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Mill’s Liberalism, The Subjection of Women, and the Feminist Care Ethic


John Stuart Mill’s liberalism is probably best known through his classic essay On Liberty, which stands as a core text of the liberal canon (Mill, CW, 18: 213-310). However, liberalism permeates his entire corpus of writings, and its themes and commitments are omnipresent. For the clearest and most complete statement of his liberal feminism, including his views on care for dependent and vulnerable persons, I focus on his arguments in The Subjection of Women (Mill, CW 21: 259-332). This paradigm 19th-century historical treatise marks a turning point in the philosophical and activist battle for women’s emancipation. Its prominence in Mill’s corpus of writing on liberalism is well known. Mill’s utilitarianism and liberalism stand out for his careful and thoughtful arguments for promoting a proper balance of liberty and autonomy with sympathy, connection, and compassion. Here I set out how Mill’s views on the essential and indispensable need for education and development of the higher human capacities or virtues of self-development infuse his liberalism and create a prominent space for compassion and sympathy in his philosophy. He places at the center of life’s valuable pursuits those that involve caring for dependent and vulnerable humans. In The Subjection of Women, Mill argues for a model of marriage governed by a “principle of perfect equality” (Mill, CW 21:261). Mill’s liberal feminist commitments are on full display, as the text is an extended argument for women’s liberty and autonomy. The dual activist projects of fighting for liberty and autonomy and of fighting against oppression and exploitation of women unfold in unison throughout the work, since Mill sees them as inextricable and interconnected. I examine Mill’s views on traditional women’s work in the home, in the light of the feminist care ethic and in the context of his distinctive form of liberalism. In so doing I highlight and show how Mill’s very distinctive versions of utilitarianism and liberalism make space for the value of caring for dependent and vulnerable persons. My argument goes further: I illustrate how Mill’s utilitarianism and liberalism crucially make central the priority of education and practices in caring and compassion as core virtues essential to well-being and a good life. Such habitual traits of character and practice are no small part of underwriting reliable and stable care for those who need it.

Mill’s conception of self-development relies upon a program of education to cultivate and develop these excellences and virtues, and it is every human’s right to have the conditions for this education in place. Mill’s liberalism notably values core liberal values of autonomy and individuality, and he wants to ensure women’s rights to the freedom that comes from overcoming patriarchal oppression. But in Mill’s view autonomy and individuality must also be in balance with sentiment, compassion, empathy, and sociality. The care work done by women in the home offers resources for exploring how the practice of caring for dependent and vulnerable persons is a promising route for cultivating compassion. The practice of compassion works to develop this virtue in the caregiver. The person receiving the care is offered a model and experience of loving care, and so this experience also serves to develop compassion in the recipient. It places at the center the recognition that human life begins in dependency, and care for children and other vulnerable humans is a core valuable pursuit. A central aspect of education in the virtues for Mill is that the virtues are developed through practice. In the case of the caring virtues, this means the practice of caring for persons, including children and other dependent and vulnerable persons. Mill’s framework raises questions for deliberation and also offers some resources for balancing the reality of care work as a burden and care work as a route for cultivating compassion and caring for dependents.

Mill’s central arguments in Subjection of Women, calling for a revolution in the institution of marriage, overturning the command and obedience patriarchal model, and transforming it into an institution based on equality and friendship, are compelling and enduring (Morales 1996, 147-179). He states the guiding principle of the essay:

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

(Mill, CW 21: 261)

The moral regeneration of mankind will only really commence, when the most fundamental of the social relations is placed under the rule of equal justice, and when human beings learn to cultivate their strongest sympathy with an equal in rights and in cultivation.

(Mill, CW 21:336)

However, as treatment of Mill’s arguments in Subjection has unfolded in the literature and discourse, the central positive points concerning the value of care work, as promoted by Mill, have become intertwined with the main objection posed to his arguments about its gender-based distribution. Amid praise for his arguments for the emancipation of women, there is one persistent objection. Mill is criticized for his defense of the gendered division of labor within the home, or what he calls “the common arrangement.”

He says,

the common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labor between the two persons. .. . Like a man when he chooses a profession, so, when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes choice of the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family, as the first call upon her exertions.

(Mill, CW 21: 297-298)

He adds,

If, in addition to the physical suffering of bearing children, and the whole responsibility of their care and education in early years, the wife undertakes the careful and economical application of the husband’s earnings to the general comfort of the family; she takes not only her fair share, but usually the larger share, of the bodily and mental exertion required by their joint existence. If she undertakes any additional portion, it seldom relieves her from this.

(Mill, CW 21: 297)

This passage has produced a good deal of discussion concerning the importance and justification of Mill’s proposed division of labor between women and men and its significance and implications for his feminism. This proposal for the gendered division of labor is said to place an unjust burden on women and to interfere with their autonomy in life choices. Thus, in order to explicate and illuminate Mill’s commitment to and large space for compassion and caring, I must explore the role and strength of this persistent objection.

Ironically, the very intensive focus in the literature on this objection to Mill’s views on care work, foregrounding the problems associated with the gendered division of labor within the home, has obscured or even buried the positive aspects of his theory vis-a-vis his endorsement of the value of care and compassion. It should be highlighted rather than buried that the objected to elements of Mill’s perspective are premised upon some very positive components of his views regarding care work. That Mill so highly values and appreciates care work, and the virtues of caring and compassion, can get lost in the debate over how this work is distributed. As well, the historical context of 19th-century activism can also be overlooked. Mill does not denigrate and devalue the care work that women occupy themselves with in the domestic sphere. Quite the contrary. He sees it as a highly valuable and meaningful choice of occupation. Moreover, he promotes the care and educational work that women do in the home as also valuable in the ongoing battle to reform and then abolish the patriarchal family of the 19th century. I argue below that Mill’s views on moral progress make him a moral reformer and pragmatist rather than a moral revolutionary. His extensive and voluminous writings on numerous activist campaigns of the 19th century illustrate his careful and meticulous pragmatist plans to bring about moral progress. In this case he argues for a method for progressing to the idea of marriage governed by a “principle of perfect equality” (Mill, CW 21:261). Mill’s focus on education motivates his agenda of seeing women as educators of children. Mill forcefully champions the essential nature of, and the high value and importance of, care work provided to children and dependent vulnerable persons. Part of this work can be moral reform work to dismantle the patriarchal family from within. Women in occupations of caregivers and educators can and should, he believes, play a large role in training male children so that they do not grow up to become privileged tyrants but instead become willing participants in marriages based upon a model of equality and friendship.

Although there are some dilemmas raised by Mill’s arguments about women’s care work, things are not as straightforward as the initial statement of the objection regarding the distribution of care work makes it appear. Most prominently, Mill notably embraces the work that women do in managing the home and in caring for and educating children in the moral virtues. He is that rare historical thinker who recognizes the economic, moral, and social value of women’s work in the home; who argues that this work is essential; and who claims that care work is properly viewed as an occupation, and a worthy one, at that. Mill expresses his concern that the work of caring for children should be treated as essential, but also that women should not be expected to do more than their fair share of the work and thus be exploited. Thus in the overall scheme of things, Mill can be lauded not just for recognizing the value of caring for dependents and vulnerable persons but also for recognizing the injustice of a system in which women would be expected to do a “double day” of work (i.e., a full day of wage work outside the home and then a second stint of domestic and care work within the home) and for taking steps to mitigate its effects and impact. Mill exhibits keen foresight into a problem with women’s work and exploitation, which has continued to the present day without satisfactory resolution. Just as Mill feared, women are often expected to carry the double burden of work without adequate means and resources.

This recognition of the value of care work dovetails with the larger framework and agenda of virtue ethics, which is prominent in Mill’s theory. Mill’s theory, including his liberalism, is distinctive in many ways, but perhaps one of the most notable is that his theory has a large space for accommodating and incorporating elements of virtue ethics, as Julia Driver has recently noted (Driver 2014). Mill’s liberalism has no need to be transformed or indeed changed in any way to accommodate the fact and reality of care work. He recognizes and incorporates the need for and value of care for dependent and vulnerable persons. There is no need since this is already a prominent and featured core aspect of his liberalism and moral theory.

I have argued previously in several writings that Mill’s conception of the good and human happiness and well-being is organized around a cluster of human excellences and virtues of self-development (Don- ner 1991, 92-140; Donner and Fumerton 2009, 76-89). These excellences and capacities do not arise fully formed by themselves, but they must be cultivated and nurtured by an educational process beginning in childhood and continuing as a lifelong pursuit. Nor must this be left to chance or good fortune. Mill is perhaps, above all else, an educational activist. In his moral philosophy all people without exception have a right to liberty of self-development. He argues that this right is fundamental to human well-being and happiness and the good life. Since this is a basic human right, it follows that people are wronged if they are denied the opportunity of development and self-development by their social circumstances, and thus families, societies, and governments have obligations to their members to ensure that such educative processes are actively in play (Donner 1991, 92-159; Donner and Fumerton 2009, 76-105). Self-development in a healthy flourishing life does not encourage lopsided training in the higher human capacities. Rather the ideal is advanced and realized by an educative and developmental process that quite naturally results in an appropriate balance of such virtues as reason/ individuality/autonomy, on the one hand, and emotion/sentiment/com- passion/empathy, on the other. Mill’s conception of self-development relies upon a program of education to cultivate and develop these excellences and virtues. Mill’s theory describes in detail, in numerous places, the necessity for and process of cultivation and education of a cluster of human capacities that he regards as virtues and as foundational for a good life and promoting happiness and well-being. These are the abilities and habitual traits that encourage and allow for human flourishing and the good life. The opposite scenario would be the situation of oppression and blocking of the good life. This value of the ability to lead the good life is promoted by liberalism in its many forms. Mill’s form is distinctive and marked out by his theorizing and activism in promotion of these human capacities and virtues as foundations of the good life and bulwarks against its undermining by systemic forces of oppressions of patriarchy.

Mill’s views in The Subjection of Women should be read with his program for education and cultivation of sentiment, sympathy, and compassion in mind. The care work done by women in the home offers resources for exploring how this practice of caring for dependent and vulnerable persons is a promising route for cultivating compassion. These traits of compassion and caring, when they become stable features of character through education, cultivation, and habitual practice, are one of the reliable foundations for being able to count on ethical care of dependent vulnerable persons even in the face of the stresses and obstacles placed in the path of caregivers by social circumstances and by oppression and exploitation. Mill’s framework raises questions for deliberation and also offers some resources for balancing the reality of care work as a burden and care work as a route for cultivating compassion.

Mill’s theory endorses the need for ensuring that social institutions, including the family, offer the requisite resources for training these higher human capacities so that they become habitual stable features of character. He argues that society has obligations to provide the social institutions and systems that underscore and guarantee the basic rights of its members. This prominently includes rights to education in the capacities that promote happiness in its most valuable forms (the “higher pleasures” in classical 19th-century utilitarian language), namely those which involve the exercise of the higher human capacities of self-development (Donner 1991, 160-187; Donner and Fumerton 2009, 76-105). His liberalism is grounded in his views that education and practice in caring and compassion are part of the essential tool kit of what is needed to ensure that dependents and vulnerable persons receive the loving care that is their right. Moreover, cultivation of compassion and caring are also essential elements for the happiness and well-being of caregivers themselves. This education in the virtues is doubly beneficial and looks in both directions, since it offers a key to well-being of those who provide care and are practiced in the art of compassion, as well as a guarantee that they will have the desire to provide loving care to those who need it. Such loving and caring relations are essential components of meaningful, value-filled lives. This commitment is built right into the ground level of his theory. His version of liberalism cannot be severed and separated out from his educational commitments, and the value of training the mind and character in compassion and care and sympathy is at its heart. Remove recognition and acknowledgment of these core commitments, and the liberalism is no longer Millian.

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