As Bangladesh was struggling to recover from the disastrous famine of 1974, Saleha Begum’s husband fell ill, and they were forced to sell their land.1 Like most women in rural Bangladesh, Saleha had never been trained to work outside her home. Although she raised her children almost single-handedly and did the hard physical work that daily household life required, she was illiterate, unprepared for any sort of wage-paying job, and without any claims to respect as a worker. To avoid starvation for herself, her husband, and her children, Saleha fought for and won the right to work at an agricultural project previously closed to women, in which food was given in exchange for labor. As the prize for her victory she was able to spend her days breaking up turf with a hoe and carrying heavy baskets of earth—all the while caring for her young children, who accompanied her to the field, and continuing to do all the housework when she returned home. (Women, studies show, can move forty cubic feet of earth per day.) She told an interviewer that she regrets her lack of professional training: “I could have had a profession to see me through these difficult days—without always dreading whether I will have work tomorrow or whether my children will be crying in hunger.” When I saw her husband on film (too weak for field work, but otherwise apparently well), he was sitting on the ground and smoking a pipe while Saleha cared for their children.
Angela K. lives in the white middle-class American suburbs, but her story has much in common with that of Saleha Begum. Angela went to high school, but married shortly after she began college. She left school to go to work, supporting her young husband while he got both a bachelor’s degree and a professional degree, and then quit work to have children. Ten years later she was divorced and awarded custody of the three young children; but the court ordered the family house to be sold and the proceeds divided. The child support payments and temporary “transitional” alimony ordered by the court were inadequate to keep the family from hardship. Forced to rely on her earnings, she is caught in an exhausting dead-end routine. She has to take jobs paying close to the minimum wage while also caring for her children and doing the housework, and she has no hope of pursuing any sort of professional training. Her frustration is increased by awareness that her ex-husband is flourishing. It takes the average divorced man only about ten months to earn as much as the couple’s entire net worth. And divorced men are now more likely to meet their car payments than their child support obligations.2
Women suffer injustice not only through discrimination in the public world, but through the ways labor is organized and income is distributed within the family itself. It is in families, indeed, that the cruelest discrimination against women takes place. The economist Amartya Sen, for example, has shown that patterns of female mortality in many parts of the world suggest that pervasive discrimination against women (and especially girls) deprives them both of adequate food and basic health care.3 It is hard to prove who puts how much food on whose plate each night at dinner; but one can observe which members of a family die of malnutrition and draw the appropriate inferences about the inner life of that family.
And even when women are not actually dying as the result of discrimination, the patterns of family life limit their opportunities in many ways: by assigning them to unpaid work with low prestige; by denying them equal opportunities to outside jobs and education; by insisting they do most or all of the housework and child care even when they are also earning wages. Especially troubling are ways that women may suffer from the altruism of marriage itself. As the two stories show, a woman who accepts the traditional tasks of housekeeping and provides support for her husband’s work is not likely to be well prepared to look after herself and her family in the event (which is increasingly likely) of a divorce or an accident that leaves her alone.
Such facts are all too familiar. Few who have lived through some variant of this story, or have seen their friends do so, would confidently maintain that the contemporary family is a just institution. And yet philosophical theories of justice have rarely considered the workings of the family; they have rarely treated it as an institution to which basic insights about justice and injustice must apply. The aim of Okin’s important book is to bring this situation to light and to try to correct it.
Two reasons for this omission are frequently offered, Okin points out, either separately or in combination. Some theorists claim that the family is not an appropriate topic for a theory of justice because it is in some sense “beyond” justice, a sphere of life that embodies virtues of love and generosity that are “higher” than justice. (This claim has recently been advanced by thinkers as different as the communitarian political theorist Michael Sandel and the radical legal scholar Roberto Unger.)4
Even if such a claim is true of the family at its best, it is far from clear why generosity and love should be thought incompatible with a basic concern for justice—as if it were small-minded to inquire about equal opportunity when partners are bound by deep emotion. We should, as Okin says, be suspicious of that criticism, especially when we notice whose interests that idea of a love beyond justice has frequently served.5 Real generosity and real love, we would insist, should at least be just; and it seems right to demand of the family that it meet the basic requirements of fairness, no matter what higher ends it pursues.
This point is all the more important since the dominant model of the family used in current economic theory—that of the economist Gary Becker—assumes a harmony of interests among family members, in which a beneficent head of the family acts “rationally” on behalf of the interests of all its members.6 This approach, as Okin perceptively notices, is not very different from that of theorists who idealize the family. Like such theories, it fails to confront inequalities of power and problems of justice that can exist within the family itself.
It is also said that the family cannot be expected to meet standards of justice because, unlike the state, it exists “by nature,” or “according to nature”—an argument recently made, for example, by Allan Bloom in his attack on women’s demands for equality of opportunity.7 But the word “nature,” as J. S. Mill long ago observed,8 is among the most slippery of many slippery terms in the philosopher’s lexicon. If “according to nature” means “the way things are without human design or intervention,” it is far from clear why we should be bound by nature when it comes to ethical choices. Many bad things happen according to nature in that sense—diseases, earthquakes, bodily weakness, and hunger. This hardly means that we should do nothing about them. Many good things, too, are in that sense against nature—including most of the ethical ideas we have.
Nor can the traditional patterns of family life be separated from other social norms and political institutions. As Okin shows in detail, the “private” realm of the family, so frequently contrasted with the “public” world of laws and institutions, is actually shaped by laws and institutions in countless ways: directly, by the impact of divorce law, tax law, and other family-related laws on the opportunities and living standard of family members; indirectly by the fact that the family members are deeply influenced by the societies in which they live. Their actions in “public” life also shape, and are shaped by, their ways of participating in family life. An unequal division of labor within the family presents obstacles to women in their lives outside the family; and these inequalities are often supported by social traditions and expectations.
And yet most major theories of justice have had little to say about women or the family. This, Okin argues, simply will not do: since women evidently suffer injustice, a theory of social justice forfeits its claim to our attention if it omits so much of its topic. The family, moreover, is the school of justice for the larger society, the place where children are first exposed to the models of fairness and unfairness that will affect their later behavior in the larger world. If young citizens’ earliest experiences of family life include the experience of injustice, even of injustice masquerading as nobility or as nature, must this not work against the eventual possibility of a more just society?
Okin examines what some influential philosophical accounts of justice have to say about the justice of the family. If, as often is the case, little has been said explicitly, she asks whether the theory itself has the potential for an adequate treatment of injustice to women. Communitarian theories of justice, which hold that standards must be found in the deeply rooted traditions of particular societies, seem to her particularly inadequate.
Here Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of justice within traditions9 is of particular interest, since MacIntyre shows much sensitivity to issues of justice for women and goes to some pains to show that his Aristotelian-Thomistic account can avoid some of the discriminatory conclusions of Aristotle’s actual treatment of women. Okin argues, convincingly in my view, that MacIntyre’s appeal to the excellence of traditional arrangements is persuasive only to the extent that he makes his reader forget to ask what position he or she would occupy within the traditional society. It is one thing to be a Homeric warrior, quite another to be a Homeric slave, and MacIntyre always concentrates on the dominant class, failing to imagine the horrendous inequalities that are directly entailed by the standards of justice in these traditional societies. When much of the world seems to be seeking meaning in ethnic, national, and other traditions, and casting aspersions on the Enlightenment demand for impartiality, Okin reminds her readers of the dangers of romanticizing tradition.10
Equally vigorous is her attack on libertarian theories of justice, for example Robert Nozick’s rights-based account of a minimally interfering state.11 Her criticism here is, I think, unfortunately narrow; it is aimed at finding an inconsistency within Nozick’s account of ownership, and argues that he cannot avoid the conclusion that women own their children, since they produce them by their own labor. If this is so, she argues, nobody can ever own anything since they do not own themselves in the first place. In consequence, Nozick’s theory of ownership and entitlement is flawed from the start. This seems to be a relatively superficial objection, of little help in investigating the general structure of theories of justice based on rights, and what they have to offer women.
By contrast, Okin’s criticism of John Rawls’s theory of justice is one of her most valuable contributions.12 Having great sympathy with Rawls’s account of justice, she wishes to use it as the frame for her own account of justice between men and women in the family. She finds particularly attractive the well-known device of the Original Position, in which hypothetical people in selecting principles of justice are deprived of knowledge of their own particular place in society, their class, occupation, and so forth, and therefore have to consider the well-being of everyone, from the best-off to the worst-off, on the hypothesis that they could be any one of them.
This exercise of impartial moral imagination she finds enormously valuable for understanding the lives of women. She argues convincingly that principles chosen in such a way would not accept the huge inequalities between males and females, with respect to basic goods such as nutrition, health, the right to work, political liberty, which now prevail in one or another form in most parts of the world. (Since Okin mainly discusses the problems of women in the United States and similar countries, she says little about hunger. But in an impressive recent paper she extends her analysis to women of developing countries, arguing that the problems they face are not different in kind from those she has described, but are simply, in many cases, worse and more urgent.)13
Okin is in fact rewriting Rawls. He did not stipulate that the persons in the Original Position are ignorant of whether they will be male or female in the resulting society. In fact he said nothing one way or another about this question in A Theory of Justice—though in a later article he states that one’s sex is, in fact, one of the morally irrelevant features that the veil of ignorance will hide; he now believes, it seems, that, like wealth or social class, gender is not a feature that ought to affect people’s entitlements in a fair and moral distribution of resources.14 A further problem lies in his stipulation that the parties are “heads of households” who act on behalf of the interests of their households as a whole, not just on behalf of their own; for this seems to make the family and life within it, as Okin puts it, “opaque to claims of justice.”15
Rawls doesn’t seem to have thought much about the family. At one point he mentions that the family is part of the “basic structure” of society, for which principles are being chosen; and yet he says nothing about how the parties will choose to give structure to this particular institution, and, indeed, at one point he states that the family will simply be “assumed”—although “in a broader inquiry the institution of the family might be questioned….”16 As Okin says, “Why should it require a broader inquiry than the colossal task in which A Theory of Justice is engaged, to raise questions about the institution and the form of the family?” What is clear, however, is that the issue was not important to Rawls’s view of what a theory of justice should accomplish. And this, as Okin notes, is all the more surprising since he devotes considerable attention, in a very valuable and little-read section of his book, to the way in which children learn moral sentiments, and eventually a sense of justice itself, from their early experience in the family. How can this happen, Okin quite rightly asks, if the family is itself unjust?
Okin’s detailed criticisms of Rawls are telling and of wide interest. Her own positive proposal, Rawlsian in spirit, is elegantly simple. It is that we retain the device of the Original Position in selecting principles of justice, but (a) deprive the parties of the knowledge of whether they will be males or females in the resulting society, and (b) insist that since the structure of the family is in fact part of the basic structure of society, the parties would have to consider the basic principles of justice that affect it. From this, she argues, a truly “humanist justice” would emerge, one that would recognize the inequalities and deprivations deriving from the structure of family life, and that would correct these, both by legal institutions and by transformed patterns of daily life and activity within the home.
The society Okin imagines will insist, above all, on correcting the uneven division of boring and burden-some household tasks, which are very seldom equally distributed within the modern family, even when both parties pursue highly demanding jobs. (A recent survey in Finland, a country that has supported women’s equal right to work more effectively, perhaps, than any other, providing well-designed and comprehensive schemes of subsidized child care and parental leave, found that working women do three times the housework done by working men.)17 Caring for children, in Okin’s view, should be in a different category, for it is both highly demanding and rewarding, so that what is being distributed is not just a task but an opportunity to enjoy a basic human good.
Okin would like to see both work and education planned to achieve equality between men and women in careers, housework, and child care (by emphasis on flexible work time, child care at work, parental leave for both parents, and so forth). Such a plan, of course, would promote justice only if it were carried out in good faith by the men and women concerned. Education therefore becomes crucial. Public schools would prepare children of both sexes to take part in homemaking and rearing children, as well as in work outside the home, and would try to eradicate sex stereotypes. The laws of marriage and divorce would protect women like Angela K. far more than most such laws do now; they would recognize that the largest asset in most marriages is the earning power of its wage-working partner or partners; thus women like Angela K., who support their husband’s work by keeping house, will, in case of divorce, be entitled to a portion of the husband’s future earnings.18 The primary aim of laws relating to alimony and child support should, she argues, be to ensure that the standards of living of the two post-divorce households are the same. This will be easier in any case in a society in which both parties to a marriage have been encouraged from the start to contribute to the family as both workers and homemakers. But where this is not the case, the law should intervene. And alimony of this sort, where necessary, should not end after a few years, as so frequently happens now. It should continue,
for at least as long as the traditional division of labor in the marriage did and, in the case of short-term marriages that produced children, until the youngest child enters first grade and the custodial parent has a real chance of making his or her own living. After that point, child support should continue at a level that enables the children to enjoy a standard of living equal to that of the noncustodial parent. There can be no reason consistent with principles of justice that some should suffer economically vastly more than others from the breakup of a relationship whose asymmetric division of labor was mutually agreed on.
These, practical proposals are not especially surprising. Many of them have long been endorsed by feminists, and some of them have actually been carried out in several of the Scandinavian countries. What makes Okin’s argument for them novel and extremely important is the way in which she links them with underlying principles of justice. She argues, rigorously and convincingly, that principles that are widely endorsed as central to the moral point of view—for the device of the Original Position aims to provide a deeply shared picture of the moral point of view—when followed consistently, lead directly to the policies she advocates. But those principles will be seen to lead to these policies only when those who articulate them give to the lives of women and children in families the kind of attention that they have not so far gotten from most male theorists of justice.
Okin presents the problem of justice for women vividly and makes her philosophical case with exemplary clarity. Anyone concerned with social justice should study her book. Still, despite Okin’s emphasis on the need for a theory of family justice, she does not address some of the deeper questions that such a theory would ultimately have to confront. First, one must wonder about her idea of “eliminating” gender distinctions, and what the proposed elimination would do to human love and desire. Okin believes that in a just society the difference between being male and being female would be no more significant than “one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.” And she plainly intends this elimination of difference to be a feature not just of public and legal institutions but of daily life itself, as children grow up in families.
Her argument makes it evident that many, indeed most, of the ways in which differences between maleness and femaleness have been understood as significant by most societies have indeed been bound up with hierarchy and injustice; and her idea that we might regard gender as a category like eye color is certainly attractive by contrast to some of the hierarchical conceptions of gender that still influence the behavior of many of us. But how can the experience of being either male or female—and the experience of being sexually drawn to males or females, or both—be accurately compared to the feelings about oneself and others that are associated with the color of one’s eyes? These experiences seem much deeper, and more intimately connected with one’s life and identity.
Okin might feel this is neither a necessary nor a good state of affairs; but the sense of being male or female is so strong in most of us that a richer psychological and historical inquiry into the nature of human desire would be needed in order to make the case for the kind of society Okin seems to want. Even in societies like ancient Greece where the gender of sexual partners seems to have been far less important than it is for us, the experience of oneself as either male or female was a fundamental part of personal and social identity. Might we discover ways of retaining differences between the sexes while reconceiving them so that they would not entail hierarchy? Couldn’t gender identity, for example, be like ethnic or national identity—fundamental ways that many people have of defining themselves, but not necessarily linked to the depreciation or oppression of any other group? I sympathize intellectually with Okin’s views, but I can’t see myself in the world she projects; and I find myself wishing that she were not so fond of making simple and unambiguous statements about matters that are deeply ambiguous and mysterious.
Then, too, we should know more about Okin’s view of the family. She plainly has a strong preference for the nuclear family in something like its modern Western form, in which couples raise their own children in considerable privacy and with considerable freedom from outside interference. She rejects out of hand Plato’s proposal for the communal rearing of children, simply asserting that the woman she is imagining “loves and cherishes her family life.” She has little to say about unconventional family patterns, although she mentions the existence of homosexual couples—without expressing any view of their suitability as parents—and she approves of a limited amount of day care to assist working parents. But she never tells us what benefits she believes the modern Western family provides, or why, in view of the many alternatives that have been conceived, she still prefers the pattern that has proven, as she herself demonstrates, so resistant to reform in the name of justice.
Such arguments are all the more important now that Okin has extended her account to the women of societies very different from her own. Saleha Begum would be very unlikely to share Angela K.’s interest in the intimacy and privacy of the small nuclear family; and we know of many other societies in which the extended family, or village, is more important for child rearing than the couple. Furthermore, new technologies are now making it possible for a single woman, or a lesbian couple, or some larger group, to decide to have a child through artificial insemination. It will soon even be possible to arrange for children to be conceived and born entirely within laboratories and then raised in a variety of different ways.
We need to ask ourselves which ways are desirable, and this would require a historical and philosophical inquiry that is not even attempted in Okin’s rather cautious analysis. Would the parties in Rawls’s original position design a society with families in it at all? If so, what would be their arguments for doing so? Would they, for example, follow Aristotle, arguing that the intimate love and knowledge that are found within the nuclear family are better for the moral and psychological development of children than any more communal scheme could be? Okin, like Rawls, never addresses such questions.
All this points to the need for much more explicit consideration of what it is for human beings to flourish; for without some such account it seems difficult to say whether human beings might do better in families or in some sort of Platonic communal arrangement, or whether there is a clear case in fact for one or the other. Okin seems to make use of such an account implicitly when she imagines that both women and men will lead better lives if they share more activities than is now generally the case: for she implies that both caring for children and working outside the home are important human functions. Without either one of them, life might be said to be incomplete, however much money and security one may have. And yet, to develop this sort of claim would, it seems clear, take Okin beyond the boundaries of the sort of liberalism she has adopted, in which public policy is guided by basic principles of justice, but individuals are left to choose their own conception of the good.
Okin, following Rawls, is not, however, altogether neutral about the good;19 for she seems to share Rawls’s commitment to the importance of choice and autonomy, holding, with him, that satisfactions without choice are lacking in moral worth. And she insists, too, that in a just society religious views that teach the inferiority of women will simply not be admitted for consideration in the construction of basic institutions, any more than will views that teach the naturalness of slavery. But she never squarely confronts the issue of the good, and the possible limitations of Rawls’s views.
Rawls insisted that before they selected the principles of justice that should apply generally, the hypothetical persons behind the veil of ignorance would not know their own conceptions of the good: that is, what are the activities and goals in life that they take to have most importance. This, he held, was necessary if the resulting society was to be fair to people who came from different religious and metaphysical traditions. On the other hand, it was clear that in order to conceive principles for the distribution of things within society these individuals had to have some idea of what things were worth distributing. To this end Rawls provided his deliberating parties with what he called the “thin theory of the good”—that is, with a list of “primary goods” such as, for example, liberty, wealth, and income, of which, for all citizens, regardless of their personal conceptions, more was (allegedly) always better than less.
In his initial presentation of the list, Rawls spoke as if the primary goods were means to realizing any conception of the good one might have. In more recent work, he has denied this, connecting the list instead with the particular Kantian account of autonomy and rationality that he now uses explicitly to describe the parties in the Original Position.20 But the claim still seems to be that these items are good, whatever one’s conception of human goodness might be, and that more of them is always better than less; and he still claims that the “thin” list he gives is sufficient to give distributive justice a direction, without any further account of good human functioning.
Both of these claims have been questioned. Rawls’s list of “primary goods” was always heterogeneous, including liberty, opportunities to act, and the social conditions of self-respect—all of which seem to be, or to be closely connected to, powers or abilities people may have—along with more traditional material resources, such as wealth and income. But certainly one might question, in at least some of the cases, the claim that more is always better than less. To say this about wealth and income, for example, is certainly to adopt a particular and highly questionable theory of the good, one very common in Western capitalism, but not for that reason the less controversial.
A feminist theory of justice should certainly question whether the unlimited acquisitiveness of modern capitalist societies has always been good for the family, for the bonds of community, or, indeed, for sex equality itself. Two people who believe that more income and wealth is always better than less are likely to have difficulties about the division of labor at home that people less attached to acquisition may not have; and professions that are based on this principle impose well-known burdens on their aspiring young members, making it very difficult for them to be just to their partners.
Nor should a feminist theory of justice simply assume that the “thin theory of the good” is sufficient to give direction to public policy in a just society. For one might argue—as Amartya Sen and others have recently argued against Rawls21—that such a list fails to demonstrate the very point and importance of those goods, which is to serve as instruments for human functioning. Unless we show how the goods on Rawls’s list enable people to choose to live in ways that have value, we have not shown why they have any value at all; apart from its role in enabling people to act in various ways, money is only a heap of paper. But if we say, instead, that the parties in the original position need to identify the “capabilities”22 for doing the things that people should be able to do, and to aim at equality of “capability,” rather than at equality of resources such as income and wealth, we have already departed in some ways from the liberalism that lies behind Rawls’s list.
The departure is not total, for in aiming to make people capable of choosing to function in various desirable ways we are preserving the emphasis on choice and autonomy that was basic to the spirit of Rawls’s original proposal. The just society will make sure that people can be well nourished, but will not force-feed them if they choose to fast. And yet, even to say that the ability to obtain food and to get an education are “primary goods” is to say more about the good human life than Rawls is willing to say.
Another departure seems of special significance for the good of women. In Rawls’s approach, the well-off and the less well-off are defined according to the amount of primary goods each possesses. In Sen’s approach, where abilities to take action, and not resources, are the primary goods, we can take account of the fact that individuals have varying needs for resources, in accordance with their social and physical circumstances, the special obstacles they face, and so forth. Two people may be given the very same amount of basic resources, and yet end up being extremely unequal in their ability to perform valuable human functions. A woman who, like Saleha Begum, performs hard physical labor eight or ten hours a day needs more food than a sedentary academic. Groups that have suffered from discrimination or oppression will often need special attention if they are to become equally capable of formal learning and of taking part in political and social life. Rawls treats such cases as rare exceptions that can be left to one side. But they are not exceptions, as the lives of women show clearly.
In order to deal with such individual variability, we have to say which functions we care about, and examine the varying needs of individuals in connection with these functions. Rawls’s theory, which screens all this out, screens out too much. And its problems are more than usually evident when we consider the special problems of women, both in our own society and, even more urgently, in societies in which their basic nutritional and health needs are not being met.
When we begin to ask what functions are really important, we notice that institutions such as the nuclear family, which neither Rawls nor Okin is willing to question, suddenly need to be examined and justified. For we will have to ask, for example, what might be the consequences for people’s capacities and abilities of being raised, or not raised, in a nuclear family. Okin, by ignoring such questions, does not provide a deep enough account of justice and the family.
Putting emphasis on the people’s capabilities and what they can actually do, rather than on the resources available to them, raises the specter of paternalism—for if a theory of justice takes a stand about what capabilities are important, it seems to be telling people who may have diverse views of what is valuable in human life what they should be able to do and who they ought to be. How to deal with such objections is an urgent question currently being addressed by philosophers, economists, and others,23 especially in connection with the attempt to develop a satisfactory approach to improving welfare and the quality of life in developing countries.24
If a theory of justice is to be persuasive it must to some extent take a stand on the question of what conditions and ways of acting are good ones, as Rawls does in favor of his short list of primary goods and in favor of autonomy and against mere satisfaction without choice. The question is how comprehensive the conception of good must be, and how neutral among competing religious and metaphysical views.
Even the limited accounts of the human good favored by Rawls and Okin are not neutral when it comes to religious conceptions; indeed, Okin’s attempt to extend Rawls’s scheme to women would reject as inappropriate to the structuring of public insitutions the views about female inferiority that are expressed by most of the world’s religions; and Rawls makes a similar commitment, though less explicitly. This kind of non-neutrality is firmly within the traditions of our own liberal democracy, which does not allow religions to justify the practice of slavery or polygamy, and holds the conduct of religious people and groups to standards of public justice in countless other ways. The arguments I have already given would justify an even more comprehensive account of the important human functions, one that would be more accurate in directing resources where they are really needed. What should be clear is that a theory of justice based only on the resources people should have is inadequate when it is not guided by a conception of what people do with these resources.
Such an approach to the problem of justice, in my view, could provide plenty of room for individuals to exercise choice.25 If public policy takes a stand on the importance of being basically healthy, this still leaves individuals free to live in a very unhealthy way if they so choose; more important, it leaves them free to choose many different ways of life that may all be compatible with basic fitness and health. If public policy determines that the nuclear family in some form is an institution worthy of public support, this still leaves individuals with countless choices to make concerning whether or not to form families, and of what sort. And I suspect that a general theory of good human functioning might leave things more open-ended still, holding that there are a variety of different arrangements by which children may be raised with love and taught standards of justice, and that the capacities of children, rather than the institution of the family itself, are what society is committed to supporting. In giving such support, society should respect the desire of many people to realize these goals in accordance with their traditions and history. In any case, the relative merits of the Rawlsian liberal approach favored by Okin and the different approach emphasizing human “capabilities” that I have described here need much careful consideration before anyone can claim to have an adequate solution to the problems of justice in general, and women’s justice in particular.
The story of Saleha Begum had a somewhat happy ending. She not only won the right she fought for, to work for food in the fields alongside men, but she organized the other women workers into cooperative groups that gradually became able to perform a variety of semiskilled tasks, including raising poultry and fish, growing silkworms, and even, in some cases, doing medical, veterinary, and legal work. She learned how to read and write, and eventually organized literacy classes for other rural women; she is now a respected local political leader. Her husband is under contract as “technical expert” to the women’s cooperative. But all this has happened in spite of her domestic situation, with no basic change in family institutions that oppress and endanger women like her in every part of the world. Can these institutions, which at their best may be wonderful sources of love and intimacy for both children and adults, be made compatible with justice? Or was Plato right in thinking that real justice among human beings demanded more radical measures? Liberalism will not confront these questions, if it continues to lack, as it does, a satisfactory account of the human good.
October 8, 1992
I take this real-life example from Marty Chen, “A Matter of Survival: Women’s Right to Work in India and Bangladesh,” forthcoming in M. Nussbaum and J. Glover, editors, Human Capabilities: Women, Men and Equality, a volume in the World Institute for Development Economics Research series, to be published by Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press. The example of Angela K. below is a fictional composite, drawn from the data presented in Okin, chapter 7. ↩
Okin draws this point and other related data from Lenore J. Weitzman, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (Free Press, 1985). Some of Weitzman’s data have recently been challenged—see Susan Faludi, Back-lash (Crown, 1991) pp. 19ff. But Faludi still finds that pay inequalities in the work force, and the selfish behavior of divorced men, lead to serious economic hardship for divorced women. Criticisms of Weitzman are answered by Okin in “Economic Equality After Divorce,” Dissent, Summer 1991, pp. 383–387. ↩
Amartya Sen, “More than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” The New York Review, December 29, 1990; see also Sen, “Gender and Cooperative Conflicts,” in Irene Tinker, editor, Persistent Inequalities (Oxford University Press, 1990); Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1989) pp. 46–64; and Sen, “Gender Inequalities and Theories of Justice,” forthcoming in Nussbaum and Glover, Human Capabilities. Okin discusses the particular problems of women in developing countries in “Justice, Gender, and Differences,” forthcoming in Human Capabilities. ↩
Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982), discussed in Okin, chapter 2; Roberto Unger, “The Critical Legal Studies Movement,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 96 (1983), and also published as a monograph by Harvard University Press; also Roberto Unger, Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1987), part I, both discussed by Okin in chapter 6. ↩
See especially Sen, “Gender Inequalities and Theories of Justice” (in Human Capabilities). ↩
Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Harvard University Press, 1981), discussed by Okin in chapter 7, and in more detail by Sen in “Gender and Cooperative Conflicts” in Persistent Inequalities and “Gender Inequalities and Theories of Justice” in Human Capabilities. ↩
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (Simon and Schuster, 1987), discussed in Okin, chapter 2. I discuss Bloom’s treatment of issues concerning women in “Undemocratic Vistas,” The New York Review, November 5, 1987. ↩
J. S. Mill, “Nature,” from Three Essays on Religion in The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, edited by M. Cohen (Random House, 1961); see also the excellent treatment of this topic in Peter Singer and Deane Wells, Making Babies: The New Science and Ethics of Conception (Scribner’s, 1985). ↩
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), and especially Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). See my review of the latter in The New York Review, December 7, 1989. ↩
Okin draws the phrase “shared meanings” from Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1983); she is highly critical of the traditionalist strand in Walzer’s theory, but finds considerable promise in other parts of his view, especially the criticism of dominance and hierarchy. ↩
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), discussed in Okin, chapter 4. ↩
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971); see also Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 9 (1980); “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 14 (1985); “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 17 (1988). ↩
Okin, “Justice, Gender, and Differences” in Human Capabilities. ↩
Rawls, “Fairness to Goodness,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 84 (1975), p. 537, discussed by Okin on pages 91 and 196, note 9. ↩
Here Okin is citing Jane English, “Justice Between Generations,” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 31 (1977), p. 95. ↩
Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 462–463, discussed by Okin on p. 96. ↩
This was reported to me in conversation by Päivi Settälä, Professor of Women’s Studies, The University of Helsinki. ↩
A similar proposal is now endorsed by Richard Posner in Sex and Reason (Harvard University Press, 1992). ↩
See especially Rawls, “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good.” ↩
See Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory.” ↩
Sen, “Equality of What?” in Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982); I have made related arguments (with further references to other work of Sen’s) in “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Liberalism and the Good, R. B. Douglass, G. Mara, and H. Richardson, editors (Routledge, 1990). The entire issue is very well summarized in David A. Crocker, “Functioning and Capability: The Foundations of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s Development Ethic,” forthcoming in Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 4, (November 1992), pp. 584–612. ↩
“Capability”—by now a standard term in the literature of economics and development—is intended to be the modern equivalent of the Aristotelian term dunamis, meaning, very generally, that condition in virtue of which one is able to do something. Some capabilities are internal “capacities” but many include states of the world external to the person’s own condition. For example, the capability of voting includes but is not identical to the internal capacity for making political choices: for it also includes being given the rights and privileges of a citizen. ↩
It is being pursued by the International Development Ethics Association (IDEA), and also by the project on women and the quality of life at the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) of the United Nations University. ↩
An example of the work of IDEA is Crocker’s paper “Functioning and Capability”; the WIDER material will appear in The Quality of Life, edited by M. Nussbaum and A. Sen (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1992), and in Human Capabilities: Women, Men and Equality, M. Nussbaum and J. Glover, editors (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1993). ↩
Here I am summarizing the longer arguments I made in “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” Liberalism and the Good, and also in “Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings,” forthcoming in Human Capabilities. ↩