Care and the Liberal Theory of Justice

The feminist idea of care is both a response to the canon of ethical and political theory as well as an alternative approach to that cannon. In this essay, I contend that caring relationships are a valuable and necessary component of a just society, and as a result necessary in any theoretical argument about social justice. Yet, it could be asked whether the theory of social justice advanced by the philosopher John Rawls adequately incorporates the idea of care. I will argue here that the concept of care is an important aspect of Rawls’ theory.

Care and Justice

The care perspective was first identified by Carol Gilligan who argued that there are two moral voices: justice and care. Justice, the masculine approach to morality, focuses on universal abstract principles such as equality, impartiality, and universality. The classic justice perspective is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative asserts that we should act according to principles that we would want to be followed as universal laws. In other words, when I indentify the principle of a given act, I must ask whether I would want all people to follow that principle in all cases. If the answer is in the affirmative, then that is a morally justified act. If the answer is negative, then I should not act upon such principles.

The categorical imperative in not particularly sexist (sexism violates the “humanity as an ends” principle of the categorical imperative), but it represents a type of abstraction which removes moral judgments from real world relationships and conditions. This is of interest to feminists because women not only value relationships but also because they often are burden with responsibilities which do not allow them to ignore those relationships. These are primarily dependency relationships where some children, the disabled, and other rely on the other for survival.

Additionally, and most problematic for feminists, Kant views actions driven by feelings or inclination as insufficient. In order for actions to be considered moral, they must be based on abstract principle. Yet, in dependency relationships, whether it is caring for a child or an elderly parent, the obligation to care is often driven by emotional sentiment such as love or even pity and not so much “out of principle.”

This marginalization of emotion in moral decision making is picked up by Lawrence Kohlberg in his psychological analysis of moral decision making. In his hierarchy of moral approaches, Kohlberg favors those that fit the Kantian model of impartiality and places decisions that take relationships and emotions into account lower on the hierarchy. Gilligan responds to Kohlberg, and indirectly to Kant, by claiming that the care perspective is a different (and equally valid) approach to morality. Care is not a lesser approach to morality.

Marilyn Friedman argues that Gilligan makes a mistake in accepting the care/justice dichotomy. For Friedman, care and justice are essentially the same things. They are not expressing different moral perspectives, but instead they both are expressing a deep commitment to other individuals. While they may at times be expressed in different vocabularies and styles, they represent the same moral perspective. While I feel that there may be a distinct concepts of justice and care, I agree with Friedman that Gilligan mistakenly sets the two concepts up as opposing forces. Instead they should be viewed as going hand in hand because they are both key to social cooperation at any number of levels.

Nel Noddings is among the first to introduce care as a “feminine” approach to moral theory. For Noddings, care involves two aspects: caring for others and being cared for. Not only should we care for others (a deontological obligation) but we need to be cared for. In this way, care is a central, rather than peripheral, component of moral life. Noddings, a philosopher of education, uses the idea of care to place focus on caring relationships between adults (parents and teachers) and young children. Joan Tronto is critical of Noddings for placing too much emphasis on the family as the site of care by ignoring institutional forms of care and the need for rights protections within both familial and institutional care relationships.

Both Virginia Held and Michael Slote advance the ethic of care as a viable stand alone alternative to deontology, utilitarianism, and social contract theory. In both of their approaches, they take a rather Aristotelian direction. In many ways the ethic of care has a certain affinity for Aristotelian virtue ethics because both value emotional feeling and life experience. Held and Slote diverge from both Gilligan and Noddings by rejecting the gender-based usage of the care concept. Where Gilligan and Noddings treat the concept of care as a predominantly feminine attribute. While traditionally women have been viewed as the caring and the care-givers, Slote tries to break care from this secondary role by arguing that the ethic of care is actually preferable to the other approaches. Tronto’s political conception of care likewise argues that care is a sound basis for egalitarian politics and not just a feminist approach to ethics.

Justice and John Rawls

The political philosopher John Rawls was the most influential political and moral philosopher of the 20th century. 35 years after the first publishing of A Theory of Justice, political theorists and political philosophers are still grappling with the nuances and implications of Rawlsian thought. However, this prominence places his theory under heavy scrutiny.

John Rawls speaks of a sense of justice which guides us in making decisions and choosing principles that relate to social justice. A “strong” sense of social justice is “an effective desire to comply with the existing rules and to give one another that to which they are entitled.” Essentially, this is a desire to “act in accordance with the principles that would be chosen in the original position.” Here we can see the heavy influence of Kant’s categorical imperative on Rawls because justification in based on an abstraction to principle.

The original position is Rawls’ social contract mechanism by which he establishes the conditions of fairness within which participants will decide upon the principles of justice. Justice for Rawls is the social virtue that will govern the basic structure of society which includes the range of economic and political institutions that impact and influence the life prospects of individuals. By keeping the focus of justice on social institutions, Rawls’ theory is more political than that of Kant. In the original position, we imagine what a group of participants would choose as the principles of justice of justice if they were unaware of their own particular situation and place in the world. These rational agents would be knowledgeable about the state of the world, but they would not know whether they themselves are rich or poor, black or white, or even whether they are male or female. Yet they would know that they could be rich or poor, black or white, and male or female. This identity-filter is what Rawls calls the veil of ignorance.

The function of the veil of ignorance is to push them toward principles of justice that would be reasonably acceptable and in some way beneficial to all. Hence, we would not choose a social arrangement that would solely or primarily benefit the rich if we knew that we ourselves could be poor or if we knew that we ourselves are likely to be poor. Likewise, we would not choose a social arrangement that heavily favors males if we knew that there was at least a 50 percent chance that we would be a female.

Rawls argues that the participants in the original position, under the conditions of the veil of ignorance, would choose two principles of justice. The first would require that all people have equal claim the basic liberties. These would include many of the liberties secured by the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the United States Constitution including the full range of civil liberties, civil rights, and political rights. These rights are universal and absolute. This heavy priority given to rights seems to also reinforce the image of Rawls as overly abstract.

The second principle has two parts. First, positions of power and wealth must be open to all. Second, inequalities of wealth are only just if they benefit most the least well off in society. This second part is known as the difference principle. While inequality is allowed in order to reap the benefits of competition and innovation, such inequalities are only accepted to the extent that they benefit everyone and not just the top tiers of the socio-economic ladder. This principle requires a robust redistribution of wealth.

Rawls and Care

Noddings, Slote and Held all find that Rawls’ theory of justice to be too much like Kant, in that Rawls emphasizes an autonomous individual and idealizes abstraction rather than intimate relations. My central argument about the relationship between justice and care is my contention that these critiques of Rawls misunderstand his political conception of justice. Additionally, the extent to which Tronto feels that a political theory of care is needed for an egalitarian political economy, I argue that Rawls’ theory includes a sense of care.

Many of the concerns about Rawls by care theorists are tempered, if not resolved, if one looks at his theory through the lens of the late feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin. While she does take Rawls to task for not fully addressing women’s concern within his theory, she does see great “potential” for doing so. She sees particular potential in his use of the original position, often the focus of feminist criticism, as well his discussion on moral development. In these two elements we find strong elements of care, empathy, and benevolence, elements that might be missed if we focus on Rawls’ rational choice language and Kantian imagery.

Okin argues that while Rawls’ theory is “sometimes viewed as excessively rationalistic, individualistic, and abstracted from real human beings,” it should instead be viewed as a “voice of responsibility, care, and concern for others.” We can find this to be the case in the original position. Since the parties are referred to as mutually disinterested it may seem that the construct is overly rationalistic and individualistic. However, Okin argues that this would be a misreading or misunderstanding of the original position because “Rawls does have to rely on empathy, benevolence, and equal concern for others as for self, in order to have the parties come up with the principles they choose, especially the difference principle.” Rawls addresses this when he says that the “combination of mutual disinterest and the veil of ignorance achieves the same purpose as benevolence. For this combination of conditions forces each person in the original position to take the good of others into account.” Now Rawls emphasizes that the veil of ignorance does not impose benevolence because such a “strong condition” is not needed. Instead, what the veil of ignorance does is require the participants to consider others in their deliberation about the principles of justice. While rational self-interest plays a part in such deliberations, we are not aware of which “self” we are because of the conditions of the veil of ignorance. Okin goes as far as to say that the veil “is such a demanding stipulation that it converts what would, without it, be self-interest into benevolence or the equal concern for others.” While Rawls shies away from the term benevolence, Okin argues that the veil of ignorance at least delivers a concern for others with the power of benevolence. I fully agree with Okin’s interpretation of the original position. While the original position may incorporate certain elements of rational self-interest, the primary purpose of the original position construct is to arrive at principles of justice which go beyond the mere pursuit of self interest. Since the parties are unaware of their own particular situations, the only way in which one can look after one’s own self-interest is to look after the interests of all equally.

For the philosopher Eva Kittay, a primary deficiency in Rawls’ theory of justice is the extent to which he neglects the idea of care. However, Okin sees care present in Rawls’ theory in a way that some others do not. In one sense, the veil of ignorance and the original position are friendly to the idea of care in that the “original position requires that, as moral subjects, we consider the identities, aims, and attachments of every other person, however different they may be from ourselves, as of equal concern with our own.” This “equal concern” parallels elements of care. Clearly, Kittay shows a special respect, if not reverence, for dependency workers who care for others despite what might be in their own self-interest. The original position likewise asks us to consider the needs, rights, and interests of others.

It could still be said that the equal concern required by the veil of ignorance falls short of the care which parents, particularly mothers, show and give to their children. While the original position requires the participants to be “other” minded, does it require them to care? Not necessarily. Nonetheless, the idea of care plays a role elsewhere in Rawls’ theory and it is there that we see the significance of care for Rawls.

Okin’s primary criticism of Rawls’ is that he places the family within the basic structure of society but fails to further address the idea when applying the principles of justice. Okin finds this particularly ironic since Rawls recognizes the family as vital to moral development, particularly the development of a sense of justice. However, in his discussion of moral development Rawls fully recognizes the importance of care.

In his discussion of the sense of justice, Rawls outlines three stages of moral development. The first of these stages is the “morality of authority.” In this stage Rawls assumes that “the sense of justice is acquired gradually by the younger members of society as they grow up.” Central to the acquisition of a sense of justice by young children is the influence of parents. Rawls refers to this stage as the “morality of authority” because children have not yet started to challenge the authority of their parents. During this stage children develop a sense of morality based on the nurturing relationship which they have with their parents. Parents “we may suppose, love the child and in time the child comes to love and trust his parents.” This love for parent comes about because, as “the parents’ love of child is recognized by him on the basis of their evident intentions, the child is assured of his worth as a person.” It is through this process that children not only develop love for parents and family but also start to develop a sense of justice toward others. Here Rawls alludes to a connection between the care which should be found in familial relationships and the basic social good of self respect.

For Rawls, the parents’ love is “expressed in their evident intention to care for him, to do for him as his rational self-love would incline, and in the fulfillment of these intentions. Their love is displayed by their taking pleasure in his presence and supporting his sense of competence and self-esteem.” That healthy moral development depends “upon love, trust, affection, example and guidance,” for Okin sets Rawls apart from Kant “for whom any feelings that did not follow from independently established moral principles were morally suspect.” For Okin, Rawls’ “conviction that the development of a sense of justice depends on attachments to and feelings for other persons” is in tension with the “rational choice” language which is associated with his theory of justice.

By looking at Okin’s interpretation of the original position and by looking at the role which Rawls attaches to the parent-child relationship in moral development, we can see that there is an element of care for others in the Rawlsian theory of justice. Given his “rational choice” language and strong Kantian influence, it could be easy to assume that care and relationships are not present or important in Rawls’ theory. This is not the case and those who claim otherwise misunderstand important elements of his theory, including the original position.

Achieving Justice

Like Rawls, Joan Tronto heavily favors a more social democratic society where the state plays a more active role in achieving social justice. This more egalitarian society cannot be realized without care. This is a lesson that Rawlsians, like myself, need to acknowledge and emphasize within our work and advocacy. That many critics do not find care in Rawls’ theory is partially because it is not emphasized. In light of the political ethic of care, this is something which any egalitarian theory of justice cannot do.

One way in which I would propose changing the Rawlsian approach is by emphasizing the negative impact of extreme inequality and injustice on not only society, but also within relationships within any given society. In Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, Rawls argues that extreme inequalities undermine a democracy by undoing any serious conception of equal citizenship. Yet, it could, and should, be argued that inequality and the resulting poverty undermine the ability to maintain meaningful relationships. In doing so, we do not focus on poverty as a statistic, but as social phenomena with a serious negative impact on real lives.

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  • Joseph Smidt

    Very interesting essay I must say. I have read a fair amount about the Rawlsian theory of justice but not about “Care”. I didn’t know that Justice and Care have masculine and feminine underpinnings.

    I’m sure Rawls would agree with you that Care is inherent in his theory of justice. It just needs to be shown better. Again, you make some great points.

  • Chris H.

    Joseph, thanks. I really like Marilyn Friedman’s contention that the two ideas are more two different ways of expresses more of less the same thing (plus, I discussed this once in person and she was very nice to me).

  • Roberto

    “Cannon”? Who are you going to blow up? I’d suggest that you edit your article. It’s ‘canon’. :-)

  • Chris H.

    While I tend to use my comments like a cannon, I appreciate that you pointed that out. It is now fixed.

  • Roberto

    I enjoyed the article on Rawls and your showing his compatibility with care ethics. Thank you for writing it.

  • Chris H.

    That you. Now I just need to get going on the dissertation-length version.

  • Steve

    I enjoyed the article on Rawls and your showing his compatibility with care ethics. Thank you for writing it.