Posted on

By Patrick McAuliffe Jr.


I never knew that such a thing existed, but this semester I was introduced to feminist philosophy. When my Introduction to Philosophy class was assigned our first feminist philosopher, Linda Alcoff, her work began with a brief defense of the necessity for feminist philosophy that Alcoff gave at a conference at Boston University in 1998. Apparently, former President of BU (heh) John Silber criticized feminist, Marxist, and postmodern philosophers for their overtly political agendas. Alcoff responded, saying that this criticism is itself a political objection to feminist philosophy instead of a philosophically grounded criticism of it.

So far, at every stage in philosophy, we have examined at least one feminist philosopher to contrast with the classic ones you may find in a Philosophy 101 class. While looking at Plato, Descartes, and Hume for their epistemology (how humans gain knowledge), Alcoff added the consideration of testimonial knowledge, which allows for members of certain groups to be “epistemic authorities” in certain matters. When examining questions of morality with Mill, Singer, and Kant, Margaret Urban Walker asks metaethical questions about what counts as morality, stuck between anti-naturalism (“is” becomes what “ought” to be) and a morality that only exists in social relations between power imbalances. We discussed political theories and the meaning of justice from Hobbes, Locke, and Rawls, but Eva Feder Kittay examines the assumption of completely self-interested, unattached rational beings from the point of view of an average household and the other dependencies that exist beyond family life. Despite my silence up to this point and my attempt to understand where these given feminist philosophers are coming from, I was motivated to comment on Kittay’s critique of Rawls’ theory of justice and his assumptions about cooperation. (I will be paraphrasing and quoting from Kittay’s essay in Hypatia, vol. 10, no. 1, “Taking Dependency Seriously: The Family Medical Leave Act Considered in Light of the Social Organization of Dependency Work and Gender Equality”.)

Kittay mainly seeks to argue against liberal egalitarianism – the idea that all people are equally able to make rational choices for their self-betterment (this differs from straight egalitarianism, where everyone is equal in every moral and social way). She offers a few criticisms that feminists have given, whether it is a “difference critique” (liberal egalitarianism is often measured by white middle-class men and not considerate of other races, classes, and genders) or a “dominance critique” (men have entrenched social dominance over women and can therefore ignore concerns that affect them directly). Her main critique, however, is one from dependency. She writes that “by construing society as an association of equals…equally situated in the competition for the benefits of social cooperation, one disregards the inevitable dependencies of the human condition, thereby neglecting the condition both of dependents and those who care for dependents” (10-11). And, because dependency work is often disproportionately done by women, they are automatically put at a disadvantage and cannot compete with autonomous, purely self-interested individuals.

I’ve included two graphics contrasting the Rawlsian notion of liberal egalitarianism with Kittay’s critique of his assumptions about the equality of individuals. Kittay distinguishes between two types of dependencies: primary and secondary. Primary dependencies are necessary for some people, namely children or the very elderly. Even developmentally disabled adults can fit into this category, because they are dependent on dependency workers for survival, whether that role of caregiver is filled by a family member or by some organization. Kittay has no issue with this dependency and sees it as a necessary fact. This is contrasted with secondary dependencies, where an otherwise rationally self-interested, autonomous human being (usually a woman) fills the role of dependency worker and must therefore become dependent themselves (herself) on someone else, usually the head of a household (which is usually a man). This therefore illustrates for Kittay an oversight of dependency work, especially gendered dependency work, and the dependents whom are cared for. (This essay was published in Winter 1995, but in class we looked at some more recent data pertaining to the Second Shift; in households where the man and woman both work full-time jobs, the women consistently report spending more time on childcare and housekeeping activities while the men report more leisure time. Women have less time, as the data suggests, to pursue activities they actually want to do, and spend more time on familial and work-related duties than their husbands, putting themselves in a more dependent relationship to the head of the household.) Kittay’s solution is a social and political change in familial structure, with more emphasis on an equal share of household duties. And, while this change is coming to fruition (or if it does not), public support should be given to dependents and dependency workers to attempt to equalize them with their rationally self-interested, autonomous societal counterparts.


I give Kittay credit for pointing out relationships grounded in reality and not a theoretical abstraction of egalitarianism. It is true that some people choose to engage in dependency work, and everyone has certain responsibilities to the people in their lives. However, when I first heard the term “feminist philosophy,” I was skeptical that these women would fall into the toxic Marxist thinking of dividing people into monolithic groups with vast differences at best and clear reasons for conflict at worst. For some of it, I was right. However, like Alcoff says, I want to critique Kittay’s philosophy and not just start off on “#feminismiscancer” like the politically-entrenched right are wont to do.

Kittay mainly argues from the premise that John Rawls, famous Harvard deontologist, himself has a flawed premise in assuming the egalitarian structure that so clearly does not exist in real society. I see your premise and raise you another flawed premise (yo dawg, I heard you like premises, so we raised a premise to your premise…whatever, it’s ok. I laughed). Rawls’ assumptions are made when people within a society are in the original position, behind the veil of ignorance. Crash course on that real fast: Rawls offers a thought experiment in his book A Theory of Justice, in which he considers what people would choose for their society’s rules if they were concerned with equality and fairness. He puts the people in that society behind a “veil of ignorance,” where they have no recollection of who they are, what race, gender, class, or any other group they belong to, or even whether they will have a family (dependents) when coming back out from behind the veil. This is the “original position.” Rawls would then have them draft a constitution to maximize fairness in the society when the veil is lifted. He argues that, based on reciprocity in the negotiations, a fair society would choose two principles as its governing rules. 1. Everyone would have the basic liberties that anyone else would have. 2. Social and economic inequalities are permissible if (a) they are to the greatest benefit for the least advantaged, and (b) attached to offices and positions available to all under fair equality of opportunity. (Fair equality of opportunity differs from formal equality of opportunity in that it seeks to give opportunities to previously marginalized groups in order to make up for past wrongdoing, while formal equality is the principle that nobody should be barred from a position or office because of factors that do not affect merit, such as race, gender, class, orientation, religion, etc.)

Back to the argument at hand, now that you’re R-all(s) caught up (I’m sorry). Rawls does not assume that people are perfectly egalitarian beings before going into the original position. All of those factors that are wiped away by the veil of ignorance go into making up the inequalities and even the dependencies that Kittay is focused on. Dependents and dependency workers would not know that they were involved in dependency, but that is part of the thought experiment. If they were not involved in dependency when they came from behind the veil, they would not care about concerns that affect those people. However, if they did come from behind the veil and found themselves involved in dependency, and if they were rationally self-interested, they would want to make sure they were taken care of. That uncertainty with regards to one’s societal position is what makes Rawls’ arguments effective. Nobody would know whether they will be in the bottom when they return from the original position, or whether they will be unable to be autonomous and self-interested, so they will want to provide for themselves if they end up part of “the least advantaged.” This divide between what happens behind the veil of ignorance and how societal resources will be actually arranged is something Kittay does not seem to notice.

My graphics are resembling the ones I saw in class, and my final point is addressing Kittay’s notion of dependency based on these graphics. If the woman in a household is in a secondary dependency with her husband (partner, boyfriend, lover, whatever the kids are calling it these days), doesn’t that turn him into his own version of a dependency worker? Doesn’t he choose that life in the first place, to be able to provide for the dependencies of his future children? Is that a bad or unjust thing, especially if his wife chooses to join him in that life? One can make the argument that single mothers, or gay/lesbian couples, or any sort of non-heterosexual, two-parent household complicates that picture. Maybe this is falling right into the hands of Kittay’s “difference critique,” but a two-parent, heterosexual household with traditional gender roles has existed in human society for thousands of years; hence why they’re called “traditional” gender roles. I honestly never thought I would be philosophically defending Rawls, but before offering a critique based on unequal distributions of power and autonomy of persons, one must make sure one has all of the opponent’s premises straight.

9 Replies to “The Curious Case of Feminist Philosophy”

  1. Feminist philosophy and theory should first be considered from the perspective of gender narcissism per Gerald Schoenewolf’s “Psychoanalytic Centrism,” in particular the chapter “Gender narcissism and it’s manifestations.”

    Feminism is a gender narcissistic subset of what Lasch was writing about in “The Culture of Narcissism.”

    Lastly, on should consider Bacon’s essay “Om seeming wise” when considering any feminist work.

    Nice article. My issue with analyses or critiques of feminist ‘thought’ is that these serve to legitimize feminism. As feminism is a subset of narcissistic social decay, this is counter-productive.

  2. Kittay’s model seems most in keeping with the long standing notion that social interactions are between families, clans or other tribal groups rather than between two individuals. Within these groups there is a whole separate hierarchy. Kittay fails to offer a clear explanation as to why care providers might have lesser social standing.

  3. What I find interesting about so many feminist critiques is that they grant and operate from the superiority of the traditionally “masculine” perspective. The same is true of Kittay’s, if you have represented it accurately (I don’t doubt; I just haven’t read this work). Here women are harmed in that they “cannot compete with autonomous, purely self-interested individuals.” But who says they should? Is not competition a feature of “toxic masculinity”? Are not autonomy and isolation from community, e.g., the triumph of leisure time over child care, the masculine goal? To put it another way, why is Kittay’s conclusion not that women are advantaged in this system because they get to care for children and manage their homes, while someone else goes out and earns money for their support? It is not because she begins from the premise that the masculine role must be the superior one, and that therefore women must become more like men to elevate themselves. This, to me, seems an odd way to begin a truly feminist argument.

  4. Firstly, I am sorry (as someone with a BA in philosophy) that you had to endure feminist philosophy. Any theory that contains the claim that rationality is the product of patriarchal oppression, thus not the adequate metric to evaluate the strength of said theory, is a theory that the author(s) know is fatally flawed. My focus was metaphysics (phil. of mind/time), so I am not an authority on ethics or political philosophy, but I had two observations regarding your essay that I wanted to share. Briefly, you accurately characterize Rawls’ position that “Social and economic inequalities are permissible if (a) they are to the greatest benefit for the least advantaged”, but that claim does not support the conclusion that Rawls was a Deontologist. I understand that you are only summarizing Rawls from an introductory perspective, so I thought it prudent to offer the perspective that such a claim is consequentialist. If I am a Deontologist, then I am concerned with the moral status of inequality itself regardless of how the resulting benefits are allocated. The benefits–consequences–are unknowable to me, and thus irrelevant to my moral considerations, b/c a host of intermediate factors can render the consequences of an action radically different than one intends.
    finally, you tacitly address some awareness of the naturalistic fallacy (conflating ‘is’ with ‘ought’), yet the crux of your conclusion rests on that same fallacy. There was a good argument to be made against Kittay’s dependency view viz. her purported lack of consideration for the male perspective of the dependency relationship, but you finished your argument by winding into the descriptive lane. Appealing to history is fallacious in this case, b/c normative claims can only be defeated on their own grounds with a countering normative claim or an elucidation of some error in the challenged claim’s reasoning. How something “ought” to be is quite different than what that thing “is”, and comparing the two results in an inequality. Were you and I to find ourselves walking along a road, and I pick up a rock which I assert ought to be yellow, if you reply that the rock is grey we are talking passed one another. Yes, the rock is grey, but why should it not be yellow? Certainly there are good reasons why the particular rock I am holding could not, and should not be yellow, but the immediate color of the rock does not address whatever makes me believe it should be such and such a way.
    I appreciate that others see the preposterous nature of feminist philosophy, but I feel compelled to respond to flaws in an argument if I see them. Although criticisms in philosophy seem brutal at times, most of them are the result of someone actually caring enough to read what you wrote, always remember that. Lastly, I hope neither the author nor the reader get a distaste for philosophy by reading this student’s experience with Marxist feminism. Philosophy is a vast discipline. I spent my time focused on the nature of our perceptions, and temporal conditions, and the best thing for philosophy is for people to interact with it.

    P.S. Shout out to David Hume! You mentioned the philosopher who originally persuaded me to change majors.

  5. I’m a closet Nazi who lets open fascists publish in my bullshit paper because I’m a spineless bitch who deserves a brutal curbstomping for letting some of the garbage we write get published. I’m nothing but a sniveling rat bastard who hides behind cops and vague notions of free speech while I let my hordes of antagonistic bigots write whatever the fuck they want and when they’re forced to take responsibility, we mock those holding us responsible because we are untouchable as long as the administration acts with the jelly-like centrism they are known to do. As soon as I’m confronted in person for my actions, I will shrivel up like an uncircumcised penis in a cold pool of water. That is the extent to which I am willing to take my beliefs because minorities scare me, as they scare my writers. We need the police because while we talk big about needing tough authoritarians in office, it’s only because we can’t handle ourselves on our own and need someone stronger to do so. We don’t know what suffering looks like, so we delegate it to someone else to cause it, someone who would relish in the opportunity. But when those jackbooted thugs in blue are gone, we will be left completely defenseless because we’re bitches.

    1. Wow I never realized how much of a little bitch I was. I hadn’t considered the fact that I engage with arguments by slinging false accusations and insults at myself. And petty, too! Instead of talking to my intellectual opponents I just comment on my own articles and lose myself in contradictions and stupidity.

      Try growing up next time, poser. You aren’t funny, and you aren’t convincing anyone that that is actually me or what I believe. But hey, at least you tried.

      1. I’m surprised you bothered to respond at all. It was t.he least convincing rebuttal/attack I have ever read and dissolved into a kind of meta meaninglessness after about three sentences. Originally, if I made some Internet comment section argument I first prepared myself by spending some time considering other possible viewpoints and weighing their value and, if they were wanting, developing counter arguments. Now I just prepare for puerile ejaculations of hate. You need a surprisingly tough skin if you offer any original opinions.

    2. You can’t even write a coherent rebuttal to anything in this article. A fucking rock has more common sense than you. Just because you lack the IQ to understand this piece and/or it hurts your precious fee-fees, doesn’t mean the piece is inherently wrong. I’d recommend you read something that challenges your views, like say, the Constitution. But it’s abundantly clear that you would not be able to understand such a document. Turn down your projections, it’s insane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *