Theory of justice Analysis

There is much debate between contemporary political theorists as to the significance of the family within the political sphere. Historically, the family has developed under a patriarchal model with the husband and father at the head of the household. Typically the man would be the main breadwinner whilst the wife would be confined to the domestic sphere. However, contemporary feminists, most significantly Susan Moller Okin, are now beginning to challenge traditional conceptions of familial structure and the relationships within it. Susan Moller Okin is a Rawlsian feminist.

Both her main work on this topic, Justice, Gender and the Family, and several journal articles she has written, draw comparisons between her theories and those of Rawls. She describes Rawls as having "… very great potential… "1 and attempts to build upon his works to further her ideas as to the place of justice within the family. Rawls was one of the first political theorists of his era to admit the importance of the family by claiming in Political Liberalism that the nature of the family should automatically belong to the basic structure of society, along with "…

the political constitution, the legally recognised forms of property and the organisation of the economy. "2 However, Okin disagrees with Rawls on a number of other points and she sets out to challenge some of the ideas that he puts across. Rawls is not the only political theorist who believes that the public and the private sphere should be separate, but he is perhaps the easiest to reference in this context. He states that because families are based in affection, they do not need to be organised around principles of justice; "… the political is distinct from the personal and the familial, which are affectional…

in ways the political is not. "3 However, Okin feels that Rawls is contradicting himself here. How, she questions, can families be deemed as part of the basic structure of society yet not be political? She therefore attempts to present evidence to show that the family should be subject to principles of justice. Justice, Gender and the Family is structured around Okin's three main arguments. The first of these challenges the communitarian view that there could never be any situation where principles of justice should apply to the family.

Communitarians argue that as long as there is a feeling of benevolence and solidarity within a community, there is no requirement for a judicial framework. In this context the familial unit is simply a single part of a larger community in which everyone should work together out of love or shared goals. Communitarians do not deny that people should have, or indeed do have, rights, just that they should not need to claim them. Therefore communitarian thinkers such as Sandel believe that the family unit should operate through feelings of love and nurture, not due to a set code of justice. He suggests that "…

the family is a social institution where justice is not needed, and where a preoccupation with justice may diminish the sense of love, and thereby lead to more conflict. "4 Okin believes that this is incorrect and sets out a counter argument against the communitarian viewpoint. Communitarians depict the family as a sphere of love in which the decisions made are based on benevolence and affection, yet Okin believes that this gives a false picture of the family. Not every family is loving and affectionate and in these cases, surely some form of justice within the decision making process must be needed.

Yet what perhaps concerns Okin more is that even if there is affection and love within a family unit, these may be born of coercion or exploitation. As evidence of this she uses the example of a study carried out in Israel of highly religious Druze Arabs. In these families the women, both wives and daughters, simply accept the power of the male head of the household. Here, the father or husband would control many of their activities and decisions such as whether they could get a job, or learn to drive.

In this situation, the women were aware that their circumstances were unfair yet they also knew that their society would impose harsh sanctions on them if they were to try to resist. Here, the love and affection of the women has been socially induced so it therefore can be classed as exploitation rather than a healthy family unit. 5 Okin does not only attempt to counter arguments from other political thinkers, she also takes her argument to the next level and looks at the structure of the modern family and examines what effects this has on society and women's place within it.

At this level, it is mainly the relationship between man and wife which comes under scrutiny. As has already been mentioned, the traditional family operated under the guidance of a male head of the household with women performing the unpaid domestic and reproductive work. Even though in today's society women have achieved equality in the public realm, favouritism and sexism are still completely justified within the private sphere. Many contemporary theorists still agree with J. S. Mill that the division of labour within the family is "…

already made by consent, or at all events, not by law but by general custom. " He also adds to this by claiming that a woman entering a marriage is accepting a full time occupation. 6 Okin refers to these ideas when looking at the distribution of power and responsibility within a household. She argues at length that "… typically heterosexual couple based families in our society are unjust in their distributions between men and women of work, power, opportunity, leisure, access to resources and other important goods.

"7 She believes that if men and women are able to share equally in the benefits of family life then the burdens should also be equally divided. Kymlicka asks "… why should marriage have such different and unequal consequences for men and women? "8 and Okin argues that it should not. For a woman there should not have to be choice between having a family or a career. The responsibilities of a family may impinge upon a career but this should only be more of a reason for these obligations to be shared between the man and the woman. The sexual equality which has been achieved within society does not extend into the family.

If this were to be achieved it would involve a radical redistribution of the household responsibilities. As Veronique Munoz-Darde states, "… no distribution of burdens should leave anybody in a state of material dependence that makes them absolutely vulnerable to coercion. "9 Okin believes that if domestic labour is distributed unfairly within a household, it is not just the put upon woman who suffers; it can also affect the children of the family. As evidence, she cites another study, this time carried out by Mary Benin and Debra Edwards, who studied two types of household.

They discovered that in families with the traditional patriarchal model of a wage earning father and a housewife mother, both girls and boys would do the same amount of housework. However, in households where the mother and father both had full time jobs yet the mother still did the majority of the housework, the amount of work done by adolescent boys was much less. Their findings showed that on average girls would do twenty five per cent more housework than the girls in traditional households, whereas the boys do only one third as much as boys in the traditional household.

They predicted that these girls and boys were simply following the example set by their parents, with the girls falling into a put upon role at an early age and the boys trying to get away with doing as little as possible. 10 Okin uses this as evidence that the family structure needs to be addressed; "Is such a family environment a good place to learn to be just and treat each other as equals, to acquire what Rawls terms the political virtues – such as fairness and a readiness to meet others halfway?

Or is it a place where people absorb the message that they have different entitlements and responsibilities, based on a morally irrelevant contingency – their sex? "11 This leads to her next argument in support of principles of justice within the family, the idea that the structure of the family unit can have a knock on effect on society. She believes that if you have injustice within the family then there will also be an unjust state. Okin agrees with Rawls that the institution of the family has "… deep and long term social effects and in fundamental ways shape[s] citizens' character and aims, the kind of persons they are and aspire to be.

"12 If indeed the family is significant enough to shape people and determine how they act within society as a whole, then surely some sort of regulatory procedure should be introduced to ensure that everybody is given the same chance in life? Okin is not the only feminist theorist to make this point. Others also believe that if there is not some form of universal family structure then it is not only individuals within the same family who could suffer from inequality, but also those who come from different families.

Munoz-Darde points out that as long as there are inequalities between people's initial circumstances, for example, class, social conditions and the attitudes with which people are brought up, people cannot be equal and "… the ideal of equal realisation of people's natural capacities and moral powers, including their ability to form, revise and pursue their own conception of the good, shall not be delivered. "13 However, she and Okin are not in agreement as to what the best way would be to solve this problem.

Whilst Okin obviously believes that a common theory of justice would cease this inequality, Munoz-Darde suggests that perhaps the family is not actually needed and therefore should be abolished. 14 As has already been stated, Okin agrees with Rawls that the family should be included in the basic structure of society as it is an important institution which has to produce young men and women able to run and operate under a just state. Even so, Rawls does aim to show that "… those who grow up under just basic institutions acquire a sense of justice and a reasoned allegiance to those institutions sufficient to render them stable…

[a sense of justice] strong enough to resist the normal tendencies of injustice. "15 Suggesting that it may perhaps be possible for citizens to receive their moral education from institutions other than the family. Yet Okin argues that the family prepares individuals for the rest of their lives; she believes that the only problem with this is the way in which it is done. As long as the family is an environment in which justice is practised and people treated as equals then children will develop the sense of justice they need.

In this way, she also argues that the traditional public-private distinction is unjustified and unworkable as families are already political; "Public and private are collapsed into one, leaving no area of human existence that is deemed to exist outside of politics and no exemptions from political control. "16 If the private realm becomes governed by principles of justice then it will result in equality between both men and women and between different families. This means that a fairness of life chances and equality of opportunity will develop within society.

However, there is a strong liberal argument in favour of the public-private distinction. Liberal theorists believe that the right to privacy is a natural human right. This means that any state interference in the family would constitute a violation of privacy. Catherine McKinnon states that the right to privacy "… reinforces the division between public and private that… keeps the private beyond public redress and depoliticises women's subjection within it. "17 According to feminist thought, if the right to privacy remains, then women cannot be protected against violent husbands or fathers.

The right to privacy is designed to preserve the family unit as a safe haven from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it can also put women at risk if the family unit does not contain the love and affection which we automatically assume. How then does Okin suggest that a theory of justice should be implemented within the family? She suggests two models which would redress the balance for women within the domestic sphere. The first option she offers us is for the proportion of household labour, including childcare, to be shared in an egalitarian way.

This would not simply involve men and women splitting jobs between them as this would still be open to individual interpretation. Okin believes that state intervention is needed to ensure that each individual within a family has an equal chance. One example she gives is the introduction of more equal maternity and paternity leave to allow new fathers to remain at home for longer periods of time to help with family responsibilities. Yet Okin also makes it clear that housewifery is not an undesirable occupation for women, as long as their work is duly recognised.

If a husband wishes to be the main wage earner while his wife takes on household and familial responsibilities then she should in effect be paid for her work. If there is a forced redistribution of men's wages then the woman will not become economically dependant upon the man and will therefore still be in receipt of the same life chances as others. The views laid out here are mainly feminist and it would be impossible to examine every argument and counter argument as both the topic and the opinions expressed about it are so diverse.

However, it is possible to see that feminists such as Okin feel that they have a strong case and that the role of justice within the family is something which needs to be urgently addressed. Unfortunately even those who support the calls for a theory of justice to be applied to the family are aware that it may never be possible to achieve a just division of labour unless the state is prepared to intervene in an institution which is traditionally viewed as private. It is perhaps fitting to allow Okin the final say on how she feels the situation stands today;

"Social justice for women is unlikely to be achieved by formal legal equality because so much of the way than society is structured is a result of history in which women were legally subordinated… now that legal subordination has largely been overturned… but the social structures based on them have remained. As long as the unfair division of unpaid labour exists, women will not be equal. " 18 For feminists, unless the situation changes radically then they feel that women will never truly be able to achieve the equality for which they have been fighting for at least the last one hundred years.


Kymlicka, Will. Contemporary Political Philosophy [Second Edition] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Moller Okin, Susan. "Political Liberalism, Justice and Gender" Ethics 105 (1) 1994, 23-43. Munoz-Darde, Veronique. "Is the Family to be Abolished Then? " Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 99 1999, 37-56. Munoz-Darde, Veronique. "Rawls, Justice in the Family and Justice of the Family" The Philosophical Quarterly 48 (192) 1998, 335-352. Phillips, Anne. Engendering Democracy (Oxford: Polity Press, 1991).