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Re-Interpreting Theorists

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Created: October 26, 2001
Latest Update: October 26, 2001

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Rawls, Nozick, and Feminism

Copyright: Jeanne Curran, Susan Takata, and Olivier Urbain: October 2001.
"Fair use" encouraged.

On Saturday, October 27, 2001, Zoe Guest wrote:

Subject: Rawls, Nozick and Feminism


I am not sure whether this is a site where I can ask questions but one can only but try!! I am attempting to apply feminism to the liberal justice theories of Rawls and Nozick. I find that I can criticise Rawls's original position as being inherently 'male' in its application and outcome but cannot work out how feminists could criticise the principles, as don't they advocate equality?! Nozick can be critized on the focus on the individual but I cannot think of how else it can be done. Any suggestion?

On Saturday, October 27, 2001, jeanne responded:

Hi, Zoe. Not only can you ask questions, but we'll hope you'll share your answers with us. As a sociologist, I'm a little beyond my training here, but I think the questions are reasonable ones for social theory as feminists ponder transforming the dominant discourse. So may I give you my first impression?

Rawls makes the assumption that the fairness he considers essential to social justice is achieved by the fact that his rational actors do not know what their own status will be in the society for which they decide the social justice principles. Not knowing their future status, Rawls believes that they will produce a system that will be minimally fair to all. I agree with you that this reflects an inherently male application and outcome in the sense that rational actors are making decisions that are pretty much like the decisions of the lifeworld we know, and we are now very much aware that such a lifeworld demands considerable energy and output that remains unacknowledged and unrecognized in the present system. So I would look for the critique in the area of unwritten assumptions that underlie the structural context and undermine the agency of some individuals within that context.

I think that Nozick can probably be criticized with the same technique. In his assumption that humanity will fare best by permitting each individual to achieve the most he can, Nozick is also making unwritten assumptions that underlie the structural context. I think he fails to take into account the interdependency of agency and structural context. To the extent that freedom to pursue one's own potential deprives another of his/her potential to achieve in much the same way, one does harm to that Other.

I guess this says that I think both Rawls and Nozick are making the issue out to be far less complex than I think is justifiable. To support that I would turn to some of the material on identity, in which feminists have pointed out that it's very hard for women to discover who they are when what is reflected to them is the mirror reflected to them by males.

Now, that's off the top of my head, and without pulling out my Rawls and Nozick. But I like the questions, and will certainly include them in Sociology of Women next Fall. I'm too tired to link this tonight, but I'll try to put up links to at least some Rawls and Nozick tomorrow. Nag me if I forget, jeanne.

Zoe, we'd be delighted to share your perceptions of this.

love and peace, jeanne

On Sunday, October 28, 2001, Zoe Guest responded:

Subject: Re: Rawls, Nozick and Feminism

Dear Jeanne,

Thank you so very much for your response, I really appreciate it. After I wrote to you I did some further reading and think I have a few more feminist critiques of Rawls and Nozick. As far as I can tell, Rawls does not remove gender from his person in the original position. This in itself assumes a gendered society once the 'veil of ignorace' is removed. Further, Rawls assumes that the family (which he refers to as the first important moral learning ground) is just and does not further explore the possibility that this institution may be unjust. From what I have read Rawls also does not place 'individuals' in the original position but family heads, presumably men. SO all this adds up to Rawls assuming the 'justness' of the family and relegating the family (and women) to the private sphere. His principles seem also to be western male constructs, given that it is the male who is assumed to be 'rational' and fighting for liberty and equality of wealth.

As for Nozick, Susan Moller Okin criticizes his theory based on the paradoxical (and untenable) application to children and women in that he says no person's liberty can be imposed upon by being 'owned' yet people own what they produce - women produce children.

That is about what I have come up with, a bit jumbled though! What do you think, is it a reasonable argument??


On Sunday, October 28, 2001, jeanne responded:

Sounds great to me, ZoŽ. In seven weeks when the semester's over, I'll pore over my own Rawls and Nozick and see what I can dig up. My students next Fall will be grateful.

love and peace, jeanne