women’s lives — from the scope of the theory” (Okin, 1987, p.50).

Rawls discusses the issue of wealth distribution in A Theory of Justice and, in accordance with his frequent omission of wives and many other women from the original position, does not account for certain factors that may influence a woman’s success in the paid labor force. Okin states that, in all contemporary societies, “a much larger proportion of women’s than men’s labor is unpaid, and is often not acknowledged to be labor” (1987, p. 50).

While this condition may not necessarily prevail under Rawls’ theory of justice, at least not when women are represented as a “head of household”, for any discussion of justice within the family, these issues would have to be carefully considered. An interesting example of a woman’s role in the public sphere, or lack thereof, in Rawls’ arguments aimed to support his theory of justice is that of a military draft. Despite his statement that there should be “no avoidable class bias in selecting those who are called for duty” (Rawls cited by Okin, 1987, p.50), Rawls had failed to include any mention of the exemption of women from this aspect of equal citizenship and civil duty (Okin, 1987, p. 50).

Such exclusions are in stark contrast to the notion of “equality of opportunity” in a Rawlsian society as depicted by Kymlicka (p. 58): Why does the ideology of equal opportunity seem fair to many people in our society? Because it ensures that people’s fate is determined by their choices, rather than their circumstances.

If I am pursuing some personal ambition in a society that has equality of opportunity, then my success or failure will be determined by my performance, not by my race or class or sex. Equality of opportunity is one of the challenges faced by Rawls when developing his theory of justice. As part of an adequate conception of social cooperation, political justice must account for dependency concerns. Rawls admits to the mostly unsupported assumption “that everyone has physical needs and psychological capacities within some normal range” (Rawls cited by Kittay, 1997, p.225).

This is, of course, mostly untrue as a large percentage of the population will consist of people who are seriously ill, children, and elderly. Not only is dependency a factor for these individuals; it also applies to the caretakers whose overall functioning capacity in society would be reduced by their obligation to care for those who are in need of constant attention. Kittay outlines some of the reasons dependency concerns are relevant to social cooperation and political justice (1997, p.232):

[F]irst, because they are rational and reasonable considerations in choosing a conception of justice; second, because a society that does not care for its dependents or that cares for them only by unfairly exploiting the labor of those who do the caring cannot be said to be well-ordered [… ]; and, third, because when we reorient our political insights to see the centrality of human relationships to our happiness and well-being, we recognize dependency needs as basic motivations for creating a social order.

The argument that issues related to dependency should be an important foundation for any theory of justice has been well-supported by Kittay and other critics. According to Kittay (p. 239), if we all “took turns being dependent and dependency workers, we would repay the debt, incurred during periods of dependency, of benefits-received-without-burdens-assumed”. Of course, such a circumstance does not reasonably exist and, therefore, the burdens and responsibilities of the dependency worker are drastically different than those of a fully-functioning citizen.

The worker will simply not have the resources to maintain “an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties” as allocated by Rawls’ first principle of justice (Rawls, 1971, p. 53). In conclusion, Okin’s claim that Rawls’ theory of justice fails to address gender-based injustice both within the family and the public sphere is sustained with legitimate arguments and reasonable inquiry. Rawls’ theory of justice, at its current stage, does not appear to apply equally to all classes of citizens, namely women.

The parties in the original position would have an inadequate “veil of ignorance” if their association to family was known, preventing an impartial assignment of ‘principles’. Kittay’s extension of the argument pertaining to gender-based injustices to dependency relations carries the significance of Rawls’ discrepancies even further when demonstrating the full extent by which dependency workers, which are predominantly female, are further constricted by Rawls’ failure to account for existing inequalities pertaining to dependency and dependency work.

In essence, the lack of sufficient acknowledgement of gender-based injustice on behalf of Rawls may very well be the greatest weakness of his theory. With the passage of time, however, new developments in the field of political philosophy may give rise to a system that will account for these important variables. REFERENCES Kymlicka, Will. (2002), Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, New York. Okin, Susan Moller.

(1987), “Justice and gender”. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 16: Kittay, Eva Feder. (1997), “Human dependency and Rawlsian Equality” in Feminists Rethink the Self, Meyers, Diana Tietjens Rawls, John. (1971), A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. Sheffler, Samuel. (2001), ‘Rawls and Utilitarianism’, Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought. Oxford University Press, New York.


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