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A Learning Framework for Liberalism

Liberals working to develop a just basic structure should not remain wed to practices that are implicated in gender and racialized subordination. Instead, we need to consider new practices for caregiving to end the invisibility of the caregiving labor of women of color and immigrant communities. However, in doing so, the way people in broadly Anglo-Saxon societies engage with a range of other cultures and societies should be a process of learning that attempts to avoid the habits of appropriation and acquisition that are linked to Western colonization (Sullivan 2006). Learning in a deferential mode can temper some habits of appropriation.

Every existing society utilizes some set of practices to meet their care needs, and there are, correspondingly, many possible lived forms of caregiving practices. These arrangements cross public, private, and commercial domains. For example, in the private sphere, gender norms assigning caregiving to girls and women serve as internal organizing principles within families, which then shape expectations about who will care for whom. The private nuclear family is a core caregiving institution in the United States (Fineman 2004), and the idea that women will render care appears in many cultural narratives, norms, and tropes (Meyers 2002). It is therefore unsurprising that literature about gendered inequality in marriage has dominated feminist discussions about care. However, because feminist articulations of liberalism have largely focused on assessments of the internal fairness of the heterosexual, white nuclear family, we need concepts that stand apart from those assumptions to identify and evaluate the range of existing practices that secure the care needs of a society.9

This chapter expands upon the idea of “customary care practices” (Bhandary 2020, 159). The customary care practice is a concept with which to describe the public and private practices that secure care within a given social form, and it is therefore a concept for cross-cultural understandings of caregiving arrangements. Customary care practices are comprised of (1) principles that specify who is in the right kind of relationship with each another to count as persons in a caring unit, and (2) norms and values that shape expectations within the actual practice, thereby specifying the division of labor within that unit. For instance, customary care practices include marital practices shaping entry conditions and the meaning of the family, such as arranged marriage versus romantic love marriage, as well as conceptualizations of family units as nuclear families, extended families, or other alternatives. Customary care practices also include more diffuse structuring principles for care such as gendered and racialized norms of care. Finally, customary care practices include explicitly designated institutions of care, such as daycare and elder-care institutions and in-home care, state-provided care, and communes. The customary care practice, when understood to be a subject of justice, directs the political philosopher’s attention to micro-level practices of care in ways that make these practices’ functional role their most salient feature. For instance, for the purpose of assessing the justice of the society as it secures the primary goods that are the proper subject of distributive justice, a particular form of the family, like a nuclear family, may be redescribed as a customary care practice rather than an association for romantic love. Of course, this functional analysis does not supply an exhaustive assessment of the meaning and value of these practices.

The customary care practice concept should be used to grasp a wide range of existing and possible practices that serve the functional role of meeting care needs. To assess whether a particular customary care practice is just requires identifying how care is provided at a micro-level and whether some individuals within the practice are exploited or disadvantaged. However, the local assessment is not exhaustive of its standing in relation to justice. Instead, the justice of the practices is informed by widespread patterns that require a bird’s-eye view. For instance, if members of a particular racial group are caregivers at much higher rates than other members of other racial groups, that fact is a presumptive indicator of injustice.

Anderson’s Account of Native Systems of Care

Kim Anderson is a feminist indigenous historian from whom liberal care theorists should learn because she has written extensively about Native practices in ways that clearly identify how care was provided. Anderson’s analyses of indigenous practices and life employ a feminist framework that is grounded in the value of community well-being. Her writings about indigenous practices and life stages suffuse descriptions of practices with normative content. Correspondingly, my description of Anderson is not an attempt to give a veridical description of practices for any particular Native community during a prescribed time. Instead, my subject of discussion is Anderson’s account of Native practices, and not Native practices themselves. In addition, readers should note that I am not advancing proposals for indigenous communities, nor am I evaluating Native practices in situ through a Rawlsian lens. Instead, the project of this chapter is to learn from Native caregiving practices as described by Anderson. My concept of customary care practices further frames my interpretation of Anderson’s work.

Anderson’s account of Native life is structured by the idea that a story “works like an arrow” (2011, 19), which means that the stories are shaped by normative considerations about the future direction of the community. The narrative frames the description of what has happened in a way that also sets a trajectory into the future. Anderson’s stated aim in her book Life Stages and Native Women (2011) is to report on Canadian First Nations’ community practices in ways that build on their sources of power and heal these communities from the violence of colonization,10 which then informs what she includes and excludes from her descriptions.

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