Rawls and Ownership: the Forgotten Category of Reproductive Labor

  • Sibyl Schwarzenbach


A careful, theoretical clarification of gender roles has only recently begun in social and political philosophy. It is the aim of the following piece to reveal that an analysis of women’s traditional position — her distinctive activities, labour and surrounding sense of ‘mine’ — can not only make valuable contributions towards clarifying traditional property disputes, but may even provide elements for a new conception of ownership. By way of illustration, the article focuses on the influential work of John Rawls and argues that when Rawls’ own analysis and principles of justice are supplemented by an account of what is here called ‘reproductive labor’, his theory in fact tends to a form of democratic socialism. Stated somewhat differently, my aim is to shift the terms of the property debate as posed by Rawls from within his own position. I hope to show that the real ownership question which now emerges is no longer whether ‘justice as fairness’ countenances a private property or socialist form of democracy, but what precise form such a socialism should take.


Difference Principle Primary Good Social Basis Economic Sphere Private Incentive 
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  1. 1.
    I see, for instance, T. Nagel’s review in the Philosophical Review 82 (1973);Google Scholar
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    I shall not here repeat, but largely presuppose, Rawls’ arguments showing the dependency of his particular list of primary goods on his conception of the person (with its two moral powers). See, in particular, his ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, The Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980): 524ff.,Google Scholar
  8. ‘Social Unity and Primary Goods’, in Sen and Williams (eds), Utilitarianism and Beyond (London, 1982, 165ff. I am also granting with Rawls (and in the face of, say, Sandel’s recent criticism) that Rawls’ conception of the person is indeed a ‘political’ one (drawn from our public, post-reformational, political culture) and makes no specific metaphysical claims in regard to the nature of persons (or of personal identity) beyond this.Google Scholar
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    This fact appear to be a significant discovery of twentieth century anthropology. See, for instance, the collection by R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (London and New York, 1975). Of course there are numerous exceptions, but these appear only to prove the rule. For instance, on one island off the coast of South Korea the women (for various reasons such as body-fat, etc.) are superior pearl divers to the men — pearls being the major source of the island’s livelihood. Here the men as a group take care of the children, cook, clean house, etc. But we must note, it is the women who, in this case, essentially ‘run’ the island; they control all property, major political decisions, and so on.Google Scholar
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    According to a famous claim of Max Black’s every metaphor is ‘the tip of a submerged model’. The term ‘model’, of course, is here being meant in its more ordinary sense, whereby it essentially denotes an abstractive representation of some object or state of affairs. (The term is thus not used in the sense intended by logicians whereby a model is the interpretation or embodiment of a formal calculus in which the relations of isomorphism holds between the structure of the formal system and that of its interpretation.) In its more ordinary sense anything can be taken as a model of anything else IF we can sort out the the relevant respects in which one entity is like another (e.g., a grouping of ping-pong balls can model the universe). For something to be a model in this more ordinary sense it appear to suffice (a) that the model as representation must be some form of abstraction; it must be less rich in the range or relevant properties than its object or reference, and (b) it cannot thus be a model of itself or of something identical to it. One way of classifying models might be according to their degree of existential commitment — those operating at the limits of our rational belief (such as many metaphors) commanding at the same time the the greatest degree of belief. See M. Wartofsky’s ‘The Model Muddle’ in Models (Boston, MA: D. Reidel, 1979).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    L. Hyde, The Gift (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), Ch. 6Google Scholar
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    ONe might argue that, given woman’s reproductive functions (pregnancy, parturition, lactation, etc.), the suppression of the boundaries separating the body and world has been far more easily performed in her case. This is not to claim, however, that women’s biology determines her ‘personality’, just that it may historically have facilitated it. See Chodorow’s arguments against the cruder interpretation in her The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). On the contrary, the relative ‘ease of sliding from self to other’; characteristic of so many women, appears to mark male personality in many other cultures or historical periods. See, for instance, Gurevich’s (1977) discussion of the medieval personality.Google Scholar
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    As we noted already in note 9, Rawls also expresses the further concern that socialist ownership may result in a ‘command society’. Here I can only emphasize that in my discussion of Rawls’ difference principle, it is to be assumed that his first principle of justice (which guarantees the various individual liberties, including freedom of occupation, etc.) is already satisfied. There is thus no question, in this instance, of a centralized state commanding the direction of labour. As I have argued elsewhere the worry that socialist property necessarily leads to a form of command society appears to derive from continuing to conceive property on the model of ‘control’; ‘collective ownership’ then quite naturally suggests ‘collective control’ and, in Mill’s words, ‘no place left for the individual’. It is my claim, however, that with the notion of ‘responsive ownership’ a wedge is driven for the first time between the very notions of ‘owning’ and ‘controlling’. See my Towards a New Conception of Ownership (Unpublished dissertation; Harvard, 1985), Ch. 5.Google Scholar
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    I wish to make it clear, however, that I am not arguing for ‘worker sovereignty’ in society. People have claims and entitlements, after all, independently of their labouring role. Instead, the suggestion here is that worker-owned enterprises be considered elements within the democratic order, rather than being viewed as society’s organizational base. Thus, for instance, the control of large-scale public investment (effectively the only guarantee of a society’s future) could be made available to general public deliberation, and decisions made either by a body subject to control by a legislative body, or themselves subject to direct democratic accountability. See Cohen and Rogers’s On Democracy (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), Ch. 6.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • Sibyl Schwarzenbach

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