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Customary Care Practices

Although the virtue of interpersonal reciprocity is one of the necessary changes for a just society, it is not sufficient to secure justice. In addition to this virtue, new customary care practices are needed. Recall that customary care practices include social norms that delineate both (1) who is in a care relationship with each other and (2) the division of labor within that unit. Interpersonal reciprocity has the latter role by ruling out the social position of a person who receives care without reciprocating it.

Interpersonal reciprocity can arise more easily and naturally in the context of caregiving practices that are designed to include long-term relationships, which yields a prima facie reason to prefer those practices. In addition, though, liberal societies need to balance the demands of socially necessary labor - which includes care - with autonomy of its members (see Bhandary 2020, 160 for the trimetric analysis). Extended families are a possible customary care practice for a liberally just society (Bhandary 2018). However, the design of extended families has customarily included internal hierarchies and inequalities that treat some members of the family as nonclaimants. Therefore, if extended families are to serve as customary care practices within a broadly liberal contractarian society, they also must pass an internal test of fairness. Moreover, even the extended family can result in what I call the “remainder of care,” which are the care needs left unmet in a society even with universal adherence to its customary care practices (Bhandary 2020, 134-136).

The form of minimal marriage Elizabeth Brake proposes can be understood as a customary care practice that respects individuality in the domain of family decisions while also recognizing the need to secure care and the value of some form of family. Brake describes minimal marriage as “marital pluralism or disestablishment. ... [A] liberal state can set no principled restrictions on the sex or number of spouses and the nature or purpose of their relationships, except that they be caring relationships” (2012, 158). Minimal marriage broadens the definition of marriage and the legal benefits that result from it. Minimal marriage can help to secure caregiving relationships and to meet a society’s remainder of care needs, but it will likely result in departures from the multigenerational ties that characterize a more traditional family model.

A third promising model exists in the form of the local organizations that allow people to volunteer when they are in their 50s or 60s to help older adults in their 80s and 90s with groceries and other errands such that they log in time and then can call upon that time when they age, in turn. This kind of organization is built on an inverted exchange reciprocity, according to which a person contributes now so that they can receive later, and it thereby requires a foundation of trust because the person contributes first, before receiving anything. It is another valuable contribution to support aging in one’s own home, but it does not include the idea of long-term relationships and knowledge transfer that were included in Anderson’s model of Native care systems.21

Fourth, a Care Corps, a program aimed at providing caregiving to people who need it, is another alternative. According to the version of this program proposed by Brake, the program would focus on bringing caring relationships into homes for people who are housebound, such as the elderly and people with some kinds of disabilities.22 It could operate like the Peace Corps or Teach for America and thereby increase the prestige of caring activities. For Brake, the state “could employ or coordinate” home visits, which could be funded through taxation or, if that is politically infeasible, could be volunteer based or connected to work- study programs, although voluntary care would likely perpetuate care as gendered labor (2017, 144-145).

Policy design must balance the dual desiderata of meeting vital care needs and respecting individual autonomy, and therefore policy makers should evaluate the consequences that would result from each of the following possible models of a Care Corps. The first possible model is a mandatory year of service after high school that encompasses a broad range of options, among which youth could select, for which the care corps could be one option. This first model would avoid perpetuating racialized patterns of caregiving, but its mandatory nature poses a prima facie challenge to autonomy. A second possible option would be to encourage and incentivize a year of service through, for instance, loan forgiveness programs for college, but this option must be evaluated for its possibility of perpetuating economic and racial subordination. Third, the care corps might simply be one of the well-known possibilities for high school graduates to pursue prior to college or another vocational training path. For any of these models, there must be some mechanisms in place to prevent the care corps from falling into a form of indentured servitude on behalf of the required caregiver, and one of the necessary conditions to avoid that outcome is that any particular caregiver must be able to exit their particular post, even if the vulnerable person needs to have another person supply care for them.

If a care corps for elder care were to become a customary care practice in a society, it would teach the members of a society that we have a responsibility to care for others in tandem with the cultivation of awareness that we will receive this care later in life, thereby supporting a generalized form of the social norm variant of interpersonal reciprocity.

However, the model of a care corps, on its own, will not secure outcomes that guard against racism, sexism, and their many effects on the individual psyche. Consider the following scenario:

An elderly white woman, Bitsy, receives care from an intelligent Asian man, Adrian, a recent graduate from an elite university. His care corps assignment is to care for her daily for one year, which he does during a year prior to beginning a graduate degree. Bitsy finds it quite congenial to receive care from him, and it amplifies her sense that she is one who is cared for and whose needs are deferred to. Gradually, a tyrannical nature emerges in her, during these private interactions. But she justifies her petty tyranny, refusing to include it in her sense of self, instead nursing a sense of injury over what has felt like a lifetime of delaying her own needs while raising her own children, two boys, and with the sense that it really is about time she became the one who receives care. Her tyranny includes outbursts when the tea he makes for her is too cold, as well as the withholding of appreciation. Her fragility and acute sense of her own interpersonal wounds and injuries weigh heavily on her, which she expresses through frequent sighs.

The problem with this care practice is that it capitulates widespread patterns of racial privilege. When one person has the charter to be oriented toward the needs of another, such that they must epistemically lean toward them (see Bartky 1990 on the gendered “epistemic lean” and its relationship to deference displays), while the other person keeps their own needs in view at all times, the recipient of attention is likely to develop an amplified sense of entitlement. But let us now modify this example with the virtue of interpersonal reciprocity. With interpersonal reciprocity, Bitsy will notice how Adrian is doing, where the purpose and scope of her noticing will not be limited to questions about what he can do for her. When he tells her his father is ill, she responds with sympathy to discuss his father’s well-being. Therefore, although the relationship remains fundamentally asymmetrical due to her physical dependence on him, interpersonal reciprocity bends it back toward equality. This example illustrates that revising who is in caregiving relationships or practices (the first aspect of the customary care practice) is not sufficient to secure a just society in the absence of changes to individual attitudes, disposition, virtues, and relational interactions.

Instead, it is vital that societies also cultivate the virtue of interpersonal reciprocity to serve as a safeguard against the human propensity to create new arrangements that offer unjustified advantages to some at the cost of the subordination of others. The endeavor of attempting to locate new practices should include responses to the nonideal realities of human behavior, such as abusive relationships and cruel people at any age. For these reasons, no one family member should be required to care for an aging family member, even if they are operating within an extended family model, and supportive connections for people who are mistreated or psychologically abused as caregiver or recipient of care are vital. One form of support is to reduce the isolation of the caregiver and care-recipient dyad, for the ugly underside of human nature thrives when hidden from the eyes of others. Finally, the elder should not be viewed solely as a recipient of care, for they can contribute knowledge and work about a range of activities in life. The elder’s contributions should be recognized without erasing significant physical and material requirements of care, for to erase them is to make the dependency worker’s labor invisible and to thereby exploit them. There will be varying degrees of need and contributions, and therefore theorizing about dependency and need must take on suitably specific approaches. Therefore, the role that a care corps should play in the design of liberal caregiving institutions is to supplement a range of other practices that may include extended familial systems of care as well as community-based systems of care that build on pre-existing relationships.23 Liberal societies should consider extended family networks, minimal marriage, organizations for care trading in the long term, and a care corps as additional caregiving practices to augment and partially supplant the nuclear family model.

The idea that some care should occur within the community should be promoted in tandem with the elimination of the subordination and abuse of caregivers. Proposals for institutional design must keep in view the fact that the care that occurs in the private sphere has always had significant overlap with gender oppression. Therefore good institutional design must avoid gender oppression and oppressive social roles. The designers of institutions must also be cognizant of the fact that oppressive social roles can emerge slowly and become masked by alternative narratives that justify or naturalize the arrangement.

Jurisdictions as the Terrain of Individual Choice

Liberal theory that seeks to learn from caregiving arrangements in other societies should differentiate between a gendered division of labor and different domains of authority and jurisdictions. A jurisdiction, which is a domain of authority, also delineates the practical domain for an individual’s autonomy. Cautioning readers against the Western reading that gendered division of spheres is necessarily a form of patriarchy, Anderson describes a system of gendered jurisdictions, whereby gender roles and life stage responsibilities are linked to authority over different spheres of activities.24 She explains an indigenous idea of gender as a matter of complementarity that does not require strict conformity with a gendered binary. Furthermore, gendered differences were not linked to female subordination but, instead, to the authority of elder women.25 Moreover, according to Anderson’s account of jurisdictions, exceptions are allowed to the social roles defined by different jurisdictions. For example, there have always been Native women who act as warriors. In this way, a valve for the expression of individuality seems to be present in the Native societies Anderson describes.

Liberals should conceptualize jurisdictions as the practical domain for activity choice. That our options in life are informed by socially recognized possibilities is uncontroversial (Raz 1986; Kymlicka 1989). Visions of just societies - where a just society must be just with respect to care - will be intertwined with other features of the system of social cooperation that together constitute a social form, or form of life.

It follows that we exercise autonomy in a social environment with some constraints, where the constraints are informed by what is strictly necessary for survival and the culturally variable meanings of our actions.

Therefore, there will always be some constraints on our activities, but these constraints should not be arbitrary, nor should they be asserted unfairly.

Constraints will be informed, as well, by the degree of necessity of the activities required for the functioning of a society and for the survival of its members. If, for example, people live off the land without access to other resources, then many forms of labor will share the strict necessity that characterizes dependency care - defined by the relative immediacy of the harm that befalls the dependent charge if the caregiver does not render care within a suitable time frame. In economies and systems of social cooperation like the non-tribal United States, necessary activities include those related to the food supply, dependency care, and medical care. However, the complexity and interconnected nature of global economies means there may be more latitude for individual choice for any one person, despite the fact that the goods these activities provide remain necessary.

Is Interpersonal Reciprocity an Appropriate Virtue for a Society Like the Dominant Society of the United States?

Ceteris paribus, it is good when social practices related to children cultivate character, teach the skills of practical life, and meet care needs at the same time. However, meeting these plural goals may not be feasible in social forms with capitalist economies that are highly globalized and characterized by frequent mobility. In these social forms, it will be a challenge to delimit the scope of a community as well as to keep extended family members in close geographic proximity. Moreover, when caregiving is one among few in-person interactions included in these economies, the idea that caregiving should take place in the context of other forms of work is also more difficult to apply to these economies.

In Western liberal societies with capitalist economies, many commodities are produced far from the people who use them. When our lives occur among the passage of mass-produced commodities traveling great distances, it is more challenging to enact personally reciprocal relationships. In contrast, the Native communities in Canada that Anderson describes were smaller and land-based, features hospitable to an arrangement that entwines care work with other forms of labor and knowledge transfer. Because interpersonal reciprocity may have more traction in smaller communities, this may be one reason to defend the value of small communities and decreased global mobility.

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