“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.


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.