John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and The Subjection of Women (Michaelmas 2019)

Lecture I. Introductory

1. Lecture schedule

Lecture II. Harm
Lecture III. Speech
Lecture IV. Genius
Lecture V. Progress
Lecture VI. Nature
Lecture VII. Slavery
Lecture VIII. Family

2. The history of philosophy

– History of philosophy vs history of science vs history of art

– Philosophy and progress; assimilating insights?

– Distraction from contemporary endeavours?

– History of philosophy as history vs history of philosophy as philosophy: ‘what did it mean’ vs ‘what does it mean to us?’

– Reasons to do the history of philosophy:
            Antiquarian: ‘these books are interesting, fun, weird…’
            Inspiration: ‘we may get interesting ideas from reading these books’
            Heritage: ‘these are the Great Books of our civilization’
            Genealogy: ‘these books produced us’
            Defamiliarisation: ‘we may learn something about ourselves from reading books that don’t just reflect our own assumptions back to us’

– Three approaches to the history of philosophy

            Rational reconstruction
            Contextualism
            Intellectual biography

3. Mill and the history of philosophy

– Mill as canonical figure in history of empiricism, utilitarianism, liberalism

On Liberty and The Subjection of Women as inaugural texts in two traditions; influence on subsequent philosophy, political thought and politics

– Texts lend themselves to all three approaches:

            Rational reconstruction: ‘What argument is Mill making in this passage? Is it sound?’

            Contextualism: ‘What did Mill’s remarks mean in their time? What was he trying to do?’

            Intellectual biography: ‘How did Mill’s thought develop through his life, and why?’

4. Mill’s life and work

– Childhood, education, breakdown (influences: James Mill, Jeremy Bentham)

– Romance, romanticism

– Politics, campaigning

– Mill as pamphleteer-philosopher (cf. Plato’s dialogues, Descartes meditations): Mill not writing for posterity, at least in his political writings (cf System of Logic), but for 19th-century contemporaries. Not enough to attend to the logic of his arguments; we must also be sensitive to Mill’s rhetoric (pathos + logos).

Lecture II. Harm

1. Setting the scene

– Liberty: political, not metaphysical (cf Berlin on ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty: Mill a paradigm case of a negative theorist of liberty, i.e. liberty as the absence of (state) constraint)

– The liberty of the individual: Mill’s brief history

            Stage I. From state of nature to the state; the state as the chief threat to liberty
            Stage II. Towards republican liberty: liberty as right to political participation
            Stage III. Liberty in advanced industrial societies: threat from majority opinion

– Mill’s rhetorical strategy: myth-making; appeal to self-conceptions; conveying urgency

2. The Harm Principle

T1        The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. [John Stuart Mill, J. S. Mill: On Liberty and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 13]

3. Liberty and utility

T2        It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. [On Liberty, 14]

– Two approaches to arguing for the Harm Principle, roughly characterised:

            Abstract right: Harm Principle justified because all alternatives would violate absolute and irreducible rights of the individual to complete non-interference in self-regarding matters.

            Utilitarian: Harm Principle justified because a society governed by it will better realise utility, i.e. happiness (including both ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures)

– Mill an indirect utilitarian; can admit rights if treated as derivative; cf paradox of hedonism

– An exercise in rational reconstruction: how to get from the basic utilitarian claim to the Harm Principle? Mill didn’t set out an explicit argument with premises leading up to a conclusion. (Can you?)

4. Questions for Mill

– Can we draw a sharp line between self- and other-regarding actions? (Need we?)

– Can a utilitarian really defend absolute principles? Isn’t the virtue of utilitarianism its flexibility?

– Can a utilitarian consistently oppose paternalism? Doesn’t that lower the overall happiness?

– Is (Mill’s formulation of) the Harm Principle racist?

5. Reading for next week

Chapter II of On Liberty; Dan Halliday & Helen McCabe, ‘John Stuart Mill on Free Speech’, in Coady & Chase (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), 71–87. [URL] [Contact lecturer for PDF if needed]

Lecture III. Speech

1. Recap

– Mill’s On Liberty defence of a ‘very simple’ principle: coercion of individuals justified only when their actions are likely to cause harm to others. Excluded: coercion on grounds of mere offence; coercion on paternalistic grounds.

–Harm Principle reads like principle of absolute right. Mill insists its basis is utilitarian: ‘utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’ [???] Principle also empiricist: case for it can’t be made a priori but by induction from historical observation.

2. Rational reconstruction I

P1. Advanced societies should be governed by the principle that maximises long-term general happiness. [Follows from basic utilitarian principle applied at a macro level]

P2. The Harm Principle [alone] maximises long-term general happiness. [Justified by experience; humans as ‘progressive beings’]

C. Advanced societies should be governed by the Harm Principle. [Follows from P1 and P2]

Questions:

  • Is utilitarianism true in general? Can it be applied to societies as well as individuals?
  • Why think the Harm Principle likelier to maximise happiness than one that allows (some) paternalistic interference? (Examples?)

3. Rational reconstruction II

Bottom line: There should be no (coercive) attempt ‘to control the expression of opinion’.

For any opinion, p:

P1. Either: (1) p is true, or (2) p is false, or (3) p is partially true. [Plausibly exhaustive]

P2. If p is true, then it should not be suppressed. [Value of truth; fallibility of humans; revisability of all beliefs in light of new observations; debatability of harmfulness of true beliefs]

P3. If p is false, then it should [still] not be suppressed. [Assertion of falsehood conducive to discovering truth; encourages debate and self-consciousness of grounds of true opinions; prevents reduction to truth to ‘dead dogma’]

P4. If p is partially true, then it should [still] not be suppressed. [Need to determine which part is true]

C. Therefore, p should never be suppressed.

4. Questions for Mill

– Why the focus on truth? How does this argument apply to the censorship of visual art, music, poetry?

– Re: P2: Are all truths valuable (= happiness-maximising)? What about offensive truths?

– Re: P3: Isn’t this naïve? Is this always true? (If not, under what conditions is it true?)

Case studies: Hate speech; pornography; race science; propaganda

5. Reading for next week

Chapter III of On Liberty; Isaiah Berlin, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life’

Lecture IV. Genius

1. Recap

– Mill asserts a ‘Harm Principle’ placing strict limits on the legitimacy of interference with individuals’ actions, when harmless to anyone except themselves, whether by institutions or other individuals; rejects paternalism; distinguishes the genuinely harmful from the merely offensive

Argument for the Harm Principle essentially utilitarian in form

– Corollary of Harm Principle: almost no restrictions on ‘thought and discussion’

Additional argument: True, partially true, and false claims all have a role in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, essential to human flourishing; therefore, no (non-harmful) speech must be banned

2. Limits of Mill’s arguments

– Outline; needs to be filled in based on experience

– Vague boundaries: harm vs offence (e.g. racist slurs)

– Subtle distinctions: speech that causes harm vs speech that constitutes harm (e.g. violent pornography?)

Cynical speech: propaganda; advertising; ‘deep fakes’. Not easy to guess what Mill might have said.

– Unclear application to non-speech and non-propositional forms of expression, e.g. visual art, music

3. Why individuality?

– Recall: ‘… utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.’

– Mill in Utilitarianism: pleasures differ in quantity and quality; ‘higher’ and ‘lower pleasures’

–  Criteria for higher pleasures: ‘If one of the two [pleasures] is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it […] and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account’

Clarification: ‘Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus …’ But: why not?

– Human beings as having (unique?) capacity for culture (= ‘extra-genetic inheritance’); cultural evolution = greater (and higher-quality) happiness

– Mechanism of culture evolution? Mill’s answer: Genius, eccentricity, dissent, non-conformity

– Threats to evolution: Coercion, forced conformism, social pressure…

4. Arguments for individuality/eccentricity

Argument from progress. Progress is good. Progress requires innovation. Innovation requires innovators. Innovators can only exist (or, are most likely to emerge) in an atmosphere of freedom. Freedom requires respect for individuality.

Argument from experience. Countries that tolerate individuality are happier than those who stifle it. Therefore, we should encourage (and not stifle) individuality. (Cf. cautionary case of 19th-c China)

Argument from knowledge. Knowledge grows through experiments (inc ‘experiments of living’). A more knowledgeable society is a happier society. Experiments in living require an atmosphere of tolerance for individual experimenters, even if they are regarded as ‘eccentrics’.

– Argument from the value of choice. Individual happiness requires the development of the most distinctive human faculties. Choice is one of the most distinctive human faculties. The faculty of choice is best developed in an atmosphere of freedom.

Lecture V. Progress

1. Question

What role does the idea of progress play in the argument of […] The Subjection of Women? (2018)

Short answer sketch: Progress narrative as part of vindicatory and subversive genealogies

Longer answer sketch: Legal status of women aberrations in history of socio-political change away from hierarchy towards liberty and equality; Mill’s proposals as more in keeping with spirit of those changes

2. Genealogy

Definition: ‘A genealogy is a narrative that tries to explain a cultural phenomenon by describing a way in which it came about, or could have come about, or might be imagined to have come about.’ [Bernard Williams, Truth & Truthfulness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 20]

Types of genealogy: ‘[Subversive genealogies give] an account of the history of certain attitudes, beliefs or practices that their proponent cannot accept without damage to his esteem for, and certitude in, the attitudes, beliefs or practices themselves. […] Some genealogies, by contrast, are vindicatory: the story they tell us is in one way or another a recommendation of what it is they tell us the history of.’ [Edward Craig, ‘Genealogies and the State of Nature,’ in Bernard Williams, ed. Alan Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 182–3; emphases added]

Concerns:

I. Genetic fallacy: ‘The mere fact that a belief or practice (philosophy included) has a contingent origin does not entail that it is false or unjustified; to think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. [Amia Srinivasan, ‘The Archimedean Urge,’ Philosophical Perspectives 29, no. 1 (2015): 326; see also: https://philosophybites.com/2014/08/amia-srinivasan-on-genealogy.html%5D

Reply: (1) Mill not just saying that status quo contingent; rather, exposing its pudenda origo (2) Exposing contingency of something that presents itself as necessary does undermine justification

II. Whiggishness: ‘[The [“Whig” interpretation of history is] the tendency in many historians […] to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’ [Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1931), v]

Reply: (1) Mill not glorifying present; (2) Mill’s general, ahistorical, ethical theory based in principles with a claim to be timelessly true; (3) burden on critics who allege Mill only extrapolating from present

III. Historicism and racism: ‘Consider the classic liberal but historicist essays by John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty” and “On Representative Government,” both of which proclaimed self- rule as the highest form of government and yet argued against giving Indians or Africans self-rule on grounds that were indeed historicist. According to Mill, Indians or Africans were not yet civilized enough to rule themselves. Some historical time of development and civilization (colonial rule and education, to be precise) had to elapse before they could be considered prepared for such a task. Mill’s historicist argument thus consigned Indians, Africans, and other “rude” nations to an imaginary waiting room of history. In doing so, it converted history itself into a version of this waiting room. We were all headed for the same destination, Mill averred, but some people were to arrive earlier than others. That was what historicist consciousness was: a recommendation to the colonized to wait. Acquiring a historical consciousness, acquiring the public spirit that Mill thought absolutely necessary for the art of self-government, was also to learn this art of waiting. This waiting was the realization of the “not yet” of historicism. [Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8]

Reply: (1) What’s wrong with historicism? (2) Can’t historicism and racism be decoupled?

Lecture VI. Nature

1. Recap

Thesis: ‘… the legal subordination of one sex to the other … is wrong in itself, … and … ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality …’

– Mill claims that the burden of argument should be on opponents of equality, not defenders. Why?

– How to defend inequality? Possible answer: it’s conventional

– Mill’s response: Lots of things were conventional but later recognised to be wrong. What matters is how they came to be conventional. This motivates his critical genealogy

2. Genealogical argument against women’s inequality

(1) If some inequality cannot be justified in terms of more basic moral values, it is unjust. Common ground
(2) The legal status of Victorian women is one of inequality. Common ground
(3) The legal status of Victorian women is explained by a historical process by which differences in muscular strength were transmuted into difference in legal status. Controversial!
(4) Differences in muscular strength justify differences in legal status only if ‘might makes right’. Common ground
(5) Might does not make right. Common ground
(6) Differences in muscular strength don’t justify differences in legal status. Follows from (4) and (5)
(7) There is no other justification in terms of more basic moral values for women’s inferior legal status. Controversial!
(8) Victorian women’s inferior legal status cannot be justified in terms of more basic moral values. Follows from (6) and (7)
(9) The inferior legal status of Victorian women is unjust. From (1), (2), (3) and (8).

Distinguish philosophical question (are the premises true, for us?) from historical question (did Mill’s contemporaries accept them?)

– Did all Mill’s contemporaries accept all his premises? Carlyle denied (5), Coleridge denied (1). Not damning, but points to limits to persuasiveness.

– Maybe a critic, even a liberal critic, could deny (3), (8). How? Consider: ‘It is right and just that women have inferior legal status. But this is not because women lack might and might makes right. It is because women are by nature inferior and nature makes right.’

– This argument, if successful, renders Mill’s genealogy irrelevant; who cares how the present legal arrangement came about? Now, it reflects a basic and timeless fact of nature. And if this is a fact of nature, there’s no point (and may be some danger in) trying to change it.

3. Mill and Nature

Question: ‘I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another.’ (MILL) Discuss […]. (2011)

Answer sketch: Mill is developing a critique of the ‘norm of assumed objectivity’ driving his opponents’ argument about what women are essentially like, based on a rival conception of the relevant epistemic norms.

Longer answer sketch:

– Mill’s opponents: ‘Mill’s proposals for the emancipation of women fly in the face of well-known facts about the essential nature of women.’

– Mill’s reply: Opponents not justified in asserting those claims about women’s essences because their claims don’t meet the appropriate (scientific) standards for such claims.

– Claims based on (1) limited observations (2) in conditions produced by power relations, and thus, not conducive to helping distinguish (3) essences from regularities, and (4) natural from artificial regularities.

4. Argument and reply

(1) If women have been observed in many times and places to be inferior to men in some respect, then they are by nature inferior to men in that respect.

(2) If women are by nature inferior to men in some respect, their legal inferiority in that respect is not an injustice.

(3) Women have been observed in many times and places to be inferior to men in respect to (e.g.) political competence. (Women show no serious interest in politics; women are generally submissive; women do not like to occupy positions of power; women prefer the domestic sphere; they are not very skilled at abstract reasoning and logical argument; women dislike conflict).

(4) Women are inferior to men in political competence by nature.

(5) Women’s legal inferiority (e.g. in lacking the right to vote or stand for political office) is not an injustice.

Upshot: We should leave the status quo as it is; indeed, we can’t do anything about it, because it’s impossible to use legal instruments to change natural (and therefore, ineluctable) facts.

– All premises controversial; but let’s concede all arguendo and focus on (1)

– Even if (3) is true, would this show that women inferior to men in that respect by nature?

– Mill (+ Haslanger, ‘norm of assumed objectivity’): Shows this only if observations made in ‘normal’ conditions, i.e. where natural facts are not distorted by exercise of human power

Langton: In patriarchy, men have an interest in women being submissive, etc. Because they have power, their interests and desires inform the decisions that form women’s characters, e.g. decisions about upbringing, education, access to employment, etc. This brings it about that women do behave exactly as men believe they do, i.e. submissively (etc).

– Men’s beliefs about women may sometimes be true: they are submissive (etc). But: fallacious to infer women submissive by nature. Such beliefs self-fulfilling: made true as a result of human actions.

Langton: such beliefs have ‘wrong direction of fit’

– Most that can be inferred from observations of women’s behaviour right now is that many of them behave submissively in patriarchal societies. This leaves it an entirely open question what they would be like under non-patriarchal conditions.

– If nature of women an open question, we shouldn’t invoke empirically inadequate speculations to justify legal status quo. Maybe: women (and, for that matter, men) would be different under different laws.

– Do we know this? Did Mill know it in 1869? Mill says no; but we might now be in a better position to find out.

Lecture VII. Slavery

1. Recap

Mill trying to argue that ‘… the legal subordination of one sex to the other … is wrong in itself, … and … ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality …’; the common arguments against it fail: (1) many unjust things have been customary; (2) no good scientific grounds for thinking that women are naturally inferior; (3) its historical origin in arbitrary power shows it to be unjust, and also (4) an aberration in a self-described progressive society supposedly committed to the elimination of hierarchical institutions.

2. The Question: Mill and Slavery

Question: Does Mill’s analogy with slavery advance or undermine his case for female emancipation?

Answer sketch: Despite the risks that Mill’s readers will think him melodramatic, the analogy between the legal position of Victorian women and chattel slavery does advance his case by making vivid the many ways in which contemporary laws, in denying even upper-middle-class British women a number of the same rights denied to slaves (e.g. in the American south), constitute a serious injustice.

3. Reconstructions

Chattel slavery: The (de jure) ownership or one person by another such that the owner may, with legal sanction, require someone to labour for their owner’s benefit without remuneration.

The basic argument

(1) One is a slave if and to the extent that one is denied certain basic legal rights.

(2) Women in Britain, c. 1869, were denied many of the same basic legal rights as slaves.

(3) Women in Britain, c. 1869, were (to some extent) slaves.

The defence of (2)

Women Slaves
Requirement of lifelong obedience to husband Requirement of lifelong obedience to master
Property inherited by married women automatically becomes property of husband (modulo special contracts, settlements) In Roman law, slaves guaranteed peculium for exclusive use
No legal entitlement to time off once house work done or to separate spaces, or to refuse sex to husban Some legal rights to time off work and separate spaces (‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’); legal right to refuse sex
No legal right to (access to, contact with) children without permission from husband Ditto, mutatis mutandis
No provision of divorce on grounds of ill treatment (unless proof of adultery) Some legal systems can require a slave-owner to sell a slave to a different master, on ground of ‘ill usage
Defended by mainstream thinkers Defended by mainstream thinkers
Justified by reference to women’s nature Justified by reference to natures of Africans
? Known to be really a product of force

A radical feminist claim: maybe ‘woman’ should be thought of as being, like ‘slave’, a social and political, rather than biological category; to be a woman just is to be subordinated as a consequence of certain actual/perceived bodily features conventionally linked to reproductive roles (cf Haslanger, ‘Gender and Race’). One way to characterise (one style of) radical feminism: the abolition of women. If successful, there will be no more women, just human beings, some of whom may (but none of whom need) think of themselves as women or even female.

Lecture VIII. Family

1. Recap

Mill’s main claim: The legal subordination of women to men is wrong and should be replaced by a principle of perfect equality.

2. General remarks

– Mill has described the legal position of women as akin to slavery; this was of course far from the reality for most women in Britain. Mill’s point not that all women were actually treated badly in their marriages; maybe many weren’t; problem is the possibility (and legal permissibility) of bad treatment.

– Mill’s worries: (1) without legal backing, women can’t do more than keep their fingers crossed; (2) nothing to encourage men to use their power responsibly rather than despotically; and (3) women have good reason to think of marriage as an antagonistic relationship, not a relation where the benefits and burdens are fairly shared.

Despotism: the exercise of absolute (i.e. unconstrained) power. Why think the family despotic? Because there is little legal (though there may be actual) constraint on the exercise of the patriarch’s power. Like with his analogy with slavery, think of this as a canny use of the rhetorical method of ‘deinosis’: Make a bad thing, i.e. inter-family hierarchies, seem like a horrible thing, i.e. tyranny.

– ‘Virtues of despotism’: No ambiguity; decisiveness; cultivates obedience; efficiency

– ‘Vices of despotism’: No critical thinking; cultivates servility, mindless obedience; breeds resentment

– Why would the family be the ‘school’, i.e. the place for learning/acquiring, these virtues and vices? Because (1) family site of nearly everyone’s earliest education and socialisation. (2) Values acquired there may survive a lifetime. (3) Other modes of education (e.g. actual school, university, newspapers, etc) don’t sufficiently penetrate the inner life and sentiments.

4. Argument reconstructions

(1) Argument from inconsistency, exposing the mismatch between public rhetoric (‘equality’) and private reality (‘hierarchy’), the demands of democratic citizenship (treating fellow citizens as equals) and the consequences of being raised in a hierarchical family structure (treating fellow citizens as either superiors to obey or inferiors to boss around). Note that Mill is only appealing to values that he takes his readers to share, and trying to show that it has unexpected implications.

(2) Argument from anachronism: submission, servility, obedience may have been virtues in the ancient and medieval world. But they are vices in the modern world. Defenders of hierarchical marriage look like aberrations and throwbacks.

(3) Argument from democracy: The modern world requires not obedient subjects but free and equal citizens qualified to perform their democratic role. Free citizens must have the personal virtues that equip them for the duties and burdens of democratic citizenship. People who are brought up giving and receiving orders don’t have the right self-conception for this role. They don’t think of themselves as free (because they either don’t have, or don’t share, the responsibility for collective decisions). They don’t think of themselves as equal because they either give the others or receive them and don’t have to engage in joint deliberation or negotiation over how to reconcile conflicting interests. They are required in their public life to exercise qualities for which nothing in their upbringing has prepared them. They are unlikely to discharge their democratic duties well.

(4) Argument from symmetry: true, some public vices are private virtues, but why think that’s the case here? Why should the qualities needed in the hierarchical private sphere be so different from those required in the public sphere?

(5) Argument from utility: Hierarchies make everyone less happy than they would be were marriage, and more generally relationships between the sexes, to be more equal. (a) One could have genuine friendships with people who are currently brought up to think they can’t be friends; (b) one could learn from the experiences and perceptions of the others; (c) one would have space to indulge both the intellectual and emotional sides of one’s personality with people in whom the respective sides are more developed.

Other remarks.

– Mill sometimes falls into the conventional way of association men with reason and women with feeling, but given his remarks about nature, it’s unlikely he really thinks these are ‘natural’ facts. They are likelier to be contingent products of boys and girls being brought up so differently.]

– Mill also (for strategic reasons? out of sentimentality?) comes close to suggesting not simply that the emancipation of women will actually make men better off – which may have been reassuring to some of his readers – but that the reason to emancipate women is to make men better off.

– Harriet Taylor: the point of educating women isn’t to make them better company for their husbands any more than the point of educating men is to make them able to attract better wives.

5. The Public-Private Divide

Some consequences of hierarchical marriages (e.g. violence, abuse) don’t raise difficult philosophical questions: they are obviously covered under the Harm Principle. But what about less obvious cases of harm? E.g. unequal sharing of chores; unfair expectation that women must do all the ‘emotional labour’; requirement that women do the childrearing with little support from their husbands…

18th-century argument (from two kinds of virtues): We shouldn’t raise questions about justice in families. Justice is a public virtue, i.e. one suitable for public organisations concerned with the distribution of public benefits and burdens. It is inappropriate for private life, where the relevant virtue is love. (Hume, Sandel)

19th-century argument (from need to limit state power):

(1) If family life can be evaluated for its justice, then state intervention into private relations will be justified [and not only in criminal matters].

(2) State intervention in private relations is never justified [except in criminal matters].

(3) Therefore, family life cannot be evaluated for its justice.

Why endorse (1)? (1) plausible only if one thinks that the existence of an injustice is not just a necessary, but also a sufficient, condition for state intervention. But we needn’t grant that, and the Harm Principle doesn’t imply.

Consistent with the Harm Principle to say:

(1) Some injustices sufficiently serious that they justify the cost in (e.g.) liberty.

(2) State intervention can take more than one form: it could involve sending the police or social workers in to separate children from their parents, which is many people’s concern. But it might do other things that stop short of that. E.g. publicly-funded helpline for survivors of domestic abuse; funding for foster care.

6. Liberal arguments for (some) state intervention in family life

(1) State interest in preventing exercise of illegitimate power over citizens (inc those within family)

(2) Family not separate from politics. Arguably: family itself a creation of politics. E.g. Political decisions define what counts as a family (legitimacy, recognition to same-sex marriages, unmarried partners). If state already intervening in family, burden on those arguing against other interventions.

(3) Desirability of non-coercive forms of intervention, e.g. education, incentives, support for unconventional forms of parenting (e.g. single parents, same-sex parents. Not obvious liberals must oppose them; moreover, some reason to think that liberal values require them.