Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Women, Independence and the State

An interesting philosophical question emerges for me when thinking about some of the implications of Yvette Cooper's attack on the UK government in a recent issue of the Guardian. Cooper here takes issue with the view, asserted by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, that there is a problem with the "benefits culture" as it leads to people being dependent upon the state. In reply Cooper basically argues that certain types of state benefits are in fact important for women, in particular, to achieve independence and that withdrawal of them ensures that women will be less independent.

Cooper, in posing the question of independence in this way poses an important problem for a certain philosophical way of viewing the state. This way of viewing them consists in understanding the state as a burden on individuals that has to be removed in order for their self-realization to become possible. It is plausible to think of this as a kind of Nozickian view though it need not lead one to embrace his overall libertarian position (about which there is some reason to be cautious in any event in terms of its commitments as is discussed over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians). Regardless of this reference for the purposes of this posting the general point is one in which it would appear that individual achievement is comprehended in terms of market behaviours and such behaviours are thought of as impeded by state intervention. By contrast, what Cooper is pointing to is that the circumstances of women do not match this view and this is a significant philosophical point.

Certainly, if we look at how the understanding of "independence" works in Kant's political philosophy we can see grounds for support for Cooper's point. In his essay on theory and practice, for example, Kant describes the civil condition as based on three principles, the freedom of every member of the society simply as a human being, their equality with each other as subject and the independence of every member of the commonwealth as a citizen. The first two conditions are universal but the third is not.

Looking at independence more closely and before turning to what is most contentious in Kant's view here we find that the property of independence is what enables one to be a citizen, that is "a colegislator" (Ak. 8: 294). The quality that entitles one to this designation is "being one's own master (sui generis), hence having some property (and any art, craft, fine art, or science can be counted as property) that supports him" (Ak. 8: 295).  The point about this designation is that possession of it ensures that the one in question serves no one except the commonwealth.

Before turning to first the smaller and then the larger problems with this view let's first note its historical role. Clearly Kant is here aiming at ensuring that those qualified as citizens are not in the position, common enough before the 20th century and often during it in a number of places, of being effectively the stooge of someone else who has one in their power. The servants on large estates, for example, if allowed a vote might well simply vote for who the lord or holder of the estate told them to since this would ensure that he would return favours to them in kind. And one can imagine a number of obvious variations on this theme. By contrast, the independent worker who Kant has here in mind would be able simply to attend to matters of citizenship without having some pre-given vested interest in the outcome. This same basis of argument also supports Rousseau's view that "partial societies" should be either prevented within the civil condition or at least not allowed to become overly powerful (Social Contract Book II, Chapter 3). Admission of such "partial societies" or associations prevents independent thought from being expressed as by means of them the individual is brought under the heel of a group which is not that of the general will.

Now there are two kinds of problem that emerge from Kant's account of independence. The first, smaller problem, is that of assessing which kinds of work involve the possession of property and Kant is here led to elaborate distinctions between barbers and wig-makers, wood-choppers and tailors before admitting it is "somewhat difficult to determine what is required in order to be able to claim the rank of a human being who is his own master" (Ak. 8: 295n).

So the smaller problem can be encapsulated in terms of how to characterise the work that is included from the work that is excluded from having the designation of proving you are selling your own property in engaging in it rather than merely granting to another the use of one's own powers. Kant's division of labour in these terms parallels but is not quite equivalent to Adam Smith's account of productive and unproductive labour. On Smith's division the point was to find which labour contributed to a general increase of wealth as opposed to using revenue for services that had no lasting value. Kant's, by contrast, is meant to establish the kind of labour that entitles someone to claim that they are self-standing in the community and not  dependent on someone else. Kant's division is clearly meant to show that the class of those who, in an important sense, control the property they sell and do not require to be hired by someone further (although they may in fact be so hired, they don't have to be) as opposed to those whose position is intrinsically dependent on the decisions of another and could therefore not in principle exist as a labourer without that other. The division is evidently hard to draw in practice but there is a theoretical rationale available so let's assume this is a lesser problem in the sense that, whilst there are vague boundaries to the division there is something clear in principle.

The second and major problem, however, concerns another way of deciding who fits into the class of independent people capable of being citizens. Kant declares in addition to the property qualification involved in the notion of independence also a "natural" quality, namely that of "not being a child or woman" (Ak. 8: 295). And this takes us to the hub of the matter. The case of the child is more complicated than Kant allows given that child labour is far from an anomaly but is frequently resorted to in a number of different circumstances and conditions and it is not obvious that all types of child labour would fall under the less favoured category. But obviously the most pressing problem is the casualness of Kant's exclusion of women from the class of independent labourers capable of being citizens.

Rather than using this point as an occasion to bash Kant however I want instead to indicate the basic rationale for his position and in the process point to the deeper philosophical point that Cooper has rightly raised concerning the UK government's withdrawal of benefits from women. The "natural" quality that Kant does not here name but hints at in connecting women here with children is the obvious susceptibility women have to becoming pregnant and the subsequent responsibility that arises for them to deal with child-rearing. Let's leave aside the large question of whether there is justice in general arrangements of child-rearing and simply concentrate on the general assumption that, due to giving birth to children, women have some kind of primary responsibility for caring for them.

Due to this general assumption there is a basis for Kant's remark concerning women's lesser capacity for independence if we simply take this to mean that they frequently have to rely on income that their own employment did not generate. Clearly, in Western countries today, most women do in fact work and frequently engage in activities  that Kant would have to accept were forms of work that qualified them for being viewed as independent. However, what Cooper's point concerns is that there are often enabling conditions provided by the state that allow women to assert this independence. And that speaks to a sense in which Kant's intuition here still has some validity. What that suggests, however, is three important points.

Firstly, women are unequally affected by the withdrawal of state income support and general state services given that they are frequently primary carers for children and such services are often targeted at support for such carers. Secondly, given women's unequal status in the first regard, they, as a group, have that much less incentive to accept positions that involve the withdrawal of state support and are thus structurally that much less likely to be tempted by any philosophical or political arguments that pull away such state support given that they will suffer the greater adverse consequences from this. Thirdly, the nature of what is involved in viewing people as "independent" in civil arrangements is importantly different depending on which gender you belong to, a point Kant correctly recognised even if it did not lead Kant (any more than it has led Nick Clegg) in the right direction of travel on the understanding of such independence.

No comments: