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The Dependency Critique

Consider the fact of human dependency. By “the fact of human dependency,” I mean that to survive and thrives each of us needs constant and loving caregiving for more than a decade as infants and children; and many of us need intermittent, and some of us constant, caregiving after that. I mean also that those who provide caregiving often become dependent on others because providing caregiving can reduce one’s ability to see to their own basic needs (Kittay 1995, 10). The political conception of the person on which Rawls draws gives no hint that society’s members need caregiving to survive and thrive, no hint that society’s members have dependents in whose receipt of caregiving they have an interest, and no hint that some members of society are not fully cooperating. The political conception of society Rawls draws on does not include satisfying these interests among the aims of the basic structure of a constitutional democracy.

But the point of political conceptions is not descriptive accuracy. They are normative; they are accounts of how society and the person are to be regarded from a political point of view (Rawls 1985, 395). Rawls tells us what to do if we want to evaluate political conceptions. We look to whether “the conception of political justice to which [they] eventually lead . . . coheres with our considered convictions of political justice” (Rawls 2001, 26). We follow that advice now. What we find is that Rawls’s principles of justice fail to cohere with an important set of considered convictions of political justice.

Note that considered convictions (or judgments) of political justice are not moral fixed points ascertained with the help of some moral sense. They are convictions formed under conditions favorable to making good judgments in which we have a great deal of confidence. As examples, Rawls offers (quoting Lincoln), “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” (2001, 29), and that justice requires religious toleration (1985, 393).

Despite our confidence in them, considered convictions held by one person may conflict with one another, and they are subject to revision upon reflection. Considered judgments can also differ across persons, and no one person’s or group’s convictions are authoritative. Considered convictions are a place to begin thinking about how society and persons are to be conceived from a political point of view and about principles of justice we construct in light of them.

I propose we begin with the following considered judgments, which I have gathered from political movements of women (especially poor women and women of color) and people with disabilities.6

  • 1. It is unjust when society’s basic institutions and arrangements leave some persons bereft of the caregiving they need to survive and thrive.
  • 2. It is unjust when some persons (who are willing and otherwise able) are rendered, by society’s basic institutions and arrangements, unable to provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need.
  • 3. It is unjust when society’s basic institutions and arrangements disadvantage persons who, and because they, provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need.
  • 4. It is unjust when society’s basic institutions and arrangements express that some persons are unworthy of having their caregiving needs satisfied or are unworthy of satisfying the caregiving needs of their dependents.
  • 5. It is unjust when society’s basic institutions and arrangements force individuals to provide caregiving to, or procure caregiving for, particular others.

Rawls says several things that, taken together, cohere with some of the content of the first considered judgment (about the importance of receiving caregiving when needed to survive and thrive). It is clear that children who will be fully cooperating, and those who have been but are no longer (due to injury or illness, or old age) are entitled to having their basic needs met (2005, 7). Since caregiving is among the basic needs, receipt of caregiving is called for by the basic needs principle. Also, Rawls notes that receiving caregiving as children is necessary for the development of a sense of justice (1999, 405), and, arguably, for the development of self-respect (1999, 386). We may observe in addition that adequate caregiving is necessary for the development of talents, and thus for enjoying fair equality of opportunity. However, Rawls stipulates that principles of justice concern arrangements among human beings who are, were, or will be “fully cooperating members of society over a complete life” (2005,18). They do not apply to human beings whose disabilities render them wholly non-cooperating. This means that failure of such human beings to receive the caregiving they need to survive and thrive is not, in itself, a political injustice. To be sure, Rawls writes: “I take it as obvious, and accepted as common sense, that we have a duty towards all human beings however severely handicapped” (2001, 176, n. 59, see also 2005, 21, 183). But “Rawls does not tell us whether these are duties of justice” (Stark 2007,130, nlO). And even if they are, Rawls’s political conception of justice is not their normative foundation.

The difference principle addresses some of the content of the second considered conviction (about the ability to provide or procure the caregiving one’s dependents need). We may assume that the economic resources the difference principle affords would suffice for families to see to the caregiving needs of their members, as long as they are in the normal range. Also, caregivers and their dependents are disproportionately represented among the least well-off, so the difference principle ensures that social and economic inequalities are to their benefit. But Rawls’s principles do not recognize the inability to provide or procure caregiving for one’s dependents (if one is willing and otherwise able) as unjust in itself. His conception of justice gives us no choice but to conceive of the interest people have in providing or procuring the caregiving their dependents need to survive and thrive as merely one preference among the many persons may have.7

Rawls addresses part of the concern in the third considered conviction (about disadvantage to caregivers). He explains that caregiving work is socially necessary labor (2001, 162) and insists that “steps need to be taken to either equalize [women’s] share [of caregiving work] or to compensate them for it” if their disproportionate share is “a basic, if not the main, cause of women’s inequality” (2001, 167). But Rawls provides no reason to object to inequalities tracking caregiver status apart from gender. The mere fact that caregiving is socially necessary does not mean, for Rawls, that its distribution must be guided by principles of justice. We have to conclude that, from the perspective of Rawls’s political conception of justice, the social position of someone disadvantaged (vis-a-vis primary social goods) because they provide or procure caregiving should be regarded as attributable to “voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association” (1999, 82), and thus not relevant to the evaluation of the justice of a society’s basic structure.

Rawls says a few things that capture some of the concern in the fourth considered conviction (about society’s basic arrangements expressing the unworthiness of some persons to receive and give caregiving). The basic needs principle calls for each (fully cooperating) person to receive needed caregiving; this might be thought sufficient. But inequalities above the threshold of sufficient caregiving could still track historical patterns and thus express inequality in worthiness to receive it.8 Perhaps Rawls’s principle for individuals calling for mutual respect kicks in here. But we are looking for a principle for the institutional structure. Also, as we have seen, while Rawls’s conception of justice does not recognize as unjust in itself the inability (due to the institutional structure) to provide or procure caregiving for one’s dependents, the difference principle calls for resources sufficient for families to see to the caregiving needs of their fully functioning members. But historical patterns of injustice could still determine who clusters at the floor set by the difference principle.

Finally, Rawls’s liberty principle addresses some of the concern in the fifth considered conviction (about forced caregiving). The liberty principle does not permit legally forcing individuals to provide or procure caregiving for particular others. Nor does it permit private actors to force others to do so. And the fair equality of opportunity principle rules out arrangements that leave some persons no opportunities beyond caregiving. However, while some philosophers hold that socialization to the discrete social role of caregiver amounts to forced caregiving (Okin 1989; Kittay 1999),9 Rawls is quite clear that the liberty principle conflicts with uses of state power that aim directly at ensuring that girls not be so socialized (Rawls 1997, 599, see also 2001, 165).

Rawls explains that when principles derived from initial situation reasoning fail to accommodate our considered judgements of political justice we have two choices. “We can revise [our convictions] . . . conforming them to principle,” rendering them “duly pruned and adjusted;” or “we can . . . modify the account of the initial situation” (1999, 18). The discussion in this part shows what duly pruning amounts to; it amounts to excising the content that does not cohere with Rawls’s political conception of justice. It amounts to giving up the conviction that it is a political injustice when society’s basic institutions and arrangements: fail to provide caregiving to the not fully cooperating; render some people unable to provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need; disadvantage those who, and because they, provide or procure caregiving for their dependents; allow receipt of caregiving and ability to provide it to track historical injustices; and socialize some to the discrete social role of caregiver. Of course, as has been said, considered judgments are not moral fixed points. It might turn out that giving up these judgments of political justice is warranted. I pursue this further below in the section on political constructivism.

But more needs to be said about these considered convictions. They are inextricably linked to, indeed arise out of, a particular experience, a particular point of view. It is the experience of, the point of view of, persons immersed in, and who understand themselves to be charged with, attending to caregiving needs. From this point of view, it is quite clear that society’s members require caregiving (sometimes a great deal of it) to survive and thrive and that some of society’s members do not become fully cooperating. From this point of view, it is quite clear that there is no neat distinction between a member’s interests and the interest that member’s dependents have in receiving adequate caregiving (Kittay 1999, 90, 94), and thus that among members’ fundamental interests is being able to provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need.10 This point of view directs attention to the basic institutions and social arrangements through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied; it counts the full array of such institutions and social arrangements as part of the scheme of basic institutions and social arrangements that comprises the basic structure.11 The family is certainly one institution through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied. But, as this point of view lays bare, the institutional and associational infrastructure through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied extends well beyond the family. It includes, for example, health-care facilities, daycare centers, schools, as well as the many informal social arrangements people establish to manage dependency needs. From this point of view, the aim of the basic structure of a constitutional democracy has something to do with (among other things) making it possible for people needing caregiving, including the noncooperating, to receive it and making it possible for individuals with dependents to provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need while also seeing to their other interests.

Rawls’s political conceptions of society and the person - and thus his political conception of justice - reflect a different point of view. From this point of view, the basic institutional and social arrangements through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied are obscured.12 It is as if a curtain has been drawn around some aspects of the basic structure that concern caregiving; it is as if they’ve been cordoned off. This blinkered point of view is that of a traditional head of household.13 In traditional society, the caregiving needs of heads of household, and the caregiving needs of their dependents, are taken care of by others whose supposed natural or God-given role is to attend to them. From this point of view, then, the institutions and social arrangements through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied appear to be nonpolitical, and justice appears to concern merely the conditions for fair cooperation between fully functioning individuals. The point of view of traditional heads of household has been dominant in our constitutional democracy. Most of the works of political philosophy as well as the major political tracts and speeches through which our public understands itself politically were penned by people with this point of view. Our public political culture is awash in ideas that reflect it.

Political philosophy written before the influence of feminism tends to couple the cordoning off of much of the basic structure that concerns society’s caregiving needs with an explicit delegation of caregiving to women as per their natural or God-given role. Breaking with this sexist past, Rawls rejects the idea that persons should be regarded as male from a political point of view, thus rejects idea that a well-ordered society has women fulfilling a natural or God-given role. Rawls also explicitly states that persons are to be conceived of as individuals and not as heads of household, thus making clear that justice applies as much to relationships between individuals within families as it to relationships within other associations (1997, 468). But Rawls did not fully shake off the point of view of the traditional head of household. He retained the cordoning off - the hiding from political consideration - of some aspects of the institutions and associational arrangements through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied. To be precise, Rawls’s political conception does not cordon off all matters of dependency. It cordons off these: whether the not-fully cooperating receive adequate caregiving; whether (otherwise willing and able) individuals are able to provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need; whether individuals who provide or procure caregiving are disadvantaged because they do so; whether receipt of caregiving, and ability to provide it, tracks historical injustice; and whether some are socialized to the discrete social role of caregiver.

To be sure, Rawls does not assert that natural or God-given roles have jurisdiction over the matters cordoned off. To assign such social roles would make his view a comprehensive doctrine and not freestanding as he intends it. The matters cordoned off are to be understood, from a political point of view, as voluntary (1997,472). Whatever arrangements society’s members manage to cobble together to deal with them are neither just nor unjust. Of course, we know what our society’s members manage to cobble together: arrangements that disadvantage caregivers and are gendered; arrangements that are often less than fully voluntary; arrangements that afford insufficient caregiving to many, in part by rendering some unable to provide or procure the caregiving their dependents need; and arrangements that track past injustice.

One might think Rawls is tacitly endorsing this state of affairs. But that would be too strong. As I’ve said, because these matters are, from a political point of view, voluntary, Rawls must say that they are neither just nor unjust, that justice does not pass judgment on them. Perhaps Rawls’s view is that we should be reconciled to the caregiving arrangements people in our society manage to cobble together.14 Rawls does note that one role of political philosophy is to calm our “frustration and rage” at arrangements to which we object but which the political conception of justice cannot remedy (2001, 3). But Rawls has in mind the frustration and rage we experience when society’s basic arrangements fail to conform to the requirements of our comprehensive doctrine. As I explain in the section on political constructivism below, the problem the dependency critique identifies in Rawls’s political conception of justice is not that it fails to give expression to some preferred comprehensive moral doctrine. Nor, I should say, is the complaint that Rawls’s political conceptions of society and the person are descriptively inaccurate. As I explain, the dependency critique is best understood as targeting Rawls’s claim that his political conception of justice is freestanding, and thus targeting his claim that it is a good candidate for providing the needed shared normative basis.

 
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