Basic Liberties, Citizenship, and Autonomy

One such resource has already been unearthed: We can criticize the gendered division of labor as a threat to fundamental values of liberalism insofar as it causes or constitutes a violation of individuals’ basic liberties. Some gendered harms clearly do constitute basic liberty violations: A woman forced to perform domestic services against her will is a case in point. Perhaps women’s disproportionate share of caregiving generates an obstacle to them being taken seriously as candidates for public office. If so, then legitimacy might demand special protections for women’s political liberties. This might involve elevating the status of caregiving and educating citizens to see that traditionally feminine work and traditionally feminine skills can be sources of qualification for public service. If such a social project is essential to protecting the basic political liberties of women, then omitting to undertake it would be illegitimate.18 Similarly, if protection for basic liberties required gender egalitarian political interventions, then those interventions would be a requirement of legitimacy and thus weigh more heavily in tradeoff cases than they would if they were needed only to promote equal opportunity among advantaged women and men. I think we can adequately protect the basic liberties without fully eroding the gendered division of labor, however.19 If this is right, then the basic liberties case does not yet favor gender egalitarian social policy independently of concerns about equal opportunity and does not yet show that the liabilities of basic income go beyond frustrating equal opportunity. What other resources of liberalism might we invoke?

Christie Hartley and Lori Watson argue that political liberalism’s criterion of reciprocity imposes substantive feminist requirements on the just liberal state: It demands political interventions to eliminate “pervasive social hierarchies that thwart the give and take of public reasons among free and equal citizens” (2010, 8), and it demands that society ensure “the social conditions necessary for recognition respect among persons viewed as free and equal citizens” (2010, 8).20 The criterion of reciprocity imposes these requirements because idealized citizens could not accept circumstances under which others fail to recognize and respect them as citizens, thus the criterion of reciprocity demands that society establish and preserve the positive conditions necessary for citizens to relate to one another in this capacity.

Hartley and Watson argue that this has implications for the gendered division of labor. Because caregiving is necessary for sustaining society over time and because we all have an interest in receiving care as children, caregiving work should be regarded as socially necessary work for which we share responsibility as a society, and those who do it should not be disadvantaged in their ability to participate in various other social spheres central to citizenship. Because women’s greater share of caregiving disadvantages them in labor markets, and because labor market participation is a dimension of social life central to citizenship, the criterion of reciprocity licenses political interventions aimed at dismantling the hierarchical gendered division of labor (Hartley and Watson 2009, 533-535, 2010, 17; Watson and Hartley 2018). If this argument is successful, it reveals another sense in which the gendered division of labor is unjust independent of concerns about equal opportunity: If the gendered division of labor frustrates essential interests of idealized citizenship, then political action to erode it is urgently called for on the basis of liberalism’s fundamental commitment to mutual respect. Insofar as a policy like basic income is counterproductive by this metric, that constitutes a serious normative liability.

In other work, I argue that Hartley and Watson’s is not a fully adequate justification for gender egalitarian social policy (Schouten 2015, 2019). I argue that it places undue importance on labor market participation as a requirement for equal standing in society. Surely there is nothing intrinsic to caregiving that entails that its full-time practitioners will be, or be regarded as, second-class citizens. If caregiving were appropriately esteemed and respected, caregivers would not need to supplement that role with significant labor market participation in order to stand as social equals. Imagine a social arrangement in which the status of caregiving is elevated such that caregiving is remunerated and esteemed in much the same way as military service: We recognize that caregiving is inadequately rewarded in the marketplace, and so we impose mechanisms to socialize its costs. We rightly appreciate the indispensable social contribution made by caregivers, and their social status and compensation are made commensurate with that contribution. Without the (surely false) premise that caregiving alone is an inherently inadequate basis for equal social standing, Hartley and Watson’s argument lacks resources to find fault with this arrangement, because no hierarchy of breadwinning over caregiving relegates caregivers to second-class citizenship. And yet, I argue, the gendered division of labor and the injustice of the gendered division of labor can survive these suppositions. If the institutionalized presumption of breadwinner/caregiver specialization remains - if, for example, labor markets continue to presume that ideal workers have no caregiving responsibilities or are supported by caregiver specialist partners - and if women and men continue to be systematically socialized to specialize based on sex, then injustice persists. To put it roughly, there is injustice not only in the gendered “stacking” of traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine work but also in the gendered “steering” of individuals into roles based on sex. But Hartley and Watson’s strategy does not equip us to impugn the latter injustice, because it finds fault only with the gendered “stacking.”

Hartley and Watson’s strategy may diagnose a great deal of what is wrong with the gendered division of labor, but I think we can go further. The problem with the gendered division of labor that I worry Hartley and Watson’s strategy does not address - the problem that I am now trying to illustrate only roughly and intuitively - concerns the social mechanisms that sustain it. This problem survives the elimination of relational and material inequality between caregivers and other social contributors. And once we identify the problem that should make us regard even the hypothetical nonhierarchical, caregiver-esteeming but still gendered division of labor as unjust, we will see that liberalism has the tools to diagnose it as such. The problem is in the steering of women and men into certain roles on the basis of a socially embedded assumption that one’s sex rightly dictates the kind of work one does. The source of this steering - the socially embedded assumption that sex rightly dictates work specialization - is objectionable from the perspective of liberalism’s core values systematized as fundamental interests of idealized citizenship (Schouten 2019). Let me explain.

The socially embedded assumption that sex rightly dictates work specialization is objectionable from the perspective of free and equal citizenship because that assumption is inimical to autonomy. A robustly autonomous person can reflect upon, revise, and reject the social roles and affiliations that fundamentally shape her life. Her choices in domains central to her identity are not effectively determined by normalized and institutionally embedded assumptions that members of a social group to which she belongs are best suited to populating particular roles. We can be autonomous in a gendered society, because social norms do not determine our choices. And while gender norms attach social costs to some of the options we choose among, that, in itself, is no problem from the perspective of autonomy. Our options always carry contingent social and material costs. What’s objectionable is the particular configuration of social and material costs that gendered parenting norms sustain. Importantly, a social arrangement can be an affront to some value even without making realization of that value impossible. This can occur precisely when the arrangement is predicated on the assumption that citizens will not realize or aspire to realize the value in question. Our social arrangement is inimical to autonomy not because it makes autonomy impossible but because it presumes that citizens will behave nonautonomously: that they will specialize by sex into caregiving and labor market roles. Even without making gender-equal parenting impossible, and even without making autonomous choice impossible, our social arrangement is predicated on the institutionalized assumption that one’s sex will dictate the work that one does.

Whether or not individual decision-makers within institutions make this assumption, the institutional design takes it for granted. Labor markets are still designed for workers with “someone else at home,” a caregiving specialist partner to see to the caregiving and other domestic work that need to be done so that the supposed breadwinning specialist partner can devote himself fully to wage earning.21 Employers are empowered to impose demands on workers who are incompatible with workers simultaneously having serious personal caregiving commitments, and labor market success requires living up to such demands. The institutionalized assumption that sex will determine work specialization also explains the dearth of support for substitute caregiving in the United States: Because we have assumed parents - mothers - will internalize the costs of caring for children, we have neglected to develop social solutions for meeting the needs of dependents or for sharing the costs. And that assumption explains increasingly labor-intensive parenting norms: Because we presume that the costs of caregiving will be internalized and borne by caregiving specialists, we increasingly expect caregivers - and caregivers expect themselves - to develop the skills and commitment that typify work specialization.22

The entrenched assumption of gender-based specialization makes it socially and materially costly to avoid gendered parenting. A social arrangement that presumes that sex has this importance - and that in so presuming makes it costly to arrange one’s domestic life in defiance of that presumption - is an affront to autonomy. Accordingly, these institutional arrangements and social norms are objectionable on grounds of autonomy even though individuals can autonomously choose to comply with or flout those norms.

The robust, comprehensive kind of autonomy that this argument invokes cannot straightforwardly justify intrusive political interventions in a society that abides by the criterion of reciprocity. The whole point, recall, is to maintain justificatory community among ideologically diverse citizens, and this includes those who eschew substantively liberal values. The value of a thin sort of autonomy - political autonomy - can be a part of our shared justificatory resources. Political autonomy, or autonomy in the sense of legal independence and political enfranchisement, is valuable from the perspective of citizenship independently of any particular conception of the good. But comprehensive autonomy involves actually critically reflecting on and evaluating our ends and the values we espouse,23 and this cannot be valued intrinsically from the perspective of citizenship. Many may reject the value of this sort of critical reflection.

and engagement in it is not implied by the citizenship interest in having the capacity for political autonomy. Thus, reciprocity dictates that no political intervention may be justified on the basis of a presumption that comprehensive autonomy is valuable in itself.

But there is a reciprocity-abiding case to make based on the instrumental value of comprehensive autonomy. In my full defense of this argument, I argue that tolerating an institutional arrangement that is an affront to comprehensive autonomy jeopardizes stability, the value of which can be affirmed without violating reciprocity (Schouten 2019). The point for now is just to see that we potentially have yet another liberal resource, beyond equal opportunity, on the basis of which we can regard the gendered division of labor as politically objectionable. Insofar as citizenship interests favor stability, and insofar as stability is jeopardized when our social arrangement is predicated on an institutionalized assumption inimical to comprehensive autonomy, we have reason to enact social policy aimed at undermining the gendered division of labor and thus reason to prefer gender egalitarian caregiver support to basic income. This reason derives from the criterion of reciprocity, which regulates society’s pursuit of aspirational distributive justice. The gendered division of labor is thus a direr political problem - and the liabilities of basic income correspondingly morally weightier - than if it merely disrupted equal opportunity in competitions for positions at the high end of the occupational structure.

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