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Moral Desert, Rawls’s Justice as Fairness, and the Gendered Division of Labor

The gendered division of labor as it exists in liberal democracies1 is unjust. By gendered division of labor (GDL), I mean the social arrangement wherein women provide a disproportionate amount of unpaid domestic care work, relative to men, regardless of whether they also labor outside of the home (Folbre 2008, 107-108; Gornick and Meyers 2009, 3-16; Robeyns 2012, 164-168; Hirschmann 2016, 658; Watson and Hartley 2018, 189-191). By care work I mean

the meeting of the needs of one person by another person where face- to-face interaction between carer and cared for is a crucial element of the overall activity and where the need is of such a nature that it cannot possibly be met by the person in need herself.

(Bubeck 1995,127)

Care work, as I am understanding it, then, involves caring for dependents.2 The GDL is unjust because it is contrary to the following principle of reciprocity, which serves as a minimum criterion of distributive justice: those who contribute to a scheme of social cooperation are owed a fitting share of the social product (Rawls 1996, 16-17; Rawls 2001a, 6, 49).

Those providing care work in current actual arrangements are not given an appropriate share of the social product: their work is extensive, demanding, and vital to society, yet they receive no income of their own for their work, they must forgo opportunities for paid work, and their work is often invisible and, when visible, not prestigious (Bryson 2007, 43); indeed, their work is sometimes seen as not work at all but rather as leisure or an activity that cannot be work because it is its own reward (White 2003, 109-110; Folbre 2008, 99-101). The work of carers is not confined to shifts but rather takes place day and night, weekdays and weekends, including when families are on holiday from the breadwinner(s)’s paid work. Further, care workers often must relinquish the social power and influence that accompanies prestigious work and they have insufficient social support (in the way of, e.g., parental leave or government/employer subsidized child and elder care) to allow them to minimize their losses of opportunity and/or power (Okin 1989, 136; Crompton 2007, 228-229).3

My main objective in what follows is to show that there is no place for an institutionalized GDL in Rawls’s theory of justice. The basic structure of society may not be arranged so that it induces men to do public work and women to do domestic caring work. This is because, I claim, such an arrangement, insofar as it is founded upon on doctrine of prescriptive natural sex differences, invokes an ideal of sex-specific moral desert. But precepts of moral desert, Rawls says, are incompatible with justice as fairness. My case depends on an interpretation of Rawls’s remarks about desert that challenges the received view. Outlining that interpretation is my second objective. The third is to describe what the basic structure might look like in the absence of an institutionalized GDL and explain why such an arrangement is demanded by what Rawls calls a “property- owning democracy.”

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