I. Historical Sources

On Domination and Dependency: Learning From Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality

Learning From Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality1

Christie Hartley and Lori Watson

Without needlessly drawing out the details, everyone must see that since ties of servitude are formed solely by men’s mutual dependence and the reciprocal needs that unite them, it is impossible to subjugate a man without first having placed him in the position of being unable to do without another.

(Rousseau 1997a, 159)2


Political theorists have grappled with how political and social institutions should respond to the facts of human dependency. Human beings are both dependent upon others and interdependent in multiple and intersecting ways that raise serious concerns for justice. For example, all human beings, at least at some times, are dependent upon others for help with certain needs related to basic human functioning (e.g., nutrition). Infants are completely dependent upon caretakers for their survival; as children age, they still depend on others for help with their most basic needs for a number of years. Some adults, too, due to temporary illness or accident or due to some permanent conditions require care from others to meet basic needs. Thus, dependency on others for help with basic needs is one important sense of dependency relevant for justice; yet, there are others.

As social and moral creatures, human beings also have interests relevant to justice for certain social and moral goods. For example, children’s interests include social and emotional care, a moral education, and various supports from others for the development of their moral capacities. They are dependent on others for these goods, and such interests are a matter of justice. Adults also have interests in social and moral goods that are a matter of justice and for which they depend on others. Crucially, among the basic interests of persons in political society is the recognition of their moral status as a free and equal person and of their political status as a free and equal citizen. This requires recognition respect from others, in which others acknowledge an individual’s standing and authority as a moral person (Darwall 2006, 119-147) and as an equal citizen in political society. Persons depend on others for this recognition, and this social recognition among persons must be supported by norms, practices, and institutions that embody and/or provide the social goods needed to sustain relationships of equal moral and political status among persons. Such norms, practices, and institutions are the social conditions of recognition respect (Watson and Hartley 2018).

In this chapter, we are especially concerned with the following three ways in which persons are dependent on others, though this is not an exhaustive list of dependency relations: human beings, at least at times, require the care of others to have certain basic needs met; human beings depend on others (and are often interdependent) for the realization of important social goods relevant to justice (e.g., goods involving support for social interaction and emotional care); and human beings depend on others for recognition respect as equal moral persons and as equal citizens and for maintaining the social conditions of recognition respect.

Liberal political theory, in particular, has been roundly criticized for its failure to adequately address the fact that human beings, at least at times, depend on others for help in meeting their basic needs and for social and emotional care. Feminist theorists have led the way in developing this critique of liberalism.3 They tend to focus on and criticize the liberal conception of persons as independent and self-reliant. They also argue that the work of caring for dependents is socially necessary work, that it is not properly valued or compensated, and that it has been traditionally assigned as “women’s work” to the disadvantage of women. This feminist critique of liberalism is sometimes referred to as “the dependency critique.”4

However, some early liberals and some republicans did address a sense in which consideration of human dependency is central for theorizing justice.5 Their concern, though, was with the way in which some social and political institutions created the conditions for some adults (men) to be dependent upon the will of other adults (men). Their deepest concern was with the way in which social and political relationships could undermine the freedom of some men by exposing them to the arbitrary power of another’s will.6 This concern seems distinct from the type of dependency noted earlier, and these early theorists simply ignored or never considered the other ways in which human beings depend on others to have certain basic needs met.

Here, we explore the connections between these various senses of dependency with the aim of considering whether a liberal concern with finding a solution to dependency on the will of another can be extended to address some issues of justice related to other senses of dependency. Specifically, we explore some of the resources of a particular form of egalitarianism - namely, relational egalitarianism - for theorizing about matters of justice and human dependency, in all three senses noted earlier.7

Relational egalitarians hold that equality fundamentally concerns how people stand in relation to one another and that justice requires people have the same social position - one of equal standing and authority as moral persons and as citizens (Anderson 1999, 312-315).8 For persons to have equal standing and authority as moral persons and as citizens, they must be treated as equals in certain respects in certain social domains. We are concerned here with those domains of social life that bear on one’s status as a free and equal citizen, such as (1) the political sphere; (2) civil society, where members of society seek goods, services, and participation in places of public accommodation; (3) education and employment, where members of society seek to develop and exercise some of their talents and skills and produce needed goods; and (4) care frameworks, where members of society provide and receive care. Certain types of hierarchies in these contexts, that is, certain types of relationships of domination and subordination among persons or groups of persons in these contexts, are antithetical to all persons enjoying their status as equal moral persons and as equal citizens. We note that relationships of equality may require that particular material conditions obtain given person’s interests as equal moral persons and as equal citizens (Anderson 1999, 313-314).

The structure of this chapter is as follows: first, we briefly discuss basic human needs, social and moral goods, and dependency. We emphasize the following: (1) all human beings must rely on others at times to have their basic needs met and for social and moral goods; (2) the way human beings depend on others and the degree to which human beings are dependent varies; (3) sometimes social conditions make human beings dependent on others; (4) sometimes human beings are dependent on others due to their stage in human development or due to illness or impairment, and some human beings would be dependent given any social conditions (e.g., newborns and persons with certain profound cognitive impairments are completely dependent on others for having their basic needs met and would be so regardless of the circumstances); and (5) those whose dependency is greatest or those who are completely dependent on others are most vulnerable to harm.

We further stress that any theory of justice must address certain needs and interests of persons, and many of these concern relations of dependency. However, by the end of the chapter, it will be clear that we think it is a mistake for liberals to make a sharp distinction between the complete and extreme dependency of some and the less extreme forms of dependency of others. We are all dependent on others. Understanding this fact is crucial for keeping in perspective the fragility of the human condition, for helping us realize and appreciate our dependence on others in myriad ways over the course of a life, and for helping us dispel the fiction of independence and self-reliance that has infected and distorted much political thought. That is, the complete dependency of some should not be viewed as a special case or unique problem that liberals must somehow address in a theory of justice for persons who are overwhelmingly independent and self-reliant; rather, liberals must view persons as always dependent on others in some ways and sometimes dependent on others in other ways. They must determine what justice requires for persons in such relationships and what sorts of dependency relations are incompatible with justice.

Following our general discussion of dependency, we consider how Rousseau, a figure from whom many liberals draw insights, was deeply concerned with dependency relations and how such relations may lead to inequality. We are interested in developing Rousseau’s concern for dependency to consider how relational egalitarians are well situated to answer the dependency critique. Rousseau may seem like an especially odd choice for drawing inspiration to respond to a feminist critique. After all, his views on women are abhorrent.9 Nonetheless, nothing in his critique of inequality depends upon the sexist views he expresses in his work, and we find the core of his critique concerning the connections between inequality, dependency, and injustice to be trenchant and illuminating. We develop his critique of inequality as a useful, but incomplete, model for thinking about how dependency relations can lead to systematic inequalities that instantiate relationships of domination and subordination (as a form of injustice). In particular, we draw on Rousseau’s insights concerning the need for recognition respect as central to social equality and his insights concerning the way in which social arrangements can construct and create dependency.

With Rousseau’s account explained, we extend and develop his views to consider forms of dependency that were not of concern to him, as our interest in social institutions and practices and their relation to dependency and domination has a much broader focus than his. We aim to show how social arrangements and institutions can construct dependencies that place persons in relationships in which they are socially subordinated and, hence, unequal in unjust ways. In the final section of the chapter, we highlight the critical features of relational egalitarian views that we think demonstrate their usefulness for thinking about dependency relations as a central concern of justice. To the extent the arguments we provide are persuasive, we hope to make some headway in addressing the worry that liberal theories do not have the resources necessary for recognizing and addressing the facts of human dependency that are a matter of justice.

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