By Susin Moller Okin
Susin Okin argues that Rawls Theory of Justice should be applied to issues of gender and family. She explains, using quotes from both “A Theory of Justice” as well as “Political Liberalism” to show that Rawls himself was ambiguous about including the family as part of the basic structure – sometimes including it and sometimes seeming to exclude it. Okin argues that because the family is so important to early child development, the family must be included in the basic structure to ensure the stability of a society based on Rawls’ theory. An unjust family would not be able to provide the foundation of political values that Rawls believes citizens must develop. Okin also argues that justice for women requires more than just formal equality under the law, but also steps to ensure that past, caste-like social practices are not systematically continued, and that they instead have true “equality of opportunity.”
Susin Okin provides a feminist view (i.e. thinking particularly about women and the family) on Rawls Theory. Okin argues that Rawl’s theory has a great potential to address issues of gender and family, and suggests how is ideas can be extended to include them. Rawls first wrote “A Theory of Justice” (abbreviated as “Theory”) and later revised it in his book “Political Liberalism.” Okin points out some mixed signals given in the two books about how women are supposed to fit into his theory. She notes that in “Theory” Rawls listed family as part of the basic structure, and assumed that in some form the family is just. In “Political Liberalism” he says that he had previously omitted “the justice of and in the family.” He abandons the assumption that the people in the original position are “heads of families” and adds “sex” to the list of morally irrelevant contingencies in the original position. However, in Political Liberalism, Rawls focuses on issues of religious and philosophical toleration, not on gender. He even suggests that race, ethnicity, and gender “may seem of an altogether different character calling for different principles of justice, which Theory does not discuss.” Then again, he says his principles of justice “should be widely applicable to our own problems also.”
The Family as Part of the Basic Structure
In “Theory” Rawls includes “the monogamous family” as part of the basic structure, and devotes part of section 3 to dealing with the family’s role in early moral education. In “Political Liberalism” he further develops the idea of a “political conception of justice,” which is not a comprehensive doctrine. He stresses that it applies only to “the basic structure of society.” He does mention that “the nature of the family” belongs to the basic structure.
Rawls explains that the basic structure includes institutions that “have deep and long-term social effects and in fundamental ways shape citizens’ character and aims, the kinds of persons they are and aspire to be.” Okin argues that this definition would clearly include the family, and that therefore, the family should be regulated by the principles of justice.
However, there is some evidence that Rawls did not intend to include the family as part of the basic structure. “Political Liberalism” focuses only on the public and political nature of institutions. Rawls states, “The political is distinct… from the personal and the familial, which are affectional… in ways the political” is not. Okin argues that though families are sometimes characterized by affection, at other times they are characterized by power and vulnerability. In fact, Rawls notes that “individual members of families [need protection] from other family members (wives from their husbands, children from their parents).”
Okin suggests that the main reason Rawls is reluctant to consistently apply his standards to the justice of family is because he places emphasis on his theory as a poltical theory only, not a comprehensive moral theory. He believes this is important in order for the theory to be realistic – we have to assume that there will be reasonable pluralism (many incompatible comprehensive doctrines) in a democracy.
Congruence in a Well-Ordered Society
Rawls argues that it’s desirable for the values people hold in their political and non-political lives should be similar. He says that the full autonomy of citizens “presupposes that the fundamental ideas of justice as fairness are present in the public culture, or at least implicit in the history of its main institutions and traditions of their interpretation.” However, he also argues that the non-political aspects of lives – personal morality or religion – can hold views that there is a “hierarchy justified by religious or aristocratic values.”
Okin argues that this suggests that persons in a just society are “split” into public and nonpublic, politicial and non-political selves. She argues that this is not possible. A girl and a boy raised in a very traditional religious household teaching traditional gender roles and authority would not be consistent with both children becoming “free and equal citizens.”
Okin argues that some religious and other comprehensive doctrines that Rawls would like to include, should not be considered reasonable for inclusion in a just society. Rawls defines reasonable: “Reasonable persons… desire for its own sake a social world in which they, as free and equal, can cooperate with others on terms all can accept. They insist that reciprocity should hold within that world so that each benefits along with others.”
Rawls gives two possible arguments for what to do about unreasonable doctrines. In one, he argues that they should be constrained so that they don’t undermine the unity and justice of society, but that they will always exist. In what Okin argues is the stronger position, Rawls says that the political conception has to actually restrict permissible comprehensive views – the basic institutions built on principles of justice will encourage some ways of life and discourage others, or even exclude them all together. He includes as examples doctrines that require degrading people because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds. A doctrine that demanded slavery would have no claims within a just society.
Rawls argues that all the main historical religions would be seen as reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Okin disagrees, since many religions circumscribe women’s roles and instill a hierarchy. She believes there is a conflict between freedom of religion and equality of women.
Ralws provides an example that says it would be ok for children to be educated in sects that “oppose the culture of the modern world.” He simply argues that the children must be taught their constitutional and civic rights, and understand the political conception of justice. Okin argues that the compulsory public schooling (which seems to be implied) would help to counteract some aspects of gender inequality taught in some comprehensive doctrines. However, it may not be fully effective while the primary environment of these children is teaching inequality. Therefore, she argues that political liberalism is not able to be as widely tolerant of different religious conceptions of the good as Rawls would like it to be, because the degree of sex discrimination preached goes beyond Rawls definition of reasonableness.
The Family as a Potential School of Justice
In “Theory”, Rawls regarded the family as playing an important first role in the formation of citizens’ sense of justice. He said that healthy moral development in early life depends on parent-child love, trust, affection, example, and guidance. Okin argues that it is hard to see how families not themselves regulated by principles of justice and fairness could play a positive role in the moral education of citizens of a just society.
In Political Liberalism, Rawls emphasizes that we grow up in society, and do not just join it at the age of reason. He notes the role of basic institutions in establishing a social world in which we can develop with care, nurture, and education into free and equal citizens. However, his explanation of how this happens is less satisfactory and plausible – he says nothing about early childhood, but just notes that people acquire these political virtues by living under just “basic institutions.” Okin believes that Rawls was right the first time (in “Theory”) where he stressed the family as the first “school of justice.” This is missing from “Political Liberalism.”
Typical Contemporary Families as Poor Schools of Justice
In another paper, Okin argues that heterosexual couples-based families in our society are unjust in their distributions between women and men of work, power, opportunity, leisure, access to resources, and other important goods. She provides some examples from studies showing how the division of labor between adults in a household affects children. In general she finds that children magnify the unequal division of work.
In traditional households (father wage-earner, mother housewife), researchers found that boys and girls do approximately the same amount of household work, but it is divided along traditional gendered lines. In “drudge wife” households (mom and dad work, mom also does all housework) girls do 25% more than in traditional households, and boys do 1/3 as much – i.e. girls do four times as much work as boys. In hierarchical traditional families, women do not regard the situation as fair, but they accept as inevitable the power of the male family head over many of their activities and decisions.
Two Problems of Stability
Rawls says in Political Liberalism that “the problem of stability is fundamental to political philosophy.” Since no comprehensive conception of justice can be shared, he restricts his conception to the political based on overlapping consensus. Rawls says that stability includes “whether people who grow up under just institutions (as the political conception defines them) acquire a normally sufficient sense of justice so that they can comply with those institutions.” He argues that this is achieved by the moral psychology in which citizens living in a well-ordered society acquire a sense of justice. However, Okin argues that if families are not required to be just, then this account of moral psychology has uncertain foundations.
If families teach inequality rather than egalitarianism, their role in inculcating political virtues may be limited. Families are particularly important because of their influence in early childhood development. Okin arguest that this shows that Rawls solution to one problem of stability (restricting his theory to the political and allowing many comprehensive doctrines) renders another problem of stability intractable (the family is not required to be just, so it is not clear how political virtues are to develop.)
What Does Justice for Women Require?
Rawls says in intro to Political Liberalism that inequality and oppression of women can be thought about, within the framework of his theory, by appeal to the same principle of equality that Lincoln evoked in order to condemn slavery. Okin points out that Lincoln can be read as supporting purely formal equality between black and white Americans (in the law) or as requiring various measures aimed at considerably more substantive equality. In addition to formal equality, a more substantive anti-caste principle would ensure that social disadvantages would not be turned into systematic disadvantages in education, wealth, political influence, etc.
Okin argues that social justice for women has not been, and will not be, achieved by formal equality alone – merely changing the law does allow women (or slaves) to have “free equality of opportunity.” Though the legal subordination of women (hours and location of paid work, lack of public child care, etc.) has largely been overturned, social structures based on these things have remained. Just as slaves needed to be provided land so that they weren’t forced into wage labor under racist conditions, so women need things like parental leave and subsidized child care so that they can work for pay without being exploited because they are parents. Rawls’ theory has a great potential to address the injustices of labor - thinking about gender and families from an original position can provide important insights.