Logically, what should a Rawlsian do with the family (the greatest contributor to inequality in the world)?

15 Jul

Robet Nisbet vs John Rawls: Applying Rawlsian logic to the institution of the family. Remember, generally speaking, Rawls asserts that if we are all rational, we would seek policies that bring about equality of outcomes in everything up until the point where doing so is harmful to the underprivileged.

Nisbet: “I have always found treatment of the family to be an excellent indicator of the degree of zeal and authoritarianism, overt or latent, in a moral philosopher or political theorist. Basically, there have been two traditions in Western thought here. In one, reaching from Plato to Rousseau, the family is regarded as an insurmountable barrier to the achievement of absolute virtue or justice in a social order and therefore is to be obliterated. In the other, reaching from Aristotle to Burke and Tocqueville, the family is declared vital to the achievement and preservation of freedom and order alike in society.

Where does Professor Rawls stand? He is well aware of the social and psychological importance of the family, and refers to it in a number of places. Let us take his final reference (p. 511) as indicative. He writes: “The consistent application of the principle of fair opportunity requires us to view persons independently from the influences of their social position. But how far should this tendency be carried? It seems that when fair opportunity (as it has been defined) is satisfied, the family will lead to unequal chances between individuals. Is the family to be abolished then? Taken by itself and given a certain primacy, the idea of equal opportunity inclines in this direction. But within the context of the theory of justice as a whole there is much less urgency to take this course.”

I am afraid that most readers will take that last as quite unsatisfactory, even as a form of flinching. After all, “theory of justice as a whole” notwithstanding, there is abundant evidence that the family is among the most powerful generators and reinforcers of inequality in a social order. Rawls knows this very well. He has already proclaimed his willingness to see the factors of motivation, chance, and merit reduced to nullity in behalf of his cherished principle of equality. Can he, in all consistency, long neglect the family, given its demonstrable relation to inequality? Rousseau, in his Discourse on Political Economy, was bold and consistent where Rawls is diffident. If the young are to be brought up in the bosom of equality, “early accustomed to regard their own individuality only in its relation to the body of the State, to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as part of that of the State,” then they must be saved from what Rousseau refers to as “the intelligence and prejudices of fathers.” Public authority must supplant domestic authority; the molecule of the family must be broken. But this, Rousseau suggests with characteristic ingenuity, should occasion no alarm, for the father “would only be changing his title and would have in common, under the name of citizen, the same authority over his children as he was exercising separately under the name of father.”

Will Professor Rawls in due time find his way to this piece of radical surgery? We can only surmise that he will.”

(Robert Nisbet, “The Pursuit of Equality,” The Public Interest [spring 1974]: 103-20, at 119-20)

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