What implications, if any, should a theory of justice have for the institution of the family?

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What implications, if any, should a theory of justice have for the institution of the family?

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…” 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.” 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.” 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.”

        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.

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        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, ...

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