“The Family as a Basic Institution”: A Feminist Analysis of the Basic Structure as Subject

Layout 1in Ruth Abbey (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Rawls (Penn State Press, 2013).

In Section 50 of Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, titled “The Family as a Basic Institution”, John Rawls replies to Susan Moller Okin’s feminist critique of A Theory of Justice. The question of how Rawlsian justice might secure gender equality has been discussed by many feminists, most notably by Okin. However, as I argue in this chapter, the Rawls-Okin debate raises more questions than it answers. Okin criticises Rawls for failing to apply his theory adequately to the family: she criticises not Rawls’s approach in general, but his attitude to the family in particular. Okin argues that a consistent application of Rawlsian theory would secure gender justice, but that Rawls is remiss in refusing such consistency. In fact, as I show, Rawls’s remarks on the family reveal a more fundamental problem with Rawlsian theory than Okin allows. It is not that Rawls fails to apply his theory correctly to the family, but rather that the specific case of the family illustrates deep-seated difficulties with Rawlsian justice as a whole.

The problem, to give an outline, is that Rawls’s ambiguous remarks on the family are comprehensible only at the expense of his fundamental claim that there is something distinctive about the application of justice to the basic structure. Okin criticises Rawls for failing to make good on the fact that the family is part of the basic structure. If he did make good, Okin claims, he would see that the principles of justice must apply to the family in a much more extensive way than he actually allows. As I show, however, the family is one illustration of the fact that how the principles of justice apply to an institution does not depend on whether that institution is part of the basic structure. This is a problem for Rawls because the distinctiveness of the basic structure is a crucial part of the political liberalism which, by the end of his work, has become essential to the Rawlsian project.

In this chapter I first outline Okin’s critique of Rawls in more detail, and provide a valid formalisation of her argument against Rawls. I then examine the main premises of her argument and look for evidence to support Okin’s interpretation of Rawls. I conclude that Okin’s interpretation is flawed but nonetheless highlights problems with Rawls’s claim that the basic structure is the subject of justice. I then consider and reject the argument that Rawls’s theory is consistent according to what I call the “whole structure view”: that the principles of justice apply to the basic structure considered as a whole. Finally, I consider G.A. Cohen’s argument that the basic structure distinction is problematic. I agree with Cohen’s criticism of the distinction, but suggest that Cohen is wrong in situating the problem with the issue of coercion. I conclude that Rawls’s position on justice in the family is at odds with his claim that the basic structure is uniquely the subject of justice.

You can see more about the book here.


9780199585977This chapter sets out the state of contemporary feminism, including considering the sense in which it is and is not an ideology. It argues that contemporary feminism must argue against two patriarchal claims: The Prison of Biology and The Fetishism of Choice. In their place, feminism argues for three theses: The Entrenchment of Gender, The Existence of Patriarchy, and The Need for Change.

You can read the chapter here.

What kind of dialogue do we need? Gender, deliberative democracy and comprehensive values

9781107038899(with Phil Parvin) in Jude Browne (ed.) Dialogue, Politics and Gender (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

This paper claims that a focus on gender as a source of controversy, and on feminism as a theoretical and practical approach, prompts a rethinking of the role of dialogue away from the liberal constitutionalist focus of deliberative democracy and towards a more fluid, reflexive approach.

Each outcome is another opportunity

home_coverPolitics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) Vol. 8 No. 4 (2009).

This paper introduces the concept of a Moment of Equal Opportunity (MEO): a point in an individual’s life at which equal opportunity must be applied and after which it need not. The concept of equal opportunity takes many forms, and not all employ an MEO. However, the more egalitarian a theory of equal opportunity is, the more likely it is to use an MEO. The paper discusses various theories of equal opportunity and argues that those that employ an MEO are problematic. Unjust inequalities, those that motivate the use of equal opportunity, occur throughout peoples’ lives and thus go unrectified after an MEO. However, it is not possible to abandon the MEO approach and apply more egalitarian versions of equal opportunity throughout a person’s life since doing so entails problems of epistemology, efficiency, incentives and counter-intuitive results. The paper thus argues that liberal egalitarian theories of equality of opportunity are inconsistent if they support an MEO and unrealisable if they do not.

You can read this paper here.

Coercive redistribution and public agreement: re-evaluating the libertarian challenge of charity

FCRIcover 1..2(with Phil Parvin) in Matt Matravers and Lukas Meyer (eds.), Democracy, Equality, and Justice (Routledge and special issue of Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (CRISPP) Vol. 13 No. 1 (2010).

In this article, we evaluate the capacity of liberal egalitarianism to rebut what we call the libertarian challenge of charity. This challenge states that coercive redistributive taxation is neither needed nor justified, since those who endorse redistribution can give charitably, and those who do not endorse redistribution cannot justifiably be coerced. We argue that contemporary developments in liberal political thought render liberalism more vulnerable to this libertarian challenge.

Many liberals have, in recent years, sought to recast liberalism such that it is more hospitable to cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. This move has resulted in increased support for the claim that liberalism should be understood as a political rather than comprehensive doctrine, and that liberal institutions should draw their legitimacy from agreements made among members of an appropriately conceived deliberative community, rather than from controversial liberal principles like individual autonomy. We argue that, while this move may indeed make liberalism more compatible with cultural diversity, it also makes it more vulnerable to the libertarian challenge of charity. Not all versions of liberalism are troubled by the challenge, but those that are troubled by it are increasingly dominant.

We also discuss G.A. Cohen’s claim that liberal equality requires an ‘egalitarian ethos’ and argue that, if Cohen is right, it is difficult to see how there can be an adequate response to the libertarian challenge of charity. In general, our argument can be summarised as follows: the more that liberalism is concerned accurately to model the actual democratic wishes and motivations of the people it governs, the less it is able to justify coercively imposing redistributive principles of justice.

You can read a copy of this paper here.

Inclusivity and the constitution of the family

cover_july2013Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence (2009, 1).

This article responds to Alan Brudner’s Constitutional Goods. It argues that Brudner’s concept of liberal inclusivity is problematic both conceptually and normatively, and results in policies on marriage and abortion that liberals would not accept. Issue No. 2 includes a response from Brudner.


issues-in-political-theory-catriona-mckinnon-paperback-cover-art  9780199572823  9780199680436

Catriona McKinnon (ed.) Issues in Political Theory (Oxford University Press, 2008, 2nd edition 2011).

This textbook from OUP introduces the key issues and themes in political theory
through chapters and case studies written by a variety of international political philosophers. My chapter on gender discusses  issues such as the varieties of feminism, the family and care, sex and violence, legal equality, and has a special case study on pornography.

Autonomy and equality in cultural perspective: Response to Sawitri Saharso

home_cover-2Feminist Theory Vol. 5 No. 3 (December 2004).

This paper criticises Sawitri Saharso’s argument that hymen repair surgery and sex-selective abortion can be both multiculturalist and feminist policies.

You can read the paper here.

Nation-building, Neutrality and Ethnocultural Justice: Kymlicka’s ‘Liberal Pluralism’

home_cover-3Ethnicities Vol. 3 No. 3 (September 2003).

This paper takes issue with Will Kymlicka’s arguments on ethnocultural justice. It argues that liberal nation-building is not the same thing as minority nation-building, and that the former need not cause injustice to minority ethnocultural groups.

You can read the paper here.

All must have prizes: the liberal case for intervention in cultural practices

Paul Kelly (ed.) Multiculturalism Reconsidered: Culture and Equality and its Critics (Polity Press, 2002).

This paper highlights a rare aspect of Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality that is not liberal enough: his assertion that unequal outcomes are unproblematic if they have been chosen. The paper argues instead that an ‘equality tribunal’ should be empowered to rule against certain forms of discrimination within groups.