Liberalism and Dependency Care

Date of Completion

January 2011


Philosophy|Women's Studies|Health Sciences, Medical Ethics




This dissertation argues that respect for autonomy and care for the vulnerable should be balanced in a just society. I first assess the compatibility of caring for the vulnerable with liberalism, the political theory that prioritizes respect for individual autonomy. I show that liberal thinkers have excluded dependency care from the domain of justice, instead relegating care-giving to a private, familial sphere. The designation of care-giving to the private sphere has been accompanied by a division of labor in which women provide more of the substantive labor entailed by dependency care. Breaking with the traditional liberal position, I argue that dependency care belongs within a theory of justice because care is universally required to survive past infancy and during periods of illness and disability. Protection from devastation during these times is a benefit of living in a society. Nonetheless, liberalism should not be abandoned because individual autonomy has enduring value in non-ideal social and political worlds where skills for self-determination are needed to improve institutions and disarm nouns that undermine the self-worth and self-respect of diverse ascriptive group identities. Taking into account adaptive preference formation, socialization, and the other ways that institutions, society and norms heighten or dampen different people's innate capabilities, I argue for a form of an autonomy-respecting principle for the provision of dependency care called strong proceduralism. Strong proceduralism accepts the choices individuals make as just, but it also demands that a suitable context of choice be created, taking into account that the way an individual parses her options is influenced by the payoffs and burdens of the choice. Therefore, gender equity requires that the payoffs for dependency care be less starkly gendered. Because the exercise of a skill one possesses is generally more rewarding than a failed attempt to exercise a skill one does not possess, strong proceduralism also requires that men gain competence in care-giving skills and women gain competence in agentic skills. Finally, I consider the challenges to individual identity and relationships that will result from changing dependency care arrangements in diverse societies. ^