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Historical Sources

Christie Hartley and Lori Watson open the volume by urging us to think of human dependency broadly, as encompassing the need for hands-on caregiving, the need to be supported when we provide caregiving to others, as well as the need for social goods like being recognized by others as a person of equal moral status. They turn to Jean-Jacques Rousseau not because he adequately conceptualizes dependency. (While his concern is with the threat to men’s freedom and equality born of the division of labor, they understand dependency more broadly.) Nor do they turn to him because he adequately conceptualizes inequality. (While his concern was with being subject to another’s arbitrary will, they understand inequality more broadly as oppression.) They turn to Rousseau for three insights, which they extend to the case of dependency broadly understood. First is the insight that dependency can create conditions for social inequality. Second is the insight that dependency can, itself, be the product of social arrangements, norms, and institutions. Third is what Rousseau suggests as the way forward, namely to create social arrangements, norms, and institutions that, while accepting our reliance on others, nonetheless embody and express the equal moral status of each. Hartley and Watson conclude their chapter by exploring the distinction between distributive and relational egalitarianism. They present an understanding of relational egalitarianism - which they identify in Rousseau, and which has been more recently elaborated by Elizabeth Anderson (1999) - that counts dependency, understood in the broad way they suggest, as a core concern.

The volume’s second chapter is by Helga Varden, and it focuses on early liberal political philosopher Immanuel Kant. Varden argues that an unfortunate rationalist reading of Kant has obscured the resources in his philosophy for thinking about human beings as vulnerable, fragile, embodied, and potentially dependent and for conceptualizing and responding to both “deep systemic injustices” and “asymmetrical care relations.” Varden presents a Kantian account of what it’s like to be a human being in which caring for self and others are understood as ongoing endeavors that are far from simple, far from easy, and which must be carried out in ways that show respect for and are cognizant of both the particularities of individuals who have their own lives to lead and the diverse relationships in which they are embedded. On Varden’s reading of Kant, the highest goal is not to distance ourselves from the human interests that derive from our vulnerability, embodiedness, and relationality; it is, instead, to reconcile them with the demands of morality. Applying Kant’s understanding of basic rights to human beings understood in this rich way, Varden argues, offers insights for how we might understand and respond to systemic injustices and to the special qualities of caregiving relationships. Varden situates her chapter in the context of a growing literature that has sought to remedy the mistaken view that the Kantian agent is merely rational by drawing out what may be “learned from Kant with regard to emotionally healthy, morally sound human psychologies,” and ultimately about a “morally good, emotionally healthy human life,” and by drawing out resources from Kant for thinking about human relationships and injustice.

Chapter 3, by Wendy Donner, reveals the ways John Stuart Mill’s distinctive forms of liberalism and utilitarianism include central roles for compassion and sympathy. For Mill, freedom and self-development are inextricable from the cultivation of compassion and sympathy. Therefore, according to Mill’s holistic approach to self-development, the cultivation of the emotions is no less important than reason. Because Mill locates caring and compassion among “the core virtues essential to wellbeing and a good life,” his theory takes steps toward securing care for people who need it. Donner then evaluates the gendered division of labor and the family in a way that goes beyond the burdens experienced by the mother to include, as well, how the children should be raised so as not to perpetuate an unjust status quo in which boys are overly concerned with their selfish interests and girls are taught to be self-abnegating. She emphasizes that a significant aspect of childcare is teaching children not to perpetuate the tyranny of men and of self-interest. Donner also argues that Mill considered the activities of women within a traditionally gendered household to be work. He assumed, too, that, given the choice, many women would not necessarily get married. Drawing on evidence of Mill’s astute practical insights and political activity, she argues that one reason Mill did not propose an equal division of housework among men and women was because doing so would have made him face too much opposition at the time. The more moderate position that he defended was a better strategy to protect women from the patriarchal violence typical in families, which included legal marital rape. In presenting this argument, Donner highlights aspects of Mill’s thought that we can today identify as nonideal theory, that is, consideration of what it might be best for us to do in the here and now, given our actual circumstances. She concludes that Mill’s often-criticized defense of what he called “the common arrangement,” by which a woman who is married attends to the details of running the household, was based on an understanding of his social context as well as the valuing of the activities of women within a traditionally gendered household as work.

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