Celebrating 125 years of Ethics at PEA Soup — with Amy R. Baehr on Zona Vallance

We are very happy to kick off a PEA Soup celebratation of the Ethics 125th anniversary retrospective series with this special feature of Amy R. Baehr’s terrific essay on Zona Vallance’s fascinating “Women as Moral Beings.” Baehr concludes her essay by pointing out that “one lesson we may take from Vallance’s paper is that political philosophy will not present a vision of a just social world for us unless it situates the fact of dependency properly in our thinking.” A powerful and still (sadly) timely lesson, I’d suggest.

We welcome an open discussion on these two essays, and will continue to host periodic open threads on 125th anniversary retrospective essay pairings over the coming issues. Happy birthday, Ethics!

12 Replies to “Celebrating 125 years of Ethics at PEA Soup — with Amy R. Baehr on Zona Vallance

  1. The original paper and the comments on it are impressive and thought provoking. In reading the original paper I wondered what a referee would think. Perhaps, “This paper purports to put together two crushingly obvious truths to arrive at a conclusion I don’t like. But that can’t be right.”
    I was really struck by the comment, ” While Vallance’s contemporaries recognized work in the home as a burden of enormous social importance, the dominant view today underplays its burdensomeness and value, seeing it as a private concern (the result of an expensive taste in children or irresponsible sexual activity).”
    I don’t think this is a view I share, though I’m not sure. I have been struck by talking with women who can’t ‘keep their homes up’ because of illness, particularly chemotherapy or other debilitating trearment for cancer. It seems work in/on one’s home can be a deep aspect of caring for those in the home. For me it has been more of a very heavy burden though I’ve had housecleaners for years now. That leaves lots to do.
    In light of this, I’m wondering how one knows what the dominant view is?

  2. I would like to hear the proponents of political liberalism chime in. It seems to me that the issue of domestic work has shifted from being about the just distribution of the burdens and benefits social cooperation to being about how to accommodate gendered conceptions of the good: the redistribution of domestic and dependency work across genders is prohibited on the second way of thinking, since it would be incompatible with a commitment to traditional gender roles, which qualifies as a reasonable comprehensive doctrine. I find this reconceptualization of the problem troubling. It moves the problem off of the terrain of distributive justice and onto the terrain occupied by theories of autonomy, adaptive preferences, false consciousness and religious freedom.

  3. Anne Jacobson: I now wonder the same about the question you end with: how one knows what the dominant view is?, or rather, which set of ‘contemporaries’ are the relevant contemporaries who hold this view?
    At a first reading, it seemed obvious to me that it’s true that “the dominant view today underplays [the] burdensomeness and value” of work in the home, but your question for discussion moves me to reflect upon the intended contrast with “Vallance’s contemporaries [who] recognized work in the home as a burden of enormous social importance.”
    If the contemporaries of Vallance’s in 1902 were other publishing social theorists and gender theorists, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, then I’d say feminists have similarly good company today (especially in, as the article notes, Ellen Feder and Eva Kittay). But if the contemporaries to be contrasted with are fellow philosophers who publish “in these pages,” that is, in Ethics, then I think it’s fair to say philosophers generally do not, today, predominantly recognize work in the home as a burden of enormous social importance. The pages of most leading journals in philosophy tend to be occupied with the public sphere more than the private sphere; note that Amy Baehr deplores “seeing it as a private concern.”

  4. Cynthia: As a proponent of political liberalism who’s in favor of paying domestic care-givers, I figure I should weigh in.
    While I believe that this issue is about distributive justice (if not equal liberty, then certainly equal democratic participation), I take it that the “reconceptualization” move is to claim that interfering with traditional gender roles somehow generates a “strain of commitment” for citizens with a gendered conception of the good.
    For example, the Amish have argued for social security exemptions on grounds that the presence of social security undermines their duty to take care of their elders (it’s supposed to the family that provides care, not the government). I suppose the objection to subsidizing domestic care givers is that the subsidy encourages the break up of families: if they didn’t have the option, they’d commit to trying to fix things.
    I’m not sure this line works since forced dependency is a pretty clear violation of equal liberties. Moreover, strains of commitment only obtain when you are coerced into violating your comprehensive doctrine. And it’s hard to see how pay for care givers is coercion of this sort. If the care giver is committed to the gendered conception she can just relinquish the funds like she would if she worked a market job. If she wants to leave, then that’s reasonable evidence that she doesn’t endorse the doctrine. Though I’m some will disagree (especially given how pay for care givers is cashed out institutionally).

  5. As someone who was not previously familiar with Vallance’s paper, I’m happy to have had the chance to read it, along with Amy Baehr’s response. I had two comments I wanted to share. First, regarding the claims from Baehr, as noted by Kate Norlock, that “the dominant view today underplays [the] burdensomeness and value” of work in the home, contrasted with the claim about “Vallance’s contemporaries [who] recognized work in the home as a burden of enormous social importance.” It seems important that we differentiate between our attitudes about this sort of work, and the way that we acknowledge (or fail to acknowledge) the value of this work within a social, political, and economic context. I took this to be part of the take-home message, so to speak, of both Vallance’s essay and Baehr’s commentary—our social and political institutions don’t reflect the value of domestic work, value that, at least during Vallance’s era, we acknowledge via our own attitudes. Like some of the other comments, I don’t know how we determine what the dominant view is, but I think we can agree that whatever our current attitudes about the value of domestic work, our social and political institutions don’t reflect the notion that domestic work is particularly valuable or important.
    On a related note, I wonder if Baehr’s claim that Vallance might recognize things like the fact that men now do some unpaid domestic work as a kind of “make believe” reform isn’t a bit too strong. It seems to me that this reflects a shift in our attitudes about the value of domestic work, or at least a shift in our ideas about who ought to be doing this sort of work. Surely these sorts of shifts aren’t “make believe,” though perhaps they are only a component of the sort of social change Vallance advocated. It seems uncharitable to suggest that any reform that isn’t economic in nature is somehow lacking in value or significance. I tend to think that while economic changes are important, for the reasons Vallance identifies, shifts in our attitudes are at least as important. One might even claim that these sorts of attitudinal shifts are a necessary precursor of the sort of economic changes that Vallance advocates. This is not to say that such attitudinal changes are “good enough,” but merely that such changes are not some sort of fiction or illusion in the sense that the term “make believe” suggests.

  6. Ryan, I’m not sure I’m following your comment. Do you mean to say above that forced dependency CARE is a violation of equal liberty?

  7. Cynthia: I think that it can lead to unequal liberty. While there are certainly many cases where caring for dependents is not a violation, social norms or institutions which place the burdens of a, presumably, necessary task upon a particular social group, in a way that prevents them from achieving their aims seems unjust.
    Maybe I just don’t understand “gendered conceptions of the good” but I take it that such conceptions hold that women are obligated to perform all aspects of child care without any form of compensation. Given that that both parties want to have a child, the burdens should be distributed equally.
    My point was that even in cases where the care-giver holds such a conception, compensation would not entail a strain of commitment. And since such compensation would mitigate the fact that care-givers loose the opportunity to develop marketable skills (which can restrict future opportunities) we should compensate.
    Is that any clearer or did I just miss your original point?

  8. Okay. I just wanted a clarification because you said that force dependency was a violation of liberty and not that forced dependency care was a violation of liberty. In any case, I’m not sure what you mean by “forced”. No one is typically coercing women (or men) who act under a moral obligation to care for their children or their aging parents. I agree that distributing care work primarily to women is unjust, but I don’t think it is unjust because it is a violation of liberty. Perhaps compensation would not create any strains of commitment, but any policy that sought to redistribute the care work so that men did more of it would be incompatible with gendered conceptions of the good according to which women should do that work. Those conceptions are typically seen as reasonable and so such policies would be incompatible with a reasonable comprehensive doctrine and so not neutral in the required sense.

  9. This is not view, btw. I am not a political liberal; I am just channeling Gina Shouten who has been working on this topic.

  10. I read Schouten as arguing that a political liberal need not object to state action aimed at increasing men’s participation in housework and women’s participation in paid labor. To be sure, such action may result in consequences that disfavor those holding gendered conceptions of the good. But this is not, in itself, a relevant objection. (See Gina Schouten, “Restricting Justice: Political Interventions in the Home and in the Market,” especially pages 381 and 385, note 44 (referring to Rawls).) I am inclined to agree with Schouten.
    Vallance’s argument is not for state action aimed at reducing the gendered distribution of labor in the home. She argues for state support for care-giving labor in the home. Of course, folks holding gendered conceptions of the good may object to Vallance’s suggestion too because it undermines women’s dependence on men.
    Cynthia: You write that you “agree that distributing care work primarily to women is unjust, but I don’t think it is unjust because it is a violation of liberty.” Why do you think it is unjust?
    Eli: I think your response to Kate’s question about contemporary attitudes is correct. About Vallance’s skepticism about mere changes in attitude: Let’s say we begin to see how important care-giving labor is and we start distributing it more equally among the adult members of households. Say we do this voluntarily, not at the urging of the state. That labor remains unremunerated, even though more evening distributed. Vallance’s argument is for remuneration. Also, more equal distribution among the adult members of households doesn’t benefit the growing numbers of single women with children who have no one to share the labor with. Yes, we might hope that when men do more care-giving work, they’re more likely to insist on changes in the workplace to accommodate such work, or perhaps more likely to advocate for remuneration for care-giving work.

  11. Amy,
    Thanks, that’s helpful, and I can see where shifting attitudes wouldn’t address some of Vallance’s concerns, as well as not being particularly helpful to single women. My concern was with the strong claim that shifts in attitudes might be seen as a kind of “make believe” reform. It seems to me that before any sort of remuneration system could ever be widely accepted, we’d need to see a significant change in our own attitudes about the value of domestic work. So my concern is that by thinking of attitudinal shifts as a kind of make believe reform, we’re missing the way in which such shifts are a first step toward something like Vallance’s proposal. But maybe I’m reading the term “make believe” too strongly. If the thought is just “hey, shifts in attitudes are great, but they don’t address the heart of the matter,” that seems right to me.

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